Regular visits to the veterinarian, and for some dogs the groomer, are an integral part of dog ownership. During these visits, unfamiliar people will be handling your dog and potentially performing invasive procedures. However, through some training exercises, you can get your dog to tolerate grooming and vet appointments — and maybe even enjoy them. The training can help your dog to feel safer and happier about handling.
How to desensitize dogs to the vet or grooming
Familiarize yourself with your dog’s body language, so you know what indicates that the dog is uncomfortable. Throughout this training, never go beyond the dog’s threshold. If at any point your dog shows signals of stress or anxiety (e.g., lip licking, pursed lips, or yawning), back up to a previous step.
For this training process, find an extra-special treat that your dog loves and will get at no other time. Whatever it is, cut or break it into small, pea-sized pieces (unless it’s a lickable treat).
Find a comfortable, quiet place with few distractions where you and the dog can work. The area should be large enough that the dog can move away from you if they so choose but not so big that your dog can get to a place where they can’t see or hear you.
- Sit at an angle so that you are not facing your dog directly, which can seem threatening to dogs. Before trying to approach or touch the dog, talk softly to them and observe their body language. Some dogs are soothed by the human voice; if that seems to be the case with your dog, you can talk softly throughout the session. Otherwise, remain silent while you work with the dog.
- Cup one hand and fill it with treats; leave the other hand clean and dry. Reach out and touch a part of your dog’s body where they're already comfortable being touched. (The best place to start touching most dogs is on the chest or shoulder. Most dogs don’t like being touched on the face or paws or having someone reach over their head when they are getting used to handling.) Once the dog has finished eating the treats, cease petting/touch. Only pet them for a few seconds at a time.
- Pause for a few seconds, and then repeat step 2. Go slowly. Moving too fast can overwhelm a dog or make it difficult for them to associate getting touched with getting the treat.
- Gradually, a couple of inches at a time, start to touch the dog’s body closer to your end-goal location (moving up to the head, down to the feet, back across the torso to the tail, etc.).
- When the dog is readily accepting touch all over their body (they might even be leaning into the touch), start handling body parts rather than just touching them. For example, lift and hold your dog’s ears, lift their lips, pick up and hold their paws, hold their tail, scratch their sides, etc. Remember always to pair touching and handling with the treats, and never go beyond the dog’s threshold.
- When the dog is readily accepting handling all over their body, begin to introduce whatever grooming or medical equipment is necessary for achieving your end goal — brush, comb, toothbrush, etc. Progress slowly to introduce the equipment, starting at a low intensity and building while treating every step of the way. See the following examples to get a dog comfortable with a brush and nail trimmers.
To get a dog comfortable with brushing:
- Touch a brush to their shoulder and pair it with a treat until they’re comfortable with that.
- Gradually move the brush toward your end-goal location on the dog’s body, pairing this with treats and making sure they remain comfortable.
- Pair one short brush stroke with a treat. Then, do one long brush stroke, two long brush strokes, and so on to work your way up to multiple brush strokes, treating as you go.
- You can also use a lick mat with frozen peanut butter or pumpkin. For this you’ll set the lick mat on the floor and then brush for a couple seconds at a time while they lick the mat.
To get a dog comfortable with nail trimming:
- Touch the nail trimmers to one toenail, and give the dog a treat. When the dog is comfortable with that, tap the nail trimmers against a toenail and offer a treat.
- With the dog remaining comfortable, hold a nail in the trimmers and offer a treat.
- Trim one nail, and treat the dog. When the dog is comfortable with that, trim two nails and treat. Keep adding a nail until you’ve worked your way up to trimming all their nails.
Proofing the behavior
In dog training, proofing means teaching the dog to generalize the behavior in different contexts. You’ll start the proofing process after the dog is comfortable with being touched and handled all over their body.
A key part of getting a dog used to the vet or groomer is introducing the dog to locations where the handling will take place. Take your dog to the clinic lobby, an exam room if possible, the grooming facility, and so on without having a procedure done. Just go visit these spots to have fun, treating the dog while they’re there, and then leave. If you’re able, introduce your dog to equipment, such as a scale, exam table, clippers, or a stethoscope.
You’ll also want to practice with varying degrees of distractions. First, practice handling your dog in calm, quiet places and work up to busy places. In addition, have different people handle your dog once they’re comfortable with you doing it. Both you and the other people should practice in different positions — while you’re squatting, standing, bending over the dog, and immediately after walking up to the dog.
Tips for dogs who hate grooming or the vet
Every dog is different and will progress at their own pace. Some dogs progress rapidly, being able to accept handling after only a few days. Other dogs can take months or years to complete this training plan.
Whatever the case, there might be times when handling needs to be done regardless of whether the dog is ready. These scenarios, such as your annual vet exam, are unavoidable, but they don't have to cause a huge setback in training. Ask the veterinary or grooming staff to use minimal restraint and low-stress handling techniques to minimize the dog’s traumatic experiences during these necessary procedures. By taking these simple steps, you can avoid huge setbacks and continue to make steady progress in helping your dog tolerate handling.