It happens at least once a week. Someone will bring their dog in for nail trim and when we bring the dog back to the owner we have to tell them that their dog tried to bite us. Occasionally the owner will say, “Oh, he always does that, he hates having his nails trimmed.” When an owner knows that his dog bites and fails to tell us, we naturally feel that we should be allowed to bite the owner with complete impunity. But sometimes the owner is surprised and tells us, “He’s never done that before!”
When we were just getting started at this we would often feel defensive in these kinds of situations. It was almost like the owner believed that since the dog hadn’t displayed this behavior before, that it must be our fault. Honestly, I have to admit we do have some customers who seem to believe this, but more often than not the customer is just shocked because they have never seen their dog try to bite anyone.
Why do dogs bite their groomers? What can we do to make the grooming process safer for the dogs and the groomers? Is it always the dogs fault?
Let’s try to answer that first question. Dogs bite groomers and other service providers for a number of different reasons. The dogs that bite us the most tend to be the smaller dogs and nearly all of these dogs have one thing in common. Their owners carry them as opposed to walking them on a lead. Dogs that get carried often enough will develop an extremely territorial attitude about their owners. When you bring this dog to the groomer and one of us tries to take the dog, he will defend your personal space. You can avoid letting your dog develop this behavior by teaching him to walk on a lead beside you.
Another situation where we get bit is the moment when we are getting a dog in or out of the kennel/crate. This is commonly referred to as kennel aggression. It’s not unusual for some dogs to resist being placed in a crate because they are frightened and often these same dogs will resist being removed from the crate for the same reason. This kind of problem is really easy to avoid at the puppy stage if the owner simply uses crate training as part of the puppy’s early learning.
If your dog is already an adult and he has never been crate trained, you can do him a big favor by getting a properly sized crate and getting him accustomed to it. This is easily accomplished with a little patience and a few treats. If the dog is extremely skeptical you can place his food dish in the crate at feeding time and leave the door open. He’ll figure out the rest of the drill all by himself. Once he can enter the crate without fear you can try closing the door for short periods of time, using treats as necessary to make the experience more attractive. If your dog ever needs to travel or spend any time at the vet he will be much better equipped to handle the experience if you have him crate trained.
Some dogs are what we call “head-shy” or, more commonly, “paw-shy”. This means that, for one reason or another, the dog is uncomfortable with having his head touched or having his paws touched. Some dog owners make excuses for their dogs, saying, “He was abused when he was little”, or “he was a rescue.”
While it may be true that the dog has experienced abuse or neglect, it does the dog no good whatsoever for his new guardian to hang on to that experience and make excuses for the dog. If a dog is displaying any kind of aggressive behavior it’s extremely important that his owner makes it abundantly clear to the dog that the behavior is undesirable.
This brings us to another way that we can help dogs be good citizens. If a dog is being fearful and aggressive at the groomer or the vet, it’s hugely important that we, as owners do not make that behavior worse by comforting the dog as he snarls at the vet tech or the groomer. When an owner comforts a dog that is snarling, snapping or behaving aggressively, what the dog thinks is that the owner approves of that behavior. In other words, the owner is actually setting the dog up for an escalation of aggressive behavior and ultimate failure with all the consequences that can entail for the dog!
Sometimes a dog can have so much pain or discomfort that he will bite or snap at a groomer or handler. Imagine if you had terrible joint pain and you were unable to tell anyone about it and you were forced to sit or stand in a way that made your pain unbearable. This can and does happen to dogs. The same is true for emotional pain. When something is happening in a dog’s home that causes him fear or anxiety he can become aggressive and snappy. If a dog-owner knows that his dog has pain due to an injury or health condition it’s important that the groomer has this information so she can take extra care not to make the pain worse.
If the dog is anxious because of something that’s happing at home it’s a good idea to let the groomer know so she can give the animal the extra care and patience that he might require. Last year one of our groomers was bitten by a dog that seemed completely normal until the moment he bit her. Later we learned that the dog’s owner was going through a family crisis and the dog had been left alone in a kennel without his usual portion of human contact. We didn’t need to know the nature of the family crisis, but knowing that things were difficult at home might have helped us prevent the bite from happening. The moral to this story is that communication can prevent a lot of unhappy endings.
So, is it always the dog’s fault when a groomer or service provider is bitten? No, of course not. Groomers and other dog handlers make mistakes just like everybody else. Sometimes we misread a dog’s signals or we forget to take proper precautions to prevent a bite. Sometimes we overestimate our abilities or we underestimate a dog’s level of aggression. We work every day to improve our dog handling skills because we realize that we are not perfect and that we will never know everything there is to know about dogs.
Still, it’s important to recognize that in our society the dog is always the one who gets the blame for a bite if it’s serious enough to cause injury to a human. As dog lovers, we need to take responsibility for our animals and take whatever steps are necessary to prevent aggressive behavior.