Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Grooming Table

Teaching new skills and socializing Melissa to the many things she will be (and has already been) exposed to in her life has gone smoothly for the past 10 months. Until now. We have hit a little stumbling block with the grooming table.

I didn't expect Melissa to immediately jump up onto the grooming table, it is 24 inches high. My plan was to have her walk up a two step platform onto the table. She does stairs, I figured this would be easy. She stopped after putting two feet on the platform. We walked away and tried again, she balked once more.

Ok, plan B. I removed the two step platform and lifted her two front feet onto the table, she was relaxed. I then went to lift her two back feet onto the table. Nope, no way. She just moved her front feet back onto the ground. We tried again, same scenario. I tried approaching the table from a different angle, same result. Melissa was beginning to get a bit tense, her body was no longer relaxed.

My puppy who was willing to try just about anything was bothered by the grooming table. Was it the table itself? The feel of the rubber matting on the table? Was it the two step platform that put her off in the beginning? What was she unsure about? She has gone on wobbly metal docks at the lake, she has been introduced to the dogwalk, the A-frame, and the seesaw in agility with no problems. These pieces of agility equipment were introduced at a low height, and gradually raised. She jumps onto a 20 inch agility table. She sits and downs on it.

Was it the 4 inches in height different that was causing Melissa to hesitate to go onto the grooming table?

Was it the fact that the agility (pause) table was square and the grooming table rectangular? Was it so visibly different? Was it a combination of all these factors?

In Temple Grandin's book Animals in Translation she talks about how animals perceive things we may not necessarily see. A puddle of water may be something to fear, or a rafter over head may catch an animals eye and they balk at the task at hand. The old school of thinking was that a dog who refused to do something was 'blowing their owner off' or the dog was being 'spiteful' or 'dominant'. The newer scientific based way of thinking is not to force our animals but rather to break the skill down into tiny segments and reward for the behavior we want to see repeated. By using these humane, non-force methods in training, animals are willing to try new things. They are not afraid of being hurt or reprimanded. And best of all, by using reward based methods which are kind and humane, we continue to develop a trusting relationship with our animals.

My goal for Melissa was to be totally relaxed on the table for grooming, as my other dogs are. With a coat like Puff, who is pictured, being raised up a bit certainly makes it easier on my back!

So onto Plan C: Shaping Melissa to move onto the grooming table. The abbreviated definition of shaping is to break the skill into tiny increments, allowing the dog (or horse, or gorilla or elephant) to offer a movement towards the final goal. The animal is rewarded at each step of the way for offering a tiny approximation towards the final goal. The animal is motivated to offer behaviors in this relaxed type of training atmosphere.
1) I moved the grooming table to a different area so Melissa would not associate the training session with her previous refusal. What ever caused her the refusal is still unknown, I wanted to start fresh. Onto the center of the lawn the table went.
2) I did not use the two step platform. The grooming table was lowered, the legs which folded under allowed the table to be a mere 3 inches from the ground. I put a towel near the legs to prevent any movement of the table. Melissa is used to movement from a low seesaw in agility, but I still wanted to take this factor out of the equation.
3) I then gathered my container of treats, my clicker and a hungry Melissa (we usually train before meals). We approached the table, Melissa just looked at it, and I clicked and treated...the first tiny segment towards the final goal. She looked again, click/treat. She took a step closer to the table c/t.

Melissa understood the shaping game. It is how she is learning to stay in 'heel position' at my left side, it is how she learned to stand still in the breed ring for an exam. I have shaped her to pick up an object from my hand, go to a mat and give paw.

Our first session with the grooming table progressed quickly. Melissa soon was putting two feet on, then 3 feet. She was clicked and treated for each tiny increment towards our final goal. The lead always stayed slack. Melissa was motivated to offer behaviors....specifically playing a game that had something to do with the table. She was attentive and relaxed.

After two 60 second training sessions Melissa was eagerly moving onto the table with all 4 feet.

The next session will be to raise the table in height a few inches. I'll keep you posted as to our progress. In the meantime Melissa is being groomed while standing on the ground, or lying on her side, and nails are being trimmed while she lies on the couch. For more information on how to shape behaviors:


  1. With lots of highly desirable treats & praise, Pasha learned to "table" when he was just a little guy, but then the grooming table went away for a while. I suspected he would have forgotten all about it when i brought it out again to use as the step into the dog tub. Initially, he behaved much as you describe Melissa--front end up; back end up- front end down. But the dried chicken treats helped him recall what he had learned four years ago and he moved i onto the table & into his bath, which he does enjoy, with no further trouble.

  2. Thanks for writing Joy. Rewards such as praise and treats such as you used do make the learning experience pleasant for our dogs. The retention is there, sometimes we just need help them a bit to remember, as you did by taking out the dried chicken. Pasha was willing to go on the table again as he was taught using kind methods, he did not see it as an aversive, 'click' for you. I just recently obtained my grooming table, it is a new item for Melissa. Nearly 40 years of grooming Borzoi with no is so much easier when they are elevated a bit! The older dogs have had more life experiences so went on the table with me using targeting. Melissa will get it, I am being patient. If the rain stops we will practice later today.