Grooming Difficult Dogs: Sedation or Behavior Modification?

Updated on December 28, 2015
Dog sedatives for grooming
Dog sedatives for grooming | Source

What Dogs Need Sedatives for Grooming?

If you own a fractious dog, you may be wondering what sedatives you can give him to make him feel better being groomed. A lot of careful considerations though are needed before deciding to go this route, as there are several options. Questions to ask yourself before asking your vet for sedatives are the following:

  • Has your dog always been this way? If not, you may want to consider evaluating a bit what may have happened. Can it be your dog has an ear infection or other form of pain that makes him irritable to being touched? Have you changed groomer?
  • Have you tried different groomers? At times, another groomer may be more patient than another or have some extra ideas up their sleeves to help your dog's grooming session go smoother.
  • Have you tried grooming your dog yourself? Some dogs are less nervous in their homes and more comfortable being touched by their owners than a stranger.
  • Has your dog ever exhibited aggressive displays when being groomed?
  • Does your dog belong to a breed that necessitates continuous grooming?
  • Does your dog get incredibly anxious?

Generally, sedatives should be used as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted and in those particular cases, where the dog is affected by severe anxiety that doesn't respond to behavior modification or when there are risks for defensive biting.

Types of Sedatives for Dog Grooming

If you have already tried several options and find that yes, your dog undeniably needs sedatives then you will need to see your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist for the most appropriate drug. While deciding which type of drug to be used is out of the spectrum of this article and should be strictly at your vet's discretion, having worked alongside veterinary behaviorists and regular veterinarians I would like to point out a few common cases.

  • Benadryl

Several veterinarians that don't feel comfortable prescribing certain drugs or don't deem them necessary, may decide to try a lighter drug first. One drug of choice is often plain Benadryl.- Benadryl, also known as "Diphenhydramine" is an over-the-counter antihistamine. It's mainly used for allergies and for motion sickness. When this drug is prescribed for anxiety, it's use is based on this drug's ability to cause sedation and lethargy. If you have taken Benadryl before, you may be aware of its "drowsy" effects that make you sleepy. This is why when you take this drug it says to not take it when " driving, or operating heavy machinery'"

The common dosage of Benadryl in dogs is 0.5 to 2 mg per pound. Several dogs appear to be much calmer with this drug and owners report improvement. However, as much as this drug seems to cause lethargy, its effects are not that potent as to making the anxiety completely go away in several fractious dogs. "To learn more about Benadryl for dogs click here."

  • Melatonin

Some vets may recommend trying melatonin as an extra-label drug. This drug is also available over the counter and is known to have mild sedative effects. However, just as with Benadryl it may not work in cases of severe anxiety.

  • Acepromazine

After trying Benadryl or melatonin with poor results, some vets recommend Acepromazine next. Now, this is a much more potent drug, but with more potency comes a higher chance for side effects. This drug may cause what is known as a a paradoxical reaction, which means it causes the opposite of what the drug is designed to do. In this case, instead of alleviating anxiety, your dog may become hyperactive and even aggressive!

  • General Anesthesia

For severe cases, the dog may need to be put under general anesthesia for the grooming. Of course, this is done at the vet's office. This is often done in cases of overly fractious dogs or when there may be pain or the need for the dog to remain immobile for extended periods of time. A fractious dog or cat full of painful mats may do better being placed under than being forced to remain immobile and feel pain for quite some time.

Note: These of course, are all drugs that need to be given under the strict guidance of your vet! Don't attempt to self-medicate your dog; it can be dangerous!

Warning: no groomer should administer sedatives to your dog unless a vet prescribed the drug for that particular animal. Doing so is in breach of the law!

Calming Aids

VetriScience Laboratories Composure for Dogs, 60 Soft Chews
VetriScience Laboratories Composure for Dogs, 60 Soft Chews

Composure for dogs is available in a chicken liver-flavor bite-sized chew and can be used either for immediate support or on a daily basis for ongoing support.


Calming Aids, Alternatives to Drugs for Grooming

Need to groom your dog, but not too eager in having your vet prescribe drugs? After all, drugs can give side effects as you may know and won't go to the root of the problem. Studies reveal that drug therapy is rarely curative by itself and in most cases is only indicated as ancillary therapy in a behavior modification program. So perhaps you may find some natural calming aids a better option.

Calming aids are simply aids that help your dog feel less anxious, just enough to open the lines of learning a bit. A calming aid I have recommended to clients often is "Thundershirt". You can read more about this here: Thundershirt for Dog Anxiety

Other calming aids are products such as " Dog Composure" an over the counter calming chew by VetriScience. Some owners claim these tablets have helped calm their dog down. While they may not help your dog at the groomer's they are good to try for when you work on training your dog to enjoy grooming in the comfort of your home. -We will go over the process in just a bit-.

DAP collars which contain calming "Dog Appeasing Pheromones" may also be helpful. You can either try the collar, the spray or the diffuser.

Now, again, of course these calming aids may not work for the grooming session at the groomer, but they might work with behavior modification you can start at home and at your own pace. Let's take a look at how I work on fractious dogs to make grooming more acceptable.

How to Teach a Dog to Enjoy Grooming Through Behavior Modification

My behavior modification protocol for dogs anxious of being groomed entails 3 steps:

1) use calming aids versus drugs
2) desensitization
3) counter conditioning

We already saw the calming aids, so now let's move on to the process of getting a dog used to be groomed and even enjoying it on top of that. But first let's look at some basic facts;

When drugs do not work, it's most likely because your dog's anxiety is very high -(try taking benadryl if you are terrified of heights, it won't work) When your dog's anxiety is very high it means your dog is over threshold. In other words, he is so anxious he may be panicky, panting, unable to take treats, thinking about fleeing or fighting (biting). Here is an article about dogs being over threshold: Understanding Dog Threshold

When a dog is over threshold, learning cannot take place. Your dog therefore, cannot learn to accept grooming if he is too scared. This creates a vicious cycle which is why you see many dogs rely on drugs for their grooming sessions for the rest of their lives. The fact is at a chemical level when a dog is scared, his brain is bombarded with norepinephrine, epinephrine -aka adrenaline- and cortisol. These chemicals interfere with learning. To help him learn, you will therefore need to take the "edge off" a bit. Here is a guide on how dog behavior and dog brain chemistry interfere with a dog's ability to cognitively function and how drugs may help in some cases, but how important it is to work on behavior modification: Dog Brain Chemistry:Drugs versus Dog Behavior Modification

Now let's move on to the other components to change behavior. Desensitization: this is a process where you make fear less intense in your dog through very, very gradual exposure. Please read this guide to learn more how this process works: Dog Desensitization

The process of desensitization does not typically work too well, unless you boost with another method of behavior modification known as counterconditioning. Basically, this process entails, changing your dog's emotional response towards grooming. If say, your dog is scared of the brush and the sight of it makes him shake, then you will make him love the brush, and the sight of it may make him happy. Here is how this process works:
Dog Counter-Conditioning

Now, let's put every thing together: you would therefore first start using a calming aid of your choice to help take the edge off. This can be a calming chew, a DAP collar or a Thundershirt. or Anxiety Wrap. Next, you would start using desensitization and counterconditioning. To make it easier, following are some articles that give detailed step-by-step instructions on how to accomplish all that:

So say your dog is scared of the brush because he associates it with grooming and all other unpleasant feelings, you would start by introducing it gradually and creating new positive associations:

Get into the habit of putting the brush into your pocket and taking it out casually every now and then. Put the brush in the middle of the room and give Rover some high-value treats every time he looks at it, gets close to it or sniffs it Then, put the brush in your pocket and the treats are put away. With time, Rover should learn learned to positively associate the brush with treats.

Every time you feed your dog food, show him the brush and placed it next to his food bowl. When he finishes eating, the food bowl and the brush are put away. After a few days, you should ''Pavlov's law'' in effect: he should start drooling or looking at the brush happily as it signals treats are coming!

Then you can progress, gradually and systematically. get the brush out of your pocket, pass it quickly on his back, then give a treat. Put the brush away, and no more treats. Repeat several times, so it's clear in his mind that passing the brush gives him a treat. Don't overdo it. When the brush is put away, the treats are put away.

Afterward, brush a bit more gradually every day increasing the brushing more and more. If at any time he seems uncomfortable, you are going too quick for his comfort, so go back a few steps and start again.

Once, Rover is calmer about being brushed you can work on other things you commonly do when he gets groomed, bath, nail trims etc. Then as he progresses on those, you can have a friend come over and mimic to be a groomer and place him on a table and do the whole process with the brush and treats. Once clients do the whole process they find they can do a good part of the grooming themselves and let the groomer just do a few other things!

So basically it's your choice: you can ask your vet for a stronger drug that sedates your dog more but may cause side effects, or you can work on the whole behavior modification process that takes longer but works on the underlying problem. Please always make safety top priority; invest in a muzzle and the aid of a dog behavior specialist-see disclaimer below-.

Disclaimer: this article is not supposed to be an alternate to professional dog behavior advice. If your dog is fractious or aggressive when being groomed, don't try this on your own, but rather employ the aid of a certified applied animal behaviorist or a board certified veterinary behaviorist.

Alexadry © All rights reserved, do not copy

An example of how to train a dog to enjoy having his toenails trimmed.

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    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 14 months ago from USA

      Nilsa, only your vet should sedate for a grooming.

    • profile image

      Nilsa 14 months ago

      Can you provide a list of groomers that can sedate

    • profile image

      my dog is so gental till grooming and nail cutting she was a rescue puppy love her to bits really upsets me when i av to help with hair cutting and nail cutting 16 months ago

      my dog is gentle until she as her hair cut or nails clipped it upsets me when i have to intervine and she senses it i rescude her at 5 mth old from kennels she is 8 now

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