As a dog groomer trigger/situation stacking is SO common in the salon but it's one of the most underrated subjects in dog grooming with many dog groomers I have previously spoken to not knowing what it is. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t know what it is..this is what I’m here for and you should be patting yourself on the back for reading these blogs and for trying to broaden your knowledge!
For me knowing about dog behaviour and trigger stacking is a must for our job, as it can help with many situations that could lead to injury to the dog or the groomer. By knowing about dog behaviour we can prevent many bites, scratches and injuries to the dogs and us. After all, prevention is always better than cure.
Trigger stacking is where a dog has lots of separate things that occur in a short space of time, which can lead them to become over-excited, over-aroused, anxious or fearful because they haven’t had time to calm down or process the incidents properly that have happened before this point. Often owners haven’t noticed the dog starting to show calming signals, reaching the point where the dog is unable to calm itself down. This can lead to unwanted excitement, severe anxiety, an unpredictable dog or even aggression during their time in the salon and also outside of the salon. It’s a subject that I feel should be taught more, not only to people that work with animals but also to pet owners. If we, as responsible pet owners, noticed when situation stacking is occurring and what calming signals mean, then many of the incidents that you hear about with dogs could have actually been prevented, had the owner or dog groomer known dog behaviour better.
As an example, when a dog comes into our salon, it is a prime situation where the dog can have trigger stacking occur. Between greeting, bathing, the blow dry, people coming in and out of the salon, the hair cut and that’s before we even factor in what happened before the salon. So maybe the owner walked fluffy to a coffee shop, and the dog has been approached by multiple strangers who think it's super cute and acceptable to say hello and then come in for a groom. You can see why many dogs are already overwhelmed before even coming into the salon let alone with what we add on top of it.
Once the dog reaches what I call "the point of no return", it is very hard to calm them down and it's important to recognise when a dog is feeling overwhelmed and how to cope with them. Sometimes, unfortunately, if the dog is already at a point of no return you cannot get them back. You often just have to do the best you can without stressing the dog out too much, and if your salon environment allows you to put them somewhere to calm down for 10 minutes, for groom-phobic dogs, this may make it worse. Working alongside the owners with an honest relationship can help, as you can be very honest about what areas the dog needs desensitising in and ask them to bring them in with a more relaxed state. Next time, for example, not after a huge walk and a stop at the local coffee shop. For many dogs, situation stacking is very different, some dogs will take a lot more to tip over than others. Some dogs will not be bothered at all and will love a groom, meaning it would take a LOT to make them into this state. They're what I like to call “bomb-proof” dogs. Others may be completely overwhelmed by just the smell of the lavender bubbles from across the road. It's important to remember that every dog is different and building trust is important. Some dogs will never like grooming, but it is our job as professionals to make sure it is as tolerable as possible for them. We can do that by learning about calming signals, which can help us pick up on when a dog is becoming overwhelmed so we can try to distract and relax them before reaching the point of no return.
What is a bomb-proof dog I hear you ask?
A bomb-proof dog is a dog that has been openly and repeatedly exposed to multiple situations in a positive way, through positive reinforcement. This means that as they grow, they are not negatively affected by day-to-day occurrences that may cause anxiety/trigger stacking.
Some examples outside of the salon include:
Fireworks, vet trips, plastic bags, walking near roads, livestock, doorbells, children, busy places, lead walking, the car etc.
Examples of this inside a salon include:
The grooming salon itself, dryers, clippers, brushes, nail clipping, touching sensitive areas like the feet and face, the noise of scissors, and a crate/pen.
Positive reinforcement and repetition of certain things can hugely reduce the number of triggers that the dog has in the first place to stack up. The fewer triggers there are, the less likely the dog is to reach a point of no return and have those overwhelming feelings, meaning you are less likely to get a reaction from a dog. Remember it is never too late to start desensitisation with a dog. Does it take time and patience? Yes! But it is so worth it when you have a calm and balanced dog that doesn’t get overwhelmed by the slightest thing.
How could we help a dog that has arrived at our salon that we can see is extremely trigger stacked?
- Reduce noise in the salon to create a relaxed environment.
- Play relaxing music to aid with calming the dog.
- Use a plug-in if you have one available
- Do not touch the dog or used high pitch noises to greet it as this could further distress the dog.
- Don’t crowd the dog give it lots of space to settle.
- If the dog is happy in a crate/pen, put in one with a treat or toy and cover it with a towel. *Please note this is hugely dependent on the dog as if the dog doesn’t like crates it could push them completely the other way so ask the owner if they like a crate or not first.
- Take it slow. Take extra time to let the dog settle and use calming products such as sprays and happy hoodies to help keep the dog calm.
- Offer the owner desensitisation sessions to help the dog see the salon as a positive place.
- Ask the owner not to do anything with the dog that will cause stress to them before the appointment (sometimes this is impossible if the trigger is something like the car)
- Give the owners lots of advice. Unfortunately, dog behaviour is greatly misunderstood and many people don’t understand it which is no fault of their own, even some professionals don’t understand it. Education is key and teaching our customers what we know and how to help them will in turn help their dogs. Always be honest and open about what the dog is finding stressful and recommend ways in which they can work on it at home.
My last tip for groomers is to remember as a professional to accept that some people will not desensitise their dogs so we have to just accept that as we cannot train a dog in 2 hours if an owner is not prepared to do it with the time they have at home, all we can do in those situations is make the groom and stress-free and comfortable as possible for that dog and prevent them from trigger stacking even more during their time at the salon.
Thanks for reading!