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Dog grooming takes skill, patience, love

By jim Published: February 2, 2010
This photo taken Jan. 6, 2010 shows Brodie, a golden retriever, looking over the half door entrance of the grooming room at Happy Paws in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Carole Feldman, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a busy day at the grooming salon at Happy Paws.

Sharon Malachi is finishing up with Willie, an English cocker spaniel, clipping his nails and shaving his whiskers. Next up is Belle, a springer spaniel, who needs a haircut. Then Nox, a Portuguese water dog — the breed made popular since President Barack Obama got one for his family.

Malachi moves easily from one breed to the next. "You learn from doing, from watching dog shows and reading about how they're supposed to look," she said.

Willie, a regular at the shop, doesn't seem fazed as Malachi clips and snips.

"Sometimes they're not as comfortable or used to the grooming process," she said. Part of her job is "getting them used to being on the table, being used to being touched and brushed. Eventually they do get used to it."

Malachi decided to become a dog groomer about five years ago after an "aha moment" while working in an office. She realized what she wanted to do was work hands-on with dogs.

"I always grew up with a dog," she said. "I just remember the dog leaving for a while scruffy and coming back looking cute and smelling good, and I thought that was so amazing and transforming. I just thought it was like magic when I was a kid."

She apprenticed with a master groomer to learn the craft. Some would-be groomers attend specialized schools.

"The majority learn through another groomer," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the National Dog Groomers Association. "Every day is a learning experience."

The association conducts seminars and certifies groomers who pass a written exam and test of their practical skills. But groomers are not required to have certifications to work in the field. "Pretty much anyone can call themselves a dog groomer," Malachi says.

Dog owners who want a groomer should seek out a professional if possible, said Gail Buchwald of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"You really have to know what you're doing," she said. "The appropriate equipment has to be used. It's very easy to hurt an animal if they slip or the equipment slips.'"

Some groomers, like Malachi, work out of shops. Others come to the dog's home. And some work out of mobile vans.

Toni Florence, owner of Pooches, Kitties and Kisses, a mobile salon in Washington, D.C., that brings groomers to the dogs, says that with her van "the dog gets all of your individualized, personal attention. He's not subjected to other animals, not picking up things."

Owners are welcome to stay with their dog during grooming, Florence said. Most of the time, they opt not to.

Equipment in the van includes a full-size bathtub and a grooming table. Between clients, the van is disinfected.

Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA's Adoption Center, said disinfection is critical because of the confined environment of the van. "Anything on wheels is going to have some compromised hygiene," she said.

She called home grooming ideal because the dog is in a familiar environment. For a time, she had someone come to her house and groom her dog in the bathroom. It can be costly, however.

For those who choose a shop for grooming, she advises getting recommendations from a veterinarian, family or friends, and visiting the facility.

"Take note of how it appears hygienically. Is it clean, does it smell? How do they handle dogs?" Owners should ask about a groomer's training. Does the groomer appear to like dogs?

"A good groomer should allow the client to be there and take the pet when finished," Buchwald said.

If a dog returns from a groomer and quickly picks up its normal routine, that's good, she said. If, after hours, the animal seems frightened and shows signs of stress, then you know something is wrong.

While some shops put dogs in cages after grooming, that's not the case at Happy Paws. Dogs frolic and play before and after grooming. Small dogs are on the first floor; larger dogs are upstairs. Staff members monitor them until the owners pick them up.

Stefanie Duval, owner of Happy Paws, said grooming is just one of the shop's services, which also include doggie day care and boarding. In looking for a groomer, she searched for someone who really likes dogs and has patience with them.

Malachi met the criteria. She majored in animal science in college, and worked at zoos and farms before becoming a groomer.

Only once has she ever had to turn away a dog. "It was very aggressive," she said. "It was going to hurt itself and me."

She has been nipped a few times. "It usually comes around nail time," she said. "Some dogs are not into getting their nails clipped, but it doesn't happen very often. You can kind of predict when they're getting a little upset and change your approach."

Owners can help reduce dogs' fears, said Malachi: If dogs are bathed and brushed at home, it's not so foreign an experience at the groomer's.

Why get a dog groomed?

Animals with long hair or hair that is non-shedding can get matted coats. "These mats not only are unsightly, they become unhygienic areas that can harbor bacteria. They form very tight constricting bundles of fur that will even cut off circulation," said Buchwald.

Grooming a dog can take anywhere from an hour to two hours or more, depending on the breed, size and coat condition. The cost varies by region and type of dog. At Happy Paws, grooming charges begin at $65.

Malachi begins by brushing a dog's coat to remove mats and tangles, then gives it a bath. After it dries a bit, it's time to start with the cut.

Groomers generally also clip a dog's nails, clean its ears and express its anal glands. Some also brush the dog's teeth.

Malachi grooms about six dogs a day.

"I really enjoy the variety," she said. But she acknowledged a special fondness for the standard poodle. "There are so many different styles," she said.

Sometimes people ask for the offbeat — like the owner who wanted a mohawk on the dog from head to tail.

"I try to remind myself that it's the owner's dog and their preference," Malachi said.

Tips for choosing a dog groomer, according to Gail Buchwald of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals:

—Ask for recommendations from your veterinarian, friends or family.

—Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints against the groomer.

—Visit the facility. Is it clean? How does it smell? How do they handle the dogs? Is there a lot of barking?

—Ask about the groomer's experience and how he or she learned to groom. Did the person attend a grooming school? If educated by a master groomer, who is that master groomer? Is the groomer certified?

—Does the groomer allow the owner to be present during grooming? "In general, an animal is going to be more relaxed when the owner is present," she said. However, this isn't necessarily a deal breaker, she said.

—Make sure the facility requires dogs to be up to date on vaccinations.

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