The promise of technology is that it will make our lives easier, in this increasingly high-tech world. From computers to shampoo, we face a stunning array of choices. The flip side of all that modern convenience is information overload. When it comes to dogs, whether you’re a novice preparing your first prospect for the ring, or a 30-year veteran with state of the art equipment purchased at your first dog show in 1974, there’s hope.
Suesan E. Watson, a respected groomer for more than 30 years, and recipient of the 2003 Wahl Clipper Corporation Groomer of the Year Award, offers this professionally guided, non-technical tour of what you need, and what you need to know, to set up for success in the brave new world of dog grooming.
Brushes and Combs
If you’re going to be stranded on a desert island with only one tool, pack your brush. Both simple and essential, choose it with care. Even short-coated dogs like Dalmatians do a certain amount of continuous shedding. A good brush feels comfortable in your hand, and leaves a minimum of loose hair after a 20-minute brush-out. Pay attention to the number of bristles: more is better, for pulling hair. If you’re noticing as much hair around the dog as on him, chances are you have the wrong brush.
Wood and plastic are the most common materials. Some professionals prefer the feel of wood, saying it transmits into your hand how hard you’re brushing the dog. With plastic, you need to pay attention that you don’t brush too hard. Most breeds will require a wire slicker brush; for long-coated dogs like a Shih Tzu or Poodle in show coat, a pin brush is often preferred.
A boar’s bristle brush pulls oils up on short-coated dogs, for shine. It’s not a must-have, and most people wouldn’t notice the difference right off; but when you see a bristle-brushed dog in the sunlight, the results can be surprising. For some fanciers, it’s a subtlety they eventually notice, and want to do all the time.
While combs come in all shapes, sizes, and finishes, any solid metal dog comb, narrow at one end and wider-toothed at the other, will work for most breeds.
Scissors suffer the most abuse. They get knocked off the table, dropped on the floor, are the most-used and least maintained tool. Buy a top-shelf pair (and learn to maintain them properly!). Higher quality steel is lighter in weight, and will scissor better, resulting in a finer finish that lasts longer. Save yourself the headache and the heartache, spend the $7 to $15, and send them out for professional sharpening on a regular basis. The less metal you grind off, the better they’ll cut, and the longer they’re going to last. More expensive shears cost more to sharpen, as they’re done on a diamond wheelthey’ll get a better edge, which also means they’ll be sharper.
Ergonomic is not automatically better. Some shears designed to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome can wind up causing more strain, if they feel awkward to grasp. Make your own assessment. Rubber rather than metal handles are not for everyone; and some groomers report that cushy grip feels awkward and flimsy, requiring them to muscle through for proper control.
Don’t buy the first pair of scissors you see. Check out all your options, and you’ll find your best pair.
No single tool in the groomer’s tack box has seen as much evolution as the electric clipper. This is another must-have where it doesn’t pay to skimp. The basic rule of thumb is: the faster a clipper moves, the better the cut. The right clipper provides a smoo ther cut, a smoother finish, greater efficiency, and saves wear and tear on your joints.
Not just any trimmer will do. Even the softest dog hair is coarser than human hair. Choose a quality animal product; manufacturers offer high-quality products at comparable prices. The trick is to choose the best clipper for the job. Depending on your breed, you may want to go the pro route, and invest in more than one: a clipper for cutting through matted hair, and another for light trimming. It all depends on howand how muchyou’re going to use it.
There are two basic things to assess: heat and speed. A clipper that feels hot in your hand means hotter blades; and hotter blades mean more chance of clipper-burning a dog’s skin. If you’re a novice, better to go with something else until you develop your skill. A less expensive clipper will suffice for shorter jobs, and basic trimming. For heavy, dirty, or matted coats, as in the case of field or herding dogs, you’ll need a heavy-duty clipper with a faster blade, that won’t overheat with prolonged use. With greater speed parts wear out, and need to be oiled more.
The third factor, again, is what feels good in your hand.
Once you’ve found the right tool, routine maintenance is crucial. Once a week, open the case and clean out any trapped hair, to save the motor from running hotter than necessary. Oil all parts with regular clipper oil. Keeping your clippers clean and oiled is the smartest thing you can do to ensure they’ll work smoothly for many years.
Blades. When you buy a clipper, generally it comes with only one blade. Depending on the desired coat length for your breed, you’ll want to buy more blades. The higher the blade number, the shorter the cut will be. You need to adjust what you’re actually cutting by the number of blade you’re using. Ceramic blades are an interesting innovation, designed to help prevent those burns from fast-moving metal parts. The trade-off is a choppier cut, and a (seemingly) slower moving blade. As yet, nothing provides as smooth a cut as an all-steel blade. Still, it’s worth doing your homework to find out what’s out there, and how they’re being used.
Some clippers sport new designs that fit nicely in your hand, while others offer heavy-duty motors that will cut through anything. Don’t buy until you find the combination that will work best for you.
Nail Clippers and Grinders
Generally speaking, dogs tend to accept grinding more easily than cutting. Any Dremmel-type rotary grinder will work, but one manufacturer has a new variable-speed design that is especially useful for puppies and skittish dogs. The lower you dial it down, the quieter it becomes.
Even if you’re primarily a grinder, there will be times you’ll need to clip instead. Best advice: Get a heavy-duty pair, even for a small dogyou’ll get through the nail the quickest, which means less stress for everyone. Here again, you’ll need one designed for the rounded, thicker canine nail.
Choosing a pair with a nail guard may help with the common fear of cutting the quick. Confidence is half the battle: if you’re tense, your dog is more likely to be afraid. The trade-off is that you can only cut a little of the nail at a time, and sometimes several short clips are more tortuous to a dog than a quick, simple snip. Ideal is to clip and then grind, with regular grinding for maintenance, depending on your dog’s needs. For conformation, the object is to get the nail short enough that it doesn’t hit the floor; for lure coursing and other sports, the dog may need more of a point for traction.
If the dog keeps pulling his foot away, and you can’t control the clipper, then the grinder is a very good option.
Think of this as a 15- to 30-year investment. You want to make sure your dryer doesn’t get too hot, or blow too cold. You can’t be without a dryer when you’re bathing dogs, and the better you buy, the longer it will last. While hand-held blow dryers will get you by, eventually you will want more professional results.
One option is the forced-air hose dryer, resembling a vacuum cleaner: our grooming expert swears a good forced-air dryer can levitate a small dog off a table if you’ve got it on high. For someone with Samoyeds or Collies (i.e., dogs with big, thick coats) you’ll get through the coat a lot quicker with the power of compressed air, blowing water off the dog when he comes out of the tub.
The other pro tool is the stand dryer, which is essentially a highly efficient blow dryer mounted on a variable-height stand. It blows warmly and gently (with variable temperature settings from cold to hot). Your stand dryer will give you the driest, straightest coat. While there isn’t a lot of difference outwardly, higher-end models will have a stronger (and longer-lasting) motor, and are more likely to blow hot air without overheating and burning the dog’s skin.
Again, maintenance is key: clean monthly, making sure the motor is free of hair and dirt. Some have changeable carbon brushes inside. If your dryer is blowing lukewarm or cold, it’s probably time to send it out for an overhaul, including having those brushes replaced. Basic cleaning and brush replacement can be as low as $50.
Obviously you will need some kind of grooming table. While stationary tables are the tried-and-true, easy-to-pack staple, we have two words for you: electric table. If you do a lot of work with a larger dog, and can afford it, having a table you can raise and lower from floor to work-level will save wear and tear on dog and owner alike. Once you make the leap, you’ll wonder how you ever did without one.
Another Way to Wash
Quite a few companies have come out with free-standing tubs that connect to any water source and drain, and they come in various shapes and sizes. If you’re bathing your dog at home, it’s often easier to have him step into your tub, rather than picking him up and into a raised tub. A smaller dog might be more intimidated in a floor tub, and therefore prefer something raised. The individual dog, and how often you’re going to bathe, will determine the accommodations you’re willing to make in your home.
For conformation exhibitors, the best investment for the road is a hydro-surge pump. This easily portable, lightweight pump allows you to add a small amount of water to the tub, then sits in the tub and recycles the soap and water right through the attached hose. Whether you’re showing one dog or bathing several at home, this handy little innovation could save a lot of time and back trouble in the long run.
Replacement Costs and Payoffs
If you take care of your equipment, you won’t have to replace much. The tool most likely to be replaced is your clipper. That’s the one item people buy repeatedly due to high use and lack of care. Getting the right tools, and spending a few extra minutes on maintenance, will save you hours of frustration, and mean less time on the table for your dog.
Special thanks to professional groomer Suesan E. Watson, of Hoffman Estates, Ill., for her generous contribution to this article.