I became a groomer by accident!
I am a compusive student, I left school with next to no education because of family issues but I love to learn so whenever I could afford to I would buy books and complete courses in any subject I was interested in. Working, living and loving dogs, of course most of them have been dog or behaviour related. So when I had a little windfall, I booked myself onto a months residential training program in dog grooming. I learned the basics of cutting and styling, then returned to my kennel job where I worked under the watchful eye of my boss while I gained confidence. Then I joined a large commercial salon where the emphasis was purely profit driven and I left never wanting to work in that way again. For the next 10 years I worked as a groomer from home on a 121 basis. In 2016 I began an 18 month course with Turid Rugaas, an education which had a profoundly life changing effect on the way I worked and lived with dogs. So it seemed like a natural choice in 2017, that my final project would focus on grooming. Identifying where stress was likely to occur and if there were any ways that I could help owners and other dog professionals relieve or remove it for the dogs they were working with. For many dogs this is a regular event in their lives, but one that is unseen by their owners and all the other dog professionals they had contact with. My first step was to find out what was happening for dogs visiting other groomers around the UK, so I started with an anonymous survey of 10 questions about the frequency of medium to high stress signs in dogs while in the grooming environment and I posted the link on the largest UK groomer facebook group. Within a few days I had over 400 responses and the results were not what I had expected. Below are a few of the examples
Because I had worked in several different environments with dogs before doing my grooming training I had not appreciated how many trainee groomers were spending thousands of pounds and months or years of hard work only to be left with huge gaps in what I regarded as essential understanding into dog behaviour, communication and needs. This has lead to serious welfare issues and hazard to both dog and groomer.
Can visiting the groomer ever be totally stress free for most dogs?
In my opinion, probably not.
There is always going to be some element of stress involved even if it is at a level the dog can manage. To put it into perspective, I don’t like visiting the hairdressers, I feel trapped and confined, they take too long, I don’t enjoy the smells or the mirrors, I feel vulnerable. My hairdresser is perfectly nice, its not uncomfortable or painful and yet still I feel stressed. Most people don’t like visiting the dentist. You feel vulnerable, its invasive, awkward, it might be uncomfortable or painful. My dentist is lovely, very gentle, the environment is calm, relaxing, there is nice music playing but none of these things remove my stress for the procedure. For most dogs the grooming process is somewhere between the hairdresser, the doctor and the dentist, its quite invasive, there is a lot of physical closeness and handling involved, there may be some discomfort. I chose to go to the dentist or to the hairdresser, I know why I need to go, our dogs don’t have that luxury.
So why do it?
If its going to be stressful why don’t we just stop doing it? For some dogs that is absolutely the right choice. Dogs with low or self maintenance coats, care givers who can learn how to do the grooming at home in small stages (done correctly this is the ideal situation!) But we are seeing a dramatic increase in the population of dogs with high maintenance coats, living with people who are not maintaining them. Matting is not just unsightly, it constitutes a serious health and welfare risk. It is uncomfortable, it impedes movement and causes pain when it is moved. It constricts the blood vessels reducing circulation, particularly to the extremities. Severe matting can cause flesh death in ears, toes and tail. The area between the pads can become stony with mud, grit and matted hair, causing painful movement and changes to the gait, increases to the risk of fungal and bacterial infections. It can conceal injuries, illnesses and foreign bodies. It prevents the normal function of the coat, it traps damp, heat, spores and parasites within. Matting around the hygiene areas can trap faeces and urine leading to infection and even flystrike. It doesn’t matter who takes responsibility for keeping the dogs coat groomed and healthy but someone has to.
A few hair and coat facts
Hair is a filament that is grown from a mini organ under the skin surface called a hair follicle. These are also a repository for the stem cells which manage the repair and regeneration of the skin layers. Dogs have compound follicles which means that each one can produce several hairs at the same time.
The coat is the name given to the mass of hair covering the body. First I will talk about the coat as it evolved from natural selection and I will talk more about breed differences later on.
The coat has several important functions,
Thorns and vegetation
Insect bites and stings
Bites from other animals
Impact trauma and cushioning
Trapping air close to the skin as part of the thermoregulatory system
Visual communication –
Piloerection (commonly described as raising the hackles)
I am just going to talk about the two main types of hair that make up the coat, but there are also a small number of tactile whiskers found mostly around the face, these are thick, stiff and banded hairs which are surrounded at their base by a cluster of nerve cells that transmit sensory information back to the brain
Down is the undercoat or secondary coat, these hairs are finer, softer and often kinked. Their job is to trap tiny pockets of air inside the coat and provide cushioning. Guard hairs are thicker, glossier, straight and longer, their job is provide a sturdy waterproof covering over the top. These are the hairs that are raised in piloerection.
Growth Cycles – the rate of growth, life span and shed of hair is controlled by
Friction or injury
Hair has a life cycle that is divided up into 4 main stages and a fifth being a relatively recent term.
Anagen – Growth
This is when new hair is grown. Dogs such as Poodles, Bichons, Maltese Terriers spend most of their time in anagen. Poodle hairs spend around 98% of their lifespan in anagen
Catagen – Regressing
The growth is stopped and the outer root sheath attaches to the hair shaft
Telogen – Rest
The hair remains stable. For most coats this is the longest phase. Cold climate breeds such as the Nordics can spend several years in this phase enabling them to conserve energy rather than expending it on continuing to regrow new coat
Exogen – Shedding
The hair falls out and the follicle moves back into an anagen phase. This is affected by seasonal and temperature changes but also by health factors
Kenogen – empty. This is a hair follicle that has passed through exogen but remains empty for a time before moving back into anagen
Down hairs generally work on a six monthly cycle, a denser crop for the winter months and a lighter one for the summer. Just like changing out your winter and summer duvets. Guard hairs have a lifespan of several years. Some are shorter, some are longer but all are subject to environmental pressures.
Follicles are at different stages all over the body for the very good reason that if you did all your shedding in one go you would be cold, wet, naked, and vulnerable for a few weeks and would have to expend a huge amount of energy on regrowing all the necessary coat. To put into perspective, some 30% of a dogs nutritional intake is spent on hair.
ref – The Hair Follicle: A Comparative Review of Canine Hair Follicle Anatomy and Physiology
Photo credit….. Dingoes – Robert Lynch,
G.Retriever -Dirk VorderstauBe, Mini Poodle – B.Hakins Miller
So having looked at function, the coats that are developed by natural selection to fit a natural purpose, we need to be aware that dogs have been subject to an intensive selective breeding process by humans who wanted to preserve and promote changes that they valued. Many of these modern breeds of dogs are now not capable of maintaining a healthy functioning coat without outside help. For example, when we look at this dingos coat we can see a strong guard coat layer and the padding that’s provided by the undercoat. Because the straight, short guard hairs allow the shedding undercoat to easily work their way out of the coat they can fall, be scratched, nibbled or rubbed out.
When we look at the Goldie, he has different length guard hairs, some waving and curling, heavy feathering and a dense undercoat. The shed hair will find it harder or be unable to work itself free of the longer and curling hairs and can become caught by the new hair growing in. So lack of care commonly leads to tangles and matting in the areas around the bottom, chest, ruff .
The Poodle ( remember they spend most of their time in active growth) has a coat that doesnt produce a seasonal shed, they gain protection and insulation by the hairs waterproof quality and tight curl. If not well maintained, the hair can become entwined back on itself on itself and mat into lumps and dreadlocks. However for the most part these breeds are fairly stable and conform to a known type from quite predictable lines so are a low to medium/high maintenance and its quite easy to get fairly accurate research about what to expect.
Then came the doodles and so called ‘designer’ cross breeds
Some common pairings are:
Poodle, Bichon, Maltese, Yorkies
Coats mostly remaining in anagen producing little to no undercoat
Cocker spaniel, Labrador, Border Collie, King Charles Cavalier Spaniel,
Dense double coats with seasonal shedding
These crosses will result in aspects of both parent breeds, in varying degrees and as many of these are opposing in form and function what commonly results is some form of long growing, dense, often curled or wavy coat which produces a seasonal shed. Often leading to the shedding hair being trapped within the curling guard hairs unless carefully manually removed. Crossbreeding leads to much less predictable results in coat types and a large percentage result in medium to high maintenance coats. In a recent survey almost half of all groomers clients were listed as poodle crosses. With price tags ranging from £800 – £4000 the demand for puppies from these crosses has been exploited by unscrupulous breeders, leading to many dogs being bred from anxious and stressed mums, in poor conditions with no attention to welfare or puppy development.
Added to this we have the intense marketing of these dogs through image based media such as instagram/ facebook etc. They are being heavily targeted towards first time dog owners, active and busy families with young children, as service or support dogs and often these people are are choosing dogs based on an image that isn’t realistic. It is extremely common for there to be a lot of distrust between doodle/ cockapoo owners or breeders and groomers, for people to be told by the breeder that they are hypoallergenic, non shedding and only need grooming a couple of times a year which I’m sure you can already see is very unlikely to be true.
In part 2 I will detail the potential causes of stress and some of the solutions I have found to be useful.
P.s. I closed my grooming business at christmas last year in order to focus on my work at The Dog Nose but I still have around 20 dogs who I will groom for the rest of their life (or the rest of mine, whichever is longer) as they would find the move to a new groomer too stressful. Like almost all of the groomers that I have ever met I love my clients dogs as my own. Grooming can be hard, dirty, often thankless and lonely and the people who are brave enough to do it deserve the support to do the best job they can xxx