In July, shortly after the Fourth, I started a job as a bather and apprentice groomer at a local grooming shop. Almost since attending my first dog show I wanted to be a groomer. But, as I grew up, and my life moved on, I never made it to grooming school. I learned to trim my dogs from my mom and another long-time breeder when I lived in California. I developed some skills over the years, but never enough to think of myself as a real groomer. As I entered the shop on that first day, my dream of becoming a groomer seemed attainable.
I kept my new job to myself for about a week, then I called a friend who is a real groomer and blurted out how much I loved working in the salon. Her support and encouragement give me the courage to stick it out when sometimes I feel overwhelmed. As the weeks fly by, I have learned that I know even less about grooming a dog than I thought I did. Not all dogs are like the show dogs I am used to working on, standing for hours if asked and not moving. Watching Carol, the salon owner, work on a dog is inspiring. She has a Zen-like quality about her as she wrestles with an elderly Shih Tzu to trim her nails. This senior citizen may be old, blind, deaf and generally decrepit, but she still bites! Carol has told me she wasn’t sure if I would work out. She is suspicious of show people, although she showed her own Belgian Tervuren bitch to her championship. Show people are usually too snobbish to nod in agreement when a customer asks if their Shih Tzu isn’t cuter shaved down than sporting all that hair like they’ve seen in dog shows on TV.
Some of my show friends snorted when I told them of my new opportunity. More than one has asked me just what could I learn from a pet groomer. The question seems so absurd I hardly know what to say. So what can you learn from a pet groomer? Here is what I have learned: People love dogs. They love their dogs most of all. However, they don’t always take the time to care for them. For every well-bred show Bichon or Poodle, there are legions of these fluffy, non-shedding dogs of less auspicious origins. There are Bichons with two-inch legs and a coat the texture of a Berber carpet. Poodles of all colors and neuroses. There are obese Labs who enter our door with their slender, toned owners who could never imagine themselves using a hose on their dog in their very own driveway. Then there are the puppy-mill money makers. Those marvels of entrepreneurial creativity: the Doodles. Commercial breeders couldn’t make money selling pure bred Poodles, Labs or Goldens, so they cross-bred them, devised a touching story just ripe for internet marketing and proceeded to rake in the dough. Each one of these bastard canines is different, but the same. Some more Poodle, some more Lab or Golden. All are large, heavily coated and not at all what the owners expected when they picked up their furry pet at six weeks of age. Pet groomers bring beauty and dignity to these dogs. Some dogs confound us with their origins. And we take a few minutes to guess who’s his daddy? Pet groomers make each owner feel his dog is as wonderful as any Westminster winner. Sometimes getting a bath and a trim are all that keeps the dog in his home. It renews interest in a pet that is no longer young, playful or cute.
Pet groomers touch every inch of their canine clients. Often noticing wounds and detecting illnesses the owners never see. I am learning that no matter how much patience you believe you have, it is never quite enough to deal with a terrified, 15 pound Chihuahua that doesn’t want a bath. Pet groomers know when to step back, take a deep breath and finish the job. In the salon where I work, there is no shouting, jerking or shaking the dogs. I have learned that a quiet demeanor, showing no reaction no matter what the four legged client does, gets the job done quicker and with less stress on everybody.
Our show dogs are put up on the grooming table, brushed and trimmed beginning at three weeks. Add to this the ear setting process and you have twelve week old puppies that are easy to groom and understand that this is part of life. Pet groomers are often the only ones who ever brush or bathe the family dog. Even with a soft touch, patience and kindness, many of these pets never learn to enjoy the spa experience. They come into the salon trembling and whining at five months old and die at fourteen hating every minute of it. The best you can do is establish a detaunt with the beast. They agree not to bite you and you agree to take as little time as possible to make them look presentable.
Pet groomers know perfection in grooming is not the goal. I have learned that standing in our set-up, working on our single dog for two hours prior to ring time would be a luxury in the salon. We have two hours to brush out, bathe, dry and trim each dog. This is about all most dogs can stand. And what about those wacky styles pet groomers insist upon? Don’t they know a Yorkie has a full drop coat and a Bichon is never shaved with a 5 blade? Who ever heard of a “Teddy Bear trim” on a Wheaten? Like most show people, I used to think pet groomers really didn’t know the proper trim for each breed. I have learned that “correct” trim is less important that making each human client happy. Pet owners don’t care that putting a face full of hair and a round fuzzy head on a Wheaten makes show breeders cringe. They just want their beloved pet to look like the cute puppy he once was. If you doubt this is true, ask anyone who has his dog groomed to describe how they want their dog to look. They will tell you “puppy cut”, “Teddy Bear”, and the ubiquitous “baby dog” look on an 85 pound Golden Doodle. Pet owners want their dogs to be forever cuddly and it’s the pet groomer’s job to turn the clock back even if the “puppy” in question is twelve.
Every Saturday, the last day in the week our salon is open, I review what I have learned. Since my first day in July, I have become more efficient in bathing dogs of all shapes and sizes. Reading each dog’s body language and using mine to control our four-legged visitors is something very empowering and makes me safer and more effective. If you look at the demeanor of many pet groomers you see strength that comes from the trust these dogs have in their groomer. I notice I am working more quickly when I have to shave a dog down. And though I still struggle with nail cutting, I am making progress. I learn each week that people love their dogs enough to care where they are groomed and by whom. I can tell no one considers me competent to make a pampered Maltipoo clean and shaved down when the owner asks me if Carol will be in soon. Someday, in the not so far off future, I hope our clients will have the trust in me they lack now.
So what can you learn from a pet groomer? Patience, love, respect, tenacity, kindness and caring. Throw in volumes of canine behavioral knowledge, human psychology and an artistic eye. The real question should be, “what can’t you learn from a pet groomer?”