Elissa and David Miles moved from Manhattan to Mattituck, Long Island, to pursue their lifelong dream of opening a dog-grooming salon. Their shop, Groom + Gear, which has attracted a clientele of more than 400 since opening in late 2013, practices something most others don’t: low-stress handling.
“I learned about Dr. Sophia Yin’s philosophy of low-stress handling 14 years ago while apprenticing with Lydia DesRoche, a New York City dog trainer,” says Elissa. (DesRoche is the owner-operator of Sit Stay Dog Training.)
Dr. Yin, a veterinarian well known for her work in animal behavior, coined the phrase “low-stress handling” It describes her philosophy of helping dogs through unpleasant or scary encounters by using positive reinforcement and creating comfortable environments. (Her death, at 48, stunned a nationwide group of passionate followers.)
Dr. Yin’s lasting legacy of low-stress handling stands in contrast to the unfortunately still-popular philosophy of establishing dominance over a dog as a way of dealing with unwanted behaviors and aggression. Dr. Yin recognized that many of these behaviors—among them, lunging, guarding food or toys, aggression, and separation anxiety—are based on a dog’s fear.
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Further, she found that exercising dominance or trying to force a dog (or cat) to become compliant in a situation in which they are fearful often causes the undesired behavior to escalate and worsen over time.
As a vet, I have too often experienced how quickly a dog or cat’s aggression can ratchet up; they can go from mildly uncooperative to full-on trying to bite and physically escape as the level of restraint is increased. It’s critical to recognize this dynamic before their fear takes over, and it’s smart to back off and try a “less is more” restraint approach, or to include their owner in the mix.
Back to other canine contexts … low-stress handling also benefits dogs who are undergoing what may be a challenging task, such as grooming.
Obviously, a dog who doesn’t have to spend the day in a cage, but rather, comes into a place to be groomed and goes home afterward will be much more willing to go there again, and will also be more cooperative about the grooming itself. This situation plays out at Groom + Gear, a cageless facility. “David grooms one dog at a time, and they are picked up right after their grooming’s finished, “ Elissa says, adding that she had seen this business from the inside when she worked at a groomer’s in New York City.
In many grooming facilities, she says, “The dogs are dropped off in the morning and spend the day in a cage. The dryer is noisy and attaches to the outside, blowing hot air around the dog.
“[In our shop,] we use earmuffs that stay on the dog’s head, or a hand-held, quieter dryer on about one-third of the dogs. We have a pheromone diffuser, which releases calming pheromones into the grooming room, and each grooming begins with a bath and massage by David. The dogs are strapped with a wide band that crosses the chest when they’re on the table—nothing around the neck. We only use muzzles when the dog is a known biter.” On average, David grooms five dogs per day. He takes his time with each, typically one-and-a-half to two hours.”
And not surprisingly, she says, dogs come running in to see him.
The more dogs are accustomed to being touched and being around other dogs and people when they’re at home, the less stress they will feel later when in a new environment or activity, like grooming or being examined at the vet.
“Typically, puppies don’t show intolerance to being touched,” says Kristi Vizza, a trainer at Andrea Arden in New York City. “When a new puppy comes into your home, handling [the pup while] giving treats [should] be part of the daily routine.”
According to Vizza, a puppy or dog who begins taking treats more roughly, or stops taking them altogether, is displaying signs of discomfort with being touched. Looking at your hand when you touch a sensitive area is another way dogs convey their unease.
“If you see signs of discomfort when touching a certain area of your dog, back off and move to touching another area. Typically, dogs resent their paws (particularly the hind paws), ears or tail being touched,” Vizza says. “Handling your dog is something you’re going to do [daily] for the first couple of years. It’s relationship building. Behavior issues pop up between the age of 7 and 18 months, so for the first 6 months, socializing and handling your puppy as much as possible is extremely important.”
Low-stress handling is about meeting dogs where they are. It sets them up for success by teaching them to be less shy, and to tolerate being handled. Owners need to know to expect some unwanted behavior issues with their dog—they can and will come up. It doesn’t mean that either the owner or the dog has failed, however.
Although low-stress handling is highly regarded among vets, it requires patience, time and staff training to implement. In busy pet-service operations, carving out additional time can be a challenge, but is eminently worth the effort. Sedation, muzzling or roughly handling a noncompliant dog or cat may be faster, but they are techniques that can take a toll on our companion animals. As public awareness of the low-stress-handling approach increases, the demand for, and number of, facilities that practice it should increase as well.