As a dog owner, you want your pet to look and feel their best. Professional grooming can play a vital role in keeping your dog healthy and comfortable, while having a significant impact on a dog’s social skills. Though, determining when to start professionally grooming your dog can be a challenge for many pet owners. Having a clear understanding of your dog’s developmental timeline enables you to effectively address their needs and help prevent undesirable behaviors.
During grooming appointments, dogs have the opportunity to interact with other dogs and people. This exposure can help them become more comfortable and confident in social situations. Grooming salons are often filled with new sights, sounds, smells, and handling skills. Regular grooming appointments can help acclimate dogs to these stimuli, which can help prevent fear and anxiety in other unfamiliar situations. However, it is all about timing.
Number One Mistake
Many dog owners make the mistake of waiting until their dog may “look” like they need a groom, which can often be six months of age or older, before taking them to a professional. Unfortunately, “later” is too late. The older the introduction to grooming, the more difficult and nearly impossible it is to have the puppy set up for success and enjoy the grooming process. Puppies have established fears, anxiety and aggression during this difficult period. Veterinarians and groomers will tell you that hard-to-handle dogs are extremely common. Studies reveal just how common behavior problems are.
Responsible pet ownership plays an important role in ensuring puppies mature into well-behaved dogs. Discover how to establish a positive grooming routine that benefits your dog. Puppies from irresponsible breeders have a higher risk of developing separation related behavioral problems. Gray et al. (2016). Aggression, anxiety and separation related behavioral disorders are commonly seen in pet dogs worldwide, with a high impact for the owner and society (Voith, 2009).
Setting your dog up for success begins with the source you purchased your dog from (puppy mill, BYB, responsible breeder). Many influences on your dog’s outcome occur before you meet your puppy and may be unknown to you. Personality traits and temperament are determined by many factors. This includes genetics, the behavior and health of the mother, adequate nutrition during development, as well as the environment from before birth until maturity.
The source of where you get your puppy has been correlated with the prevalence of behavioral and health problems. This impact has a long-lasting effect on the character and health of the dog in adulthood, so it is important to know the origin of the puppy and the characteristics of the breeder. Prospective pet owners should care about the origin of their puppy given the direct cascade effect this will have on their puppy’s life. A review on the behavior of dogs originating from commercial breeders, puppy farms and pet stores, highlights the increased incidence of behavioral disorders such as fear and aggression towards other dogs and humans in commercially bred dogs (McMillan, 2017).
Correlation of both genetics and heritability attributes between temperament traits in dogs. Scott JP & JL Fuller 1965 Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Univ of Chicago Press
Often behavior is normal behavior for the dog, yet unwanted behavior for the owner. How dog owners do things at home and how they take initiative can have a significant impact in shaping it in a positive way.
“A ‘behavioral problem’ refers to behavior exhibited by an animal that is unacceptable to the owner, regardless of its level of abnormality. Therefore, exactly the same behavior can be regarded as either a behavioral problem or non-problematic normal behavior, depending on the owner’s feelings. Despite such ambiguity, behavioral problems are becoming a common concern among dog owners. It has been reported that more than 80% of dogs kept in homes exhibit behavioral problems.” source
- ‘problem behavior’ (normal behavior for the dog yet unwanted behavior for the owner) and
- behavioral disorders (pathological behaviors excessive in frequency, duration and/or intensity and/or applied in the wrong context)
A positive grooming experience can help build trust between a dog and their groomer, which can then extend to other people and dogs. Regular grooming appointments provide a consistent, gentle handling experience. This can help dogs feel more comfortable being handled, which is especially important for veterinary exams and other routine care.
You can begin introducing a puppy to grooming when they are as young as three weeks old. Responsible breeders will have acquainted their puppies with grooming before they go to their new home.
A puppy’s genetics and inherited traits cannot be altered; early grooming experiences set the tone for your dog’s lifelong behavior and attitude towards grooming and can make a significant impact on their overall quality of life.
The Most Important Things To Teach Your Puppy – Getting Puppy Ready for the Groomer’s at Home
The most important things to teach your puppy are to be instituted from the very first day your puppy comes home. You can prevent grooming issues associated with adolescent and lifelong problems by five months of age.
Taking these steps immediately will familiarize your puppy with the grooming process:
- Bite inhibition to develop a “soft mouth” (Developmental Deadline 4 ½ months of age)
- It is difficult to instill bite inhibition in an adolescent or adult dog
- Socialization with people (Developmental Deadline is urgent by 12 weeks of age)
- Household etiquette (Developmental Deadline 4 ½ months of age)
- Being used to being home alone (Developmental Deadline 4 ½ months of age)
- Sit and settle down commands (Developmental Deadline 4 ½ months of age)
- Dog-Dog Socialization (Developmental Deadline 4 ½ months of age)
- Continuing Socialization every day to ensure that your puppy remains well socialized and friendly towards people during adolescence and adulthood
- Teach your puppy to enjoy being touched, handled and examined in a variety of “hot spots”; collar, muzzle, both ears, all four paws, tail, rear end, teeth, nails, and inner thighs to condition to handling
- Training in the car for appointments
- Crate training
- Muzzle training
- Lift paws, massaging pads and the tips of toes
- Gently touching coat all over
- Ensure enough mental and physical outlets before grooming
- A tired puppy will be more likely to settle into the grooming routine
- Have a DAP diffuser plugged in at home when you bring your puppy home for the first time
- You can introduce water by a periodic shallow dip in the bottom of a bathtub (starting just above the paws, gradually deeper)
*Developmental Deadlines Adapted from Ian Dunbar PhD, BVetMed, MRCVS
Do not allow your puppy to become dependent upon your presence or they will be anxious in your absence when being groomed. It is estimated that ~14% of dogs have separation anxiety, or an inability of the pet to find comfort when separated from family members. Early experiences, whether positive or negative, can profoundly affect behavior later in life.
Puppies have excellent memories, they easily remember their first experiences, including grooming. This is why it’s important to make the initial session as stress-free and pleasant as possible.
These are all important life skills for all dogs to have.
“Socialization” is a popular buzzword when it comes to puppies, but it aids in helping puppies form positive associations with the things they are going to encounter during the course of their lifetime.
Socialization refers to the process of exposing young puppies to a wide range of experiences and stimuli, such as new people, animals, sounds, textures, and surfaces, in a controlled manner, with the goal of helping them develop positive associations with novel stimuli and environments. Scott & Fuller (1965) were the ﬁrst to investigate the early sensitive period for socialization in dogs.
The process of socialization takes place extremely rapidly and so has received the name “imprinting.”
By gradually increasing the level of exposure and providing positive reinforcement for desirable responses, puppies can learn to cope with new situations and environments in a positive way. When implemented and done correctly, socialization prevents the development of fear and anxiety-related behaviors later in life.
The critical period for puppy socialization typically occurs between 3 to 14 weeks of age, during which time puppies are most receptive and impressionable of new experiences and are most likely to develop positive social skills and behaviors. Properly socialized puppies are more likely to grow up to be well-adjusted, confident, and resilient dogs.
Socialization is the responsibility of the breeder and the owner. Puppy socialization practices play a large role in the development of well-adjusted adult dogs that display few undesirable behaviors, and which can establish a positive, lifelong relationship with their owner. Age-appropriate socialization practices should begin within a few days of birth, and should extend well into adulthood.
The current literature and common consensus among dog behavior experts is that lack of appropriate socialization during the sensitive period, along with lack of appropriate ongoing socialization during the dog’s life, plays a large role in whether or not the dog develops behavioral problems.
While a puppy’s genetics and inherited traits cannot be altered, the experiences they have during their early life can greatly shape their behavior for the rest of their life.
Developmental Periods in Dogs
Puppy development has been traditionally divided into fairly distinct stages, as there are many defined sensitive periods in early canine development:
Scott and Fuller (1965)  originally described the socialization period as a “critical period” in the formation of primary social relationships or attachments.
“By a critical period, we mean a special time in life when a small amount of experience will produce a great effect on later behavior.”
— Scott & Fuller. Genetics and the Social Behaviour of the Dog
This is why the timing of grooming introduction is so important. Normal social development in the puppy can be divided into several periods based on changes in social relationships. Several of these may be critical, but the most important is that of primary socialization, beginning about 3 weeks of age.
Puppy development has been traditionally divided into five fairly distinct stages based on John Paul Scott and John Fuller’s pioneering studies on dog behavior:
*(applied substages of the prenatal period (9 week gestation period))
- Neonatal period (birth to 2 weeks of age)
- Transitional period (2–3 weeks of age)
- Socialization (3–12 weeks of age)
- Adolescence (12 weeks to 6 months of age)
-the pubertal period (7–24 months)
Dogs do not abruptly leave one of these stages and enter another. The progression is smooth and the stages overlap considerably.
A lack of adequate socialization and enrichment during the sensitive period can contribute to excessive responses to stimuli, including fear and aggression.
Introducing Your Dog to Grooming: The Ideal Age
As stated above, it is recommended to start grooming puppies at an early age, around 3 to 4 weeks old. This helps them get used to the process and become comfortable with it, making future grooming sessions easier and less stressful for both the pup and the groomer. Your puppy can be ready for their first professional groom at ~10 weeks old, with ways to prepare him earlier. Establishing a positive and stress-free association with grooming early on ensures the well-being and comfort of the puppy throughout its life.
Socializing & Grooming Young Puppies – Is it safe?
There is a misconception that puppies must complete their full set of vaccinations before being socialized and going to the groomer. The AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization states,
“Because the first three months are the period when sociability outweighs fear, this is the primary window of opportunity for puppies to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences. Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.
In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.”
Grooming is an unregulated trade and not all salons are created equal. Prioritizing a groomer who requires initial vaccinations and veterinary health certificates is ideal.
As puppies go through developmental stages that can impact their behavior and personality, one of the most critical stages in a puppy’s life is the fear stage.
Fear Periods in Dogs
Many are aware of the first fear period in puppies, though, puppies will experience two different fear periods before reaching adulthood.
The first fear period in puppies occurs predictably and relatively early in a dog’s life when they are between 8-11 weeks old (the best time to introduce your puppy to grooming and socialization). This is a critical socialization period that will dramatically impact the dog’s behavior for the rest of their life. During this period, the puppy’s brain is a tiny sponge that soaks up everything they experience. The dog files this away for the future. What is experienced during this time is now considered a normal part of their life.
Many may not be so aware of the sudden change in behavior that is less predictable and more variable in late adolescence between 6-18 months of age. This is what many pet professionals deal with in unruly dogs when the timing hasn’t been implemented at the critical periods. New things (i.e. introduction to grooming *at home) that may have been previously happily accepted are now negatively assumed (* in a professional setting, with different stimuli than at home) where anything that the pup has not already encountered is now scary.
The puppy fear stage when puppies are going through a critical socialization period is when they begin to experience fear and anxiety in response to new stimuli and environments. During this time, puppies may become easily frightened by new or unfamiliar experiences.
A single intimidating or painful experience –referred to as single-event learning– will have a lifelong impact on the way the dog responds to that stimulus. In this case, grooming. Therefore, regardless of the circumstances, it takes only one negative incident with a particular trigger to cause an intense and permanent response to that trigger in the future.
Puppies need to be acclimated to dog grooming early to avoid aggressive behavior triggered abruptly in response to a single traumatic incident at precisely the wrong time in life. Introducing your dog to professional grooming can be a little intimidating, but with the right approach, you can make the experience positive and enjoyable for both you and your dog.
By introducing your dog to professional grooming in a positive and supportive way, you can help them enjoy the benefits of grooming while reducing stress and anxiety. Remember to choose the right breeder, groomer, start early, and use positive reinforcement to help your dog associate grooming with good things. With a little patience and effort, you can help your dog become comfortable with the grooming process and enjoy a lifetime of good health and hygiene. A well-groomed dog is a happy and healthy dog, so make sure to prioritize grooming as a part of your pet’s care routine.
Sheepdog Riggs, Forever in Our hearts
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