Grooming Sweetie

Lessons from an elderly Afghan
By Denise Kirshenbaum, December 2010, Updated February 2015

I kneel in front of the kennel that holds my first dog of the day. Sweetie, an Afghan Hound, peers out from a rear corner,where she’s arranged her reddishbrown body into a deceptively small heap.Her large eyes glow with the iridescence of glaucoma. I’m nearly three months and 100 dogs into grooming school and you’d think I’d no longer be nervous, but my trembling hands give me away as I fumble with the kennel’s latch. I wonder if Sweetie notices? An index card clipped to the kennel lists her age as 14 on her first visit nearly a year ago. It also says she’s deaf. I’ll just have to let my hands do the talking, I think as I reach in and slip a blue nylon leash around her neck and gently coax her out of the kennel.

Like many of the dogs I’ve groomed during my time as a student, Sweetie seems nervous as we cross the brightly lit classroom, passing an overweight Lab and a pair of sablecolored Sheltie sisters and side-stepping to avoid a huge Akita.When I gather her willowy body into my arms to lift her onto my table, I’m surprised by how light she is. I set her down and her toenails click as she scrabbles for purchase on the pebbly surface. Tethered to a table high in the air, she’s unsure. Conspicuous. In full view. Just like I feel most days amidst my mostly younger classmates.

Sweetie crouches into a “down” position, shaking like a leaf. “It’s okay, girl.” Forgetting she can’t hear, I reassure her over the din of barking dogs and fussing groomers as I review the instructions: Sweetie/Afghan Hound/4- strip/Smooth Crown/Clean Face.

I run my fingers through the soft, ruffled fur between her ears that gives her a distinct resemblance to Woodstock, Snoopy’s little bird friend. I continue petting her while waiting for her initial wave of fear to pass, taking a few deep breaths to calm myself as well. Spread out along the countertop behind me is my array of equipment: various styles of combs and brushes, an undercoat rake, a shedding blade, a stripping knife, two types of nail cutters, several pairs of gleaming stainless-steel scissors, and two types of motorized clippers with a wide assortment of clipper blades and guard combs—all razor-sharp blades and pointed teeth, all menacing-looking to various degrees. Please don’t let me hurt this dog, I think for the thousandth time since beginning grooming school. My mantra for the duration.


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When she stops shaking, we begin. I clean the insides of her ears and clip her nails. Then, bracing one of her legs at a time firmly between my elbow and rib cage, I carefully remove the hair from the bottom of each foot with my clipper, gently working it into the V of the large pad at the back of each paw to remove the excess hair that traps dirt and debris.Although thin, for an old dog, Sweetie stands well.

I find myself trying to imagine each dog’s story. Some are puppies, in for the first time. Others come from rescue groups. A few have standing monthly appointments.Running my hands over Sweetie to check for troublesome irritations or growths, I wonder about the circumstances of this dog—a now 15-year-old Afghan whose first grooming at the school came just a year ago. The search turns up a single wart on her throat and some matted fur behind each ear. But those jutting hipbones! The delicate tendons running down the backs of her legs! You’ll just have to be extra careful, I tell myself as I attach the #4-blade to my clipper.

Eyes glued to Sweetie’s thin body, I run the buzzing clipper through her inch-long fur in long strokes.Keeping her skin pulled taut with my free hand, I clip down her back and over her rib cage, all the while envisioning an Afghan in full coat—arguably the glamour girl of the canine world. I picture luxuriant locks cascading from a long-limbed frame as small mounds of red-brown hair fall soundlessly to the table.We’re taught not to second-guess the owners —our clients—but sometimes that’s hard.

Perhaps for reasons outside of Sweetie’s control, she’s been passed on to a new owner? Or perhaps she’s owned by an older person who can no longer handle the intensive brushing needed to keep up her longer coat? Possible scenarios chase one another through my mind as I move on to untangle the mats knotting the silky fur behind her ears. Preliminaries complete, we cross the narrow hallway into the bathing room, where a dozen high-velocity blow dryers drone in the background. The earthy scent of damp dog envelops us as I whisk my charge into an open tub, securing the plastic safety cable around her neck before turning on the water.We look on as a chorus line of wet dogs high step and twirl atop a row of oval drying tables, dodging the streams of air rushing from cone-shaped nozzles wielded by their groomers. The smaller of the Sheltie sisters—assigned to one ofmy classmates—barks furiously, while the larger one—assigned to another—makes little snapping bites at the nozzle. Both double-coated dogs are nearly dry already! As usual, I’m off to a slower start than my classmates. Sweetie’s iridescent eyes fix on mine while we wait for the icy water pouring from the water wand to warm.

All dogs look soulful when their faces are wet, and Sweetie is no exception.With the pads of my fingers, I work oatmeal shampoo into her wet fur and down her twig-like legs, gingerly lifting one foot at a time to massage the creamy soap between her toes. “This shampoo is good for your skin, girl,” I tell her, again forgetting she can’t hear. One tub over, the Akita shudders vigorously and flying water soaks the back of my thin smock. Sweetie, however, stands perfectly still, as though the bubbly lather she’s wearing is as familiar as an old terrycloth robe. It’s partly physics—old dogs can’t shake like younger dogs. Or perhaps, like my childhood dog Queen, Sweetie has simply grown into her calmness. I rinse the smooth planes of her head and her bony body, imagining a younger,wilder Sweetie racing alongside a gangly, bicycle-riding girl and her baseball-playing brother.

I carry her swaddled in a towel to the waist-high tabletop of a large drying cage, blotting dripping water from both of us before turning on the wall-mounted dryer at half-velocity to get her used to its raspy hum.Wisps of downy undercoat float through the humid air like cottonwood. This part is almost relaxing, but any minute I expect my teacher to make her rounds and shout in a voice loud enough to carry over the sound of the dryers,“How much longer,Denise?”Embarrassed, I’ll have no idea how to answer.

At 45, after a successful career in another field, I find it frustrating to know so little. I keep waiting to see new skills grow. Instead, I feel inept. Clumsy. Interminably slow. Sweetie stands patiently as I increase the dryer’s velocity, a sharp contrast to the Akita, now two stations away. He pulls violently against his tether, growling, biting aggressively at the dryer nozzle while his frustrated groomer—one of the newer students— scolds him. The metal pole he’s tethered to begins to bend. “You might want to try cage-drying him,” I suggest, pointing out the empty cage available underneath Sweetie’s table.

As Sweetie’s fur dries, it’s looking fluffier. Shinier.When she’s completely dry, I repeat the clipping process, backcombing between passes. I try to keep an even pressure on the clipper, overlapping each stroke slightly as though I’m mowing a lawn. Just as I’m ready to move to her legs—a difficult part— Sweetie suddenly lists dramatically. Like an uprooted tree, her entire weight presses into me and I feel her heart beating wildly against my shoulder. Setting the clipper aside, I’m aware of the Akita now in the crate beneath her banging his powerful body repeatedly against the metal bars. With all of my worrying, I hadn’t even heard him! Poor Sweetie …she must feel the violence directly beneath her.

I wrap my arms around the terrified dog, making a conscious attempt to slow my breathing, letting her feel my heartbeat, which is so slow and steady it surprises me. Eventually, she relaxes and rights herself, and I finish the clipping, moving onto the scissor work. I trim around her feet. I brush out her ears and tail, scissoring stray ends.When it’s time for the clean face—new for me (and truly scary)—I call the teacher. She does one side, using a #7 blade against the grain, cutting the hair to a sixteenth of an inch, and miraculously, I do the other! Sweetie trusts me to run the buzzing clipper under her eye and down the bridge of her long nose, under her chin and over her muzzle, leaving her face as smooth as a peach. With my teacher nodding her approval, I step back to assess my work.

Under the bright lights, Sweetie’s short auburn fur shimmers like velvet. Her clean face dominated by those large glowing eyes is beautifully expressive. I smile broadly, gazing at her, and I swear I see Sweetie—like some lovely flower unfolding new petals toward the sun— stretching her old but still-elegant frame to new heights.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009

Photography Margo Harrison

Denise Kirshenbaum lives in Wilmette, Ill., with her husband and two dogs; her writing has appeared in More magazine.