This July 2021, DC resident Matthew K. visited a local dog groomer, marketed as a pet spa, to have two of his beloved Stardust’s nails trimmed. When she was returned to Matthew, however, her body was cold. Stardust had passed away. The groomer had hastily cut all but the two nails that Matthew requested. It may be tempting to point the finger at the groomer, but there are other forces at work that led to Stardust’s passing.
The pet grooming industry is completely unregulated – anyone can go into business as a groomer, no training or licensing required. This can lead to terrible, and sometimes even fatal, experiences for pets. PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says they get complaints of grooming abuse, accidents, and malfunctions weekly.
With no regulation of the industry, pet parents are forced to do their own extensive research on grooming salons. Seeking out a groomer is especially tricky because grooming salons are branded like a luxury resort experience for your pets. These establishments suggest that your dog is going to be pampered with facials, hot towels, and lemon water, like the spa at the Ritz. This marketing technique is more for the human’s sake than the animal’s. While some providers offer therapeutic services like dog acupuncture, skin rolling, and canine massage, grooming isn’t always breezy for your pup.
A more direct equivalent to dog grooming is a trip to the dentist. Sure, you look forward to the feeling of having clean and healthy teeth, but you’re definitely not jumping out of bed in the morning to head to the dentist. Imagine a clinical space where you are being cleaned and serviced. You’d expect to walk into a sterile room with bright lights where there’s buzzing equipment, hooks, and unfamiliar containers. Your dentist will ask you to hold your mouth open in a way you aren’t used to. As they scrub away at the plaque, you may start to drool on your bib. It definitely shouldn’t be fatal, but it will be invasive.
Nobody deserves to run out of the dentist’s office fearful or in tears from the pain. However, your experience will depend entirely on the quality of service the hygienist provides. While there are basic requirements of all medical professionals, if your provider is having a bad day, resentful that they are underpaid, and unsure about what half their tools do, you can be sure your gums may get hooked. You deserve quality attention and empathy while you’re in this vulnerable setting. The same principle applies to your pup at the groomer.
Here’s how to pick a safe, effective groomer:
High attention to detail is essential to grooming. Excellent groomers have specific prices for each dog breed and fur type. A Black Lab doesn’t have the same grooming needs as a Cocker Spaniel. Any additional needs, like separation anxiety and disabilities, should be considered, too.
If the prices aren’t appropriately costly, you can expect that the groomer prioritizes quantity over quality. Grooming salons should charge enough to ensure the groomers are taking their time and delivering the individualized attention that’s needed for good care.
Ethical Grooming Products
Your groomer needs to use tear-free products that don’t disturb the pup’s skin, hair, or eyes. Many dog grooming products contain perfumes and additives that can burn your pup’s eyes and irritate their skin—making the experience of getting groomed even more uncomfortable for your dog. An ethical groomer should always use tear-free products that don’t burn the dog’s eyes.
There is also no need for uncomfortable equipment or restraints. Some groomers use drying cages, which are intended to be a quicker alternative to hand drying. In order to achieve efficient speed, they become very hot. Oftentimes, unfortunately, dogs are left unattended in drying cages. The extreme heat can cause discomfort, skin irritation, and overheating. Forced restraints are unfortunately also very common, and unnecessarily create a terrifying experience for your dog.
Clean & Safe Facility
A well-reviewed grooming facility provides a good indicator of cleanliness and general courtesy. It’s your job as the owner to visit the location and get a sense of the accountability, comfort level, and safety for the dogs. An effective grooming facility is relaxed. Dogs should not be running towards the door and away from the staff person. When you walk through the door, you should notice playful, satisfied dogs, and attentive, comfortable staff. More accommodating grooming salons have facilities for rest and bathroom breaks, and provide delicious treats to ease the dog through the experience.
The positive atmosphere is obvious when the staff at a grooming facility feel valued, are treated well, and enjoy their workplace. When the staff is well trained and well treated, they are more likely to groom at the dog’s pace. They keep an eye out for stress in your dog, always remembering that grooming can be an unfamiliar experience. This level of concern allows the dog to dictate its boundaries.
Transparency and Feedback
The grooming process is nuanced and lengthy, but it’s not obscure. Your groomer must allow you to watch the procedure if you choose to. Just like if your child visits the dentist, your concern about your fur baby is perfectly reasonable. It’s also not just about you—you should be able to be present to comfort and reassure your pup through the new experience.
Some facilities will allow you to watch the session in person, while others offer transparency through HD webcam or FaceTime. Ironically, if the only feedback the groomer provides is “your dog was fine,” you should be concerned! Groomers should be completely straightforward with you about how your dog reacted to the experience.
We firmly believe every groomer should practice fear-free grooming. Dogs should never be forced to do something unfamiliar, new, and invasive.
Fear-free and force-free grooming achieves grooming through kindness, patience, and positive reinforcement. How can you know if a groomer is trained in the Fear-Free Grooming method? Through the Fear-Free Grooming Certification program, groomers learn how to use Fear-Free concepts to ensure that the grooming experience is as enjoyable as possible for every pet, every time. To maintain their certification, they must complete two hours of Fear-Free Continuing Education each year. You can learn more about Fear-Free Certification and search for a Fear-Free Certified Groomer here.
It’s important that your pup’s grooming experience is individualized to their loves and fears. Every grooming experience should be positive for the dog, period. And the groomer should be using delicious, fresh treats to condition your dog into being willing to tolerate, and eventually accept, the grooming process.
At the very least, your groomer should have a certification from an accredited institution. While human hairdressers are required to attend schooling and fulfill an apprenticeship, most dog groomers in the United States only need to brand themselves as such in order to groom dogs.
It’s a bonus if the grooming staff also belong to a professional grooming network like the Pet Professional Guild, which will ensure they are committed to following ethical pet care practices and guidelines.