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Grooming Difficult Dogs: Sedation or Behavior Modification?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dog sedatives for grooming

Dog sedatives for grooming

Dog Sedative for Grooming

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

  • 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 another form of pain that makes him irritable to being touched? Have you changed the 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. They should be used in 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 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.


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, its use is based on the 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 as potent as to make the anxiety completely go away in several fractious dogs.


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.


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 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.

Calming Aids and 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. In most cases, it 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."

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.

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 Brush a Dog Who Hates to Be Brushed

My behavior modification protocol for dogs anxious of being groomed entails three 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 being 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). Your dog may be over his threshold level.
  • 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 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.

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 about how this process works.

The process of desensitization does not typically work too well, unless you boost with another method of behavior modification known as counter-conditioning. 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. Read this guide to see how this process works.

Now, let's put everything 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. Here are some tips:

  • Many dogs do better with short and sweet sessions rather than prolonged ones. So every day do a few short sessions (like 2-3 minutes at the most the first few days) and gradually increasing them over the course of several days.
  • Create positive associations with the brush. Start by introducing brushing gradually and creating new strong positive associations. So for instance, I would keep the brush in my pocket or behind my back and would take it out casually every now and then during the day.
  • Every time your dog sees or sniffs the brush, feed him a tasty high-value treat. Look for small, bite-sized treats that make the point without filling your dog too much. Then, put the brush back in your pocket and no more treats. You want to make it clear that treats are contingent on the presentation of the brush. Do this several times for a few days. After a few days, you should ''Pavlov's law'' in effect: your dog may start drooling or looking at the brush happily as it signals treats are coming!
  • Progress, gradually and systematically. Get the brush out of your pocket, pass it quickly on an area you know your dog likes to be pet, while you give him 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 also put away. Continue progressing for gradually longer and longer times carefully watching his comfort level.
  • Once you progress, you should be able to upgrade to giving the treat no longer while being groomed but a little after. So while before you were feeding him with one hand, while simultaneously brushing with the other, you should now be able to brush him for a couple of strokes and give the treats right after the 2 strokes. You can build on this by gradually increasing the number of strokes but never make them increasingly predictable. For instance, if you do 2 strokes, then treat, 3 strokes, then treat, 4 strokes then treat, your dog may come to understand that time he is being brushed is getting increasingly longer, and he may therefore come to dread it.
  • Instead, go variable. Give 1 stroke, then treat, give 3 strokes then treat, give 2 strokes then treat, give 4 strokes then treat, give 1 stroke then treat. Remember, 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 positive associations have been made, you can then switch from high-value treats to using his kibble if he likes it. That way, you can use a portion of his meal for rewarding him for being brushed and don't have to worry about too many calories. There are also treats now that have very low calories if you want to continue using treats.
  • Brush your dog more frequently. I have noticed that the longer time goes between brushing, the higher the chances for painful knots to form in the coat, and this is not good in a sensitive dog who doesn't like to be brushed. If there are knots that are easy to districate, you may be better off trying to detangle them very gently while you are petting him and talking to him in a soothing tone rather than attempting to remove them with the brush so to not impact your hard work in creating positive associations.
  • Another option you may have is to use a glove brush (like the 'grooming glove") and wear it when you are petting him. Chances are, he may come to accept it better because it wears like a glove and makes dogs feel as if they are being petted. Talk to him in a soothing tone and praise him Of course, if he seems to dislike that, I would not use it so to avoid a setback.
  • 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.

Training a Dog to Enjoy Having His Toenails Trimmed

For Further Reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 12, 2020:

Rosina, if the fear is mostly due to the noise of the clippers, if she will hold still, you can try to give her a nice cut with just comb and scissors and have a helper feed her treats or you can try to feed them every now and then. Look online as there are many video tutorials for many dog breeds, but of course, make safety paramount. If your dog may bite, use a muzzle and if she panics you need to be very careful with scissors. You may need to groom a little bit at a time each day. If you cannot do this safely, it might be best waiting for your vet to start taking regular appointments.

Rosina Morgan on May 11, 2020:

My Yorkshire terrier called meecha she aged almost 8 has never liked her hair cut she does not like the noise of the clippers always had be sedated cost me a fortune at the vet they cut her hair short as possiblw because of the amount money i pay i live in glasgow but my vet woylnot take her becauethey are only doing emergency calls any suggwstions,would be appreciated u am on my own and can't do it my

Louise89 on March 18, 2020:

Very helpful, thank you.

Flo welsh on August 03, 2018:

Great artical.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 10, 2016:

Nilsa, only your vet should sedate for a grooming.

Nilsa on November 10, 2016:

Can you provide a list of groomers that can sedate

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 on September 17, 2016:

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