The other day, This Morning ran a feature about “furjazzling”, which is a made up term for something that is already a thing. It refers to “creative grooming,” which involves sculpting and colouring the coat of certain breeds (usually poodles or poodle crosses) into weird and wonderful shapes that are a long way away from traditional breed trims. The dogs in question were poodles with a number of different colour dyes applied, and the entire segment was a debate on whether or not this could be considered “cruel”.
Speaking as a qualified groomer, I understand how much skill, time and effort goes into something like creative grooming. Even the simple pet trims – the “puppy/teddy cut” with short body and long, tube legs can be hard enough to get right at times – not to mention the hundreds of recognised ways of grooming poodles. The most recognisable is the “continental” which ironically, is often scoffed at, despite have been developed for practical reasons and hailing back to the days when poodles were worked as water retrievers.
A poodle’s thick wooly coat would become heavy and weigh it down in the water, so the lower half of the body would be clipped short, to increase buoyancy and allow the dog to swim more freely. The “mane” and hair around the chest would be left longer, in order to keep the vital organs warm in cold water, and pom-poms were left on the legs to help prevent injury to joints. The face was clipped short to remove hair from the eyes and mouth, and the topknot was tied back with colourful ribbons to allow the handler to identify the dog from afar.
From there, the haircuts evolved when the breed gained popularity in France during the 18th Century, and were a favourite among nobility – who would mold their coats into extravagant styles to mimic the ornate pompadours that both men and women commonly wore themselves. It could be argued that this was an early form of creative grooming, and that it’s not a new fad or phenomenon at all – it’s just continued to develop in the same way it always has. While many may view the finished result as “silly”, it’s still a long, long way away from cruel.
Let’s take coat condition, for example. If we steer away form creative grooming for a second, it’s important to know that it is impossible to achieve a suitable finish on a poor quality coat. It doesn’t matter if it’s an award winning poodle champion or a third generation Cockersshichondoodle – if the coat is too knotty or matted, the finish will be awful. Diet has an impact too and it goes without saying that a good quality food will directly impact the quality of the coat. Foods that are high in Omegas 3 & 6 will help support skin elasticity and make for a glossier coat, whereas Zinc helps to prevent itchy and inflamed skin, as well as helping to prevent bacterial or fungal skin infections. It’s immediately obvious to us when a dog is being fed a poor quality food – the skin may be more dry and flaky, and the coat is often dull and lifeless.
In the context of creative grooming, it goes without saying that these dogs are brushed regularly – and I mean every single day, thoroughly, not bits and pieces weekly or monthly. Customers often express concern over regular bathing, as they are worried that the natural oils in the dogs coat will be washed away and cause problems. This isn’t entirely true – regular bathing is not harmful to the coat at all, if a good quality shampoo with the correct pH is used. Most dogs shampoos replace the essential oils in the coat as quickly as they remove them and, as long as you’re not washing your dog literally every other day, regular baths are perfectly fine. That being said, the most regular customers I deal with are usually every four weeks for a bath and brush, or six to eight weeks for a full groom (depending on coat type/growth and owner’s requirements). These means that the dogs used for creative grooming will not only be used to being brushed and groomed, but will see it as a positive experience and an opportunity to bond with their owner – a far cry away from the crazy Cockerpoos with matted legs that are only brushed once every six months by a stranger in a scary environment with lots of noise and lights and the smells and sounds of other dogs. Brushing out the matts is painful – that’s the simplicity of it. As a groomer it is my job to ensure that the dog on my table is as comfortable and relaxed as possible, and to get them on and off the table as quickly as I can. All the while I have to bear in mind the owners requirements – how short they want to go, how they want the face to look, how long they want the tail left and the shape of the ears. If a coat has a few tangles, it’s not the end of the world. I have tools and techniques and products that can remove small knots with relative ease. Tighter knots – behind spaniel ears or underneath armpits, for example – can be clipped out and hidden. Usually I’m able to groom this type of coat exactly the way the owner wants (although it does also depend on the behaviour and temperament of the dog). Matted coats, on the other hand, are a lot more difficult. We restricted by animal welfare laws (note that these are actual LAWS, not guidelines or personal morals) with what we can do, because de-matting can be an extremely painful process. Like I said before, removing smaller matts and knots isn’t usually a problem – but if you bring me a 8 month old Bichon Frise puppy that’s never set foot in a grooming salon in it’s life, and it’s ear is matted to it’s eyebrow, then there is only one reasonable solution – clip it off.
“Oh but we like him fluffy!” – I know, and I know that I would be just as hesitant to drastically change the look of my own dog – but at the end of the day, it will always be humanity of over vanity. Leaving the dog matted isn’t an option either – the more matted the coat, the tighter the pull on the skin. This leads to circulation problems – particularly on limbs and ears.
If a matted coat gets wet (for example, when the dog is bathed) then the coat contracts and gets even tighter, placing more strain on the skin and becoming even harder to remove. Think about what happens if you run a cotton wool ball under a tap, and it’s the same sort of thing. Many groomers choose to pre-clip matted dogs to prevent this from happening, which means roughly clipping the matted coat to get it off before bathing. The majority of the time, dogs will only be clipped or hand scissored after they have been bathed – obviously there are exceptions, but clipping a dirty coat will affect the quality of the finish, as well as placing additional wear and tear on our equipment and cause blades and scissors to blunt more quickly.
There was an extreme case in Leeds recently where a neglected street dog was caught and taken to a vets to be sedated and have his matted coat removed. The pull on the skin around the dog’s eyes was so great, that the skin was effectively being torn away from his face. He was aptly named “Soldier”, and taken in by a foster family shortly after.
Obviously these are extreme cases and are fortunately very rare – but something we do see a lot of is aural haematomas. It sounds super scary, but it’s just when a dogs ears are matted very tightly, and when the matts are clipped off, it causes a sudden rush of blood to the area. The problem with ears is that the skin is very thin, meaning that the blood vessels in that area are very small. In the same way that a stream may overflow if it rains a lot, the amount of blood returning to the ear is too much for the capillaries to contain and therefore leaks out, causing the tips of the ears to bleed.
Of course it is very easy for this to be mistaken for a cut – when in reality all that is needed is to apply pressure until the bleeding has stopped. If this happens, it is also down to the groomer to inform the owner of any aftercare – not only the regular brushing of the ear as the hair grows back to prevent the matting in the first place, but also to keep an eye out for any more bleeding. Over excitement and activity causes blood pressure to increase, meaning that bleeding can start again once it’s been stopped – usually this happens when the owner returns to collect their dog, and obviously the dog is absolutely ecstatic to see them. A “Happy Hoodie”, or simply a sock with the toes cut off over the head, is an excellent way to maintain even pressure on an ear over long periods – so owners don’t have to follow their crazy spaniels around squeezing their ears. Often the problems ends when the bleeding stops, and it’s very rare that a dog will experience any lasting effects.
There are a multitude of other health problems associated with matting, as if blood seepage wasn’t enough. I’ve clipped off matted dogs in the past and found all sorts – flea infestations like you’d never believe, including not just live fleas but also their faeces; sores and “hot spots” that have formed due to poor air circulation and moisture build up, then come off in massive chunks of scabs and hair – not to mention that I once clipped a particularly large matt from what I thought was underneath the tail, but transpired was actually a huge mass of dried faeces that had gotten stuck in the fur surrounding the dog’s bum hole, and then padded out with fresh faeces every time the dog needed to go. I literally had to pull a wodge of it out like a string of magician’s handkerchiefs.
Tell me again how much fun it must be to cuddle puppies all day!
One of the things I’ve seen most people take umbrage with is the use of dyes. I’ll admit that I do have mixed feelings towards it – but it does depend on how it’s being used. I saw a video on Facebook of a gorgeous standard poodle running around, tail wagging and play bowing to whoever is holding the camera – but he’s been dyed brown and yellow and groomed to look like a giraffe. I couldn’t stop watching it – he looks amazing, and it’s clear from the video that he’s got absolutely no problems at all. I saw another one shortly after who I think is the same poodle, styled and coloured to look like a zebra – and again, he was bouncing around, happy as can be. It’s fun, it’s different and, from the perspective of a groomer, it’s a wonderful challenge and a fantastic way to showcase talent and skills. I mean, if she can make a dog look like a giraffe, she can do anything.
The thing that makes me a little sceptical of dye usage is just using it for the sake of it. Dying a bow-legged shih-tzu pink for no reason, or giving a schnauzer a green beard. I don’t think it requires any creativity to do that and for me, it loses it’s appeal somewhat. Obviously all dyes, chalks and colourants used are temporary and 100% non toxic – safe on the skin and safe to be ingested – plus I doubt there’s any groomers out there who would run the risk of accidentally poisoning a dog. I might just be pessimistic because aside from spraying one of my regulars tails (House, the most amazing Scottie x JRT) green and red to look like a Christmas tree last December, it’s not something I’ve ever done, or been asked to do. I’m sure there are groomers and dogs alike out there that rock it and make it look amazing as opposed to tacky, I just think I’d struggle to make it look good (or at least, I’ll never top House and his Christmas tail).
The actual application of the dyes to the dog is also a complete non-issue. I’ve seen a lot of comments about concern for the length of time required for the dye to take to the coat – which is a perfectly reasonable question and one that I had to do a little research into to be able to answer. Dying human hair obviously takes a long time – anywhere from 35 minutes to an hour, plus the time needed to apply the dye, rinse “until the water runs clear” (but who does that?) and condition. Thankfully, with dogs it’s nowhere near as long, and most I found from a quick google search were around about fifteen minutes which, for the well-seasoned and desensitised dogs that are used for creative grooming, is a perfectly reasonable time frame. Even in a busy salon that specialises only in pet grooming, there are certain products that need to sit on the coat for a period of time before rinsing in order to get the full effect – so an extra few minutes in the bath for a calm and relaxed pooch isn’t the end of the world!
There is, however, one aspect that does really get me wound up. I’ve seen it commented countless times by well-meaning dog owners and I’ve had it said to me on more than one occasion.
“Oh, he must be so embarrassed!” – or at least, words to that effect.
While dogs are entirely capable of feeling certain emotions the same as humans – happiness, sadness, anger and excitement to name a few – they have completely different ways of expressing them. Dogs rely entirely on body language and facial movements to say what their feeling – and while they may be clear as day to another dog, they are often hugely misinterpreted by owners. A big one is hugging. Humans and other primates use hugs and physical contact to show affection – hugging a dog, however, does not have the same effect. While I’m not saying that dogs don’t like physical contact, it’s important to remember that dogs are not children – comforting a crying child by hugging them is an entirely natural and instinctive response. Hugging a dog when they’re scared however, does not elicit the same comforting response because the embrace prevents the dog from removing itself from the situation. Dogs are not rational in the same way as humans, and so rely entirely on their fight or flight responsibility – and if they can’t flight, then they will fight and the risk of getting bitten increases. Obviously this risk is higher still if the dog is being hugged by someone it doesn’t know – which is why it’s extremely important that parents educate young children on the importance of asking an owner before touching their dog, and that owners understand their dogs body language and know when he’s had enough.
A study by Alexandra Horowitz conducted at the University of Columbia in 2009 showed that dogs do not feel guilt, however “guilty” they may look. I mean, who hasn’t fallen for a pair of puppy dog eyes in the past? Horowitz varied the results in the experiment, sometimes letting the dog eat the treat once the owner was gone; other times removing the treat but telling the owner the dog had eaten it anyway.
“The problem is, the ‘guilty look’ is not what it seems.” she told the Washington Post. “A dog may plaster his ears against his head, turn away, wag his tail low between his legs or just take off when accused of a misdeed. But in research I did where owners confronted dogs both guilty and innocent of eating a forbidden treat, I found one clear result: The ‘look’ happened most when dogs saw scolding, questioning or angry owners, whether the dog was guilty or not.” … The ‘guilty look’ would be better called the ‘submissive look’, as in, ‘Don’t punish me for whatever it is you think I did’”
Again, this is something that I’ve seen in person numerous times. As I said earlier, there are certain times when the groomer has only one option – and that is to clip off the coat, for the benefit and welfare of the dog. Unfortunately, often this is the total opposite of the way the owner wants the dog to look – and it’s something that we can completely empathise with and try to avoid as much as we can, but there are times when there really is no other option. So in this hypothetical situation, the dog (most likely a wool-coated breed) is in the salon, being pre-clipped on a 7F (which leaves 3.2mm of hair on the coat) and it’s all coming off in one. The dog is visibly relieved, wagging his tail, mouth closed and features relaxed. He’s showing all the signs of a dog that is calm and happy. Once the majority of the coat is gone, the dog is bathed in a soothing shampoo and dried, before the groom is finished – neatening up paws, tidying the face and tail and making sure the clip on the body is even. Then, the owner comes back to collect the dog – and he’s so excited to see his parent! He’s jumping up, whining, wagging it’s tail nineteen to the dozen and clearly so excited that mum has come back! But there’s something wrong – mum doesn’t like the cut. It’s too short, and immediately her body language changes. She stops fussing over him and stands up suddenly, looking directly at him, with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. The dog thinks “oh no, something’s wrong”, and steps back, licking his nose, lifting his front paw and lowering his tail – all signals of apprehension. Lip licking, yawning and gaze aversion are also techniques a dog will use when placed under stress to show that they are no threat.
Leading canine behaviourist and dog trainer Turid Rugaas applied the term “calming signals” to refer to these appeasement gestures, used when the dog is feeling stressed, uncomfortable or fearful. If another dog were to respond in a way that’s reassuring, he would probably blink slowly and lick the corner of his mouth. This is something that I often use myself on particularly nervous or unsure dogs – and a lot of the time the dog will blink softly and look away, signalling that he’s understood what I’m saying. In the case of the Unsatisfied Owner however, the apprehension often goes unnoticed and the owner continues to give negative signals, leading the dog to think that they’ve done something wrong. This is where humans naturally project their own understanding of emotions onto the dog – he’s sad and embarrassed because you’ve clipped him short and he doesn’t like it. No, I can promise you that he doesn’t care what he looks like. Unlike humans, chimpanzees and even dolphins, dogs lack the ability to recognise themselves in a mirror. Although they’ll often bark at, or try and play with the dog in the mirror, they do not show any behaviour that signals they recognise this reflection as their own. While it’s argued that the concept of self-awareness is a lot broader than just recognising one’s self in the mirror, it stands to reason that if a dog can’t recognise himself when placed in front of the mirror, how can he know what he looks like? Answer: he doesn’t, and he doesn’t care. He looks “embarrassed” because he’s picked up on the increased stress coming from his owner and is using appeasement techniques to try and diffuse it.
My standpoint on the whole thing is – who really cares? I’ve said before, humanity before vanity is a mindset that any groomer will work to. If that means clipping a matted dog short to ensure it’s happiness, great. If a groomer wants to cut their dog to look like a camel and the dog is happy to do it, then yeah – they’re absolutely still adhering to the mantra. As long as the dog is happy, healthy, well fed, well cared for and, most importantly, loved like a family member – then it doesn’t matter what they look like on the outside. I also think it’s amazing what some people have done with their dogs and, like I said earlier, it’s a clever way to showcase grooming skill, and an excellent way to get people talking – which in turn, enables these groomers to educate the general public on caring for their dog and their dog’s coat.
To end, here’s some of the amazing grooms that I’ve stumbled across while writing this, but didn’t really tie in with the rest of the post. The Sesame Street one is a particular favourite of mine! I’d also like to say that all of the images featured in this post were found on Google, and were NOT taken by me.
Once again folks – thank you very much for reading.
Until next time,