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From Labradoodles to bearded collies, keeping that luxurious coat in tip-top condition requires dedication and daily attention. You knew that when you took on a gorgeous fluff-ball of a pup, and are prepared to put the work in. But the dog has other ideas.
When you get the brush out he runs away, which results in a ten minute game of chase even before you start grooming. Then once you have him cornered, he mouths the brush and tries to bite it, which makes brushing near impossible.
But this was only the beginning of the trouble. The dog soon wised up to the fact that if he mouthed the brush and growled, the grooming session came to an abrupt end. You quickly realized what he was up to and so refused to be beaten, but when you forcibly restrained him to be brushed you ended up with a squirming dog, a sprained wrist, and only just avoided being bitten.
Teaching a dog to like being brushed can't be done by force. By far, the best option is to show the dog that brushing is a pleasant experience which is rewarded with praise and possibly treats (although you can phase the treats out over time.)
Ideally, start off with a puppy, by being sure to handle all parts of his body and praising him for being tolerant. But if you have an adult dog that has already become brush shy, you may need to go back to basics. If the dog's coat is already knotted, then you may need to accept him having a professional clip in order to get a blank canvas to work with while you retrain him.
Teaching a dog to like being brushed is all about building new and positive associations between the brush and being groomed. You need only basic equipment such as a brush, collar & leash, and training treats. Most important of all is that you are prepared to take things as slow as the dog needs to, in order to come to terms with being brushed.
Never force the issue, since this will only teach the dog to be more resentful of the brush, not less. If the dog is being 'silly' about the brush, then a short firm verbal "No" is acceptable, but if the dog doesn't desist with this, then withdraw your attention from the dog and try again another time.
The equipment you need includes:
- A collar and leash
- Training treats
- A bag attached to your belt, to hold the training treats.
- A brush
The Clicker Training Method
Understand the idea
Sometimes the dog just plain doesn't understand what's expected of him. From his perspective, his owner keeps trying to scratch him with a strange wooden stick with spikes. The idea behind clicker training is to indicate, with a click, to the dog that he's earned a reward. This allows you to train the dog to accept the brush, building right up to a full groom.
Link the clicker and a reward
Using small tasty treats, toss a treat on the floor. As the dog eats the treat, press the clicker. Throw down another treat. Click as he eats. Repeat this several times, then try clicking (but without throwing down a treat). If the dog looks for the missing treat, he's made the link between the click and getting a reward. Now shift the emphasis, so that you click and then quickly reward the dog. Once he is looking for a reward after the click, you are ready to move onto the next stage.
Introduce the brush
If the dog was previously brush-shy, then your first task is to get him happy to be near the brush. Put the brush on the floor, perhaps near his food bowl. Wait for the dog to approach and sniff the brush, and immediately click (to mark that the dog is being good by sniffing the brush). Give him a reward. Repeat this, introducing the brush in other places around the home, such as on the sofa when you're having a snuggle, and click and reward his interest in the brush.
Brief contact with the brush
Now the dog is no longer anxious about the brush as an object, move onto the next step. This involves briefly touching the dog with the brush. At this stage don't attempt to groom him; your aim is to have the dog comfortable being touched by the grooming tool. With the dog relaxed, show him the brush and gently rest it on his coat. Choose a less sensitive area such as his back or flanks, rather than his head or belly. Click and reward the dog when he remains calm and relaxed, and immediately remove the brush from his body. Keep practicing this, until the dog is more interested in getting a reward than bothered about being touched by the brush.
Take gentle strokes with the brush
Once the dog is comfortable with contact from the brush, make a soft brushing motion. If the dog remains relaxed then click and reward him. Slowly build up the number of strokes, but don't forget to click and reward. Over time, build up the number of strokes the dog must tolerate before he gets a reward. Then work over the whole of his body, clicking and rewarding as you go.
If things don't go well
If the dog starts to resent the brush, then back up a step. Return to the last stage the dog was comfortable with and work on this for a while, before progressing onward again.
The Positive Associations Method
Understand the idea
A dog that resents being brushed may associate grooming tools with a nasty tugging sensation on his skin. He then learns that by acting up, he can get out of being grooming. Key to this method his changing his thinking so that he learns to link grooming tools to positive experiences, so that he no longer feels the need to act up.
If the coat has knots and you attempt to remove them at home while retraining, you can accidentally reinforce the discomfort and set the training back. Hence it's wise to have him professionally clipped so that he doesn't directly link the discomfort to you. If your dog's coat is badly tangled, then consider having him professionally clipped and groomed. This removes the immediate problem and buys you time to retrain him to like being brushed.
Restrain the dog
Have the dog on a collar and leash so that you have him under control and he can't bolt off to a separate room. You don't want to start a game of chase ahead of grooming, since this teaches him a whole new set of bad habits.
Build his tolerance of the brush
Show the brush to the dog. If he reacts well, such as sniffing or nosing it (or even ignoring the brush) then give him lots of praise. You may also wish to give the dog a small tasty treat. Chat to him is a calm happy voice and touch the brush to his coat, but without taking a stroke. Again, when he behaves well, praise him and give a small treat.
Distract and brush
Have a small treat in one hand and the brush in the other. (You can anchor the leash with your foot.) Again, talk in a soft encouraging voice and this time hold the treat near his nose, but inside your fist so that he can't eat the treat. With his attention firmly on the treat, make a couple of soft brushing movements. If the dog pays attention to the treat rather than the brush, tell him what a clever dog he is and give the treat.
Repeat this several times, so that the dog learns that brushing is linked to praise and reward. Aim to increase the number of strokes the dog must tolerate before he gets the treat.
The Start from Scratch Method
Understand the idea
If your dog absolutely hates being brushed and refuses to stand still or is aggressive, then he may have issues with having parts of his body touched. In this instance, it's good to go back to basics and train the dog to accept having all parts of his body handled. Once he's no longer reactive to being touched with a hand, then introduce the brush and move onto one of the other methods outlined here.
Be aware of your dog's likes and dislikes
Where are the dog's 'no go' areas?For example, does he hate having his paws or ears touched? While retraining, never forcibly hold or restrain these areas. You are going to move forward by teaching him it's actually quite nice when these areas are touched. This takes time, so be careful not to engage in a fight to clip his nails while you retrain him or it will undo all your good work.
Practice positive links
Stroke a less sensitive part of the dog, such as his back. Speak in a happy, reassuring voice and praise his co-operation. Give him a treat. Repeat this as often as you can, such as when relaxing together watching TV as well as during structured training times.
Extend the stroking
With the dog relaxed and happy to be stroked with a hand on his body, make the strokes longer, such as traveling down a leg. If the dog stays relaxed, praise and reward him.
When the dog is relaxed, try briefly touching his paw or another no-go area. If he tolerates the brief contact, praise him and give a reward. Repeat these short contact times and be sure to reward and praise him plenty.
Extend the contact time
Once the dog begins to accept that having his paws briefly touched isn't too bad after all, then gradually extend the amount of time you touch the paw before he gets a reward. The idea is to build up the time he's tolerant of his paw being touched. Do progress slowly, and if you overstep the mark and the dog becomes resentful. then back up a step and work on that a while longer so as to reestablish the positives.
Start introducing the grooming tools
As the dog overcomes his dislike of being touched in certain places, you can slowly introduce the grooming tools and move forward to brushing as outlined in the methods here.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 12/04/2017, edited: 01/08/2021