You Missed a Spot: How Not to Groom Your Dog During Lockdown

As someone who often walks his dog — in this case an energetic white miniature schnauzer named Gogo — I occasionally find myself in a familiar conversation with other dog owners: where and how to groom the dog. Asking “where” implies that we go to a groomer to get the job done — but I don’t. Thus we proceed to how.

Often, when I say I groom my dog myself, other dog owners remark that they really should learn. Now, with so many stuck at home with pets now getting hot in their winter coats and nary a groomer in sight, some people are rethinking their past reluctance. How hard can it be? What could go wrong?

A lot. Your dog could come out looking like mine has on a few occasions: a strange wiry thing that defies all A.K.C. standards. The bigger the dog, the bigger the area for mistakes. But if you are game, and good with hands-on projects, then cruise on ahead. Just remember you were warned.

It’s almost mandatory these days to do some recon on YouTube before you jump into the deep end, and grooming a dog is no different. There are plenty of good videos, and you should not limit yourself to ones about your own breed. But the hitch with watching the pros is that they do this all day, all week. They know what they’re doing; you do not.

They dispense great advice and information, but the misplaced feeling of confidence they give you can lead you to believe that grooming your dog is easy. (I’m partial to Dede Croy, the no-nonsense Air Force veteran behind My Favorite Groomer. She works so fast that there’s no way to follow her, but she makes it clear that this is not a fetch in the park.)

The first thing you need is a place to do the job. A room that is both (a) big enough for you and your giant bernadoodle; and (b) casual enough that you won’t care when it’s blanketed in floaty tufts of dog hair. You may think outside would be best. But unless your outdoor space is a field on your farm, it’s not ideal.

A rooftop, fire escape, alley or driveway offer a refreshing breeze, free space and plenty of room for you and your pal. That’s just the problem. The minute you start to clip, that breeze will pick up hair and deposit it up and down the street.

Even if that doesn’t spur trouble (as in the time I watched a large tuft land in the shopping bag of a passer-by), you’re subjecting your neighbors to a conspicuous and bizarre form of littering.

Next you have to decide if you are going to do it on the floor or a table. A work table that can support your dog is ideal, though not practical for everyone. The floor is an easier decision, since most people have some to spare, but bear in mind: After 30 minutes of sitting, hunched over your dog, you will start to feel stiff and cranky.

You need a good clipper. When I started grooming my dog a few years ago, I bought a basic pet clipper that cost $40. I watched a video on how to achieve the classic schnauzer cut, then anchored Gogo with two leashes stretched and fastened in opposite directions (a trick I learned from another dog grooming video).

The moment I turned on the clipper, she and I jumped; this was not a quiet appliance. Once we’d calmed down and I started cutting, it jammed after just a couple of inches. I cleaned off the hair and started over. And over. And over.

I remember looking at the box to make sure the thing was for dogs. Two hours later, I finally finished, covered in sweat and what looked and felt like a mohair sweater.

What I quickly learned was that dog grooming, like so many things in life, improves vastly when you throw some money at it. So even though it would cost twice as much as the clipper I use on my own head, I plunked down about $170 for the two-speed Andis Ultraedge AGC 2. The difference was startling — it glided through her coat and didn’t jam once, even when it was full of hair.

The only bothersome thing about the clipper is the thick, unwieldy cord. But reviews of cordless trimmers I saw (one best-rated option promised a measly 45-minute run time) convinced me that I was better off with a high-performance model with a cord.

Because the clipper’s standard 1/16 inch blade would practically shave off a dog’s hair, I attached one of its eight graduated plastic combs or guards in hopes of achieving a nice, even ½ inch all over. (In other words, I didn’t even try to clip Gogo to the schnauzer standard of a short-haired body and head and luxuriantly longhaired legs, skirt and iconic snout-beard — “schnauzbart” in German.)

But even with the costly clipper, the process wasn’t a breeze. Gogo still flinched and shifted constantly, which increased twofold when it was time to do her head and legs, which are as difficult as the body is easy. (You could probably clip the entire body in the time it takes to do a leg.)

At the end of the clip, she looked fine, if no longer identifiable as a schnauzer.

For the next cut I decided to do the legs first. They were so hard to trim that I took the comb off, and made a fantastic discovery.

I had thought that using the blade against the dog’s skin would be irritating, even dangerous. But the minute the comb was off, Gogo calmed right down. The comb, with its sharp plastic spikes, had been more irritating, not less. So I clipped from tip to toe with nothing but the clipper itself — it was particularly good at demolishing mats — and it took half the time.

You need to be extra-careful around the eyes and ears, but even there, the task is easier with the bare blade. Ms. Croy said in an interview that dogs generally tolerate the clipper better without the comb.

Shorn of her schnauzer outfit, Gogo resembled an all-white Jack Russell terrier. The blade had cut her hair so short that she did look shaved — kind of like a defrosting turkey. Yet the ease of using just the blade trumped my aesthetic concerns. I hadn’t realized that there were blades that cut at different lengths.

Later I wised up, and after plowing through the expensive and confusing world of clipper blades, I settled on an Andis #63030 that clips hair to a dignified 1/4 inch and has a ceramic edge, which is supposed to stay sharper longer. The result is definitely more Jack Russell and less Butterball. I may get one that clips to ¾ of an inch. (There are in theory specific length blades for every dog.)

No matter how expert you become with your clipper, stray clumps of hair are going to defy you, especially around the eyes and ears and on the legs. To vanquish these, you need a separate clipper. I went through several that failed miserably and even tried a human nose hair clipper in desperation.

Then I found the Turn Raise pet clipper, a blessedly quiet little cordless trimmer with a head just over ½ inch wide. The buzz of the blade is gentle enough not to make the dog jump and jerk, but strong enough to clip the hair and not jam up every 10 seconds. It’s great for getting the tricky little tufts around joints, dewclaws and ears. I use scissors only as a last option — they are best wielded by the experts.

Simply put, grooming your own dog is never easy, even armed with an expensive clipper and a blade that won’t shear your schnoodle as if she were a sheep. Allow yourself a couple of trial (read: disaster) haircuts and don’t try to do anything fancy for a year or so.

I usually let the season guide the cut. About a month ago, I could see that Gogo’s thick winter coat, which had been growing in since October, was too hot for her. So I clipped the top and sides, where the outer coat and undercoat were the thickest.

In May I will give her an allover summer cut so she’ll be cool, then another one in July, and finally a longer one in October that will grow in through the winter.

Even though I’ve given Gogo four of five haircuts a year for several years, I can’t claim she has ever looked groomer-good. Then again, she was spotted by a model scout at the dog run one day and ended up in two ad campaigns. Before the first one, I nervously asked the agent, “They know she doesn’t really look like a schnauzer, right?”

She was blunt. “That’s why they like her.”

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