Our notions of grooming often conjure up images of Fifi the poodle being primped by the pros, or dog show contestants being made over before their time in the spotlight. In reality, grooming originated in the wild. Wolves and other wild canines regularly groom each other, using their front teeth like combs. They will also lick each other's ears, faces and other areas to help their pack mates clean otherwise hard-to-reach places. The skin stimulation and repetitive motion relaxes the animals, so they appear to look forward to their grooming periods.
Recent studies suggest that most mammals, including non-human primates, socially bond during grooming. It is a literal "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" unspoken agreement. A certain level of trust must also exist, since the individual being groomed is in a potentially vulnerable situation.
Therefore, to your dog, the grooming process means much more than a quick cleaning. As author and trainer Kathy Diamond Davis of Oklahoma City, Okla. advises, "You can use this time to strengthen your relationship with your dog and to cement what hopefully will be a lifelong friendship." Here's how, in three easy steps.
Step One: Get a Good Comb
Davis, who is the author of Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others (Dogwise Publishing), suggests that, no matter what kind of dog you have, you should invest in a good comb. Look for a stainless steel comb that does not have any sharp points. "Rough handling and grooming obviously harms the dog's trust in being touched, and handling that is too tentative can do the same," she said. "The feel of the comb against your dog's skin has to fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum." Brands that she likes include Chris Christensen combs and #1 All Systems combs and products.
She admits that some breeds may require a good brush as well, but that is mostly in preparation for the combing. By the end of the grooming session, you should be able to run a comb through your dog's fur, especially if your pet is a long-haired breed. Davis also warns against using too many products, such as detanglers, shampoos, insecticides and perfumes, since dog skin is extremely sensitive. You may actually be doing your dog a favor if you keep such product purchases to a minimum.
Step Two: Prepare the Pooch
Davis owns a Belgian tervuren, which is a large sheepdog-type breed, along with one other dog. The tervuren, which had another home before hers, initially squirmed and whined during grooming sessions, not unlike a child getting its first haircuts. "This dog was just not having any of it," said Davis.
She determined her Belgian friend, named Redeemer, needed some basic behavior training first. While he sort of knew commands like "sit" and "lay down," she further instilled these with positive reinforcements, like plenty of head pats and sweet talk. When Redeemer passed his mini obedience training sessions, Davis was able to move to the final step.
Step Three: Groom Gently, Regularly and Thoroughly
Have your dog lie down, either on a non-slip surface, such as a special mat dedicated to this purpose, or even, as Davis recommends, on you. She ties a sheet around herself and has the dog lie on her outstretched legs. Davis begins with a rub down massage, using her fingertips in a circular or back and forth motion all around the dog's skin. Sometimes this step may be enough for short hair dogs that do not need a daily combing. The massage improves skin circulation and helps to distribute natural oils throughout your dog's fur.
When combing, imagine that you are working out tangles in a young child's hair. Hold sections of fur and slowly work from the end of the section up through the tangle, being careful not to scratch or pull. When a comb can run through the entire coat, a quick brushing can distribute oils again and serve as one final doggy massage.
In addition to fur maintenance, Davis also uses this time to check her dogs' ears for dirt and parasites. When doing so, she massages the outside bottom of the ears, which seems to be a "sweet spot" for canines, perhaps because that is an area they target when one dog grooms another. She also clips her dogs' toenails, and checks their paws, eyes and other areas. Davis additionally recommends placing apple cider vinegar on a tissue and swabbing it on your dog's anal region to help prevent bacterial infections.
What may at first seem like torture to your dog will likely become a much-anticipated daily event. "Redeemer used to avoid me around grooming time, but now I have to try to keep him off of me because he wants to be groomed all day long," she said. The proof of her dog's trust is how she leaves him after each combing and cleaning session. Davis said, "He's usually sleeping like a baby."
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