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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 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?
Q: What kind of brush should we be using?
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?
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?
Q: How about bathing — what do we need to get our dogs clean?
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?
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.