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Looking Good: Tips for a well-groomed dog
We talk to groomer extraordinaire Robyn Michaels

It seems so simple. A few passes with a brush, an occasional suds-up in the tub or back yard, and there you have it: a well-groomed dog. If only. But help is here. We asked professional groomer Robyn Michaels for insights into keeping our dogs looking and smelling good with a minimal amount of fuss — and without the kind of mishaps that lead to a starring role on America’s Funniest Home Videos!

Q: What’s the best way to help a dog enjoy being brushed?
A: If you’re working with a puppy, start the first day, even if he doesn’t need to be brushed. It’s best to have the pup lie down, as that allows you to do a more thorough job and not break the coat — meaning that the coat could actually “break” and get split ends, causing matting — (this is very important for Tibetan Terriers, Afghan Hounds and Shih Tzus, for example). But let’s say you got the dog as an older dog, and he’s not used to being groomed. He may think he is being restrained and panic. The main thing is to be patient and work with the dog.

A grooming table makes all the difference. The floor is the dog’s territory. Being even a foot off the floor puts your dog in a different dimension and a different place psychologically. You can buy a used portable dog-grooming table or make your own; in either event, be sure the table is absolutely steady. Fear of falling affects dogs even more than physical pain.

Without a table, grooming is often a two-person job: one person to hold the dog still and the other person to brush. The person holding should have the dog on a very short leash and keep one hand on the dog’s withers (shoulders). The dog will not be as apt to struggle if he’s not being strong-armed and wrestled with.

This is where I make my pitch for doing basic obedience exercises, which helps your dog understand that you really are in charge, really are a leader and won’t hurt him.

Q: No matter how often we brush our dogs, they still don’t look well groomed, and dog-hair tumbleweeds are still rolling across the floor. Why?
A: You’re probably using the wrong brush. The best-selling dog brush in America has bristles on one side and pins on the other. Unfortunately, this is the wrong brush for more than 95 percent of pet dogs. Or maybe 100 percent — I have yet to find a groomer who can tell me the breed or coat type for which they use this type of brush. The only thing I can figure out is that when people go to their local pet store and ask for help, they’re told, “Well, this [the bristle/pin number] is our best-selling brush!” and that’s what they wind up with. These brushes always seem to be at eye level in pet stores (better brushes are often displayed either overhead or close to the floor). Both the pins and the bristles bounce off the top of the dog’s coat and do very little to remove loose hair.

Q: What kind of brush should we be using?
A: For just about any breed, a slicker brush is the best choice, and just about any will do. I use two curved slickers: one called a “stiff” slicker and one with finer-gauge wire; you may find others easier to use. Personally, I don’t like flat slicker brushes because if you flick your wrist as you brush, you eventually wind up straightening out the top layer of wires. When the wires become straight (or are bent in the wrong direction), the brush is useless.

Rakes come with various numbers of teeth in a row. You will have to experiment, but to begin with, I suggest that you get one with the widest separation/ fewest teeth. The blades on the underside of the curved teeth act like seam rippers. It is almost impossible to cut your dog with this type of rake, and you will pull out a lot of hair that a slicker brush won’t get. A metal comb is also handy to have, to tease out mats, get into small areas (under armpits, behind and under ears, between toes) and clean the brush.

Q: What’s the best way to brush? And how often should we do it?
A: The technique is simple: start at the same place on your dog every time — it’s best to begin at the bottom of the back legs — and work your way up, first one side, then the other. It’s important to brush the dog from the skin out. If you don’t get down to the skin, you will not be doing a thorough job. Plus (especially if the dog gets wet), the hair may mat, which happens when open hair cuticles lock together.

Matting starts in a dog’s moving parts: around the tail, behind the ears, in the armpits, and on the hocks and pasterns (ankles), and spreads from there. Also, if your dog has a double coat (long guard hairs and a shorter, softer undercoat), you need to get down to the skin to remove that loose undercoat hair. As to how often: you may have to do this every other day if your dog has a dry, cottony coat (like a Coton de Tulear), but, for most dogs, if you brush too often, you will cause more static, which will cause more matting and also affect the coat’s shed cycle.

I recommend brushing at least the mat-prone areas every week, and a long-haired, double-coated dog usually needs to be brushed more often when he’s actively “blowing coat” — the big twice-a-year seasonal shed.

One more thing: dressing up your dog may be fun, but if you have a single-coated dog, every time you take off his coat or sweater, you create static and cause matting.

Q: Speaking of matting — a friend’s Golden Retriever had lots of mats and tangles, so she shaved him. Is this a good idea?
A: Shaving double-coated dogs changes their coats. The hair grows back very slowly and is likely to be shorter and softer, and possibly a different color. Or, the dog may develop clipper alopecia, in which the hair does not grow back at all. Here’s the deal: for most dogs, brushing with the proper brush will take less than 15 minutes once a week. In many cases, it will take less than five minutes. Yet, those few minutes will make so much difference in both your life and your dog’s.

Q: How about bathing — what do we need to get our dogs clean?
A: You’ve probably seen television commercials in which the family dog is sitting in a tub of bubble bath in the back yard, and the family is making an afternoon of bathing him. This is not what dog groomers do and there’s no need for you to do it either.

There are many kinds of dog shampoo, so you should be able to find one that works well for your particular dog’s coat, but know this: suds do not clean the dog. The shampoo’s active ingredients agitated against your dog’s hair are what do the cleaning. If your dog’s skin is irritated by a shampoo, it’s usually sodium laureth sulfate (or chloride, the sudsing agent) that’s causing the problem; a few manufacturers make sodium-free shampoo.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t dilute the shampoo, you’ll never get it completely rinsed out. The industry-average dilution rate is 16 to one, but you can just eyeball it.

Dispense the diluted shampoo using an old dishwashing liquid or shampoo bottle. You want just enough suds to tell you when you’ve covered the whole dog. If you want to really get the dog clean, brush the shampoo through his coat. This covers every hair, gets out some of the smaller tangles you might have missed and removes the loose stuff. After the dog’s dry, brush him again, and then float a comb through his coat to finish up and clear out any remaining tangles (don’t forget: armpits, behind the ears, under the chin, and around the tail and ankles).

People often ask about conditioners. I rarely use them. A conditioner works by coating the dog’s hair with a humectant, which attracts moisture. This can be helpful for long-haired dogs in the winter, to counter static, but conditioner is difficult to rinse out, often leaves a film on the dog’s hair, will attract dirt and may even cause matting. I suggest avoiding conditioners unless you are using them for a specific reason.

Q. Finally, a little background. How did you get started, and what do you see as the most common grooming challenge?
A: I began collecting dog-care books when I was a child and have been grooming dogs since I was a teenager. I found a hobby breeder to apprentice with and gradually learned what worked and what didn’t. I also started networking with other dog lovers. I went to a dog-grooming school — at the time (the 1960s), unless your parents showed dogs, it was difficult to apprentice with a show-dog handler — and I learned a lot about how to handle pet dogs, what kind of tools to use and how to use them.

It surprises me that people acquire dogs and don’t give grooming a second thought until the dog smells bad or is shedding to the point that it affects their quality of life. Why does this happen? It happens because a lot of people who work in the pet industry have more contact and credibility with customers than hobbyists and fanciers do. On the other hand, when it comes to the rare breeds, pet owners often return to the breeder to have their dogs groomed rather than take them to a school- or shop-trained groomer, who may not know the breed. If a person adopts from an animal shelter, the employees or volunteers are unlikely to know anything about grooming, and will probably not even mention it. All in all, it’s important that when you select a dog, you understand what his grooming needs are so you can address them rather than ignore them until the dog’s uncomfortable and you’re frustrated.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 70: Jun/Jul/Aug 2012
Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.
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