Grooming Lessons from a Real Groomer: Lesson 1 Setup, brushes & combs
Before actually getting started with a grooming session you need to gather your tools. This includes brushes, clippers, blades, towels, shampoo, nail clippers, etc. Having a permanent place to keep them all together like a plastic storage box is a good idea. Tackle boxes work great for this. Decide if you are going to groom on the floor or on a table. I recommend using a table for a few different reasons. It will be more comfortable for you and since most pets are not allowed on tables and have a mild fear of heights, you immediately have the pet’s attention. Funny thing about this fear of heights, it seems that the bigger the dog is, the bigger the fear. Now, we are simply taking advantage of a natural instinct here and are not trying to make our pet miserable. After a few times on the table the pet should learn to relax, but you will always have his attention. Make sure the table you use is very sturdy and has a slip resistant top. You can use a piece of that special soft rubberized shelf paper a lot of people put under their dishes in kitchen cabinets. Also, you should position your table against a wall for extra control; this also gives you the option of putting an eye bolt in the wall behind you to which you can attach a grooming loop. A grooming loop is a very important tool that will act as your third hand while grooming. It also lets the pet know that you mean business and that it cannot jump down and run off until you give the word. This brings us to Safety rule #1. Never walk more than arms reach away from your pet while using a grooming loop or any time the pet is on the table. If you must walk away, taking your pet with you is the safest option. You don't want them trying to follow you. There is always the danger of the pet slipping off the table and hanging themselves, or breaking a leg from jumping off the table and hitting the floor too hard. Grab your phone and have it near you before you start, or decide ahead of time that you won't answer it until you are finished for the day. The last thing you want is to be distracted by a call and walk away to find the phone.
The entire grooming process can take and hour to an hour and a half or more depending on the type of dog you have, so the table you use should be a comfortable height for you to work on your pet without leaning over. You can use a stool, but in a seated position you actually have less control and range of motion in your arms than you might think. Try both sitting and standing and you'll figure out pretty quick which is more comfortable for you. If you do choose to groom on the floor, spread a blanket underneath the area you intend to work to make cleanup easy. Choose a corner of the room so that you can use the walls and your body to block the pet from leaving the area until you are finished. Also, when choosing an area of your home to groom in, remember that most pets are highly distractible and you should choose a space that is quiet and doesn't have a lot of foot traffic by family members to interrupt you. Also, there should be an electrical outlet nearby for plugging in your clipper if you will be using one.
Bathtubs and sinks are fine places to wash your pet, but a utility sink (usually in the garage) also makes a great bathing place if your pet is small enough to fit. Place a tub mat or hand towel in the bottom of your tub/sink to provide secure foot traction for your pet. This also lessens their anxiety if they are afraid of water or have long nails that cause them to slip on smooth surfaces. Go shopping for an inexpensive hand shower attachment that will slip over the end of the faucet and makes bathing a snap. I have gotten them for just a few bucks and they're not hard to find. Okay, now that your setup at home is ready, lets discuss what tools should be in your tool box and how and when to use them. When I refer to these tools later while discussing the grooming process you can refer back to this section as needed for the correct technique.
The Universal or Slicker Brush
When it comes to brushes there is one brush that is very good at its job and every pet owner should have one. The universal, or slicker brush. It’s usually a plastic handled brush with a pad of very thin metal tines that are excellent at getting through the coat down to the skin and does the best at helping you remove matts. Because the brush is made with metal tines it is important that you learn to use this tool correctly or you can cause "brush burn" on the dog’s skin. This "brush burn" feels about the same as road rash that you would get sliding into a base or falling off your bike and sliding across the asphalt. Not that pleasant and completely preventable. First, use short straight strokes and DO NOT bend your wrist as you pull down through the hair. The more you allow your wrist to bend during the stroke, the more likely you are to end up brush burning your dog. Secondly, do not use more force than is necessary. Start off gently and then slowly increase pressure until you are getting through the coat effectively. Keep in mind the amount of pressure necessary when brushing your own hair and use that as a guide. It is important to know when brushing that you are getting through the coat all the way to the skin; otherwise all your hard work is wasted if the hair underneath the topcoat is still matted. If the hair underneath is left matted, you won't be able to cut through it with your clipper and you have just contributed to possible skin conditions for your pet including hot spots. So, the third and most important technique is to start low on the dog's body, like the thigh area, lift up the hair and brush the section underneath what you have lifted. As you brush that out, pull a little more from under your hand with the brush and brush out that section working your way up. For a new user it is crucial that you learn to brush this way in the beginning. This method will teach you to brush all the way down to the skin, and help you identify what matts look like when you find them. Also, while you are brushing I want you to really listen to the sound the brush is making as it goes through the hair. Think about how it sounds running through your own hair. If there are no matts, the brush should pull through with no resistance and the sounds will be a consistent swish, swish sound. If the brush finds a matt, you should feel some resistance, and as each individual tine goes over the matt you will hear a scratchy, inconsistent, change in that nice swish, swish. Do not be afraid to be a little aggressive with this brush on the matts, keeping in mind while you're doing so to not put to much pressure on the skin. If the hair is long enough, lift the section away from the skin to continue brushing out a matt. If this will not work or it’s a big tough matt just leave it and come back to it with a dematting tool that we'll discuss a little later.
The Bristle Brush
Another brush widely available (and usually at the grocery store) is the bristle brush. (My first brush as a kid for my little dog was one of these, and that's where we got it). Most people are using a bristle brush at home already when they should be using a slicker brush. Bristle brushes are great for very short coated breeds like Dachshunds, Chihuahua's, Rat terrier's, mini Doberman pinchers, etc. I've never seen a brush burn caused by this style of brush. If your dog has longer and/or thicker hair than one of these breeds please try the slicker brush. Now on the other hand you can effectively use a bristle brush on longer coated breeds for sensitive areas such as the face or around the anus. This may be wise if you are new to slicker brushes and want to be cautious. There are pins on the other side of most bristle brushes meant to comb through long thick coats and I honestly don't think they serve their purpose very well. I've tried using pin brushes, and frankly I don’t like them and some of the other tools we'll discuss do a better job.
A de-matting tool makes quick work of matts with very sharp blades. Some are straight blade models with rounded tips, and some have curved blades that are sharp on the concave side of the blade making it a safer tool for you to handle. Surprisingly these tools are more dangerous to the user than to the animal. They are made to use by pulling the sharp side towards you. Most people try to protect themselves by stabilizing the tool with their thumb which then gets sliced by the force of using the tool. Some manufactures have remedied this with special thumb rests built into the tool and or coming up with better, more ergonomic designs. Either way, whichever style of these you use, always use caution, go slowly till you get the hang of it and use plenty of wrist action with this tool. Believe it or not this tool works best with quick, exaggerated wrist movements. Start by holding the tool with the teeth BEHIND the matt, the back of your hand should be facing you. Then with a tool whose handle is to the side start to pull at the matt and as you do, bend and roll your wrist till the front of your hand is facing you. Think of the motion of using a pasta scoop to get sticky spaghetti out of the pot. If your tool's handle is straight in front of the blades, start as before and use a kind of rocking motion. You can also pull the tool out, and start over with a little rock back and forth and then pull out again. If you understand that these tools are matt BREAKERS and not RIPPERS, then you will be able to work on your technique and get those matts out without too much hassle. One last note about this. Matts anywhere on the dog’s body are unpleasant to get rid of, and getting rid of them always means some amount of pulling and discomfort for the dog. He may scream to get you to stop. If you barely got started, he's bluffing. DON'T STOP. If you do, he wins, and you will be too chicken to try again. Have faith in yourself that you can do this as fairly and gently as possible, reassure him with a calm voice during the process that you are trying to do the best you can and don't intend to hurt him. And then when your heart is crushed from all the pain he is screaming about promise yourself that you will brush him better and more often in the future so that he doesn't get matted up again. If you discover that this is something that you just can't put your dog through, or the matts are just too large, then you may want to stop and use the clipper to shave it off. This can sometimes be the most humane thing to do for your dog, not to mention relieving you of a lot of brush work, and possibly guilt.
Another great comb everyone should have is the greyhound comb. It is a long metal comb with teeth about 1 to 1 1/2 inches long all in a single row and are normally spaced close together at one end and a little farther apart on the other end. This is the perfect tool for combing through the long soft coats of Yorkie's, Maltese's, Poodle's and all breeds of cats, and they will help you find any matts you may have missed. Try using it on any breed of dog you have to check your work for matts. If you do have a dog that you keep in a long coat, you can also use it to help you set a part down the middle of the back and to help you gather hair on the top of the head for putting into bows. Another tip you may want to try for making parts is to brush all the hair backwards towards the tail first and standing behind the dog, use your breath in a strong stream of air to part the hair. Try it sometime, it really works.
Toothbrushes and Flea combs
Now this may be surprising to you but a simple toothbrush is a great tool to have around. Perfect for helping remove eye boogers during the bath and those little unpleasant pieces of feces still attached to the hair around the anus. This brings me to the flea comb. The flea comb has the same great uses as the toothbrush and is even better at removing stubborn hangers on. When using it to remove eye boogers you must soak the eye area first with water and maybe even a little baby shampoo so that the booger will slide out easily without tearing or tugging to avoid damaging the skin around the sensitive eye area. There are two kinds of flea combs, a plastic version and a metal version. The neat thing about the metal ones is that the tines (teeth) don't become flexible in the warm water and provide the best result. Now obviously this is not its intended use, its just one of groomers helpful little tricks. By all means, use it to remove fleas too, but be quick to kill the fleas you catch on it or they will jump and get away!
An undercoat rake has teeth similar to the greyhound comb and a handle like a slicker brush. Its teeth are made to pull the undercoat up and out of those double and triple coated arctic breeds and in thick coated shedding types like Chow's, Collie's, some Golden Retrievers, and Lab's. It is not meant to pull on or rip out matts. Any hair it grabs should come out with minimal tugging or you could be torturing your pet. There isn't too much danger of brush burning the skin with this tool, but it may be possible if you are pressing hard against the skin. The technique on this one is opposite of the slicker brush and you do want to use some wrist action with your strokes the longer the hair gets. If no hair is coming out while using this tool, which has wide set teeth usually, switch over to your slicker to make sure all the loose hair has been removed.
The shedding blade is a tool that has been adapted by groomers from horse grooming and is a great tool for use on Lab's, Pit Bulls, Beagle's and other short coated dogs that shed a lot of coat whether it is thick or not. Although it looks like a scary tool its actually quite safe. A single blade (or more) with very short dull teeth bent around with both ends stuck into a single handle it is very easy to use. Just slide it down the broad sections of the dog’s body and watch the hair come out like magic. Be very careful trying to use it on the legs or sensitive areas like the sanitary area or head, as it may scratch the skin. Otherwise this is a great, safe tool. The newest tool on the market, the Furminator, is also a great tool. One of the only tools marketed directly to the dog owner, I highly recommend it. It is an awesome deshedding tool and fully lives up to my expectations. When used regularly this tool will make any dog's shedding problem a thing of the past. It is also easy to use on the more sensitive areas of a dog, like the legs, head and stomach, but not for the sanitary area.
Rubber Bathing Curries
A rubber curry comb is an awesome tool to use during the bath. It helps lather shampoo, massage the skin and muscles, and ensure that shampoo is being worked thoroughly into the coat. A lot of times hair will become trapped in the layers of coat instead falling out naturally during a shedding period. Especially on thick-coated breeds, using a rubber curry during the bath will help break up those impenetrable chunks of hair and ultimately help you remove a lot of excessive undercoat. . This is a must-have tool in my shop.
Well, that's the end of lesson #1. I hope you will come back to read the next lesson, where I will discuss clippers and scissors. Happy Grooming!
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- Grooming Lessons from a Real Groomer: Lesson 2
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