When I say I am grooming obsessed, I mean I am OBSESSED. Grooming, for me, is the stamp I put on the dog. You are not a wolf, you are my MINE, and I will make you a people by making you as attractive to look at and touch as you are on the inside.
Growing up, the only time our dogs got baths (or ears done, or nails done) was when they jumped into the lake, or when they went in for their spay or neuter and the horse vet clipped their nails while they were under anesthesia. They were not badly cared for, but for my parents the idea of bathing a dog is like painting an elephant – somewhat contrary to the true nature of the dog, somehow, and to be done only in extremis. The dogs were also fed, without exception, regardless of breed, age, or health, Purina Puppy Chow.
So, of course, our dogs would leave big grimy patches on the couch and floor, and they scratched constantly, and they smelled funky, and the Shepherds (there were many) always ended up with bad hips before they died, and so on. They were well loved, very happy dogs, but they were always a little distasteful.
When I made the crazy decision to buy my first show dog, lo these many years ago, I was told to bathe her every couple of months unless she needed it before a show. I used Murphy’s Oil Soap (which I still highly recommend for smooth-coated dogs, but it isn’t exactly glamorous). And I was taught to do nails (finally!). So those dogs were always at least reasonably clean and pleasant to be around, and I was feeding raw so the coats were hard and nice, and I didn’t give it much more thought than that.
The real paradigm shift happened when Betty Ann sent me Clue. She said “Now this little bitch has some nice white markings, so you use that Sally Beauty purple shampoo once a week and she’ll just glow!” I said, “Once a WEEK? Even when she’s not showing? Even when she’s a baby? Won’t it get all soft?” And she said “She’s got a beautiful, proper coat for a Cardigan, and you can’t hurt that coat. You go ahead and bathe her and you see how pretty she is. Oh, and you need a dryer.”
So I dutifully went out and got purple shampoo and I bathed her once a week, blew her out each time, and I began to realize how incredibly addicting it was. I could bury my face in her neck any time I wanted, and it smelled like, well, old lady, but gardenias is not so bad, really. And I found myself wanting to touch her and play with her coat because it was always so clean and thick and plush. And she did in fact glow; I never let her feet get even a tiny bit stained, her ruff was deep bright white, and her merle reflected the overhead lights.
The first time I took her to a show, I realized that there was more to life than purple shampoo and a ChallengeAIR dryer. I began to wander down vendor aisles I’d never wandered before. The first time I went, five dollars for a bottle of shampoo felt like a secret and terribly rebellious act. The second time, I spent $12 on a pin brush. By the time Bronte arrived, I thought a $30 slicker was a little on the cheap side, and I could give you lectures on how proteins bonded to hair cuticles.
Bronte, who has a slightly fuller coat than Clue does (it’s still very good and harsh, but it’s a shade longer and bigger), presented a whole new challenge. Bump up the neck to show off her arch (which is indeed amazing), flatten out a couple of curls, chalk here, drab there, get every bit of it out before walking into the ring. I LOVE it. Seeing the dog’s natural correct structure enhanced by just a little va-va-voom, digging my fingers into the ruff and feeling it silky and thick all the way to the skin, just tickles me to death.
I’m happy to admit that it’s become my bit of tangible love – any time a rescue walks in the door, or a visitor comes for the week, they go straight into the tub where they get a full show-dog treatment, and on to the table for nails, then get tucked in a crate with a couple of chicken backs. I’ve been known to kidnap dogs from friends and family and take them home to bathe and groom, then return them (rather startlingly shiny and puffy) a few hours later.
I guess the short story is that if you want me to talk about grooming, heck yes I will talk about grooming.
The first thing you need to know, when you approach a grooming job (and this applies just as much to pets as show dogs) is how to get the coat going from the inside out. You cannot lay on top what does not exist from the bottom. I can use my fifteen little spray bottles and obscenely expensive brushes and get a dog shiny and de-matted, but there will be no glow or vibrance to the hair if it’s not coming from the inside out, and the hair will continue to break and get dirty and misbehave.
Therefore, the introduction:
Dog hair is VERY cool. If you think about your own hair, there’s one (sometimes two, but mostly one) hair coming out of each follicle. Dogs have multiple hairs coming out of each follicle, MANY hairs if the dog is double-coated like Cardigans.
What we perceive as differences in dog coat quality (smooth, short, wire, curly, double, etc.) are really ways that humans have figured out to change either the types of hair growing out of each follicle or the length of time each hair stays in a growth or shed cycle.
What we’d consider the most “native” (wolf-like) coat is a double coat, like Cardigans have. In a double coat, some of the hairs growing out of the follicles are hard and slick and thick. The vast majority of the hairs are very fine, kinked, and dull. The thick hairs grow longer than the fine hairs, so when you look at a dog the color and markings are the result of the thick hairs lying on top. But down below are many, many more fine kinked hairs.
The three phases of hair growth are anagen, catagen, and telogen. Think of them as growth, transition, and resting.
The thick hairs (which we call topcoat) have a long growth phase, a short transition, and then a very long resting phase. They should rest for up to a year or more; the topcoat does not change for a very long time. The fine, kinked hairs (which we call undercoat) have a shorter growth phase, a short transition, and a short resting phase. Then a new cycle begins and the old hairs are shed or pushed out by new hairs coming up. The “coat blow” is when all these old undercoat hairs are being pushed out by the new hairs; you can tell it’s coming because the undercoat doesn’t lie flat like it should. It starts to lie all askew and come closer to the surface of the coat, so you can see it through the topcoat. Black dogs start to look red or brown, merles become cinnamon-tinted, brindles look dull or light. Once the shedding phase is concluded, the coat lies flat again and you no longer see the undercoat.
The other coats are just variations on this theme. Poodle-type coats have an extremely extended growth phase, so they get up to several feet long before resting and, eventually, shedding. Wire coats have a long growth phase and also don’t quite shed normally; the old hairs do not fall out or get pushed out on their own. Humans have to pull them out for the dog, which is what hand stripping is. Smooth-coated dogs, like my beloved Danes, have very little undercoat and a shorter growth phase and resting phase. Their topcoat does not last as long as a double coated dog’s does.
What does this have to do with grooming?
Well, you need to know that daily shedding is NOT NORMAL. It’s fine for a dog to lose a few tiny hairs throughout the day, but if you have a dog who is continually losing undercoat, leaving fluff around, and *especially* if you have a dog who is continually losing topcoat and leaving long thick hairs on your couch and chair, something is wrong, nutritionally. The dog is not organizing its hair cycle normally, probably due to some vitamin deficiency, stress, or imbalance that is affecting him hormonally. You should see only extremely minimal shedding at any time except during the coat blow, and you shouldn’t see a lot of topcoat come out more than once every couple of years. The topcoat can LOOK a lot shorter because it’s all close to the body once the undercoat has been removed, but it should be long if you lift it with your fingers.
Picking on my own dogs, I’ve seen Clue lose her topcoat twice in three years. Once was after I gave her a pretty bad chemical burn by using a shampoo according to the rep’s recommendation (full-strength, and let it sit); I later found out that the groomers the same product was being sold to were being told that 20-1 was the absolute minimum dilution. I actually burned her follicles; when the hair shed out it was red and sizzled at the base. Over several weeks, she completely shed her entire topcoat until she was as short as a Beagle.
The second time her topcoat shed was after her accident. The starvation combined with the tremendous stress of the injury made her hair go haywire and within a month of the accident she was down to half an inch long again. The way I knew I had gotten her over it and on the right diet is that she finally started holding on to her coat, and it’s now maybe two inches long along her spine and an inch long on her sides; it should be at least double that.
Bronte, on the other hand, has never shed her topcoat. After it grew in through her puppy coat, it stayed. I’ve pulled BUCKETS of undercoat out of her, but the topcoat stays behind. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. She may drop her topcoat as her puppies wean, again because of the nutritional demands and the hormonal withdrawal, but she honestly may not.
SO: If you are seeing daily shedding, something’s wrong. If you’re seeing topcoat on your couch, or an entire topcoat shed more often than every couple of years, something’s wrong.
That means that the first step toward getting a coat you can live with on ANY dog, from Maltese to Mastiff, is diet. Now you know that I very, very strongly believe in a raw diet, and it does absolute miracles for coat, but if you’re feeding kibble you need to commit to tweaking it until the shedding virtually stops. That’s going to be your sign that you’ve got at least that one part of the diet correct. A good base kibble is essential, and then you typically add omega-3 oils and vitamins. I’ve got a very good thing going now with Orijen and a half-teaspoon of salmon oil every day; your mileage may vary depending on your dogs and what food you have available. But don’t give up, and don’t think that shedding is somehow just part of owning these dogs. When I am feeding raw, I have literally ZERO hair around my house except when they’re blowing coat. Nothing on the couches, nothing on the floor, nothing on their dog beds. Zip.
Once you’ve got the hair cycle straightened out, and are growing the healthiest hair out of the healthiest follicles you can get, then we move on to skin health and cleaning each hair properly. Tomorrow!