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San Diego Humane Society

Training Tips: Grooming at Home Do's and Don’ts

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Grooming your pet is essential to keeping them clean, happy and healthy. And if you are able to regularly groom your pet at home, you are more likely to detect early signs of health concerns like lumps, bumps, cuts or other skin conditions that may require veterinary attention.

Through desensitization (a process that involves gradual exposure to something) and positive reinforcement training, grooming can be stress-free and even enjoyable for you and your pet. The sooner you introduce your pet to the grooming process, the more likely they will be willing to cooperate and participate in brushing, bathing, ear cleaning and nail trimming. For many pets, this is a slow process that requires consistency and patience. Get support from a trainer by enrolling in our Cooperative Care & Handling class and check out our Body Handling for Grooming & Medical Husbandry YouTube Playlist!

When grooming your pet, safety always comes first. There are things we can do to keep ourselves and our pets safe, calm and comfortable during the grooming process. With patience, practice and the tips below, grooming can be a positive experience for you and your pets!DogEmotionalCup.jpg

Grooming DOs & DON'Ts:

  • DO set up for success. Try grooming on an uneventful day when your pet is calm and relaxed. Do the grooming in a quiet part of the home where your pet is comfortable and there are minimal distractions.
  • DO go slow. Every pet is unique and has a different tolerance and comfort level. Some pets may need time to get comfortable with you touching their paws, ears or body orDecompressForSuccess.jpg become familiar with the grooming tools (nail clippers, ear cleaner bottle, hair clippers, bathtub, etc.). Other pets may be more confident with the grooming tools and may allow you to handle them easily. Go at your pet's pace — the slower the better.
  • DO follow the “Fear Free 2-3 Tries” Rule: If your pet is distressed or you find yourself feeling frustrated, stop and take a break. For dogs, stop and reassess if you are unable to complete a grooming task after three tries, and for cats, stop after two tries. Ask yourself: How can I change my approach? What was not working? What was working? Take a break and try again later once your pet has had time to decompress. Remember, this should be a positive, calm experience. (For more information on Fear Free Tips, see the Fear Free Practice Certification Tips, Tools & Templates pdf and Training & Grooming ContentDoggieLanguage_Lchin (1).jpg Directory from Fear Free Happy Homes.)
  • DO be aware of your movements, body position and demeanor. Avoid leaning over your pet, reaching over them or putting your face too close to their face because these positions can make your pet feel uncomfortable. Also keep in mind our pets can read our body language. If you are feeling frustrated, nervous or stressed, your pet will pick up on this. Take a break until you are feeling calmer.
  • For more tips, check out these videos: Social Pressure & Animal InteractionsEye Contact & Animal Interactions, and Body Orientation, Movement & Posture.  CAT LANGUAGE_LChin.jpg
  • DO give lots of calming praise. Using a soothing voice and praising your pet can help them feel better about an uncomfortable situation. For more information, check out this video on How to Use Your Voice as a Training Tool.
  • DO pair every step with plenty of treats. If your pet is too stressed to eat the treats, take a break. Once your pet starts eating the treats, try again. Watch this video for an example of restraint-free handling using treats: Cooperative Care: Topical Flea Medication Application
  • DO use high-value treats that your pet loves. Use longer-lasting treats, like something your pet has to lick or work at. Try smearing peanut butter, wet food or liquid cat treats on a lick mat, wooden spoon or puzzle feeder. Or use cream cheese packets (for dogs) or squeezable cat treat packets (for cats), allowing them to lick a tiny bit at a time.Ladder-of-Communication.jpgfeline-ladder-agression-dr-foote.jpg
  • DO read your pet's body language, listen to their signals and respect their boundaries (Check out our YouTube playlist: Reading Body Language). If they stiffen, slow down. If they growl, stop. If they pull away, let them. If we ignore their subtle forms of communication, they will begin to escalate their behavior to make you stop. If your pet is showing you their boundaries, respect them. Compare these two video examples: Building Paw Touches with a calm, relaxed cat and Paw Touches with Feeding Syringe after a more stressful situation. Please note: In the second video, the cat's boundaries are pushed more than we recommend for the sake of showing what a couple steps of signal escalation might look like. Ideally, a session will end at the first signal suggesting a boundary, or even better, not begin at all if we know our pet is already stressed! Check out these articles on Safety: Dog Bite Prevention and Stress in Pets: What To Look For.CalmShutdown_LChin.jpg
  • DO know the difference between "calm" and "shutdown." A calm pet is a happy pet. A shutdown pet is one that is extremely stressed CalmingSignals_LChin.jpg-- almost frozen in fear. A shutdown animal is likely to eventually bite. Shutdown pets are often mistaken for being calm, because the body language differences are very subtle. Just because your pet is still allowing the grooming to happen, does not mean they are calm and comfortable with it.
  • DO give your pet the choice to participate so they don’t feel the need to protect themselves. Rather than forcefully grabbing them, wait for them to come to you.Trust_Bank_Account.jpg Rather than placing them in the bath, allow them to jump in themselves (if they can do so safely). Allow your pet to opt out at any time if they are feeling overwhelmed. Rather than continuing to grab their paw even though they keep pulling away, try waiting and offering them treats. Once they've calmed down a bit, try reaching for the paw again. Check out these videos on The Importance of Choice in Animal TrainingConsent in Cats and Aggressive Behavior & The Importance of Choice!
  • DO use caution. When cutting out mats from your pet’s fur, slide a comb between the mat and your pet’s skin so you don’t accidentally cut them. You can also use clippers to shave off mats. When clipping nails, look for the "nail quick" (the pink part of the inside of the nail where the tissue, nerves and blood vessels are located) and avoid trimming too close to it. When clipping cats' nails, lightly squeeze their paw to cause their claws to extend, only clipping the very end of each claw. Ideally, only trim a tiny bit to avoid hurting your pet, especially if you cannot see the "nail quick" due to dark nails or furry paws. (Check out this restraint-free choice-UpgradetoFirstClass.jpgbased Nail Trim Video.) When bathing pets, make sure the water is lukewarm (not too hot or cold) and keep the bath water very shallow.
  • DO end grooming and training sessions on a good note. The goal: Stop while your pet is still calm. At the end of the grooming session, reward your pet with a treat "jackpot" (four to eight small treats). Allow your pet quiet time alone to decompress and relax after a grooming session.
  • DON'T groom your pet if they are stressed or trigger stacked. Trigger stacking occurs when your pet experiences several stressful or exciting events in a short period of time. For example, if on any given day your pet has interacted with guests who visited the home, had an exciting day at the dog park, visited theFear_Free_FAS_Spectrum_Cat (1).jpg vet or had a negative interaction with a neighbor’s dog, they could be trigger stacked, and they may be on edge and less tolerant. Instead of trying to complete a grooming task on a day when they have experienced something stressful or exciting, wait to try on a different day when your pet is not overly excited, aroused or particularly stressed. Check out this video: Trigger Stacking & Stress Hormones
  • DON'T push your pet too far, too quickly. This can cause your pet to be fearful of grooming, making the process more difficult the next time. Furthermore, you don't want to damage the trust between you and your pet or cause them to be fearful of you. While you are first introducing grooming, keep the sessions short to avoidfearfreespectrumoffearanxietystress_dog.png causing your pet unnecessary stress. We want to help our pets feel good, or at least neutral about the grooming process.
  • DON’T neglect your equipment. Clippers, blades and scissors are expensive. Always clean them after each use and occasionally have them professionally sharpened. A dull, rusty tool is unsafe and less effective.
  • DON’T get discouraged. Every grooming session is an opportunity to learn. Your pet does not choose to be "uncooperative," stubborn" or "difficult."  If you are having a hard time, it's because your pet is having a hard time. Be patient. Progress happens slowly. The hair alwayslables_chin.jpg grows back. And there's always next time to improve your skills. 

Clipping Nails

It's important to regularly clip your pet's nails to avoid them from becoming overgrown. Overgrown nails can cause your pet to experience pain, infection, decreased traction and injury to themselves, humans and other animals. Clip the nails with pet nail trimmers, removing just the very tips.

Most animals are sensitive to their paws being touched and held. You should work on getting your pet used to having their paws touched before even introducing the nail clippers. Break down the process into small steps, rewarding each step with treats and calming praise. Only proceed to the next step if your pet is comfortable. If you’re met with too much resistance to the nail clipping process, go back a step and slow down.

For example, if your pet is not allowing you to hold their paws, start by just touching their paws (while feeding treats) for a few seconds every day. Once they are comfortable with their paws being touched, you can increase the amount of time you touch the paws. Then you can start holding the paws and increasing the amount of time you hold the paw. This will get your pet used to having their paws handled for longer periods of time. Similarly, the nail clippers may make your pet feel nervous or scared. Repeat this same slow process when introducing the nail clippers.

This training technique of slowly building upon each step and rewarding with treats along the way is necessary for preventing your pet from creating a negative association with the nail trimming process. The more often you handle your pet's paws and trim their nails, the more they will cooperate and willingly participate. There are even behaviors and positions you can teach your pet to make the process even easier.

Below is a step-by-step guide to help you get started, but keep in mind: every animal is an individual. Some pets may need additional steps, and some may be comfortable enough to skip some steps. Some pets may benefit from medication or professional grooming and restraint due to high levels of fear and stress. Always listen to your pet and adjust your methods accordingly.  


Clipping Nails Step-by-Step:

Pair each step with high-value treats. Remember: If your pet stiffens or stops eating the treats, pause. If they look away or pull away, pause. You should only proceed if they are continuously taking treats. 

  1. Don't move too quickly. Observe your pet’s body language as you reach for their paws. Some pets will need extra time getting used to you touching certain areas of their body. You may need to first desensitize them to you approaching before you can start touching them. Start by petting their back, shoulder and upper leg before going for the ankle and paw. For an example of desensitizing the "approach", check out this video: Peanut butter + Dishwasher = Nail trim!
  2. Desensitize your pet to having their paws touched. Some pets who have a negative feeling toward nail clippers or having their paws touched may need extra help and Counter Conditioning to help change how they feel about the nail trimming experience. While feeding your pet high-value treats, gently touch their paw for a second or two, while saying "nails," "toe beans," or your word of choice. Naming things (like "nails" when clipping the nails, "collar" when touching their collar or "up" before picking them up) can provide predictability and comfort for our pets, who otherwise could be caught off guard by those actions. Check out this video, Oh, Behave: Stress-Free Nail Trims.
  3. Increase the duration of the paw touches. Repeat Step 1 but increase how long you touch each paw. If you started with one second, increase to three seconds, then five seconds then 10 seconds. 
  4. Add movement. Repeat Steps 1 and 2 but turn the "touch" into a stroke. Experiment with petting paws and legs, touching each individual toe pad and the nails.
  5. Desensitize your pet to having their paws held. While feeding your pet high-value treats, gently grab and hold their paw for a second or two, while saying "nails" or your word of choice.
  6. Increase the duration of the paw hold. Repeat Step 4 but increase how long you hold each paw. If you started with one second, increase to three seconds, then five seconds then 10 seconds. 
  7. Add movement and pressure. Repeat Steps 4 and 5 but add gentle pressure, lightly squeezing the paw (as if you are gripping it to trim the nails). Experiment with holding the ankles, legs and each individual toe and nail.
  8. Desensitize your pet to the nail clippers. Place the clippers on the ground where your pet can see them and investigate them as they please. Reward them with treats every time they look at the clippers, approach the clippers, sniff them or touch them with their paws!
  9. Interact with the nail clippers. Repeat Step 7 but while you are touching, grabbing and picking up the clippers. 
  10. Desensitize your pet to holding the clippers near their paws. Slowly move the clippers towards their paw. If they freeze or stop eating the treats, move the clippers away. 
  11. Make contact. Repeat Step 9, but this time actually touch the clippers to the paw. If they freeze or stop eating the treats, move the clippers away.
  12. Hold their paw while holding the clippers. Combine Steps 6 and 9. If they freeze or stop eating the treats, move the clippers away and let go of the paw.
  13. Hold their paw and touch the clippers to the nails. Combine Steps 6 and 10. If they freeze or stop eating the treats, move the clippers away and let go of the paw.
  14. Clip the nails! Start small and slow. Clip one nail, pause, let go of their paw and reward with treats! Assess if your pet needs a break or if you can continue clipping more nails. If you're only able to clip one nail and then stop for the day, that's okay! You don't want to push your pet too far and create fear around nail trims. That will set you back. 
  15. End with lots of treats and praise! After the nail trim — whether you trimmed all paws or only one single nail — reward their bravery and cooperation with a pile of delicious treats.
  16. All done! Say "All done!" or "No more!" to let your pet know that the nail trim is over. Put the nail clippers away and let your pet decompress. 


All dogs need baths, whether because they get dirty or simply to cleanse dust, dander, loose hair and oily residue from the skin. If you or someone in your family suffers from mild dog allergies, frequent bathing can reduce the amount of dander on the coat and in your home. How often your dog needs a bath depends on their breed and coat type, as well as how much they are outside — reach out to your local groomer for recommendations for your pet. Most dogs do fine with weekly or even monthly baths as long as you use a gentle, moisturizing shampoo and completely rinse all the soap out of the coat. However, some dogs with very short and fine hair only need baths every few months or longer. Otherwise, their skin could become dry and irritated.

Self-grooming pets like cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and rats will usually clean and groom themselves, but they may need a bath when they are particularly dirty, stinky, sick or if recommended by your vet. Keep in mind: If your pet has either stopped cleaning themselves or is over-grooming themselves, contact your vet to rule out any medical issues or physical pain. Stress can also be a reason your pet's grooming habits have changed. Cats rarely need to be bathed unless they spend time outside and become significantly dirty or as recommended by your vet. 

Bathing DOs & DON'Ts:

  • DO take your time. We want to make bath time a calm bonding experience for you and your pet. 
  • DO fill the bath before bringing your pet into the bathroom or bathing area. Some pets may be startled by the loud sound of the running faucet. By the time the bath is ready, they may be too scared or stressed.
  • DO test the water before bathing your pet. The water should be lukewarm, not too cold and not too hot. You don't want to burn your pet, but you want them to be comfortable.
  • DO offer praise along the way. Speak to your pet in a soothing tone, praising them throughout the whole process.
  • DO pair every step with plenty of treats. If your pet is too stressed to eat the treats, take a break. 
  • DO implement safety measures. Put towels down and a grippy mat in the tub so your pet doesn't slip and injure themselves. Consider putting a slip lead on your dog so they cannot jump out of the tub, potentially injuring themselves. Bathe small animals in a sink instead of a tub. 
  • DO avoid bathing near the eyes, nose, mouth and inner ears. Water and shampoo can irritate these areas. For dogs, use ear cleaner to dry out water from the inner ear and prevent infection after baths and swimming. 
  • DO rinse, rinse and rinse some more. Any soap left in the coat will be itchy and make the hair look greasy. 
  • DO gently dry them with a towel or cloth before turning them loose. 
  • DO enjoy (and be ready for) the post-bath zoomies! 
  • DON'T fill the tub too full. The water should be very shallow. Use a cup or small bucket to fully wet your pet. 
  • DON’T bathe your pet outside with the hose unless you have warm water. You wouldn’t enjoy a cold outdoor shower, and neither would your pet.
  • DON'T let them drink the dirty bath water. 
  • DON’T use human shampoos — most will dry out the skin.
  • DON'T let them outside right after the bath. Wait until they are dry. Many animals don't like the "clean" smell, so they will try to roll in something stinky or dirty (dirt, grass, feces, dead things, etc.) after a bath.

Cleaning Ears

Pets who get frequent ear infections or a lot of buildup in the ears will benefit from weekly or biweekly ear cleanings. Start out with a big cotton ball (cotton batting is even better). Wet the cotton with the ear cleaner and use it to swipe out the inside of the ear. A small amount of cleaner will naturally drip down into the ear canal. Gently massage the base of the ear with your fingers. Stand back and let your pet shake their head (drape a towel over their head to minimize the mess). Then use the cotton ball to softly wipe out the ear. Never stick a cotton swab into the ear canal — you can rupture your pet’s eardrum.

For more tips on grooming and other essential pet information, check out the Complete Guide to Pet Health, Behavior, and Happiness,” authored by Gary Weitzman, DVM, MPH, CAWA, president and CEO of San Diego Humane Society.

Behavior Helpline: Contact Our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within seven days, but responses may take up to two weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, but it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Please visit our website for a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

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