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Celebrity Interviews

Grooming Essentials – Notable pet stylist Billy Rafferty gives Tails the scoop

By Christina Cottini

Dog in Bath

Grooming is an essential part of caring for a happy, healthy pet. In addition to its contribution to psychological and physiological health, grooming can be another good way to bond with your pet, as he or she may consider routine brushing an alternate form of petting or another source of attention and affection.

To get some insider tips about grooming from one of Chicago’s most passionate pet stylists, Tails spoke with Billy Rafferty, owner of Doggy Dooz Pet Styling and co-author with Jill Cahr of Happy Dog: Caring for your Dog’s Body, Mind & Spirit (Penguin-NAL, September 2009).

How did you come to found Doggy Dooz Pet Styling?

Working in salons over the years, I would see dogs [who] just weren’t up to par [as far as grooming standards], but I couldn’t control it. So I had to make up my mind to open my own store.

How large is your staff?

I have one assistant, and then someone else leases space from me, and she has an assistant.

How did you become interested in grooming?

My interest in grooming started when I was very young. I always loved animals, always was surrounded by animals. Some kids knew they wanted to be a basketball player, football player, doctor, or a lawyer. I knew at a young age that this was my calling—working with animals. And I just had this thing for cutting hair. I started off with my sister’s dolls, cutting off all their hair, and then I graduated to teddy bears. Needless to say, my sister was not very happy about it!

Through grade school, junior high, and high school, I probably read every dog-grooming book I could possibly read. I would try the styles on teddy bears and other kinds of stuffed animals. It was quite a scene! When I was in sixth grade, my mother bought me a little pair of those professional in-home clippers from the Spiegel catalog, and I went to town. And that’s when my career basically started with the dogs.

Did you complete any formal training to become a pet stylist?

Unfortunately there is nothing required. There’s no regulation. In my early teens, I started working at a boarding kennel where they raised and showed dogs, and I learned from a handler. Then I worked in salons and honed my skills. While there was no formal in-school training, I learned mostly from the “school of knocks”—growing up and reading and doing everything. But now I lecture and teach and represent companies. I did compete for a long time, but I no longer do that. I judge grooming shows. Actually I’m going to be judging a show at the end of August in Texas, the Pet Pro Classic.

What do you enjoy most about judging?

I just love to see the different styles people are presenting. That’s just really great. And you know what I really, really love? I love helping people, and I love helping animals, and if I can share my knowledge, that makes me feel so good.

Do you have dogs of your own?

I have two dogs. Zeke is a Portuguese Water Dog. He’s all white with a black mask, with little speckles like a Dalmatian. I also have a black and white Cocker Spaniel named Arthur. Both dogs were rehomed. Arthur is a finished champion who is retired, and I adopted him at a year and a half. Zeke was 6 months old when I got him from the breeder. He was actually a test dog. They were isolating the gene for cardiomyopathy, which is a heart condition that some dogs (particularly Portuguese Water Dogs) are susceptible to getting. Zeke’s mother was a carrier. If they live past 6 months, then they don’t have the condition, but they carry it. So he could not be bred or shown. Zeke is the best dog in the world.

Do you groom your own dogs?

Oh, I certainly do. Every week!

Do you impose any restrictions on the types of dogs you will or will not groom or style?

Vicious dogs! A lot of grooming salons will not take Chows because they’re notorious for being aggressive. They also have a pushed-in little face with wrinkles, so you can’t really see their expression to determine if they’re going to bite. So that’s really the problem. If I meet the dog and I feel comfortable with [him or her], I don’t really have a problem with any breed—of course, if [the dog] isn’t going to take off a finger!

What types of dogs do you consider as most high maintenance as far as grooming?

Dogs [who] need haircuts. Dogs [who] don’t really shed like Poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, Shih Tzus, Lhasa Apsos, Malteses, and Yorkies. What actually happens is they don’t shed their coat out like a Husky, which molts and hair clumps off onto the floor. The hair actually stays in with the healthy coat and forms mats. Sometimes I can spend an hour and a half brushing out a dog, when you can finish two haircuts in that time. So it can be time consuming if the [guardians] don’t keep them maintained. I usually recommend regular brushing or bringing them in more frequently, even just for a brush if the dog has long hair. It helps everyone. It helps the dogs if they don’t have to go through the trauma of being de-matted and the mats being pulled.

What are the most low-maintenance types of dogs?

Low-maintenance dogs include the Dalmatian, Boxer, and Doberman Pinscher. The wash-and-wear dog! No haircut needed!

What part of your work is most personally fulfilling?

I love being around the dogs. My best friend lives in Martinsville, Indiana, which is a far south suburb of Indy. She has horses and does a lot of work with the Friends of Ferdinand, which is a rescue organization that takes horses from the racetrack and gives them a new life with people. When I’m around the horses, I seem to go to the ones [who] are the most neglected or abused. I just have this side to me that’s very empathetic to people and animals. I just want everyone to be happy—everyone and every being.

Could you walk me through a typical day?

Oh sure, of course! I pre-brush the dogs as they come in, cut their nails, clean their ears, and put them in the tub. Every dog gets a minimum of two baths, sometimes three if they’re really dirty or discolored. After washing, we apply a good conditioner, let it sit, and then run it through the hair with our fingers. Then we rinse them off and hand blow-dry the dogs. After they’re blow-dried with the high-power dryer by hand, we use a fluff dryer where we brush and dry at the same time. This makes the hair really fluffy and straight, which enables us to cut them very evenly.

Throughout the course of the day, we groom all the dogs, completing each at a certain time. Sometimes there’s a little time crunch because people can be a little unrealistic about timing [unaware of how long the grooming process can take]. They might bring in their dog and ask to pick him up in half an hour, unaware that it takes 40 minutes just to wash him.

We have a lot of fun at work. We laugh, the dogs are fun, and most of them are very comfortable there. We do walk them if the [guardians] drop them off before work and then pick them up after work. I’ll usually take them out in the early afternoon and let them relieve themselves so they’re not uncomfortable. And there you have it!

Do you have an average number of dogs you see in a typical day?

It all depends. It could be anywhere from nine if they’re all big to 15 if there’s a mixture of some smaller. But it’s pretty busy, and I don’t really take new clients.

Can you tell me a bit about how people’s expectations for their pets’ grooming might vary or present particular challenges for you?

I have had people come in right after watching Westminster, and they want their Bichon Frise to look like JR (the dog who was a big winner a few years back). But the problem is these Bichons are often from puppy mills, and they look like stretch limo sausages with sticks for legs. It’s really, really hard to make that dog look like JR, no matter what you do. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you have to be honest with them and understand that there’s a fine line there.

Have you noticed an increase in demand for grooming with the popularity of reality shows like Groomer Has It?

Surprisingly, a lot of people say they’ve never heard of it. They asked me to come on as a contestant during the first season, and my agent advised me not to do it. It’s a reality show, and they can depict you however they want.

What advice would you give to folks looking for a good professional groomer?

My advice would be to ask your vet and observe. Look at the well-groomed dogs in the dog parks or walking and talk to the people with those dogs. What do they think? What are their opinions? I think that’s a good place to start.

Another really important thing to consider is that sometimes people bring their dogs in to be groomed, and the dog starts to tremble. The guardian will start to coddle the dog, but then you notice the dog’s getting worse, and it’s a problem every time they come in. The dog doesn’t know whether the behavior is bad or good. [The dog] just knows when they start freaking out they get coddled, so they’re going to go with that. So that’s not a good guide to see if the dog’s happy in a salon. The best guide is whether or not the dog will take a treat when you’re leaving. That’s the key. If you’re nice and respectful to a dog, the dog will respond well and will take a treat from you—especially after the grooming, when everything’s done. It’s always a great sign.

Do you consider grooming to be imperative for all types of dogs?

I do think every dog needs to be groomed, though some less frequently. For instance, Boxers, Dalmatians, Great Danes, and Doberman Pinschers don’t need it as much. You just want to keep them clean, using a rubber curry brush to take out the dead coat. Golden Retrievers probably need to be groomed a little more frequently because they have longer feathering; you’ll need to take out the dead coat to prevent mats. Then, of course, Poodles and dogs with hair definitely should be groomed more frequently.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

Grooming is really good for the dog’s skin. Not only does it dispense natural oils, but it also helps blood circulation, removes the dead coat, and it’s like a massage. And if you start them young, when they’re puppies, it can become a really therapeutic experience.

Brushing enhances all the healthy functions of your pet’s skin, including promoting the uploading function of skin cells, activating skin glands, and enhancing immune function. It removes dirt, spreads natural oils, prevents tangles, and keeps skin clean and free from irritation. Regular grooming contributes to a healthier, shinier coat by stimulating blood flow to the skin. The more frequently you brush your pet, the less frequently you’ll find yourself cleaning pet hair from floors and furniture.


Additional tips for home grooming:

• Check carefully for potential skin or health problems—hair loss, inflammation, unusual tenderness, or lumps.
• Always brush in the direction of hair growth.

• Trim nails once a month, taking care not to cut too short.

• Cutting the nails right after bathing will make the quick more visible.

• Check your pet’s ears twice a month.

• Skin in the ears should be pink, odor-free, and free of excessive debris.

• The outer part of the ear can be cleaned gently with a cotton ball.

• The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends bathing every three months or so.

• Brush thoroughly before bathing.

• Be careful not to get water and shampoo into your pet’s ears, eyes, and nose.

• Gently massage in shampoo from head to tail.

• Nutrition is the most important determining factor in healthy skin and coat.

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