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The Dogs I Love

cutter

First, a little bit of honesty.

I see between twenty and thirty dogs every day at my shop. Some have regular appointments, coming every three, four, five or six weeks. Some come once or twice a year. And, I wish I could say that I love them all.

But, really, I don’t. I try very hard to find something to like about every dog, whether I am their groomer or not. I suppose it’s like real kids…some are loud, some are aggressive, some are well-behaved and some are adorable even when they are naughty. But, for the most part, I just groom the dogs who have appointments with me on that day. There are a couple of names that cause me to groan when I see their names on my list, and a couple that I am genuinely happy to see show up on my appointment book.

Groomers have been known to trade dogs between themselves, mostly because of personality issues (sometimes it’s the dog’s personality, sometimes the owners get along better with certain groomers). There are some dogs you couldn’t pay me enough to groom, and some dogs where I am half-tempted to pay their owners to let me groom them. (OK, I’m kidding about that last part. But you get the idea.)

Likewise, we see owners from all across the spectrum when it comes to owning dogs. Some owners admit that their dogs are their children, spoiling them rotten. (I’ve got an anecdote about a dog who came to the shop with a lunch…smoked salmon to be served to her on a silver tray. I can’t make this stuff up, people. It really happens.) Some owners seem to treat their dogs as obligations, complaining about the cost of food and vet bills and (surprise) grooming. Some people treat their dogs like, well, pets. Animals bring love and joy into their lives, and the owners provide love and joy back.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I get along best with the laid-back-but-not-boring dogs. The passive pups may be easier to groom, but I prefer to have a little interaction with the mutts I work with. (And, of course I groom pure bred dogs. But, even then, I like the pure breds that ACT like mutts!!)

And all of this is leading to the title of my post. The problem, sometimes, with getting to know and love the dogs that I groom is that sometimes those dogs die. The picture I used with this post is Cutter. He’s been coming to the shop for as long as I’ve worked there. (As a matter of fact, he was coming to the shop before I worked there, technically giving him seniority over me.) His owner tearfully told me that when Cutter came last Friday, it would probably be the last time. Cutter’s cancer has spread; he has stopped eating and it’s obvious that his time is growing short. I took the picture when I walked Cutter, then I gave him a bath, whispered in his ear that I would miss him, and sent him home.  His owner and I will cry together the next time, when their other dogs come for grooming without Cutter. Because sometimes loving a dog means being sad when you lose that dog…even when it’s not my dog.

Dogs or humans…who is the real customer?

The title of this post is rather misleading. Obviously the actual customer is the one who pays the bill.

But the question has been rattling around in my brain for awhile, and I thought it was worth writing about.

And, like all good questions, it springs from a real situation.

A new human customer dropped off a new canine customer. He seemed like a nice human guy, explained to me that his wife told him to ask for a puppy cut on a cute little shitzu mix.

“Ok,” I said. “How long or short do you like the final length to be?”

He didn’t know.

“Ok,” I said. “We’ll just use our judgment. Do you like the ears short or long? Do you like the tail trimmed up or left fluffy?”

He didn’t know.

“Ok,” I said. “We’ll make that up as we go along, too. Anything else I need to know? Behavior issues, medical issues, allergies, anything of the sort?”

He didn’t know.

A couple of hours later, his wife called and explained what she meant by a puppy cut, how she wanted the ears cut and what the tail should look like. Then she added that when she made the appointment, whoever talked to her on the phone said it wouldn’t be a problem to use an expired coupon, and since the dog no longer had anal glands due to a previous surgery, her old groomer used to give her a discount because there was less work involved in the bathing process. And then there was the “special details” about the groom that took her twenty minutes on the phone to explain. Sigh. It was one of those customers….great dog, time-consuming owner.

When I first bought my grooming shop, it was losing money. Big time. I did whatever I could to get people…and their pets…in the door. Overgrown Saint Bernard? Possibly rabid? Psychotic? No problem. We would groom that…for cheaper than anyone else. If you wanted us to do a springer spaniel haircut on a golden retriever, we’d cheerfully agree. No extra charge. We needed every single customer and every single dollar just to keep the landlord, phone company and various utility services slightly happy. I knew we had a great and talented staff, and eventually we would get the word out and customers would come flocking to us….

And now we have customers. Mostly great customers. But that nagging worry is still there. That some day we won’t be booked. That one day I’ll be back to begging people to give my “under new management” grooming shop a chance.

Right now, I get to focus on the canine customers as well as the human ones. If a dog is too matted or tangled to brush out, I do a shavedown, confident that what I do is in the best interest of the dog, and that I can convince the human of that. I flat out refused to shave down a six month old golden retriever puppy last week, a stance that I wouldn’t have taken a couple of years ago.

So I guess we’re finding the balance in customer service, balancing the needs of both the human and canine clients. We have always prided ourselves on being a grooming shop that dogs are happy to come to. We’ve always had to cater to the humans who held the charge cards. Even if it means spending twenty minutes on the phone with the human customer who pays for the quality groom of a cute little shitzu mix.

Facebook wall facades

There’s real life.

There’s online life.

And then there is Facebook, which is an odd combination of the two.

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of Facebook messages from friends who are having rough times in their real lives. And it made me think about Facebook and how we interact on it. I’m not talking about the universal “we the people”…fuck that. This isn’t a blog about that. I am talking about “we” as in you and me.

The reason these messages were interesting enough for me to blog about was that none of my friends posted anything on their Facebook pages about the problems that they were having in their lives. Their Facebook walls were the usual re-posts of cute animals or inspirational sayings or pictures of their kids. But their personal messages to me were full of despair, hurt and confusion.

This whole “wall facade” is not surprising to me. If you look at my Facebook wall from 2011, you won’t find any pictures of my son in the hospital. Despite the fact that we spent the whole summer in Children’s Hospital, narrowly avoiding a liver transplant as well as a bone marrow transplant, there is nothing on my Facebook account to document this. It was a massively traumatic and life-changing event, yet I felt zero urge to update my status to my Facebook friends. If you knew me, you knew what was going on. Family member called family member, friend called friend, and everyone knew what was going on.

Facebook is supposed to be a way we communicate (hence the term “social” media, duh!). I have written some very personal things in my status updates. (Not as personal as the things I write in this blog, but then again, this is a “practice blog” with limited readership.) But the things I choose not to share are the things that define my life.

This post started out as an observation about how my Facebook friends seem to be like me….show your best face to the world, but show your real face to real friends. Four hundred words later, I still have no better way of saying that.  I’m glad my friends are using Facebook to let me know that they are hurting; in some cases I can lend a virtual ear and in some cases I can go have a real cup of coffee and listen in real life.  But, the intersection of real and online lives is an interesting topic, and I felt like writing about it. (And, thanks to WordPress, this post will become my status update on my Facebook page. Is that ironic or just a coincidence?!)

Do you remember your first time?

We’ve been training at my dog grooming shop recently.

And when I say “We’ve been training,” what I actually mean is that Tanya is training Kerry while I am grooming. The reasons for this are two-fold. My training pretty much consisted of the previous owner handing me a pair of clippers and pointing to a dog. After that, I was on my own, and I am reluctant to pass my inventive-but-incorrect techniques onto an innocent soul. Secondly, Tanya is my head groomer, but she has hurt her back and can’t groom. But now she can stand, so I am trying to pour her knowledge into another person. (And maybe I’m eavesdropping a little to improve my own grooming procedures!)

It’s been a trip down memory lane to see someone who has never held a clippers or a scissors look at a dog in a whole new perspective. Kerry has been at the shop since February, starting at the bottom rungs. (Yup…cleaning crates and pulling dog hair out of nooks and crannies, while watching and learning.) She graduated to bathing….starting with short haired dogs like labs and recently moving up to longer-haired, curly-haired dogs.  Now it’s time to get the basics of grooming under her belt. She’s got some issues, like anxiety and other social/mental issues, which make her a perfect candidate to be a dog groomer, but I can see her struggle with trying to learn a new skill set. It can look so easy when she watches me use a clipper to shave down a dog, but it is a totally different experience to do it yourself. (This is true in all careers, I know. The fact that we work on living, breathing creatures only sets this job slightly apart from others. I remember trying to cook my first over-easy egg when I worked in a restaurant. It looked so damn easy when the other cooks did it! Half a carton of eggs later, I finally got ONE egg flipped correctly.)

Kerry, with Tanya’s help, recently shaved and bathed a golden retriever, turning him from a matted mess into something resembling a Labrador retriever. (I know all the arguments for not shaving down a double-coated breed like a golden retriever. That’s another blog post. This poor guy hadn’t been brushed since we saw him last August, and we’ve had to shave him before.) It took a million times longer than I thought it would, and Kerry stumbled and got nervous and started sweating and I saw the panic in her eyes. But she got through it. The dog looked great on the way out, and she earned her paycheck that day.

And it made me think about MY first groom. I had very little training, and the person who was supposed to help teach me didn’t show up one Saturday. Most of the dogs scheduled were labs or other bath dogs, but there was this Yorkshire Terrier mix on the list. His name is Alfie. I was totally lost. There was no internet at the shop. No reference books. No smartphones to access help on Google. It was just me and Alfie. I did the best I could, but it was pretty obvious to me that I was in WAY over my head on this. When his mom came to pick him up, I went out and apologized.

“I have no idea how to groom yorkies,” I told her. “I tried my best, but I know it’s wrong in many ways and I don’t know how to fix it. I’m not even going to charge you for this.” Then I brought him out.

Bless her soul, his mom cracked up laughing. “You’re right…you have NO idea how to groom yorkies!” she said. But she also added: “It’s just hair. It will grow back. And you’ll learn.” She gave me a nice tip and a smile….and brought him back next time he was ready for a groom.  Alfie still comes to my shop. He’s old as dirt, half-blind, and bites (although he has no teeth), and there’s a note on his file that says he can come on any day, at any time and his price hasn’t been raised in seven years. My staff has never really asked why I love this elderly, biting, barking dog so much, but it’s simple really. You never really forget your first time.

You’re kidding me, right?

I started a blog.

One article a week.

That’s all.

Surely I could find time in the unorganized chaos of my crazy life to write one article a week. If I could find the time to waste on Facebook, or to text message with friends, or to watch The Walking Dead, surely I could find the time to write one freakin article a week. This isn’t exactly brain surgery. Think of a topic, or use one from WordPress, and write about it. Practice for a couple of weeks, or months, slowly tell my close family and friends about it, and see what happens. I never expected to change the world, get a Pulitzer, or even change anyone’s opinion about anything. I didn’t have a real plan (and that confession will surprise no one who knows anything about me.)

I was having dinner with a friend, and I was talking about my shop. “I started it as a challenge. I took a shop that had been mis-managed into the ground, and turned it around. I’m not making money working there, but I’ve stopped losing money. The shop, by all accounts, is now successful,” I said. “And now I wonder if it’s what I really want to do.”

And, then, BAM! Fate laughed.

Tanya, who is my friend, my head groomer and my steady-as-a-rock employee ended up with three herniated discs in her back. Unable to walk, unable to groom, unable to help at all, she is gone from the shop. Possibly temporarily, possibly permanently. And I’m back at square one. I’ve been trying to fill her shoes, but I lack her speed and skill when it comes to grooming. And my little-grooming-shop-that-could might have to close. Just like that. I can’t keep working 12 hour days. I can’t keep asking other staff members to work extended hours. I have two other groomers….but no-one as good with both dogs and people as Tanya. At the moment, I’m in a holding pattern, waiting to see what comes from Tanya’s doctor appointments and working crazy hours. Even my kids have commented that I’m never home. On the one hand, I can look at this as a professional challenge. Take out an ad, hire someone new, try to integrate them into our little dysfunctional workplace. I can move the shop someplace smaller, with less of a rent payment, and need to groom less dogs to make ends meet. I know I’m the boss. These are my decisions to make, and my staff will have to respect them. But these are different decisions than the kinds I’ve had to make thus far, and I am finding myself a little insecure in this role as OWNER (up until now, it’s been as much leader as owner in the lower-case form).

And, I discovered I haven’t had the time to blog. But I’m not giving up…just trying to remember that I promised to do this one word at a time…..

It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure

Careers are funny things.

Some people know what they want to be early in life, some jump from job to job to job until they end up doing what they want to do. There are human beings who actually plan career paths (or so the rumor goes).

I own a dog grooming shop. (No, it’s not a salon. It’s a shop. We groom house pets. If you really think your dog needs a blueberry facial, you’re not going to like my shop, and that’s ok.) By default, therefore, I am also a dog groomer. (I also groom cats, but since this can only happen if the cat allows itself to be groomed, that’s another story.) I had no formal training to be a groomer. I have taken a grand total of one class regarding this job, and that was a one-day seminar in a hotel lobby. One of my employees has been doing this job for 50 years. FIFTY YEARS. At the same job, for the same company. She started out breeding standard poodles, then decided dog grooming would be a compatible career. I can’t imagine. One of my employees started as a vet tech, then moved sideways into grooming. (This is possibly because animals love her, but her people skills can be …umm…lacking.) My favorite question to ask other groomers is how they got into this field, because for each person the story is different.

Dog grooming is a high-skill job that requires no formal training. It’s mentally challenging, as well as physical. (My shop has discovered that in the last two weeks when my head groomer has been unable to groom due to a back injury. For a small shop such as mine, the loss of one employee has been disastrous.) Groomers must develop relationships with not only the dogs they groom, but the people that own the dogs as well. In trying to train a new employee, I find myself trying to walk the line between positive praise and scaring the hell out of her.

There was a dog in recently that had jerked it’s head as I was grooming it several months ago, resulting in a cut eyelid. I was happy to see that the customer returned to my shop, but dismayed to see that the dog’s eye still looked a little cloudy. “Look at that,” I said to my trainee, “There is a very real chance that this dog will eventually go blind…because of something that I did. You can never forget….not even for one second…that your job is on a living, breathing creature. You can never let your guard down, never work without thinking. Never. It’s a part of the job, and it sucks.”

If you ever start to look at your canine clients as cash to be deposited in the bank instead of a furry companion to a human, you need to quit. Immediately. And that is a type of stress in and of itself. There are always phone calls to be made, dirty hair to be swept up, crates to clean. Those are the necessary parts of the job. There’s lifting a 185 pound Newfoundland on and off a grooming table. That’s the part the hurts your body. I’m not even mentioning the humans you have to deal with….the ones that want their standard poodles to look like living teddy bears, or the owners who insist that their demon spawn is “misunderstood.” Even if you manage to deal with all of that, you still have to concentrate on grooming each dog that stands on your table. And that’s where the adventure starts.

The human dynamics of dog grooming

“Grooming the dogs is the easy part. It’s the frigging humans that make me crazy!”
–Every dog groomer

We have a very strict policy at the shop:

Whoever drops off the dog picks the groom. The shape of the face, the length of the body coat, the color of the bandana, it’s all on the table for discussion at check in, and over the years we’ve discovered that what kind of haircut the dog gets can rank up there with the worst of marital conflicts. Shouting matches in the parking lot. Husbands and wives calling the shop with conflicting instructions. We’ve had one partner request a full body Mohawk, and the other owner come in to have it removed the next day.

Here’s a true story:

Mr. Owner drops off a cockapoo puppy. The puppy, let’s call her Angie, has some pretty bad mats and tangles. Thankfully, it’s a groomer who checks Angie in.

“I dunno,” the groomer says. “I know last time we just did a bath and touch-up, but her hair is pretty matted. She might need a haircut this time.”

“Yes,” exclaims Mr. Owner. “I want a haircut. Her fur is way too long. Don’t shave her too short, but definitely give her a groom.”

OK. We’ve got a plan. #1 puppy clip coming up. Done.

End of the day comes, and Mrs. Owner and Oldest Daughter comes to pick up.

They pay the bill, and we have a chat in the brief time before the new-and-improved Angie makes her appearance.

“Hope you like the new look,” I say. “The haircut we gave her is the longest is the one possible, although we can go shorter in the summer if you’d like.”

“A haircut?!?!” Mrs. shrieks loudly. “My husband is going to be so pissed. He brushes her every night for half an hour and just told me this morning that he loves her long hair. I can’t believe you did that.”

I didn’t point our policy. Obviously her husband didn’t want to tell her that he was tired of brushing a squirmy puppy. But this is why we have a policy. Because, damnit, we’re dog groomers. We gave Angie a cute haircut. We are interested in shampooing & scissoring, not being marital therapists.

All I said to Mrs. Owner was; “It’s fur. It grows back.”