When people ask me what my favorite kind of dog is to groom, the answer is always, “a shelter dog.” I never have to think twice about it. I love, love, love to groom shelter dogs. These sweet souls have a way of finding the people who need them the most. I have found this to be true for the groomer as much as it is for the new owner of a shelter or rescue pet.
Usually, when I first meet a shelter dog, their chins are coated with slobber from nervous drool, they have chunks of disgusting dirt and debris all matted into their faces. Their eyes are crusty and sad, and their hind ends are compacted with poop so tight you can’t even begin to imagine how they are still able to go to the bathroom. Most of the time they are trembling because they are full of fear, so all I want to do is just hold them for a while despite the dirt and poo and matted hair.
My goal is always the same: To make their outsides match their already beautiful insides. Their souls are so special and I know this passion of mine was given to me for a reason and I am grateful beyond words. They are saved, but they save me back every time I groom one of them. They always touch my heart in some way and remind me that life is beautiful even when it’s in rough shape.
It’s not just about giving a dog a haircut. When I groom a shelter dog, I have to stop and take the time to really give my heart to them. To give them what they’ve never had. Sometimes I can actually feel that moment when their soul starts to breathe and their heart gets warm maybe for the first time. They take a deep breath and their whole body just rests in my arms. Their eyes stop guarding their insides and they give me this unthinkable vulnerability that allows me to see into their soul. Sometimes it makes me sad to see what I see.
But sometimes I get to see this playful, happy energy find its way out of them and that makes me laugh. But the best feeling is when they rest their head on my shoulder. That just gives my heart unimaginable warmth and peace. Very rarely do I get to know the ending of their journey through the system; where they end up or who they are with. I just trust and have faith that they are on an amazing path of happiness and I got to be one of the first stops along the way.
There are those times, however, I get to know everything about a rescue dog I meet. I’ll share the story of Sherman the Shih-Tzu. He had been abused, neglected and had not had such a great life before his current owner adopted him. It has been a challenge over the years to get to where we are today, but completely worth every stumble.
The very first time I met him; I placed him on my table and began to pet him. Up to that point, shelter dogs I had groomed had found it comforting to have their nose bridge massaged or gently caressed. Well, unfortunately for me, Sherman did not find this action so comforting. He came after my thumb in a flash with absolutely no warning and chomped down hard, showing absolutely no mercy. This taught me that Sherman was what I classify as a “fear biter.” Meaning anytime he felt afraid or vulnerable he was going to bite—fiercely.
I was humble enough to realize I probably missed some body language clue. So, I immediately knew I was going to have to focus on the subtle to learn how to read this dog. His biting my finger hurt immensely, but what hurt more was my heart. What had traumatized him so much that he couldn’t even allow himself the pleasure of a simple nose rub? I would never know. But in that moment, I made it my mission to show him the love and compassion he was going to need to overcome his past.
His face had debris clumped into his hair by his mouth and in between his eyes. After he bit me, I decided grooming him in any sort of fashion was not going to happen that day, so his face was going to stay dirty until the next appointment. Instead, I spent my time with him trying to learn how to read him. I had put my table down as low as it would go, so I could sit at his level while he was on it. I was very careful not to make eye contact. If he happened to look at me I would look away but keep talking to him in a friendly and comforting voice. Slow and calm, no high-pitched excited puppy talk for this guy. He allowed me to slowly pet his back, but he watched my hand movements.
A few minutes passed before I saw something. A quick lick of the lips coupled with an intense sudden rigidness to his body. I missed it before because I wasn’t focused on his whole body and I had been standing above him looking down instead of directly at his face. I immediately stopped petting him. He still had his leash and harness on so I stood up and allowed him to jump off my table, which was lowered close to the floor. Then we just went on a walk.
I had come in on my day off for his appointment because I knew it was going take a lot of time patience to bring him to the other side of his fear with me. We went back inside, and I carefully picked him up and put him on my table. I sat down with him again and began to pet him. This time I only did this for about 30 seconds. I wanted to stop before he got uncomfortable. Then I let him jump down again and we went on another short walk. That was it; I called his owner to come and pick him up and we scheduled his next appointment.
The next time I saw him, I discussed with his owner my appointment plan action. I described what I would do to desensitize Sherman to the grooming equipment. I advised him that I would have to use a muzzle at first for my protection and Sherman’s. The last thing I wanted was for Sherman to bite my clippers or shears and endure a tongue or mouth injury.
The owner understood and was on board. There are proper ways to use a muzzle that can actually relieve anxiety in a dog, thus allowing the groomer to be more at ease as well. I also let the owner know Sherman was going to get a bath, but his head and face were not going to be washed until I had achieved the level of mutual trust needed to accomplish that.
It took about 2 years before I could wash his face completely. Meaning, getting all the debris and eye boogies out instead of having to shave it out after the bath. We gradually made it out of the muzzle after a year of just trimming his face around it as best I could. We spent a lot of time together on the face work. Him learning and me teaching—and me learning and him teaching. Scissoring had to be done slowly but deliberately. I was able to keep the muzzle loose enough that I could pull it forward and shave in between his eyes. All scissor work in the beginning was minimal. I needed to keep our sessions fluid and timely to keep agitation in check for the both of us, His haircuts in the beginning weren’t that great, but I was OK with that and so was his owner. The important thing was that I was determined to see progress every time. And I did.
I am still careful to be on guard for signs he is preparing to bite. With dogs like Sherman, you can’t take that out of them, you have to manage the situation and stop it before it happens. Paying attention, experience, patience and understanding are the best teachers when it comes to learning if you can keep pushing a dog or if you need to back off. I am proud and grateful to say Sherman and I have a bond today. There is no muzzle in the picture anymore and he is to the point where I can do everything I need to do to give him his best look. He lies down and sighs into relaxation when I’m trimming his face today. We’ve been in a relationship for 5 years now and it has taken every bit of that time together to get to where we are today.
Grooming shelter or rescue dogs isn’t for everyone. It takes a next level sort of patience, compassion, and determination. I always make it my mission to not give up on them. I will always do what I can to help them when it comes to their grooming needs. Sometimes we don’t get very far, but we do make progress and to me, that’s what matters. But in the cases like Sherman, you get to experience and amazing victory over fear and gain an incredible bond with a dog that adds a special source of strength in your heart.