Mini comment roundup, featuring Leptospirosis vaccination, Orijen, splenectomies in dogs, and a really crazy dog-washing box

OK, I totally know how much I have sucked lately at answering comments. I am REALLY SORRY. I have no excuse; I get behind and overwhelmed with them and then I hide in a corner under a box with my fingers in my ears and pretend they don’t exist. 

But these two can’t go unanswered:

1) can you please give me ammo on why not to use lepto (here in NH)? And any of the other needless vaccines that vets promote? A friend just lost her adored 8yrRidgeback (benign spleen removal, died 24 hrs after. clinic error possibly part of it) and will get a puppy someday and I want to expose her to the latest in vaccine protocol options). She feeds raw.
Also – why did you choose Orijen? I like it, still feed raw, but keep grain-free kibbles on hand for treats and bribes and I- forgot- to- thaw lapses. There are quite a few grain-free now which is great, if the great american public would only pay attention, but it’s hard to figure the best. I heard that Wellness (Core) got sold so am suspicious. I always apprieciate your knowledge & candor.
Have you had any spleen experience? My Tuza (RR) lost hers last year, is fine, after some on-going slightly mysterious off & on symptoms. And the sire of the dog that died lost his last year and is fine. Sre splenectomies epidemic??? I’m sending out heads ups to other related puppy buyers.
When is your ETA for new house? You must be so excited at the thought!!!!
All the best -Sandra

On this very special episode of Blossom, Joanna gets to answer questions from Sandra, who is one of my fave dog people of all time and who knows more about dogs than most DOGS do. So this is quite a moment ;).

OK, first, Lepto. Lepto is honestly one of the ways I choose my vets: If a vet gets red in the face and starts talking about the fact that every dog needs lepto vaccines and how it’s our duty to protect our dogs against this terrible disease and how a puppy they saw six months ago died of Lepto, the chances I will re-book an appointment are about zero. Lepto is a disease we have PLENTY of information about, and vets have no excuse for not knowing their stuff.

Leptospirosis itself is a very icky disease. There is no question about that. I am not someone who thinks that dogs should just be allowed to get sick and get over it because that’ll help their immune systems or something; if one of my dogs was diagnosed with advanced Lepto I would go into an incredible freak-out panic and she’d be at Tufts in ICU before you could spit. Lepto tends to attack the liver and kidneys and if it is not caught in time it can be deadly. Fortunately, it is treatable with antibiotics, but the disease is rare enough that even very good vets can miss it and it can get very advanced before it’s treated. 

The nastiness of Lepto is what makes vets insist on vaccinating for it. They’ll tell you that you need to do this for the sake of the dog, just like we do shots for distemper or parvovirus. But Lepto is NOT a virus, and that’s why the vaccination picture is so unclear. It’s a bacteria. It’s actually a spirochete, which is a long skinny bacteria shaped like a twirly candy cane. Unfortunately, it’s not very sweet in what it does. 

Vaccinations against viruses are something doctors and scientists have figured out how to do REALLY well. As long as the virus is relatively stable, they can knock out a very effective, often life-long, vaccine in a few months or even weeks. Even for viruses that change frequently, like flu, they can do a surprisingly decent job of creating a rotating vaccine series. 

Viruses for bacteria are MUCH, MUCH harder to create. Bacteria are easy to kill, hard to vaccinate against. This has to do with factors that would require me to go back into my notes from Cell Biology and Immunology, and those notes THANKFULLY burned up (one of the few things I’m glad are gone, so they don’t stare at me from the shelf and mutely accuse me of things relating to the fact that my degree is currently being used to wipe dogs’ feet at the door), so I am going to condense it into “It’s really tricky and prone to failure whenever you try to vaccinate for a bacteria.”

And, frustratingly, even when you do come up with a decent bacterial vaccine, it only works for a few months. In the case of Leptospirosis, the vaccine definitely lasts under 12 months, possibly under six.

So that’s the first problem: The vaccine only works for a few months.

Second, and this is one of the other problems with bacteria, there are lots of strains of Lepto, and the current vaccines lag behind what’s actually causing outbreaks.

Outbreaks of disease tend to play leapfrog with vaccinations. What often happens is that there will be a Big Bad Situation, and into that outbreak will come our heroes, immunologists with red spandex suits and “I” on their chests. They’ll test a bunch of dogs, find that strains A and B of the Big Bad disease are causing it, and spend years developing a good vaccine against A and B. They fly back in, vaccinate a ton of dogs, and A and B will largely disappear from the population.


But… with the absence of A and B, strains C and D have lots of room to stretch their legs and have a dance party. And before you know it there’s another outbreak, this time of C and D.

Back fly our heroes, test the dogs, develop a vaccine, and everybody gets vaccinated for C and D.

Which… you guessed it… leaves room for A and B to come roaring back.

This tends to happen over a timeframe of several decades. And eventually somebody creates a vaccine with A, B, C, AND D in it, which will be hailed as a breakthrough and given to everybody, and all will be well, until a few resistant A bacteria mutate into E and F.

Where we are at with Lepto right now, as I understand what I am reading, is the recurrence of A and B, which had not been seen for years. All vaccines except some of the Fort Dodge lepto vaxes are currently only for C and D. Fort Dodge has ABCD, so that’s the only one anyone can currently recommend, except for…

The third major problem with Lepto vaccines, which are that they are associated with a TON of side effects.

Lepto vaccines have killed thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of puppies across the country. Severe reactions are seen most often in the toy breeds but nobody’s safe. The vaccine is strongly associated with anaphylaxis (a severe and fatal allergic reaction) and you can lose whole litters to it. It’s not great for adults either but they seem to be able to tolerate it at least marginally better.

The fourth problem with Lepto vaccine is not actually a problem; it’s a good thing. And that is that Leptospirosis is a rare disease and the majority of the country has zero cases per year.

The upshot of the whole thing is this:

If you are in a state that has a current Lepto problem, and your dogs are likely to be exposed  (Lepto is spread in rat urine, and some dogs are just simply never going to encounter that), the only “right” way to vaccinate is AFTER 12 weeks at an absolute minimum, using a vaccine with ALL FOUR STRAINS, and repeating EVERY SIX MONTHS. 

Has any vet ever told you that you should use a different brand? Anbody ever told you that you’d have to come back in six months for a Lepto booster? Nobody’s ever told me that. They just push the super-combo vaccine, without telling me that the Lepto they’d be giving would be largely ineffective right off the bat and would be totally ineffective in a few months. 

Bottom line: Vaccine protection against Lepto is an illusion AND it’s dangerous for your dog. If you are genuinely concerned about it and are willing to risk the vaccine, you will need to be your dog’s own best advocate and insist on frequent re-vaccination and on brand selection for all four strains.

Personally, even though there IS Lepto in Massachusetts, I won’t vaccinate for it. I keep the disease in the back of my mind and I know the symptoms (vomiting, fever, jaundice, kidney function decline). In the same way that because I live here I am very, very quick to suspect tick-borne disease, I would also be quick to ask for a Lepto test if I had a hot and vomiting dog. 

Moving on to Orijen: I have a better selection of foods around here than most, but there are still some I can’t get. I have relatively easy access to Nature’s Variety Instinct, Orijen, Taste of the Wild, Wellness CORE, By Nature canned, Solid Gold Barking at the Moon, and B.G. (Before Grain). I can’t get EVO, the new Canidae grain-free, Artemis, Acana, and some of the others. 

I rejected Taste of the Wild and By Nature simply because I don’t like their parent companies – Taste of the Wild is made by Diamond and By Nature is made by Blue Seal.

I tried Solid Gold Barking at the Moon and Clue seemed to react badly to it; my best guess is that she can’t tolerate the high proportion of potato. So that knocked off Solid Gold, B.G. (which has both white and sweet potato very high in the ingredients list), and Nature’s Variety Instinct (which doesn’t have potato but uses TONS of tapioca which is also a root starch).

That left me with Wellness CORE and Orijen. I just happened to grab the Orijen first and I’ve been very pleased with it and so I haven’t even tried the CORE yet. I think CORE is a good food and I really like the fact that they don’t want you to feed it to growing puppies. Most of the other brands are like “Sure! Feed it to anyone!” and it’s VERY hard to feed a growing puppy correctly if you’re going grain-free. The foods are so nutrient-dense that they can very easily cause growth that is too fast; in order to keep a puppy appropriately ribby and slow-growing you have to feed such tiny amounts that the puppy is going to feel starving all the time. I’d only feed a puppy a true raw diet, not a gain-free kibble.

I will say that I think the feeding recommendations on Orijen are insane. I’m feeding literally a FOURTH of what is recommended for adult dogs my dogs’ sizes, and Clue is already getting too fat. Ginny is a picky enough eater that she’s not fat, but she’s definitely more padded than she’s EVER been. I have had Bronte up at the recommended amount and she’s putting on 1-2 lb per week. Which for a dog who should be 35-ish pounds is a LOT. She still needs a couple of pounds but I can already see that I’ll have to cut her way back within a few weeks. 

Spleens: Sterling and I actually talked about this a few years ago and yes, I do think you are on to something. I’ve heard of far too many dogs with splenic torsions and blood disorders that end up getting splenectomies. The Dane I bred and sold whose owners lost him to immune-mediated hemolytic anemia should have had his spleen removed but he died; the vet dropped the ball on that one in a pretty major way and the owners were already thousands deep thanks to improper diagnoses and I didn’t want to push any harder than I already was for them to get ultrasounds and go in for surgery. But I still think he maybe could have made it if they had checked and probably removed the spleen. 

I am not sure if we’re seeing MORE spleen things or if it’s that animal medicine and owner expectations are catching up with human medicine and expectations. Used to be that a dog would just look poorly for a few days and then die; dogs died all the time so nobody thought too much of it. Now we are very unprepared to accept that and we push very hard for diagnostics, and we are supported in that by animal ultrasound centers and referral surgeons and so on. There’s no question that I’m hearing a lot more about immune-mediated and autoimmune EVERYTHING lately (Addisons, Cushings, IMHA, thyroiditis, etc.), but I honestly can’t say if that’s a sign that the diseases are increasing or that our awareness of them is increasing. 

But yes, I would definitely say that I’m uncomfortable with the fact that it seems like so many dogs are losing body parts on a routine basis. 

HOUSE: The downstairs is gutted and the electric is done. Most of the plumbing is done. Insulation was supposedly done yesterday and drywall will go in over the next week. We’ve encountered the usual difficulties with subcontractors (why are they so crazy? Is it like a requirement of being a subcontractor that you FORGET THAT YOU HAD TO PULL A PERMIT or that you SIT IN YOUR VAN ALL DAY SMOKING and then bill us for it?) but our general contractor is a great guy with an extremely high level of moral indignation – he figures that if he’s working like a dog there’s no way he’s going to tolerate anyone else slacking off – so the bad ones have been tattled on and replaced and I think we’re honestly doing very well. 

Once the major stuff is done, the work will slow down dramatically as the detail work (mud and tape, sanding, painting, an enormous amount of powerwashing, floors and doors and windows and so on) is done and the fixtures go in. We also have the major hurdle of money; when the job is 50% done we have to have a bank inspector come out and verify that it’s been completed and then release the next half of the building money. Our experience thus far has been that the gap between approval and actually getting the check is between three and four weeks. Our contractor can go into the hole to a certain extent if he knows he’ll eventually get paid, but if it goes over about ten or fifteen thousand (and we’re already at about three or four grand) he’s going to stop working. So we’re still thinking September 1 as a best-case scenario and September 15 or October 1 as worst-case. 

The VERY good news is that there’s been minimal disaster-findage. We really didn’t know what was going to be behind the walls, above the ceilings, etc. A true nightmare, for example, would have been termite or ant damage, because we’d HAVE to fix it and the insurance company wouldn’t have done anything for us. Ditto for existing rot or foundation damage. So the fact that none of those things has been discovered has been really a great blessing. We’re beginning to have at least a little bit of hope that we’ll come in relatively close to budget, which leaves nothing in our pockets but at least we’re not having to go around and beg for more money.

The dogs should be in there long before the humans are – as soon as the kennel room is up and functional (in another couple of weeks, we hope) they’ll be over there most days so they can get some exercise and sunlight and schmooze the carpenters. I’ll be over there too, acting as the painting subcontractor once the mudding and taping is all done. It won’t save us any money, because we’ll be paying me (and losing my freelancing income) but I like painting and I’ll be out of my mind with happiness to get out of this tiny shoebox charming apartment.


Erin wrote:

I totally thought of you when I saw this. I love perusing Time’s photos sometimes when I’m looking for inspiration. I wish I could find the story behind it because it looks, um… iffy as it is.

which is this photo:


And yes, I DO know what’s going on in the pic. Come ON. I KNOW EVERYTHING.

Is a video of the strange box with the sudsy dog, and it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

I guess if you want to spend $20 to have your dog sprayed with a soapy hose and then rinsed for thirty seconds (!) more power to you, but (as should now be obvious) I don’t think it’s a great grooming job. You can do a lot better by yourself and I think a normal bath-and-blow-out by a groomer, which will be twice as much but will be sure to actually rinse the dog and includes skin-out brushing, is a much better value. 

But in terms of hilarious videos… seeing the dog wash guy naked in the machine was worth a lot.

Grooming part one bazillion: Finishing sprays and leave-in conditioners and how to dry your dog

I think Cathy Santarsiero and I are living in parallel universes, because I just saw how to dry a corgi on her blog. 

If you can stand the dueling banjos posting, I’m going to finish this series even though she’s got good info there.

Believe it or not, we haven’t even talked about how to bathe your dog yet; I was saving that until the end because, I dunno, I’m weird or something. It IS coming. But meanwhile I wanted to finish the product discussion and go over finishing/drying.

Whether or not you’ve used a conditioner on your dog after the shampoo, you may want to consider a finishing spray. Unlike the oil- or wax-based conditioners, finishing sprays generally do not soften the coat, so they’re a good choice if you have a coat that needs to stay weather-protective.

The finishing sprays I’ve used are Show Sheen (we used this on the Danes all the time) Best Shot UltraVitalizing (this is what Ginny gets and the texture is wonderful) and Chris Christensen Ice on Ice. ALL of them are silicone-based. Silicone is a great ingredient to finish a coat because it forms a very thin but flexible layer over each individual hair. It basically makes the hair behave as though it has a perfectly healthy cuticle with no roughness or dryness. 

When the cuticle of the hair is very slick, dirt doesn’t tend to stick to the hair and the pigment from mud can’t find its way into the interior of the hair and stay there. So silicone products help the coat act the way it should; it drops dirt as the mud dries, and it helps to prevent staining. In addition, slick hair slides past the neighboring hairs instead of catching and “felting” into a mat. So finishing sprays can really be a miracle in terms of maintaining longer furnishings; Ginny’s ear fringes are twice as long as they were when we got her and she never mats behind her ears or elbows if we do a quick spritz of spray as she’s drying.

The way I use silicone sprays during normal grooms is that when I am just about done with the drying stage I will stop and mist a finishing spray over the lower half of the dog, ruffle the coat thoroughly to help the spray get down to the roots, then finish drying. That leaves me with a dog who sheds dirt and resists staining.

When I am prepping for a show, the finishing spray goes only where I want the hair to look flat, hard, and glossy – on the back and sides of the dog. I don’t use it on the chest or legs because I’m going to be using product and chalking those areas, and silicone will prevent the chalk from sticking. What I usually do is finish the entire groom, then right before I take the dog off the table I mist a VERY thin and fine layer of Ice on Ice over the topline and smooth it with a soft cloth. I do not want the hair to feel slick, and I don’t want any kind of artificial texture or behavior of the coat. I just want it to catch the lights and look healthy and shiny. 

A specialized finishing spray called Crown Royale (you buy #1, 2, or 3 depending on your dog’s coat texture) is what I use every time I am grooming but the dog is not wet from the bath. You should NEVER brush a completely dry dog; you just get frizz and static and the tangles tend to break instead of stretching and unsnarling. You want to add a little water to the coat while you’re brushing. Misting with plain water is just fine, but I like to dilute a very small amount of Crown Royale #3 in the spray bottle of spring water (I use spring water because our tap water is very full of lime, and I don’t want the dog turning green or brown if the water oxidizes while in the coat). I spray the Crown Royale solution over the whole coat before I comb it, and I’ll add more as necessary. 


Once you’ve got your fabulous dryer, how do you use it?

Always towel the dog off first; blot and squeeze but do not rub with the towel. Switching to a dry towel after saturating the first one can get out a shocking amount of additional water and cut your drying time by a lot.

Now carry your dog over to the table and confine it using the method of your choice. Some people use grooming arms, some install two grooming arms, one on each end of the table, to hold the head and the abdomen simultaneously (if you have a really naughty dog, I’d certainly try this); some put on a show lead; I usually just keep the dog on the table through the sheer force of my bossiness. 

If the dog is at all long-coated, comb through the entire coat NOW, before you dry. Begin with the coarse comb and go through every inch of the dog, including belly and pants.

Next (and this is important), if the dryer is on the floor next to the table STEP ON THE HOSE before you turn it on. It will whip around and cause great havoc and terrify your dog if you don’t. 

Turn on the HV and let it run ON LOW for a few seconds while your dog gets used to the sound and realizes that it will not kill him. Then reach down with one hand and bring the hose to the dog. I usually begin on the dog’s chest, because pressure on the chest makes the dog lean into the pressure and not jump away. Be prepared for a dog who tries to leap or shrink, and handle it with your restraint of choice. He will realize sooner that the bad noise and weird feeling is not terrible, and will relax. 

One of the things that a lot of people, including groomers, do a little bit wrong is to play with the air stream coming out of the hose. It tends to bounce off the skin and it can make you feel like the natural way to dry is to point the nozzle directly at the dog’s hair and then jiggle or flip it back and forth or make big fast circles over the dog. Resist this temptation. It’s not going to hurt a short-haired dog (though it doesn’t really get the coat dry) but on a long-haired dog this will whip the hair around and make tangles. 

Instead, hold the nozzle (and you may use a sheeting concentrator on the end of the nozzle if you want) at an angle to the skin and slowly and methodically sheet the water off the hair. You know you’re doing it right when the water comes off the hair in what will seem like startling amounts.

Here’s BBird (I puffy heart her) doing this on a Bichon.

Once you’ve taken the majority of the water off (in other words, when you think you’re done and the dog is dry), stop and remove the flat concentrator from the dryer and either leave it with the round nozzle or add a fluff (round) concentrator. Now’s the time that you add the finishing spray of your choice and work it through the hair with your hands.

If you’ve been drying a double-coated dog, you will notice on your fingers that there’s still quite a bit of water in the coat. This is a great lesson in the fact that just because the outside of the dog looks dry it doesn’t mean the undercoat is. 

Now you will begin to use your t-brush or greyhound comb to line-brush the dog. I went looking for a video of this and can’t find one, so I’m going to try to explain it. Hopefully you can bear with me. 

You’ll be repeating the movement of the dryer from front to back and ears to tail and top to bottom, this time using the round fluff concentrator or the nozzle. NOW you can point the nozzle right at the skin, especially on the chest, neck, and legs. You may still want to keep it at an angle along the back, unless you like the look of a very startled Corgi who may have stuck her tail in a light socket. 

When you point the HV at the skin, you’ll open up a rosette of hair and you can see to the skin. Hold the nozzle with one hand and the comb or t-brush with the other, and use that rosette as a starting point. Brush with the lie of the hair just over the hair you can see completely exposed. Now move the dryer an inch or so and again brush with the lie of the hair. Continue to move the HV to open the coat and continue to brush the exposed hair until you’ve done the dog’s entire body. If you do it this way (in “lines”), you know for sure you’ve brushed every single hair on the dog from the skin out. You aren’t just slicking down the top hairs and hiding problems below. Be sure to look at the skin too – the dryer is a great way to check for bites or irritation or scabs that could indicate that the vet should get involved.

Don’t forget the cheeks; cup your hands over eyes and ears when you’re drying near them. Puffing out those Cardigan muttonchops can change the whole look of the dog; it’s suddenly “show dog!”

When you think you’re done AGAIN, turn off the dryer and baby-talk the dog for a minute while the hair cools down. Then put your hands in the coat again; if you can feel ANY moisture you need to keep going until the coat is bone-dry. 

If this is a normal groom, you’re now done. The dog is brushed from the skin out and is dry. If I want a little extra oomph in the chest and neck, but am not doing a full show groom, I’ll turn the dryer back on for a minute and just do the chest and neck and front legs AGAINST the lie of the hair. This is also the only time you can do lots of little circles with the nozzle; I’ll use that technique to whip up the hair so it’s really puffy. I’ll also use a slicker brush at this point, JUST on the chest and throat and cheeks, against the lie to get everything as volumized as possible. 

Now turn everything off, congratulate yourself on a gorgeous dog, and give an extra special treat to the dog. Now lift her down and see how quickly she can make herself look flat again! 

The just-HVed look only lasts a few minutes unless you use product in the hair, but the benefits to the skin and coat (and your eg0) that are associated with a thorough groom, brush, and HV make the time very much worth it. 

Coat supplement recipe

I had a couple of questions about helping a dry coat bloom from within, so I wanted to write down what I do. This is my own personal recipe and isn’t vet-tested or anything like that, but it’s very innocuous and I’ve fed it to a ton of dogs and it’s worked beautifully for all of them.

I usually make up a batch before we kick into the show season, so the dogs have a really hard shine on the coats despite all the bathing I do. 

The base of the recipe is the old “Grow Hair on a Doorknob” formula, but I add stuff to it. I make it slightly differently each time, depending on what oils I find in my cupboard or at the supermarket (for example, I may add some gourmet leftovers if I cooked with walnut oil or avocado oil or something), but the dry ingredients are always the same and the below is very representative of what I make.

1 pound Mirra-Coat (horse supplement)

1 pound Nature’s Logic food supplement (you can also use Missing Link, but I think the NL is a better formula)

1 pound full-fat peanut butter

1 pound ground flax (has to be ground, not whole)

8-12 oz salmon oil

1 jar extra-virgin coconut oil

1 pound honey (optional)

Enough extra-virgin olive oil to turn the whole thing into a disgusting cookie-batter-textured mess. 

Pick up in a spoon and form into roughly heaping-teaspoon size globs and freeze briefly on a cookie sheet, then put them in a gallon-size ziploc bag and keep frozen. I make probably 100 at a time, if not more, and each dog gets one or two a day right out of the freezer. You can see the shine coming in along the backbone and spreading down the sides; if I push it they’re even a little oily, which is what I want when I’m bathing them every night. You can cut back to one every other day if it’s working a little too well. 

All the fats are healthy and shouldn’t cause weight gain, not at the small doses you’re feeding. The Nature’s Logic packs a vitamin punch and has some dehydrated liver in there for flavor and nourishment. I feed this with a raw diet with no issues, and it should be compatible with kibble as well.

Grooming part 5: Products that drip, slip, glop, and glug

Individual preference is going to rule in terms of what you love or don’t love. I have to always put that disclaimer at the top, because I am sure there’s somebody out there who is saying “Why doesn’t she mention that strawberry smoothies are fabulous at softening paw pads?” and then I am going to get in trouble.

If you DO have a magic concoction or unexpected recommendation, please throw it against the comment wall and see if it sticks :D.

In my kitchen (and, yes, it’s still there, just covered in soot and dirt and water) is an enormous plastic crate completely filled with grooming products. I LOVE trying out new products, and of course going to Groom Expo in Hershey last year gave me waaaaay too many opportunities to hand over a couple bucks for the latest little tube of canine beautification. I’ll come home and grab whatever dog is looking like she needs some attention and chuck her up in the sink and see what magic I can create. So everything I’m going to recommend has been on my own dogs at least once.

The types of liquid products you’ll need depend on what issue or issues you’re trying to address in your dog. I’m going to go over a few, but by no means all. Please let me know if I’ve forgotten an important one.

If you want to have an easier solution than mixing and matching and experimenting, if you’d rather just pick a single line and order everything at once, there are two I recommend the entire line of: Chris Christensen and Plush Puppy. Both of them are show-dog lines, which means that they will feel normal and natural to you as you use them (they have the thickeners and foam stabilizers and so on that make people feel like the products are doing their job), and they’re made to be used every week or even every day, which means they’re “gentle” (weak and dilute) and won’t burn the crap out of your dog if you don’t dilute them properly. I’ve gotten very good results from just about every item in those lines.

Additionally, for coats that should lie down and be soft (spaniels and the like), I really like the Best Shot three-step system of shampoo, conditioner, and finishing spray. It’s a very good product and it leaves the coat feeling silky, soft, and just heavy enough to look good. It would soften the hair much too much for use on show dogs that are supposed to feel hard, but if you just want a very nice hand-feel to the coat it’s a great system. The shampoo is LOW-FOAM. Don’t try to put more and more on to try to get suds. It’s not supposed to foam a lot. Put on enough that the coat feels slippery and then rinse it clean; ditto with the conditioner. 

The normal coat

My favorite products for everyday shampooing are Plush Puppy Wheat Germ Shampoo, EQyss Premiere shampoo, Chris Christensen Day to Day, and Best Shot Ultra Wash. I haven’t tried the Nature’s Specialties shampoos but everyone seems to love the Plum Silky.

The icky and gross

Parasites (fleas, ticks, mites of all kinds): I strongly recommend AGAINST using any flea shampoo except the ones with d-limonene (which is basically just orange oil and doesn’t do anything to kill fleas but MAY repel them a little). The chemicals in flea shampoo are very strong, very nasty, and readily absorb into your skin and your dog’s skin. Skip the flea shampoo and go buy some Capstar. If you just need to knock down a heavy flea infestation on the dog so the Capstar or Frontline (which should be applied 24 to 48 hours after the bath, not right away) only have to kill a few live fleas, any shampoo left on the dog for five minutes or so seems to stun them enough that you can wash a bunch of them down the drain.

Ticks: If your dog is a nightmare of ticks (and this is hopefully only a situation you’d encounter in a brand-new rescue who has not had any care for a while), I’d apply Frontline and wait a day before bathing. You can pull the ticks out as you bathe, but you’re still leaving the mouthparts in and the dog will get giant lumps and scabs everywhere that happened. It’s better to let them be killed and fall out on their own before you bathe.

Mites: If you suspect mange of either sort, a trip to the vet’s office is in order. Don’t try to address it with bathing.

There is another kind of mite, called cheyletiella, that causes a skin reaction that looks JUST like itchy dry dandruffy skin. It’s very common, so if you have a dog that has flaky skin and itches a lot, ask the vet about checking for mites before you chalk it up to allergies or dry skin. Again, this is not one that can be addressed through a bath.

The icky conditions that CAN be addressed through grooming include

Too much oil: Cocker spaniels, anyone? Poorly bred Cockers are absolutely notorious for overproduction of sebum. Other frequent offenders include members of the hound group.

My first caution would be that any abrupt change in coat or skin should be taken as a sign to see the vet. Addisons and Cushings present as coat issues first, as does thyroid. So if there’s a sudden problem that you haven’t seen before, check in with your vet.

Assuming your dog is healthy, you need to cut the oil. There are three methods you can use to do this: Absorb it, dissolve it, or oil it. Yes, oil it. Oil dissolves oil, so a hot oil treatment or just a good scrub with any vegetable oil and then a thorough shampooing until there’s no more oily feel in the coat can actually work really well.

You can absorb oil by pre-treating the coat with grooming powder (NOT chalk; Crown Royale or similar) or with cornstarch or corn flour (masa harina, not corn meal). Pack it into the coat, wait 15 minutes, brush as much out as you can, and then bathe.

To dissolve the oil, you need the harsher detergent shampoos. Kelco’s Filthy Animal and Double K Grimeinator are two that I’ve used. Chris Christensen makes Clean Start. BBird likes EZ Groom dEZolv (ah, the grooming industry, source of many bad puns). Be very careful to follow the dilution directions on these; they are not friendly to skin at full strength.

Off-the-record-you-didn’t-hear-it-from-me: Goop hand cleaner and Dawn dish detergent work when nothing else does (Goop is an absolute staple for cat grooming, believe it or not). Just be sure to rinse VERY well and follow up with nourishing shampoo, because these will really strip the coat.

Bad smells: Ditto with considering a vet check, especially if the smell is new. Changing diets is a good idea. Also, be sure the dog doesn’t have an anal gland issue. The approaches above that get rid of grease should also get rid of odor; if you don’t see a dramatic difference you should do a little detective work to see where it’s coming from. Besides the anal glands, ears are a common source (and should be looked at by a vet), as is damage to the coat under the collar. 

The dry, burned, frizzled, and fried

There are a bunch of products, good ones, for sunburned, pool-water-burned, overdried coat. But first, here’s my kitchen-cupboard secret.

Go to your grocery store and go into the natural foods aisle. Look for COCONUT OIL. Not any other kind. It’s white or clear and may be semi-solid, like shortening, or a clear liquid depending on how warm the store is. You want the “virgin” oil, not the processed kind.

Coconut oil is very, very close to natural skin oil and it tends to do very nice things to coat in terms of making it look moist and healthy again. Using it is a very light variation on the old show-groomer trick of putting a dog “in oil,” but you won’t be leaving enough of it on the coat to attract the dirt and dust that coat oil does.

What you want to do is finish your whole shampoo/conditioner regimen, whatever that is, and then in the final rinse (empty the sink so there’s no soapsuds left, then re-plug it), you’ll add about half a teaspoon of the coconut oil to a half-gallon or so of warm water. You can play with this recipe – use as much or as little as you want, as long as you’re not leaving the coat feeling oily. It won’t want to mix, so you need to shake it or vigorously stir it and keep shaking it as you’re pouring it. Pour it over the dog and then keep picking it up and pouring it over and working it in to the coat.

You don’t do any further rinsing; just pull the dog out and towel and then HV. If you’ve done it right, you should see a great improvement in shine and texture, but the coat should not feel at all oily or gummy.

You can also use a heavier application of coconut oil as a hot-oil treatment (shampooing it out afterward) or apply it straight (take a little and rub it between your palms until it’s liquid) to paw pads, dry skin on elbows, or lightly on the split ends of spaniel ears and the like.

Commercial products I’ve used: Nature’s Specialties Re-Moisturizer feels to me (at least in my hands, on the dog) like an “intense repair” moisturizer for human hair. Much too heavy for my frequently bathed and raw-fed dogs, but if you have a dog whose coat is really fried, there’s no question that this would put some softness back into it.

The stained

I’ve used probably a dozen products to whiten stained coat, and the one I keep coming back to is my faithful Shiny Silver Ultra from Sally Beauty. It works as well as the super expensive products and it rinses very easily (a must so you don’t burn the skin). 

Whitening shampoos are always applied full-strength, because you need the purple pigment to be deposited on the hair. You should apply pretty heavily, suds it up just a little, and then wait three to five minutes or whatever the bottle recommends. Then rinse thoroughly. Whitening shampoos can be used across the entire coat of a merle, grey, white, or light dog. They won’t hurt red or brown coats, but they may make them look a little funny. 

Whitening shampoos are cumulative in nature. They make some difference the first time, more the next time, etc. I use them once a week on the Cardigans and they are perfectly white down to their toes. If I slack off and try to repair staining right before a show, I am never pleased with the result. You have to use them steadily.

Other brands of whiteners I’ve used and like: Chris Christensen, Plush Puppy. I’ve used and do not like Quik Silver and Blue Ribbon (both labeled for horses, which means nothing; it’s all the same stuff). Both of those feel thin and do not take away stains as well.

Isle of Dogs has a whitening shampoo that uses optical brighteners rather than purple pigments. It’s a light blue shampoo. I have a love-hate relationship with all the IOD products – they do work, but they have ingredients that can trigger major reactions. It was IOD shampoo that gave Clue such a terrible chemical burn that she still has thickening of the skin almost a year later. The IOD whitening works, it works well, it won’t make your red dog purple. It too has a cumulative effect and should be used over time. JUST DO NOT USE IT STRAIGHT. Dilute it a minimum of 20:1 before applying it to your dog, and be sure you are rinsing like crazy, rinsing until you feel completely foolish, if you use this brand. 

The faded

There has always been black shampoo for black coats and purple shampoo for whitening, but tons of grooming companies are now putting out what are in effect semi-permanent dye shampoos for dogs. You can get a color for every dog from a blonde Golden to a black Sheltie and back again. The major brands are Pet Esthe and Dyex. And of course the human hair dyes have been used to blacken masks and cover scarring for decades. I personally don’t mind grey faces or faded color on older dogs, but if it really bothers you go for the shampoo or the Miss Clairol. Just don’t bring the dog into the show ring.

The black shampoos that are NOT dyes I’ve tried: Chris Christensen (has a green pigment) and Isle of Dog. Again, always dilute the IOD. I think both of them work, sort of, to make the red tinge on backs and bibs a little darker, but it’s honestly not something you’re going to be shocked by and it won’t actually change the appearance of the dog. So those I don’t mind on show dogs, and will continue to use myself if only to give me something to do with nervous hands before we get in the car and go to the show site.

The curly

OK, now we’re getting into conditioners. If you’re looking to calm down some curls on your dog’s coat, this is the combination I swear by:

After the shampooing is all done, rinse the dog completely clean and apply Chris Christensen Thick and Thicker Foaming Protein. This is not the same as T&T spray; it’s actually like a very light shampoo. Work into the coat and leave for, I think, five minutes (check the bottle before trusting me). Then rinse out. Now apply Chris Christensen After Bath over everything that is supposed to lie flat (I do it from the back of the neck to the tip of the tail). Let sit according to directions, rinse out thoroughly, squeeze with towels (don’t rub back and forth) to dry. 

If you immediately put the dog on the table and HV it straight back, never pointing the hose toward the nose, laying down the coat repeatedly with the t-brush, until the coat is COMPLETELY BONE DRY, you should see a dramatic reduction in curls. Of course, the dog will get itself all rumpled in the car, but I re-mist with a water and just a touch of Crown Royale spray and then blow it all back toward the tail again at the grooming setup and all the marcelling disappears. 

The flat

To give a double coat more oomph, the Thick and Thicker Foaming Protein in the bath is a must. Then, before I do the final blow-out at the show site, I use Plush Puppy Puffy Dog and apply liberally from the top of the shoulders to the ears, on the cheeks, on the front legs, and in the “pants” and tail. Puffy Dog is a mousse but does not change the texture of the hair; it doesn’t feel crispy or crunchy. HV all of the areas you just moussed, but do it against the lie of the hair – push it toward the nose. Just be sure to avoid the topline hair that you just spent so long lying down flat! This is when I use my slicker brush; I slicker against the lie of the hair while the HV is drying the coat. Step back, let the dog shake, and the ruff and chest should look beautiful. If it’s standing out too much, don’t touch it. It will break down in the ten minutes before you walk in the ring. Put your slicker in your back pocket and do a little repair if necessary right before you walk in the ring. 

To address that stubborn topline dip (which Clue does not have, thank you SO much you good girl, but Bronte does) I use a very stiff human mousse, something called City or Urban or Party or words along those lines. Those are usually the stiff ones, unlike the ones called “touchable” or with words like Soft and Gentle in the titles. I put the mousse right there, HV it straight up in the air, and then lay it down gently RIGHT before I’m heading toward the ring. 

With both types of mousse, remember that there cannot be any obvious product in the hair. Cardis are not poodles. Your object is to make sure the coat flatters, not to create a helmet around the dog. If there’s any change in the texture of the hair, any crispies, you need to brush through them or spray them out and re-HV before heading to the ring. 

The ultra-sensitive

A lot of what owners call “sensitive” skin is actually either caused by parasites or by poor diet or by allergies. So try to get the dog’s skin healthy from the inside out before you try to work it from the outside in.

If you do have a genuinely sensitive dog, use a shampoo with very few extraneous ingredients (the Bichon Bubbles recipe I posted earlier would be an excellent one) and with no fragrances or botanicals. You must also dramatically dilute the shampoo; use a tablespoon in a quart of water, shake it, and pour over the dog and work in. Rinse, re-do. Better to do lots of mini-washes with very dilute shampoo then try to really scrub any section.

Second, rinse VERY VERY well. Most owners do not rinse enough. You have to rinse with your fingers in the coat, rinse absolutely everywhere, until there is not even a speck of slickness or shampoo residue anywhere in the coat. Don’t forget the stomach, between the legs, and the tail; you probably shampooed there but didn’t rinse it as well as you did the back and neck. 

Third, after the grooming is over, as a final step ruffle the hair back and spray EQyss Micro-Tek in toward the skin, then use your fingers to work it in and coat the skin over any problem areas. Finish your ear grooming with Micro-Tek as well. It’s a fabulous healing spray and you can use it every single day to help with the redness and irritation of sensitive areas.

OK! One more time I didn’t get to the end of the story before I have to go to bed. Tomorrow will be the medium conditioners and how to de-shed using them, as well as a review of the various finishing sprays.

Grooming Part 4: Tools and Products – Namin’ Names

I’ve tried hard in the previous parts of this little series to keep the product names very general, because people have all kinds of success with products I can’t make work to save my life, and vice versa. And everyone has a different look they like for their dogs.

When I am showing a dog, I want the dog that looks like if a stray sunbeam found its way into the dank confines of the Better Living Building at the Big E, it would magically light upon her, and she would look up, and angels would sing a chorus from one of the better U2 albums, and a unicorn would raise its horn and shoot a rainbow full of giggling fairy butterflies right onto her nose. And then everyone would stand up and clap wildly, and the old ring mat beneath her would slowly rotate in a circle while a wind machine fluffed the hair behind her ears.

In other words, I like a GROOMED dog. 

So my goal, of absolutely zero staining and deep, glowing whites, a luxurious ruff and and a coat that looks like mink (but hard, weather-repellent mink), is a very specific one. And I use the products to get me as close to that as possible.

Your goal may be to keep a pet smelling as good as it can for as long as it can, or cutting the grease on an older dog with skin issues, or making a coat lie down or stand straight up. You may want something you can bring to a show so your dog, who last saw water when he got dumped in the stock tank on Wednesday, won’t have that distinctive green tinge. So I don’t want you to think that what I like is the only thing TO like – I just want to share what I’ve found that works best.


If you’re going to try to actually groom your dog, as opposed to get it out of the sink and tell it to go shake off outside (which is not a bad thing, but don’t expect the dog to come in and still be pristine and fluffy), you need a space to do it and a way to get the dog up to your eye level. When we had Danes, they were already AT eye level, so we just put an old blanket on the floor to catch any hair that dropped. When Clue came along, we realized that a grooming table was an absolute must.

A grooming table doesn’t have to be a grooming table – it can be any sturdy surface that either has a non-slip surface or can be made non-slip, and it shouldn’t be something you plan on using for food on a regular basis. Grooming creates all kinds of drips, globs, powdery residue, and of course tons of hair, so you’ll feel less skeeved out if you can keep it away from your kitchen counter or table. 

There are folding plastic “banquet” tables that work really well if you put a non-slip bathroom floor or shower mat down, for example. Or you may use a bench or low table that you don’t mind cleaning well. You can put a piece of plywood over a dog crate. Or you may decide to spring for a real grooming table; anything that works is absolutely fine.

Some people always use the grooming arms; I prefer not to. I find them a nuisance as soon as the dog is trained well enough to stand still, because I want to groom without any kind of collar in place. When I figured that out, I decided that rather than using the arm for a while and then getting rid of it, I’d just train the dogs first and never use it at all. Of course, your mileage may vary. 

The second thing you will need if you have any breed of dog with any length of hair (and by this I mean ANY undercoat – from a Beagle- or Lab-type coat to a full-coated Maltese) is a DRYER. 

High-velocity dryers (for short, I’m going to call them HVs) are one of those things that you think you can get along without until you have a good one, and then you can’t believe that you ever tried to do without. For people who show, the dryer allows you to create the best possible result for your dog. I don’t mean that it’s for “corrective” or fault-hiding grooming (though it certainly is for that); even for a flawless dog the dryer makes sure the dog is having a good hair day, that the coat flatters and does not create illusions of faults that are not there. 

For the pet owner, an HV means that the dog is dry in fifteen minutes instead of three hours. No more wet spots on your couch cushions and comforters! The other role of the HV that pet owners will find invaluable is that the HV is the best shedding tool on the face of the earth. A good deshedding in the tub followed by correct HV technique and an undercoat rake will release staggering amounts of hair, keeping it in the trash can and off your furniture and carpet. 

The type of HV that most owners and exhibitors want is called a portable dryer. It looks like a tiny air compressor, or a torpedo (or the ChallengAIRs look like blue jugs on their sides) and has a long flexible hose. Portable dryers do NOT warm the air except with their own motors, so you’re blowing an intense stream of room-temperature or lukewarm air on the dog. 

Owners with Bichons, Poodles, and full-coated drop-coated dogs (like Shih Tzu) will also want what’s called a fluff dryer; the fluff dryer works more like a human hair dryer in that it sends a less intense stream of heated air into the coat. The heat is what allows brushwork to straighten the kink out of Poodle-type hair so it can be scissored, or to dry the drop-coated dog without tangling it. 

But for most owners, if you’re not trying to maintain a specialized scissor-finish coat, the HV is what you want. 

By far the most common dryer that I see exhibitors use is the Metro Air Force. I used one once and I am not fond of them, especially for the price you pay. The air stream is not very good, the dryer gets really hot, and I’ve heard stories of them catching on fire. Just my opinion; I know some people LURVE them. But I would recommend the dryer that was recommended to me:

For about the same price ($150), what I owned and will own again is the Double K ChallengAIR 2000. It’s got a plastic housing, not metal, it is easy to store and carry, and it’s quite durable. The air stream allows me to dry a Cardi in about 15-20 minutes. For the two or three times a week I need a dryer, it’s a good compromise between performance and cost.

If you want to go up a step in power and cost, the K9 IIs (about $350) get by far the best buzz as a mid-level professional-quality dryer. They are powerful and last forever.

Top professionals, of course, laugh at my little dryer. The “best” dryers are made by grooming company specialists and are designed to quite literally blow a little dog off the table. They have variable air flow, tremendous force, and they have a price to match; the Romani dryers are somewhere up near a grand. If you are going to need to dry ten Akitas a week, the investment is probably worth it to save your arms and hands from the stress of taking an hour to dry each dog. But otherwise the $150 in a ChallengAIR is probably a very good place to start.

SECOND: TOOLS (with blades)

Whether or not you need scissors, and whether or not those scissors can be of the $12 variety or should be the $200 variety, depends on your breed. I can’t get into the specific needs for every dog, though I’m happy to discuss them further if someone asks, but for Cardigans you’ll need at least one pair of small, sharp hair shears. 

These small sharp scissors are used to trim the hair between the pads of the feet and, if needed, to CAREFULLY trim a little around the nails to make sure that extra hair isn’t making the foot look hare-like instead of cat-like. 

Plenty of people also invest in a good pair of thinning shears to knock out excess coat that is unflattering to the dog, but that’s beyond my scope. I think the vast majority of owners and most exhibitors are fine with just the single straight pair.

Along with scissors, your other tools with blades may include stripping knives and mat-breakers. They’re cheap, so most of us have them in our tack boxes even if we don’t use them all that often. Some breeds require relatively constant attention to tangles, or need to be hand-stripped on a regular basis, so those tools are their main ones. 


AHA, now we are finally to where people get terribly passionate and dedicated to particular tools. The number of times I’ve seen an exhibitor running around a grooming setup saying “Where is that brush? WHERE! That one, the good one, you know, the purple and silver one that I got in Topeka four years ago, that Willie chewed on. The company doesn’t even MAKE that brush anymore! If I lose it I’m going to go jump off a bridge!” is a little too high to willingly admit. And I am one of them; if there is a hint that the t-brush I’m going to mention below is going to be discontinued, I will buy ten of them and keep them in a fire safe and pass them along to my children in my will. 

Personal obsessions aside, combs and brushes do one or more of three jobs: They get out tangles, they make the hair all go one way, and they push air into the coat to puff it out. 

Combs and brushes should ALWAYS be used in the order from coarsest teeth to finest teeth. MOST PEOPLE DO THIS WRONG. They’ll pick up a slicker brush to attack a totally uncombed coat and then wonder why, six months down the road, their dog’s coat looks like crap. 

Do the tasks in order. Get out tangles, get the hair all going one way, push air in. (And you owners of drop-coated dogs are going to skip this last step entirely, so if you’ve got a slicker in your box you should take it out and give it to your dog to chew.)

The tools I personally cannot live without are (in order of use):

Greyhound Comb. I use a Chris Christensen comb but of course there are plenty of cheaper ones. You use the coarsest side, then the finer (which is still medium) side, over the entire body until there is not a single tangle in the coat.

T-Brush. Again, this is a C. Christensen product. I bought mine from him personally in Hershey (he is a super nice guy and his wife is lovely) but I’ve also ordered his products from Cherrybrook. The t-brush is like a small pinbrush in a slicker frame; it’s incredibly easy to use and I find it more natural to “aim” than when I am twisting my arm around trying to get a regular pin brush into a small area. I own both sizes; the smaller size is perfect for behind the ears and between the legs. The t-brush is what I use while I’m HVing the dogs, or as the second step after the greyhound comb.

Slicker Brush. I use my slicker brushes ONLY right before I am going in the show ring. The t-brush does a great job of getting air into the coat, but the slicker almost whips the coat up. There’s nothing better for getting the highest, smoothest finish on a double coat. However, BE WARNED. Regular use of a slicker DOES damage coat. It’s not, in my opinion, an everyday or even every-bath tool. 

I’ve used a bunch of slicker brands and am currently lusting after the Mars Flexi King. 


There are a few tools that I should mention because they may or will be needed occasionally (and when you need them you NEED them) but don’t get put in the normal grooming bucket. 

Show groomers know that you will need a very, very soft bristle brush for applying chalk (which is almost never chalk; it’s typically corn starch and white pigment) and then taking it out again. Mine is by Chris Christensen (what can I say; he makes a great product and I typically dink around with cheap stuff until I finally buckle and buy one of his and then wonder why on earth I didn’t just buy his to begin with) but before I bought one from him I used a very soft cat brush and also a shoeshine brush (the one you buff with, not the one you apply polish with). 

For coats that are inclined to mat, the repair tool that everyone says is the best is the Les Pooches line of specialized slickers. Yes, they’re slickers, and yes, I told you to never use a slicker on a mat, but these are renowned for getting mats to let go. They are NOT normal slickers; the pin arrangement is different and the matrix they’re imbedded in is flexible. They would still damage coat after extended use, but for a tough job everybody says there’s nothing better. Les Pooches brishes are OBSCENELY expensive. Like “If you have to ask, they’re too much” expensive. If you think you might be inclined to buy one and the $100 will actually hurt you (and if it won’t, would you like to adopt me?), ask your groomer or any friends who are groomers to order one for you at the pro price. You’ll still pay a ton, but it won’t have the retail markup attached. 

When the dog is blowing coat, an undercoat rake is a must. I’ll tell you how to use it in the next post.

The clipper-blade deshedding tools (the Furminator and its cousins) get a lot of TV time. They are very definitely NOT for frequent use. Groomers have been using their 40-blades, taken off their clippers, to “card” a shedding coat and remove the loose hair FOR YEARS. Furminator just added a handle. These tools are quite wonderful to get out shedding hair during the coat blow when you don’t have time to do a deshedding treatment, but they are clipper blades and they DO cut topcoat. Remember, the dog keeps the same topcoat for years. If you use blade-type tools frequently, the coat starts to look like you took a razor to it; it’s frizzled and burnt and odd. So use these tools infreqently and only when really needed. 

Well, it’s way too late and I haven’t even gotten to specific shampoos and conditioners yet. So they’ll wait until tomorrow, and then we’ll try to put everything together and actually get a clean dog at the end of it.

Grooming a Dog Part 3: Conditioners


Yes, finally this post. Believe it or not, I’ve not been neglecting it; I just kept getting sidetracked during my research. Confirming how to get out packed undercoat naturally led to the fluffs post, for example. But here we go, FINALLY.

Again, SO MUCH CREDIT goes to, most particularly Barbara Bird, for this knowledge. I’ve researched a bunch of it on my own as well, but they planted the seeds. And the concepts of SOFT and SLIP are 100% BBird’s; I am blatantly stealing them because I can’t think of any better way to put it. 

Away we go!

Talking about conditioners is a little more complicated than talking about shampoos. That’s because, unlike shampoos that are largely a function of a marketing process and don’t really vary all that much in what they do, conditioners actually DO stuff. 

The most basic function of a conditioner is to replace the skin oil (sebum) that you took off the hair when you washed the dog. This makes each hair a little more shiny, and nice to touch. However, very few conditioners stop there. They add ingredients that encourage various textures, like softness or slipperiness or springiness; they add stuff that fights static; they add proteins and amino acids, which plump up the hair shafts; they add silicones to encourage sheen and fight dirt; they try to influence pH to open or close the cuticle of the hair, etc. 

It gets even more confusing when some shampoos add conditioning ingredients, with widely varying success. A lot of conditioning in shampoos is yet more window-dressing, since the surfactants just wash the conditioners right out, but a few shampoos use ingredients that DO stick to the hair, so adding the wrong conditioner on top of that will not get you the results you want.

That means that choosing the correct conditioner depends on knowing your shampoo, on knowing your dog’s coat type, and on what you want the shampoo to do to your dog. Do you want the hair to just feel nice? Do you want it to stand up more? Lie down more? Do you want to get loose hair out or keep loose hair IN (this is a serious concern for those of us trying to keep every hair on a dog who is trying to blow coat the week before a big show). Do you want to keep the hair feeling “hard” or do you want it feeling very soft? Do you want to repel dirt, or does your dog’s hair already drop dirt pretty well?

Dog coat products have followed human hair products with great predictability. Very definitely GONE are the days when you could easily tell what species a bottle was for by reading the ingredients. And the whole pH thing (dogs need a different pH from humans, so never use a human product on dogs!) was a myth anyway. At this point, you can use a lot of the dog products on your own hair and you can definitely use human products on dogs. I’ll be mentioning the ones I have either tried (and recommend) or am seeing a lot of buzz about on the grooming lists. 

The nuts and bolts:

Basically, the ingredients in conditioners have different “missions.” None of them are bad or good per se; it depends on what you need the conditioner to do. And virtually all conditioners contain ALL these ingredients; what makes them different is the proportion of each type of substance and whether, when the manufacturers are choosing different forms of each ingredient, they choose ones that coat lightly or heavily. 

Oils and waxes: The oils are usually called “whatever butter” or “oil of whatever” and the waxes are moisturizing ingredients like stearic acid, cetyl achohol, and petrolatum. Conditioners called “Remoisturizers” or “Intensive Moisture Repair” and so on are usually heavy in oils and waxes. These are the products you want when you need to weigh down flyaway hair or change the appearance of burnt or fried coat (sunburned, salt burned, chlorine, etc.). They make a coat appreciably softer, so they are not for those of us who have to walk into a ring with a coat that still feels hard and weather-resistant. And oils and waxes tend to hold on to dirt and dust, so these coats will look dulled more quickly. 

Human “Brylcreem” is the ultimate oil-and-wax combo; it’s largely water, mineral oil, and beeswax. 

Panthenol, made famous by Pantene, is a type of oily lubricant that forms a coating over the hair shaft; it’s a very common ingredient in conditioners.

Proteins: Proteins are designed to go inside each hair and make it a little plumper. They’re great for making a thin, limp or sparse coat look more lush, stand-off, and thick. There are all kinds of protein products; anything with “Amino” in its name or “silk protein” or “hydrolized wheat protein” is trying to get in there and make the hairs fat. Protein conditioners are used in just about every breed – those of us with double-coated dogs use protein conditioners to make the longer coat on the ruff stand out, to make the leg hair a little more plush (great to make the dog look like it has more bone), and to get the hair over that danged topline dip to stand at attention. Bichon- and poodle-type coats, and the wire-haired terrier hair, will stand up better if they’re plumped with protein. You can get that round Bichon head and the starburst around the Westie nose if the hairs are standing out properly. Drop-coated breeds look good if you combine a protein and an oil (above), so each hair looks thick and drops straight down. 

Antistatic agents: PEG is one of these, as is cocamidopropyl betaine. These are not just for cutting down on static – the way they work is to absorb moisture from the air, so they work as humectants as well.

Acidifiers: Citric acid is a common one. An acidic conditioner makes the skin and hair firmer and can slow down shedding (at least for a little while).

Glossers and stain repellent ingredients: Virtually all of these are forms of silicone. Silicone is THE revolutionary hair ingredient that virtually every high-end product line is using. The older silicones, still used in products like “The Stuff” for dogs, formed a thicker layer over each hair and could eventually yellow or become brittle. The newer silicones, like dimethicone, form an extremely thin layer over each hair; they basically mimic what the hair would look and feel like if it had a perfect, undamaged cuticle. Silicones are unbelievably useful in dog products – they are very benign to the skin and coat, in terms of gloss and texture they give you results like nothing else, and they stay attached to the hair even when the hair gets wet. This allows them to be used as stain- and mud-fighters.

Name your problem, find a solution:

Improve feel: Most conditioners will improve the texture of the coat, making it more attractive to touch and handle. If you just want the coat to feel good, go for a medium conditioner and don’t spend too much money.

Improve gloss and texture without softening coat: Silicones, acidifiers, and antistatic agents are your friends. Avoid heavy oils and waxes.

Deshedding: When the skin and coat are SOFT, the hair is released from the follicle more easily. When the topcoat has SLIP, the shed undercoat can slide over the topcoat and come to the surface of the coat and be blown away or thrown away. So you want a medium conditioner and a silicone.

Dematting: Here you’re looking for maximum SLIP, so the hairs will slide past each other instead of locking together. Here’s where you use the thicker silicone products and gels. You can also use a thick remoisturizer/intensive repair conditioner, but that will weigh the hair down as well. Not a bad thing if it’s a Shih Tzu; bad if it’s a Bichon.

Hair repair: Thick oils, waxes, proteins, and a shot of silicone at the end to seal the hair shaft. 

Products (these are examples only; there are hundreds of products on the market):

Very light conditioners with silicone ingredients: Show Seasons Results Rinse and Chris Christensen After Bath.  Also use these as a final conditioner after a heavy deshedding session; they’ll tighten up the skin and coat again so the hair doesn’t keep coming out. Both of these products contain acidifiers and clarifiers, so they’ll remove any shampoo residue left on the hair. This is great, unless you are counting on the conditioning agents that are advertised in the shampoo. Results Rinse is the simpler formula; After Bath is the higher-tech. Both work well, but After Bath is practically worshipped by show groomers and Poodle and Bichon specialists. I’ve used the AB; it does indeed rock.

Medium conditioners (VERY VERY useful as deshedders): Cure Care by Sally Beauty, Best Shot Ultra Plenish. 

Heavy conditioner/remoisturizers: Nature’s Specialties Re-Moisturizer (groomers call this one “Remo”), Plush Puppy Coat Rescue

Silicones: Chris Christensen Ice on Ice, The Stuff, Cowboy Magic, Show Sheen, Best Shot Ultra Vitalizing Mist, Nature’s Specialties Quicker Slicker.


OK–next: Tools and Actually USING the products.

I think she may have some coat. (A paean to the FLUFF)

When I first contacted Betty Ann about getting a puppy from her, she had a litter there that had a couple of girls available, but she said “Well, you’re going to have to call me back in a few weeks, because I’m pretty sure they’ve got some coat.” 

When I had attended the CWCCA Nationals in ’05, I had seen that some Cardis were, well, volumized, but I hadn’t really bothered to segregate them into categories. I was too busy trying to translate what I knew about Danes and horses and Sussex Spaniels into these funny little freight trains that were moving around the ring. 

So when she said that, I understood that they had coats that were too long to show easily, no big deal, and waited until a couple of litters later when Clue was born. 

To prepare for Clue, I joined a few Cardigan e-mail lists and read through the archives, back to the beginnings of each list, to figure out what I was getting myself into. And in the discussions I saw something called a Fluff referred to, something that was obviously owned and bred only by Iranian terrorists, an evil creature with the potential to destroy the breed, the Group, and half the population of Maryland.

“Holy cats!” I thought. “What the heck is a Fluff?”




Have you managed to creep back to the computer after being driven under the kitchen table with terror? Yeah, I know. I should warn you next time.

If you’re not scared enough now, get ready for more chills, because coat variants exist in a ton of breeds. We tend not to see them because they’re not in the show ring or on the breed profile pictures, but they’re in backyards (and in breeders’ back bedrooms) all over the place. If you’ve never seen a fluffy Mastiff, you owe it to yourself. The long-coat variant on the Mastiff can be anywhere from a little too full in the coat to “wouldn’t be out of place in a Leonberger ring.” Border collies come in two flavors that are very much like Cardigan coats. Lhasas have a short-coated variety, as do Pekingese. The cardinal example, of course, is the Collie, where the two coat types have been exaggerated in their differences to the point that most people don’t even know that they’re the same breed.

Bonita (or whatever her name will be after she goes to her new home) is a very cool coated Cardi; she’s got hair that stands off her body as well as length. She’ll end up looking more like a Pem fluff, or like a Australian Shepherd, than some of the Cardis that just have a longer ear fringe and a flag tail.

So what the heck is the big deal about these dogs? 

Well… honestly, there isn’t one. 

The Cardigan Welsh Corgi standard asks for a coat of a particular type, specifically does not want a coat like sweet Bonita’s will turn out to be, and that’s that. It’s honestly about as sensible as the fact that Labs have to have a certain coat but Goldens, who are theoretically doing the same job, have to have a different one. Or that Chesapeake Bay Retrievers have to be curly but Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers can’t be. 

There are some very, very scary words used about coated Cardigans (these are taken right from the lists, though of course I would never attach names) – inferior, abnormal, unacceptable; the ones with coats to the standard are normal, correct, useful.

What makes this coat “inferior” and “abnormal”? You’ll hear that the countryside of Wales with the mud and rocks made long-coated dogs useless and therefore long coats are incorrect for the breed. Those people don’t tend to mention that the breed working sheep right at this second in Wales is the Border Collie (who has quite a bit of hair – you can see a beautiful rough BC working sheep in Wales in the now-famous Samsung ad). They also don’t mention that the Welsh Terrier and the Welsh Springer Spaniel carry quite a bit of coat and were extremely useful historically.

Presumably the Welsh people could tolerate some mud on their dogs. 

You’ll hear that coated dogs are completely unsuitable for herding, period – but where do these puppies end up? In “performance” homes, often herding homes. If they’re rank failures at useful herding, why in the world are they (gasp!) herding?

You’ll hear that continuing to breed dogs with recessive genes for coat will have “very obvious consequences” – and they’re right. The very obvious consequences will be some dogs with coat. How much of an apocalypse that represents is up to you as a breeder; the owners of coated Cardigans have not yet been swallowed up in the sucking maw of hair hell, but I suppose the worst could be yet to come.

Then there’s the argument that, OK, maybe dogs with hair could herd in Wales, but the hair is unsuitable for herding at breeder X’s home in Texas or similar. So is the standard supposed to reflect the historic job or the current job? The historic job seems to be what every other aspect of the standard is pinned to, so arguing that nobody should ever breed a coated dog because it gets to be ninety degrees somewhere in the world seems a little silly to me. It’s fine if you say that YOU don’t want to breed a coated dog, but I don’t know that the existence of an equator should limit what other breeders are allowed to do.

So what DOES coat have to do with herding?

The genuinely incorrect and truly non-functional coat would be a coat like the Coton or the Havanese. Such a coat is long, incredibly soft, each hair is very narrow and fine, and the coat is almost straight but completely matte in texture. The cuticles of each hair shaft are rough, not smooth, so the coat does not reflect light. When the rough cuticles rub against each other, the effect is like felting a piece of wool; the tangle becomes tighter and tighter until the hairs form an actual piece of fabric. These coats will not just mat; they will create a spongy and absorbent cord. And these coats will hold on to every bit of detritus and mud and dirt the dog goes through. They have zero ability to shed any kind of moisture and in fact draw it up into the hair; these breeds can get colossal skin problems going because the skin cannot dry out. These are coats designed for their gorgeous looks alone; these breeds (at least in their end result, what we have now) were never designed for anything but perfect companionship and the pleasure of pampering and grooming a dog. 

I’ve never seen a coated Cardigan anywhere close to this kind of coat. They have longer coats, but it’s still a mixture of topcoat and undercoat. It may get a little muddier or wetter (or it may not), but it will dry and it will keep the dog healthy.

What is a “functional” coat? The answer to that is as broad as the entire spectrum of “dogs with jobs.”

Can a functional coat tangle? Absolutely. Brush your dog. Can a functional coat mat? Unquestionably. Brush your dog. Can it be long? Yes. Can it be curly? Yes. Can it be “open” (so you can see some undercoat where the topcoat hair parts)? Of course.

But SURELY it must be true that no dog can actively herd if its coat is just constantly tangling and bringing in all sorts of muck and leaves and junk! No shepherd would EVER tolerate that!

I’ll be happy to concede the point if you’d be willing to go to a herding test and yell “You’re not running a real herding dog! You’re not real shepherds!” at all the people running Pulik or Polish Lowland Sheepdogs.

Where this starts to get really complicated:

It’s easy to make blanket statements, like “We just need to test everybody and breed away from the Fluff gene.” or “There’s no reason that non-fluff-carrying dogs have to be lower quality; you just have to put the effort in–breeders who don’t are just being lazy!”

Well, you all know how I feel about blanket statements.

Here’s the first difficult bit: The show-standard-correct coat is not necessarily the fluff-gene-free coat; the fluff-gene-free coat is not necessarily the show-standard-correct coat.

The Cardigan standard asks for a specific set of qualities; here it is:

Medium length but dense as it is double. Outer hairs slightly harsh in texture; never wiry, curly or silky. Lies relatively smooth and is weather resistant. The insulating undercoat is short, soft and thick. A correct coat has short hair on ears, head, the legs; medium hair on body; and slightly longer, thicker hair in ruff, on the backs of the thighs to form “pants,” and on the underside of the tail. The coat should not be so exaggerated as to appear fluffy. This breed has a shedding coat, and seasonal lack of undercoat should not be too severely penalized, providing the hair is healthy. Trimming is not allowed except to tidy feet and, if desired, remove whiskers. Soft guard hairs, uniform length, wiry, curly, silky, overly short and/or flat coats are not desired. A distinctly long or fluffy coat is an extremely serious fault.

First of all, that first sentence is a grammatical nightmare and really very unclear. As it stands, it could mean “as dense as it is double,” meaning that if it’s only a little bit double it doesn’t have to be very dense, or if it’s very double it should be very dense. It should be something more like “Medium in length, dense, and unquestionably a double coat.” At least I think so. You may disagree.

That being said, we move to the words “harsh” “wiry” “curly” and “silky.” All of them have a range of meanings, which is appropriate; we’re supposed to give judges guidance but if we made every single word mean only one thing we’d have one best dog in each breed and every BIS would be won by the same dog. Then we have a short, thick, insulating undercoat, a range of hair lengths over the body that forms a natural pattern as seen in a lot of primitive dogs and the wolf (as is appropriate; the double coat is the ancient coat), stuff about the fact that the dog can be shown out of coat, trimming, and then some coat types that are undesirable. Notice the bit of contradiction here – when a standard says “undesirable” it usually means “don’t reward it, but it’s not the end of the world,” but just a few lines up it is said that the coat is NEVER wiry, curly, or silky. So which is it? Many a breeder has slipped a very curly dog through that particular loophole, and they should not be penalized for it as long as the wording is that ambiguous. If you’re mad, talk to the Standard Committee. 

Then we get to the part we’re dealing with here: Basically, the coat can’t be “distinctly long” and can’t be “fluffy.” 

With the advent of the genetic test for the Fluff gene, I’ve seen a lot of breeders say “This is a correct coat; he’s not a fluff.” That, my friends, does not necessarily follow. I’ve seen some “distinctly long” coats attached to non-genetically-fluffy dogs; I’ve absolutely seen some coats with thin undercoat (when the dog is IN coat), with no pants, and completely flat. And I’ve seen genetically fluffy dogs that have all the qualities listed above, just with more fringes around the ears and tail. Is there anything in the above wording that forbids ear fringes, as long as the hair ON the ears is short? Is there anything there that forbids a flag tail? They’d be “undesirable,” but the dog would be right there in the ring with the curly backs and the super-short coats. 

In short, what’s in front of you is what you’re supposed to be looking at, and what you’re supposed to be judging. Not the result on a gene test.

The quote above (“All it takes is more effort to do it RIGHT”) is the objection that is usually given when breeders say “I love fluffs; I think fluff carriers have better coat than fluff-free dogs, and they seem to have a lot of strength and bone, I’d like to keep using them.” I’ve not bred enough dogs period, let alone enough fluffs, to say that either way, but I know lots of breeders who have seen LOTS of litters, who see the qualities they like (substance and bone) from birth, long before the hair has grown enough to give the illusion of better bone. And they say the fluffs are often the best in the litter. So I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. And there’s no question that fluff carriers are often the ones with the very best show-standard-correct coats, as they balance between too long and too short.

So what of that objection?

I think it IS true that you don’t necessarily have to have shorter Beagle-type coats on the non-fluff-carriers if you work really hard on it; I think it’s true that you can get bone and substance without coat. The question I’d ask is WHY. Why is coat being made the FIRST thing I’m supposed to eliminate dogs based on, or the first thing I’m supposed to select based on? Because that’s what you’re doing, when you say “You shouldn’t breed fluffs” or “You should think twice before breeding fluff carriers” or “You need to go find the non-fluff-carriers that have the thick correct coat.”

I will say without a single qualm that, all things being equal, breeding a non-fluff coat is preferable. However, all things are virtually never equal. By saying that I just have to put in the effort, you’re in effect saying “Fix coat FIRST, then work on the other stuff.” I disagree. I prefer to work on the other stuff, ALL the other stuff, until I really do have a situation where all things are equal and I can get picky about superficial things. 

So why, then, do we have a longer coat so strongly discouraged in the Cardigan standard?

Because… we do. 

Coats and color are expressions of differentiation between breeds, or an idea of what would have been preferred historically, or the leftover bias of a few breed founders. Founder bias should not be discounted; in the early half of the century (and this idea persists in some breeds and some species well into this day and age) there was a strong feeling that dark, solid-colored animals with short-but-not-so-short-it’s-weird coats represent strength and working ability. Lots of white markings, light color, and hair are signs of not being quite serious about real life. Anyone who has heard a Belgian afficionado talk about those expletive-deleted Shires with their stupid white legs and light hooves and huge feathers, good for nothing but parades and Renaissance Faires, knows what I’m talking about. Ditto for Thoroughbred breeders and trainers; many won’t even consider a horse with chrome and even solid chestnuts are considered risky. This attitude was very much a part of the development of early breed standards, and is still in many of them. Think about how many standards ask for “deep, rich, saturated” colors (whatever those may be) and how few would praise “pale, pastel, washed out” colors. Even when the dogs are allowed to be light, they’re supposed to have dark skin and “pigment” (nose, eyes, pads).

If we accept the idea that coat length is more about bias or cosmetics than about actual usefulness (and I think this is inescapable, given the incredibly useful dogs who are dripping in coat), does that mean such a clause in a standard is invalid?


Breeds are allowed to decide which colors, coat types, eye colors, nose colors, etc. are to be required in the standard. They’re allowed to be just that superficial. They are allowed to say that there are certain things that are justified purely through circular reasoning. Why can Labradors not have white markings? Because they’re Labradors. Why are they Labradors? Because they do not have white markings. There are some superficial traits that are there purely and simply to define the breed via its appearance. Those traits that most clearly define the breed on appearance alone are usually the ones that are the biggest faults, in fact. You can bring a Golden in the ring that has a butt three inches higher than its shoulders and back legs that are perfectly vertical posts as long as it’s not black. 

Think about it this way. There’s a game called Monopoly that involves moving around a board in a circle, collecting certain points in the form of fake dollars, and the player who has the most points at the end wins. That’s the “function” of the Monopoly game. Monopoly also has some extremely superficial traits, like the fact that two of its board spaces are named “Park Place” and “Boardwalk” and there is another set of spaces called “Railroads.” These things add very little to the function of the game; they are just more spaces where you can collect or be deducted of points. 

If I create a board game that asks players to move around a board in a circle and collect money, and there are certain ways that money can be added to or deducted from my total, I’ve just about completely replicated the function of Monopoly. And Parker Brothers or whoever owns Monopoly right now would not care a bit. 

If, however, I created a game called “Pomopaly,” in which players had to move across a grid instead of around a circle, and I named grid pieces “Park Place” and “Boardwalk” and had others called “Railroads,” and I had players put “hotels” on their grid pieces, Parker Brothers would be all over me and I’d be sued immediately. 

That’s because when you think of Monopoly and want to play Monopoly and think about how fun Monopoly is, your brain has captured those feelings in association with those very superficial traits, NOT with the function of the game. Those superficial traits are actually more intimately tied in with that game than the functional traits are.

That’s why, although I think that coated Cardigans, fluffy Mastiffs, short-coated Lhasas, and so on are perfectly lovely and NOT abnormal or inferior, I would not fight to have those requirements removed from those standards. It is not only OK, it’s absolutely to be expected that there will be a set of relatively meaningless superficial traits associated with a breed.

Where I would fight, and fight hard, is with someone who says that breeders shouldn’t be allowed to use dogs with meaningless superficial traits in their breeding programs, or should be penalized if they produce some dogs with these meaningless traits. 

There is a whole group of people who say “Well, I’d rather have the fluff thing than an incorrect topline or ugly head or cowhocks.” And that’s a perfectly good and true statement. It IS better to have longer coat than unsound bodies. But that still says that the longer coat is icky, just a little less icky than a wonky bite. 

It’s much more true to the actual fact of coated versus noncoated dogs to say “The only place coat matters is in the show ring, and that’s where the judgment for or against it should stay.” I would personally  be rather offended if a breeder judge called me a poor breeder (of ANY breed) because I allowed a dog with superficial faults to reproduce. I’d also be VERY unhappy with that same judge if he or she awarded me or anyone else a ribbon for a dog that displays a major superficial fault (unless everything else in the ring is so bad that even with my “serious” or “extremely serious” fault my dog is still the best in the ring).

The judge’s job is to apply the standard to each dog in each ring; my job is to create a population of dogs that is as close to the standard as possible. In other words, the judge’s job is to focus on ONE DOG; my job is to focus on my BREEDING PROGRAM. If I find that using a few dogs with superficial faults brings the quality of my entire population up, or (conversely) if I found that never using dogs with superficial faults brought the quality of my population down, then I’m doing no more than my job if I use them. 

Will I ever actually breed a fluff? I haven’t the slightest. I think Bonita is the bees knees, but she’s not going to be mine and, even if she were, she’d have to demonstrate structure, temperament, soundness, and working ability. Right now she’s just an adorable ball of poofiness. Will I get mad at you if you don’t breed a fluff, or if you’ve made the decision to breed away from them? Never. I am much more of a lumper than a splitter; I think you have the right to do whatever it is you feel is most correct. The only thing I’m serious about is defending the right of good, careful breeders to keep the label of good, careful breeders if they use dogs that are coated. I think that the reality of the situation demands that they be respected, as long as they care about an overall level of quality in their breeding program. Using coated dogs should never be a litmus test, because it’s based on wholly superficial things. Save your ire and spleen for people doing genuinely wrong things; there are plenty of those to go around.

cheap dryers at some wal-marts

This is being passed around my grooming lists: Some wal-marts bought Metro Air Force motorcycle dryers (which are the same thing as the Air Force dog dryers) and evidently they didn’t sell too well. They’re unloading them at $20 each. I don’t think Air Force dryers are $100 dryers; I am not even sure they’re $50 dryers. But for $20 it’s worth it to have one or two around (or they’d be an OK choice for pet owners who are only drying one dog every couple of weeks). 

I tried the four stores near me; nobody had any idea what I was talking about. Hope somebody else has better luck!

Grooming: Part le deux: skin health and shampoo

Before I go any further, please realize that a TON of what I have learned is due to the genius of Barbara Bird, groomer extraordinaire. BBird basically taught herself everything there is to know about shampoos and conditioners and skin conditions and how to solve them. She’s given herself a PhD in this stuff, and I don’t exaggerate even a tiny bit. Having spent a lot of years in grad school myself, I can tell you that she’s better at this than most new doctoral graduates. 

BBird teaches a class called “Beyond Suds and Scent,” which I have a great desire to take and hope to someday. Meanwhile, I have read everything she’s ever written online and in discussion groups and every single bit of it is gold. So don’t think that I am even a little bit smart about this; I’m definitely just a student.

So anyway: The first step to a groom is to evaluate the condition of the dog’s skin. I’m not going to turn this into a vet course, but the basic idea is that scratching is not normal, flaking is not normal, any blackening or discoloration is not normal, any thickening of the skin and the tissue below it is not normal. A dog’s skin should be as smooth, thin, and pale as possible, even in thickness and pliable. 

Hauling Clue up beside me, I am going to demonstrate on her cute little self. 

I noticed her scratch her side this afternoon, so I am now watching her like a hawk. Dogs should virtually never scratch, and especially if it’s accompanied by wolf-biting their own skin I suspect fleas or ticks. I haven’t seen either one, but if the dogs are feeling them it’s time to start the spring Frontline schedule. 

Parting her hair, I see nothing flaking, red, black, or scabby. Rolling her skin between my fingers, I can feel the increased thickness of the skin where the worst of her chemical burn was last year. The hair has come in well, but I can feel that the skin is still too thick. I am checking every couple of weeks to make sure nothing changes, or (best case) it gradually goes back to normal. 

Bronte, poor lamb, has scars on her face from the house fire, but Clue doesn’t. I also check Clue’s back legs to make sure the scars from her car hit are healing and continuing to fill in. They are. I take a pinch of her hair from several points on her body and try to pull the hair out – the only thing I get is some grey undercoat. YAY. Diet is finally working. 

So I don’t see anything that needs a medical treatment or a different shampoo approach than I normally use. 

Some of the different issues I’ve seen over the years: Skin staph infections (very common and harmless in puppies; more worrisome in adults), pyodermas of all kinds (the skin is either darker or redder or seeping slightly), folliculitis, mange, SLO (an autoimmune disease that is thankfully very treatable), ringworm and other fungal infections, allergies, flaking, etc. I haven’t personally seen but know to watch for alopecia of various types (including color-related, which is SUPER common in dobermans and their mixes), Addisonian hair changes (Addisons disease causes odd growth and shedding patterns), Cushings-related hair changes, etc. The coat and skin are the early-warning system for half a hundred different diseases, so keeping track of how it looks and feels is a very big deal. 

Basically, if there’s anything on the skin or coat that looks gross or you don’t want to touch, it’s not just “doggy.” Something is likely wrong. 

I then flip Clue over and look at her belly skin (for darkness or redness) and to make sure her belly hair is growing well. I know it sounds insane, but in my experience a completely naked belly after puppyhood means something is missing in the diet. When I bring in a new rescue, one of the signs that the dog is getting healthy again is that the belly hair starts to grow. I have no medical basis for saying this, but it’s been very consistent in my own dogs. Belly hair is always going to be thin and see-through, but it should be soft and healthy looking. 

Flip her back over, check her ears. Chide myself because there’s a little black in there, but there’s no redness or irritation. Use a baby wipe to get the black out. The rest of her ear skin is good and pale and cool.

I’ve been wiping her little yaya daily because she’s still dripping a little, so I don’t need to check that. Ordinarily I’d make sure there was no redness or swelling that might indicate either a little vaginitis or an anal gland issue. And yes, I do empty anal glands myself, if needed. After you’ve done it once you realize that it’s totally doable and not even that icky. 

Today, Clue’s skin looks great. So she just needs a normal bath. Which brings us to SHAMPOO.

The supreme thing you need to know when you’re looking at shampoo is that SHAMPOO IS A LIE, MADE BY LYING LIARS THAT LIE. When you buy shampoo, you’re getting about a teaspoon of actual cleaning power inside a $10 bottle of water, salt, thickeners, pearlizers, texture enhancers (and by this I mean the texture of the shampoo, not the texture of the hair), foamers, defoamers, fragrance, water softeners, emulsifiers, and a bunch of completely useless herbs and botanical ingredients. 

The function of shampoo is to remove the skin oil (sebum) that is sitting on the skin and coat, and to lift dirt so it can be carried away in the rinse. That’s it.

The vast majority of what is in that bottle is made for YOU, not the dog. People tend to like products that feel thick, silky, have a pearly sheen, smell good, and create a thick and firm lather. None of those aspects mean SQUAT when it comes to cleaning, but they make you feel like it’s a higher-quality product than one that is thin and watery and smells like soap. 

The other set of ingredients, herbs and other botanicals, is all about making the shampoo seem “natural” or to raise the price of the shampoo because botanicals are perceived to be expensive. I’m not knocking botanicals or herbs, because many of them have very powerful and positive effects on skin and hair. I just think they’re stupid in shampoo, because (hello!) YOU RINSE THEM OUT. The whole purpose of shampoo is to LEAVE. There’s no way applying a minute amount of aloe for five minutes to a shampooed dog does a thing; in fact, since the surfactants (the cleaners) in the shampoo hold anything oily or greasy away from the hair, the aloe doesn’t even touch the hair or skin. 

For most dogs, whatever feels good to you is going to be fine. If you feel more loving toward your dog because you use a $40 bottle of shampoo, go for it. I, personally, like a certain scent and I’m willing to pay for it. So I fall in this trap as well. But don’t fall for the idea that the actual shampoo is “better” because it smells good. 

Here are the differences in shampoo that actually matter:

1) Concentration and harshness of the cleaning agents used. I don’t know how to not write like sixteen paragraphs on this, and it would get REALLY boring and use a lot of organic chemistry terms and I would get a headache, so (making a long story short) Kelco’s Filthy Animal shampoo is super strong and super concentrated and needs to be diluted like you would not believe, whereas Chris Christensen shampoo is more like a human daily-use shampoo, comparatively weak and dilute and packed with “feel-good” ingredients. Most of the pet shampoos you can buy in pet supply stores are both weak and cheaply made, with lower-quality surfactants. They’re very dilute because the manufacturers know that people like to dump shampoo on their dogs in huge glurgs and that owners rarely rinse well enough, and if they made them as strong as professional products you’d burn the heck out of your dogs. 

Pay attention to the recommended dilution on the bottle, and use whatever shampoo you need to get your dog clean. 

2) Dyes. Specifically, green and purple and blue and red. Dyes in shampoos DO work. You can get a dramatically better appearance when a yellowed coat has had some purple dye deposited on it. Green shampoos really do blacken a reddish coat. There are also non-dye colorizers called optical brighteners; they’re common in clothes detergents because they make whites look brighter. I use dye in shampoos all the time, mainly to brighten whites. However, dyes make the shampoo less mild and in some sensitive dogs they can cause allergies or reactions. So use them carefully and consider a test patch on the belly before you go over the whole dog. 

3) Humectants. These are products that attract moisture to the hair and make it feel softer than it did before. Humectants are the reason you don’t use Palmolive on your hair; it’s actually a lot like shampoo but it doesn’t put any moisture back in and so your hair feels fried after using it. You don’t need a lot of humectant if you’re going to be using a conditioner, because the conditioner actually means something (conditioners lie less), but for a shampoo alone it’s good to have some. The most common humectant is glycerine or one of its cousins.

I’m going to list a whole bunch of brands in some post sometime, but it’s like 3 am and so this is not the time :). What I WILL do is give you a great secret: A fabulous, very effective, about as hypoallergenic shampoo as you can find, and it costs pennies.

Barbara Bird’s Bichon Bubbles:

22 oz Ivory Liquid Dish Detergent 
2 oz. glycerine (available at drug store; this is the humectant)
2 cups plain white vinegar 
Put in a gallon container and full with water

Now I can just hear people saying “Ivory liquid! Horrible!” So I am stealing (again from BBird) the following comparison:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (detergent surfactant)
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (detergent co-surfactant, milder than SLS)
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (foam builder, thickener, anti-irritant)
Lauramide DEA (foam builder, foam stabilizer, thickener)
Sodium Sulfate (thickener)
Sodium Chloride (thickener)
Citric Acid (pH adjuster)
Tetrasodium EDTA (chelating agent, preservative)
DMDM Hydantoin (preservative)

TOP PERFORMANCE PROCLEAN 35 (a professional dog grooming shampoo)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate,
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Cocamidopropyl Betaine
Glycol Stearate (emollient/pearlizing agent)
Methylchloroisothiasolinone/Methylisothiazolinone (preservatives)
Sodium Chloride (thickener)
Cirtric Acid (pH adjuster)
FD & C Yellow No. 5; FD&C Blue #1 

The only difference between Ivory and the pet shampoo is that Ivory is thicker and the pet shampoo has a pearly sheen to it, and they use different preservative methods.

Bichon Bubbles makes a thin solution that is very “unsexy.” But it works beautifully and it’s extremely gentle on skin and hair.  It rinses very easily and is low-foaming, which is actually an advantage in shampoo even though it feels unfamiliar to your hands. And it’s SO CHEAP. 

Tomorrow: Conditioners (which DO mean something) and the various after bath products and finishing sprays and silicones and so on. Onward!

Grooming a dog! Bathing, feeding, shampoos, texturizers, you name it I’ve tried it. Part 1: From the inside out

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!