By Kathie Henschen, CPG
There are so many challenges that can rock our confidence when we first start out in the grooming world. You get the basics and a good start in grooming school. However, there are things that only experience can teach you. As long as you keep an open mind, stay humble and remain teachable, you will learn everything you need to as you go.
I learned early to rely on three things: 1) My customer service skills, which made up for what I was still lacking compared to a more seasoned groomer; 2). My school books that outlined specifics on breed trims; and most importantly, 3) The dogs.
The dogs who were patient when I took longer because I didn’t have speed yet. The dogs who made me face challenges and own them so I could adapt or make changes in order to become a better groomer. The dogs who taught me body language and how to adapt approaches to each dog’s personality. I still groom a few dogs from that time in my life, 15 years ago. Everything they gave to me in the beginning, I get to give back to them in the way of compassion.
Oct. 3, 2005, was the very first day I met Lewis, a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier; I have known him for 15 of his 16 years of life. Lewis has always been sort of special. From day one, he faced challenges in the grooming arena. He has always been extremely nervous. Wheatens are famous in the grooming world for something known as the “Wheaten Dance.” Lewis was such an expert at it, I eventually changed it to the “Lewis Shuffle” at Platinum Paws. He will go down in our history for the Lewis Shuffle and when I think about that it makes me smile.
Lewis wasn’t the only one that faced challenges. I also had several obstacles I had to overcome 15 years ago. You see, that was when I was just a baby groomer—and a baby business owner. Quite honestly, I was very intimidated by the big, bad Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier back then. I had only been out of grooming school 10 months when Lewis came into my life. I had never even had my hands on a Wheaten in grooming school; I had just watched one being groomed. So, when Lewis first walked through my door, I took a huge gulp and a deep breath, and just decided: This is it. I’m going to go for it; I’m going to do this to the best of my ability and we will see how it all shakes out.
A Wheaten’s coat is thick and cottony, but also has little wires of hair everywhere and a little bit of a wave to it. Simply said, it’s a scary coat. A very scary coat, or at least it used to be 15 years ago. Wheaten coats are often more likely to be matted, so even more scary. Also, I had never done a pattern cut on a Wheaten body. I was only used to doing one-length, all-over cuts at that time. So I had to get out my school books and study before his first appointment. I had to learn which guard combs to use and how to cut in the line pattern.
And then there was the whole blending thing—good lord. That was one of the most nerve-wracking things in the beginning—getting that transition from the shorter back coat down to the sides’ longer coat and into the legs. I can remember shaking every time in the beginning. And on top of that, Wheaten coats are one of the MOST unforgiving when it comes to blending and also fixing mistakes.
To sum it up, we were both scared; however, we got through it and we learned. He learned to trust me, well as much as he could anyway. I learned how to deal with Wheaten coats and cuts. And, his coat made me work so hard! I remember sweating bullets trying to strategically get matts out without stressing him. I remember the day I finally got it blended right (to my satisfaction anyway). It was probably a couple of years after I started grooming him—ha-ha-ha! I had been experimenting with different techniques. I had been introduced to the #7 skip tooth blade at a continuing education seminar I had attended on the subject of blending. And that was the tool that took it all home. I remember breathing a hopeful breath of anticipation as I started down his coat with it. And, I remember having to stop for a minute because I got so excited that it was working that I had to calm myself down before continuing.
I taught Lewis how to stand on the table in between his shuffle dances long enough to get his hair cut, how to get bathed and dried, and I taught him some confidence and patience. We both learned about patience. I taught him how to calm down and be petted on the grooming table and that he didn’t have to be afraid. I taught him how to relax; at least for brief moments. When you feel anxiety leave a dog, no matter how brief, a part of your soul gets changed—in a beautiful way.
He taught me so many things. Lewis taught me how to have compassion for dogs who are stressed and insecure. He taught me how to carefully maneuver around his body while working on him to maintain calmness and control. He taught me how to hold dogs in different ways that gave them comfort instead of discomfort and fear. Lewis gave me trials to get through that have made me a better, more knowledgeable groomer. He forced me out of my comfort zone of same-length, all-over haircuts. He showed me a path to finding ways to adapt and overcome instead of giving up and saying, “It just can’t be done.”
In late February, I received an email letting me know that Lewis wasn’t doing that great and he had started down that last chapter in life. I was given the option to not groom him anymore if that is what I wished. His nervousness had regressed quite a bit. His owners and I knew his ability to handle stress along with a diminishing body were going to be extremely challenging.
I have learned over the years that if a dog’s final grooms are not done in specific ways catered to that specific dog, a disaster can and will happen. I didn’t even have to think about it. I laid out a plan for Lewis immediately. A week later, that plan went into action. I groomed him all by himself with no other dogs around and very little noise. There was a certain shop cat though that decided to get into the mix a few times. Lewis handled that like a champ though. His dad stayed with us and helped the entire time. He got to be there for Lewis. I knew that would be crucial.
As I groomed him and got the chance to get to know his dad a little better, I learned even more and was filled with this sense of gratitude that was so powerful. Lewis’ dad was strong for him when he needed to be held but also let him know that he wasn’t going anywhere until we were done. Lewis got to feel his love and didn’t have to feel afraid without his dad there and that made my heart happy. It was nice to have that kind of back up on our side. His dad got to see him do the “Lewis Shuffle” and was very impressed with his energy.
I could go on and on about Lewis, but I’ll just leave it at this: Every time I groom a Wheaten, I think about him because of that Lewis Shuffle. And I smile. I smile because of Lewis and what he brought to my world; challenges and all. I even do the Lewis Shuffle myself sometimes. I will always have a special place in my heart for Lewis. He gave me so many things that molded me into the groomer I am today.