Understanding Dog Behavior with Elizabeth Miller

I'm Elizabeth Miller, the proud owner of Grooming by Elizabeth, located in the town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. You may know me from my Instagram handle, ‘liz.the.groomer.' 

My first grooming experience was at 9 years old with my Arabian mare, Gemini. Living on 20 acres of land, I was their self-appointed groomer. And that upbringing definitely impacted my understanding of animals today. Eventually, I moved to New England and became a certified groomer, working in tandem with an animal behaviorist who fostered high-risk cases. I helped her on the grooming side, and we successfully rehabilitated a handful of dogs together, which has been my favorite part of my career so far. After some time exploring other careers, grooming found its way back to me. When I saw the opportunity to start my own grooming business, I went all in and never looked back. 

Through all my experience, I have become an expert in understanding dog behavior and using this knowledge to form quality relationships with my fur clients and all the animals in my life. In this article, I’ll share some insights you can apply to your animal relationships. 

Recognizing Subtle Signs of Stress

Grooming sessions can be a vulnerable experience for dogs, and they often communicate their feelings through a complex language of body cues. While most groomers are well-versed in recognizing obvious signs of discomfort, such as shaking, drooling, lip-licking, and constant panting, my journey has led me to focus on the subtle indicators that can sometimes lead to dangerous situations.

Among these subtleties, one of the riskiest is the sudden pause in panting and complete stillness. It's almost like the calm before the storm. This sudden halting of movement is typically accompanied by immediate tenseness throughout the dog's body and, if you're quick enough to notice, a subtle lip curl. These cues can happen in seconds, and learning them can save you from serious injury.

Responding to Stress

My response to these subtle cues varies depending on the specific situation, but my overarching goal is to ensure the safety and well-being of both the dog and myself.

Preventing Bites: If I sense that a dog may be inclined to go for the tool or my hand, I take immediate action to protect us both. Using muzzles, e-collars, or belly bands becomes necessary on some occasions. But I rarely tether, as this can ignite a huge fear arousal. Employing these tools should always be done with the utmost care and consideration.

Assessing Safety: Simultaneously, I assess whether it’s safe for the pet and myself to continue with the groom. If I believe it's safe to proceed, I opt for a brief break to soothe the dog with an ear massage, speaking in a soft, reassuring tone. I let them protest but ensure that I always maintain gentle contact, proceeding in small, manageable increments to complete the task without resorting to physical restraint.

It's important to note that extreme reactions, such as alligator rolling, frenzied attempts to remove their muzzle with their paws, or displaying bloodshot and bulging whale eyes, are not the protests I'm referring to. In such severe scenarios, it becomes imperative to involve veterinarians, trainers, and the pet parent for the safety of both the pet and the groomer.

Elizabeth Miller understanding dog behaviour

Use a soft, reassuring tone and work in small, managemeble increments.

Understanding Tail Language

Dogs often communicate their emotional state through the position and movement of their tails.

  • Neutral, Relaxed Tail
  • A dog with a tail held neutrally and in a relaxed manner typically signals that all is well. It's an encouraging sign that the grooming session is proceeding smoothly.

  • Light Tail Wag
  • Witnessing a tail that wags lightly at intervals fills me with joy. It's a subtle confirmation that I'm doing a good job and that the dog is content with the grooming process.

  • Tail Tuck
  • On the flip side, the tail tuck tells a ‘tale.’ It’s a clear indicator that the dog is experiencing discomfort or fear. This cue can escalate into more reactive behaviors if not addressed appropriately. When I notice a tail tuck, it signals me to slow down and be acutely aware of my body positioning in relation to the dog's mouth as I navigate different areas of their body. In response, I offer plenty of loving reassurance through my voice and gentle touch.

    Additionally, I've observed a less commonly known behavior: the "happy" whining paired with a speedy tail wag. While this might initially seem like a sign of joy and excitement, it actually indicates overstimulation and anxiety. In such cases, it's crucial to maintain a low tone and a calm demeanor, as excessive excitement can lead to an overwhelmed dog.

    Interpreting Vocal Cues

    Dogs communicate through vocalizations, and groomers must become proficient in interpreting these cues to gauge a dog's comfort level during grooming.

    For example, some dogs resort to "roo-roo" sounds when they are unhappy or uncomfortable. These vocalizations may appear endearing, but they convey distress and dissatisfaction with the grooming process. It's essential for groomers to discern the underlying cause of such vocalizations. I've encountered clients like one of mine, who begins her "roo-roos" if she doesn't get to go outside immediately upon arrival. She is perfectly amenable to every aspect of the grooming process as long as she's not kept waiting. To accommodate her, I ensure I'm fully prepared when she arrives, with all grooming products ready to go.

    This ability to decode vocal cues applies broadly, especially in grooming salons that use crates, where barking dogs are common. It's important to consider that dogs' vocalizations are their way of communicating their needs and discomfort. While we may find some of these vocalizations amusing or cute, they are not intended to be either. My mission is to prevent dogs from feeling the need to vocalize their discomfort during grooming.

    Building Trust and Positive Experiences

    One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is the opportunity to build trust with the dogs I groom. This trust is evident through specific behaviors and moments that signify comfort and relaxation:

    The 'Falling-Asleep-During-Grooming' Dog: Imagine a dog so comfortable during grooming that it falls asleep with its head cradled in your palm while you work. This is a testament to the trust that has been nurtured over time. When this happens, I let them snooze while squealing inside. And when they wake, I give them low-toned praise and a mini head massage. I maintain consistency in their routine to reinforce their positive experience.

    The Precious Kiss: In some heartwarming instances, dogs initially struggling with grooming will offer a tiny, stolen kiss on your hand as you work. Responding with gratitude and praise reinforces the trust they've developed. I can't help but be touched by these gestures.

    The Gaze of Understanding: For anxious and avoidant dogs, one pivotal moment stands out—the instant they lift their head to make eye contact with you. This simple act signifies a shift in their perception of the grooming process. They're beginning to understand that you're not there to harm them but to help. I make sure to pause everything, speak to them softly, and acknowledge their progress. 

    These moments of trust and relaxation are invaluable in working with dogs who may have initially been fearful or apprehensive about grooming. They serve as proof that with patience, empathy, and skilled handling, even the most anxious dogs can learn to tolerate and, eventually, enjoy the grooming process.

    Elizabeth Miller understanding dog behaviour

    If a dog gives you a little smile, or sweet kiss it reinforces trust they've developed.

    Addressing Avoidance and Escape Behaviors

    Some dogs may exhibit avoidance or escape behaviors during grooming, particularly in the early stages of their grooming journey. My approach to managing these behaviors is centered on fostering trust and security.

    Loop extenders are indispensable tools for managing dogs that attempt to escape or avoid grooming. These extenders allow me to create a sense of containment without applying excessive tension. When introducing the loop, I ensure that it's adjusted gradually so the dog can adapt to the feeling of gentle restraint. This measured approach communicates to the dog that the grooming table is a secure place where they can relax. Using a loop extender with minimal tension initially is particularly effective in helping dogs adjust and eventually cooperate.

    Regardless of the loop style employed, ensure that the loop is correctly positioned and doesn't impede the dog's comfort. By constantly moving the loop to prevent panic and discomfort, I create an environment where the dog can relax. It's important to note that under no circumstances do I leave a dog unattended on the grooming table, as this could lead to serious injuries.

    Tips for Aspiring Groomers

    For those embarking on a career in dog grooming, here are some essential tips to navigate the world of canine body language effectively and respond empathetically:

  • Communication with Pet Guardians
  • Establish open lines of communication with pet guardians to gain insight into their dog's history and unique needs. Understanding a dog's past grooming experiences can be instrumental in crafting a positive grooming journey.

  • Empathy and Respect
  • Treat every dog with empathy, respect, and care. The golden rule is simple: treat them how you’d want to be treated. Ask yourself, “If I was old and arthritic, how would I want someone to do this to me?”

  • Observe and Adapt
  • Develop your skills in reading a dog's body language by keenly observing their cues. Be adaptable in your approach, tailoring your grooming techniques to each dog's unique personality and comfort level.

  • Meet Them Where They Are
  • When encountering a dog that consistently sits down during bathing or drying, consider adjusting your approach to work with their behavior rather than against it. This may involve bathing and drying every bit of them that’s exposed first. Don’t wrestle them to stand the whole time. 

  • Trust Your Instincts
  • Sometimes, despite your training and experience, something about a particular dog's handling technique may not feel right. It's crucial to trust your instincts. If something doesn't sit well with you, explore alternative approaches that prioritize the dog's comfort and safety.

    Unique Body Language Cues by Breed

    In my extensive grooming experience, I've come to recognize that different breeds may exhibit unique body language cues. These breed-specific behaviors add another layer to the complex language of dogs.

    Elizabeth Miller understanding dog behaviour

    Understanding dog behavior allows you to establish a deeper connection.

    For example, Schnauzers are known for their happy personalities and are generally quite comfortable on the grooming table, but they’ll betray you instantly if you touch their legs wrong. Recognizing this breed-specific trait, I approach leg grooming with extra care and patience. 


    With Chihuahuas, it’s important to move swiftly and nonchalantly, as they are hyper-sensitive to your behavior. I don’t pause with these breeds or take photos during my sessions, and I work quickly while positioning my body away from their head. Each individual is different, but I find out if they need silence or want me to talk through it all and make sure they feel secure. 

    Certain breeds, such as Huskies and Shiba Inus, tend to be more vocal in their protests. This vocal behavior often stems from their intelligence and independent personalities. Understanding that these breeds may be inclined to express their displeasure vocally during grooming sessions helps me tailor my approach, ensuring that their needs are met while maintaining safety and comfort.

    Impact on the Grooming Experience 

    Understanding dog behavior has a profound impact on the entire grooming experience. Beyond the fact that I don’t have a single client I dread to see on my schedule, my deep understanding assures my clients (and myself) that I’m able to deliver a service that improves and enhances the dog's experience. 

    The majority of the clients I groom are now very tolerant to the grooming process. With them, I’m able to notice subtle changes in behavior and alert their family if something seems off. This can be vital in identifying any underlying issues as early as possible, and it’s the number one reason why becoming fluent in dog body language is so valuable.

    Incorporating Doglyness into My Practice

    Throughout my career, I've encountered numerous grooming products and brands, but none have made an impression quite like Doglyness. 

    My introduction to the brand occurred when Lisa Hart and Linky’s Pet Parlour graced my Facebook newsfeed. Both groomers were posting about Doglyness, and speaking with such conviction that it piqued my interest. Once I saw the price I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to use it, but after seeing consistent gorgeous grooms by groomers I admire. More from Lisa Hart and Jenny Mann, Kenny Leakan with House of Wolves, the Great Jess Rona… paired with the transparency, ultra premium quality, sustainable and compostable packaging… I thought about it almost obsessively every time I bathed a dog.

    I made the decision that Doglyness would likely take the place of every product I used; every medicated shampoo, every degreaser, every scissoring spray. And with the high dilution ratio of the products, I trusted they would last. Beyond that, I wanted to know that if a dog developed a skin condition, my services wouldn’t be the cause and that every plastic jug I emptied wouldn’t hurt the planet. 

    Turns out, I was right about it all. It was the best decision I ever made for my business. 

    Elizabeth Miller Understanding dog behavior

    Elizabeth Miller exclusively uses Doglyness products in her salon.

    In summary 

    Understanding and responding to canine body language is the cornerstone of my grooming practice. With everything I do, how I run my business, the products I use, and the content I create, I am on an intentional mission to bridge the gap between pet guardians and groomers (and, honestly, between groomer and groomer, too). I feel it’s my duty to share my business background and perspectives to help groomers find their voice and help pet parents feel involved and educated. I believe in all of us to set a new foundation that makes our industry one of the best and most harmonious in the world. 

    If you can approach everything you do with love, then it already is. 

    Written by Elizabeth Miller

    Find Elizabeth on Instagram at Liz.the.groomer