Dealing with Difficult Dogs

If you're lucky and you've worked with your dog for some time, you don't have to worry about working with an uncooperative dog. Nevertheless, at some point, you may find yourself trying to groom a difficult dog. Maybe your best friend has a dog who's never been properly groomed before and needs help. Maybe you found a mutt on the street who has matted and dirty fur. Maybe a rescue group is having a dog-wash day and you're there to help. Or maybe she's your own dog, and you're just having problems with her. Whatever the reason, you're dealing with a difficult dog.

Handling an uncooperative dog

Before I explain how to handle a difficult dog, you first need to know how to handle any dog, because dogs don't react to things the way you and I do, and sometimes they do things that humans don't always expect.

When faced with a difficult dog, whether it's yours or someone else's, having this dog checked out by a veterinarian for possible underlying causes is always a good idea. Dogs who suffer from arthritis or hip dysplasia may snap when their pain threshold is pushed. Other behavior problems may have underlying medical conditions. When in doubt, get it checked out!

Exploring the wolf inside the poodle

Dogs inherit most of their behavior from a common ancestor, the wolf. Yes, even a dog such as a Poodle, who looks nothing like a wolf, has inherited the basic instincts from that ancestor. Looking at your dog's behavior from that perspective, you quickly understand why grooming with brushes, combs, and clippy things can be so distressing. In even the most docile Cocker Spaniel beats the heart of the wolf.

Because the dog has wolf-like preprogramming at the heart of her behavior, she automatically reverts to it whenever the civilized trappings fall by the wayside. Instinctive reactions to fear, hunger, anger, and pain all come not from the civilized dog but from the wolf inside; it's a survival mechanism. The wolf has been around a long time and knows how to deal with those feelings. The dog, on the other hand, has become civilized during only the last 20,000 years or so (125,000 years, if you believe the genetic mathematics). Regardless, wolves have been around much longer, and the domesticated dog is simply a descendant of the wolf.

Why is this history lesson so important? Because you need to understand that when you're faced with a frightened or angry dog, you're faced with an instinct as old as the wolf — not some sweet little puppy dog.

Reading dog behaviors

Be aware that any dog has the potential to bite — from the seemingly harmless Yorkshire Terrier to the so-called dangerous dogs like Pit Bulls. (I say so-called because plenty of nice Pit Bulls are out there — it's the training, not the breed.)

The truth is that getting bitten is unpleasant even when you're bitten by a small dog. (I've been bitten by a Schnauzer and a Keeshond, and it was very painful both times.) So you need to be aware of the signs of a frightened or angry dog before the dog gets an opportunity to bite. A dog may bite at various times, even while being groomed. In the sections that follow, I give you enough foresight to see a potential bite in the making, because most of the time, bites are reactions to fear, pain, or anger.

Handling fearful dogs (submissive behavior)

Fearful dogs usually become submissive first. They're tentative, shy, and usually don't want anything to do with you. A submissive dog — one who's crouching down with tail tucked between his legs, ears laid back flat, and eyes averting your gaze — may bite to try to get away from you in a real response to fear. Eyes of fearful dogs open wide to the point where you can actually see the whites of their eyes quite well. Pursuing such a dog is the worst thing you can do — whether you intend to grab him by the collar (a threatening gesture in the dog's mind) or corner him (providing no way out, which heightens the panic) or force him into submission (again, you've just pushed the wrong buttons).

Dogs who are fearful usually bite once or in a flurry, either way intent on telling the attacker (you, in their mind) to leave them alone. The dog just wants to get away and calm down.

When dealing with this type of dog, remove the threat — talk in an upbeat and happy tone, and offer treats and snacks. Or you can let him have his space for a while to calm down, and then try again to offer something positive.


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Some dogs are natural fear biters, meaning they react by biting whenever anything unusual happens, because they're automatically left alone after they bite, thus reinforcing a very bad behavior. When dealing with that kind of dog, you need to use a muzzle to avoid becoming another victim.

You can greatly reduce a dog's anxiety by moving slowly and deliberately and not pushing. Keeping the atmosphere as upbeat and positive as possible goes a long way toward reducing a fearful dog's stress.

Dealing with dogs in pain

Dogs who are in pain are usually pretty obvious. They cry or whine from the pain and seek whatever way possible to relieve the pain. Dogs in pain don't know or care that you're there — they're just reacting out of instinct.

Never attempt to handle a dog who's in pain unless you're taking the dog to the veterinarian. In that case, you need to muzzle the dog and take her in for treatment immediately.

In some cases, something you do accidentally can cause a dog pain. When the pain is beyond the dog's threshold, she's going to snap, and that may injure you. For that reason, exercising care and using a muzzle are the best courses of action whenever you're doing any grooming procedure that may hurt your dog.

You will never be able to rationally confront a dog who's in pain. No matter how gentle the dog is (or you are), when she's in pain, she's going to snap just like the fearful dog. She doesn't have a clue what she's doing — she's just trying to protect herself. If you must handle a dog who's in pain, always use a muzzle. If you have no muzzle available, follow the directions for how to make one in Chapter 17.

Getting help for your aggressive dog

Dogs who are truly aggressive are angry at you for daring to do what you're doing. An aggressive dog may be:

1 A dominant dog who looks on you as challenging his authority. 1 A suspicious dog who's guarding a treat, bone, or other dog possession. 1 A frustrated dog redirecting that frustration as aggression toward you. 1 A prey-driven dog who views you as his next quarry.

A dog's aggressiveness is pretty obvious. Aggressive dogs bark and snarl at you in a challenging manner. Their hackles rise as they lift their lips in a snarl and gaze at you with hardened eyes, without any reservations about staring at you right in the eyes with their own challenge.

Needless to say, aggressive dogs are downright scary, and you should never handle them — at all. If you own one of these dogs, I suggest that you seek help from a dog behaviorist, a veterinarian, or other dog professional when it comes to working with an aggressive dog.

Considering muzzling versus medication

Deciding whether to muzzle or medicate a dog depends on you and the dog. Say, for example, that you have a difficult dog and perhaps he's fearful of the entire grooming process (bad experiences) or just struggles a lot. You've tried training the dog, but your valiant efforts have failed, or at least it's going to take a long time before you can coax your dog to cooperate.

You basically have two options; however, you may not consider either of them particularly satisfactory. One option is muzzling the dog, and the other is medicating the dog. I tell you about each method in the next two sections.


When muzzling your dog, you slip on a muzzle, a device that slips over your dog's nose and mouth to prevent him from biting you when you do a particular grooming procedure, such as brushing him out, clipping his coat, or trimming toenails. The positive sides of using a muzzle are that your dog isn't groggy or doped-up with potentially dangerous chemicals, and you're not bitten.

oj^NG.' The downside is that muzzling can be dangerous during hot weather, when the dog can overheat. Muzzles also can force a dog to start behaving more aggressively, because you've restrained him. It also looks bad. People who may be watching you handle your dog can get the wrong impression about your dog, and your dog can develop a bad reputation when someone sees him restrained with a muzzle.

Muzzling should be done only as a last resort — for example, when you know that your dog is going to snap whenever you trim his toenails and that the only way to stop the snapping is to muzzle him. You slip the muzzle on, trim his toenails, and slip the muzzle off. The toenails are done, and neither of you are worse for wear.

But muzzling won't help you retrain your dog to accept the procedure. In fact, you may find him even more difficult, because now he knows he has no choice and you're going to restrain him. So unless there's really no way around it, leave the muzzle off.

If you have to muzzle your dog, choose a good groomer's/veterinarian's muzzle that fits your dog's head and the shape of his muzzle (foreface). They're usually made of nylon and are intended to prevent a dog from biting. They are not, however, supposed to be used for any length of time. Most muzzles aren't made to wear for any longer than a few minutes.

^NG/ If you decide to muzzle your dog, put the muzzle on right before the procedure and take it right off afterwards. Never leave a dog with a muzzle unattended, and never leave him alone with a muzzle for any length of time. A dog can overheat while wearing a muzzle, because it restricts breathing and prevents panting. Furthermore, your dog can hurt himself trying to take the muzzle off, or he can catch it on something and it can choke him.


With the exception of some homeopathic and herbal combinations (such as Bach Flower Rescue Remedy), you must obtain all medications from your veterinarian. The common medications used by veterinarians to calm dogs are acepromazine, diazepam (Valium), or other drugs such as cloricalm.

The problem with medications is that they can have adverse side effects. For example, acepromazine can cause seizures in seizure-prone dogs. In many cases, these medications can affect your dog's metabolism, making her more susceptible to chilling or overheating.

If you decide you must medicate your dog, talk it over with your veterinarian. Ask about possible side effects and problems associated with medicating your dog while grooming. Ask for possible alternatives — some newer medications may be available. The main thing is to understand how to use the medication and in what circumstances you can use it and to understand what alternatives may be available.

Holistic types of medications that you can try with your dog include Bach Flower remedies or homeopathic and herbal supplements that have little or no side effects. However, whether they actually work is debatable. I've had good luck with Bach Flower Rescue Remedy and Dr. Goodpet's calming medications, but that's just my own experience, which doesn't have any documented scientific basis behind it. Check with your vet before giving any holistic medicines to your dog.

Restraining a difficult dog

Restraining a dog is something you may have to do occasionally. No dog loves staying in the tub or on the grooming table for very long, so you have to restrain your dog once in a while to get the job done.


If you need to keep your dog in one place while you get your things together, use a travel carrier or crate. These are useful devices for keeping your dog in one place without forcing him to be tied up or restrained in any fashion.

The downside to crates is airflow. Don't leave your dog in a crate in the hot sun or in a place where he can't get good airflow and can accidentally overheat. You can't wash or brush a dog in a crate or do any other procedures on him.

Tub tie-outs and bathing nooses

Plenty of tie-outs and nooses are available for washing a dog. These devices generally work by hooking to your dog or your dog's collar to hold him in place. The idea is to keep a medium or big dog in the place where you need him to stay while you bathe him.

Never use training collars, choke chains, or other similar devices with tie-outs or nooses. Your dog can choke himself. Likewise, never leave your dog unattended in one for even a moment for the exact same reason.

Grooming table nooses and body restraints

Various gadgets are available for keeping your dog restrained while he's on the grooming table. Most involve grooming nooses that hook to the grooming arm of the table. These devices, which slip around your dog's neck, are cable nooses that hold the dog's head up while you work on him. Other body restraints hook off these nooses to keep a dog standing in place. A variety of slings are also fashioned for these purposes.

Qjt\NG.' Grooming table nooses and body restraints are extremely dangerous whenever a dog is left unattended while attached to one of them. Dogs can choke to death by hanging or even get terribly tangled. If you use one, be sure your dog doesn't struggle constantly while attached to it, and never leave him unattended in one of these devices for any reason. If you use a noose, get a nylon one with a quick snap release so you can quickly free your pooch in case of an emergency.

Body sacks and other devices

Body sacks and other restraining devices are usually used by groomers to handle small breeds and cats. They look like a mesh sack that you put your pet's head through. The idea is to restrain the dog or cat so you can bathe him. A few are equipped with holes so you can clip nails. Again, a body sack isn't an ideal tool for restraining the dog, and no dog (or any animal) should ever be left alone in one, because he can get tangled up, panic, or become overheated in one.

Pit Bulls as Pets

Pit Bulls as Pets

Are You Under The Negative Influence Of Hyped Media Stereotypes When It Comes To Your Knowledge Of Pit Bulls? What is the image that immediately comes into your mind when you think of the words Pit Bull? I can almost guarantee that they would be somewhere close to fierce, ferouscious, vicious, killer, unstoppable, uncontrollable, or locking jawed man-eaters.

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