Monday, July 20, 2015

Luke vs the Skunk

Spoiler alert.
It was about 10pm and I was out with my two German Shepherd boys, watching them compete in their daily pre-bedtime marking contest. Pax was into it, but Luke's participation was half-hearted. I know he'd heard or smelled or seen an animal in the yard earlier that night because I'd caught him fussing at the window. 

Instead of peeing, he was sniffing around, hoping the whatever-it-was was still around.

As I watched him scan the darkness, I automatically went through a mental checklist of what sort of animal he could be looking for.

It wasn't a deer. He'd been very interested in them when we'd first moved in, but our yard is like a deer buffet. There are so many passing through on a regular basis that Luke completely ignores them.

He still gets excited about the squirrels, though. And there's a pair of chipmunks living in a den beside the back porch steps.

It was too late though for those guys. So maybe it's a...?

Luke interrupted my thoughts by gathering himself up and charging towards the side of the house. The boys were on flexi-leads (I, like most groomers, hate flexis on principle, but they make pee-time easier, so I do use them in the privacy of my own yard). I hit the lock button and dug in my heels. Luke leaned forward, straining and deadly quiet, which meant that whatever was back there was right there, close enough to spit on.

I dragged back on the flexi and angled myself so I could see around the corner. Backlit by the back porch light was the very clear signature hunch-backed, fuzzy-tailed outline of a skunk.

Luke did a half jump-lunge and managed to drag me forward an inch or two. The skunk ignored him, digging placidly around in my flower bed. That nonchalance was a red cape to Luke, who pawed and snorted, straining to win the tug-of-war and get a face full of eau d' eww.  

"Oh, hell no," I said, turning and digging in, heading in the opposite direction. 

I mentioned earlier that Luke is one of two German Shepherds. This is the part of my story where things could have gone really badly. It didn't, though, because Paxy is the good one.

Not only is Pax not interested in wildlife, he also doesn't like to stay outside for very long. He was rescued years ago from a bad neglect situation. It took him a while to get comfortable with the notion of being in a house with people, but now he's very much committed to his indoor lifestyle.

He'd finished marking and went to stand anxiously by the front door. Bless that dog. If I'd had two dogs like Luke, we all would have gotten sprayed.

But since I only have one bad dog and I outweigh him by at least 50 pounds, Luke's choices were follow or be dragged. Disaster averted. He stopped pulling and we all retreated into the house. 

Of course that little episode got me thinking -- what if things had gone a different way and I had a skunked dog on my hands?
  1. Minimize collateral damage: I would have tried to sneak Pax inside before Luke noticed. I wouldn't put it past Luke to try to rub skunk-juice all over his brother and force me to deal with two skunked dogs. No, thank you.
  2. Contain the victim: I would have tied Luke's flexi to the porch rail and left him outside while I went in and gathered supplies. Under no circumstances would I let him in the house - he'd be rubbing skunk oil all over everything.
  3. Stock up: I would grab a bucket, a roll of paper towels, minty mouthwash (optional but helpful), baking soda, peroxide, and original formula Dawn. If I didn't have peroxide, I would substitute vinegar. If I didn't have the Dawn, I might try Palmolive or Dove, but nothing off-brand or harsh. Better to skip the dish soap if there's a risk it'll cause a skin reaction. 
  4. Further precautions: I might change my clothes -- put on something ratty I didn't care about. I'd fill the bathroom with anything I might need for the bathing process later.
  5. I'd go outside and blot Luke with the paper towels as best I could. Absorbing the oil into something disposable makes clean-up a lot easier.
  6.  Start with mint: I'd soak some paper towel in mouthwash and dab it lightly wherever I thought he'd gotten sprayed. Mint neutralizes the smell, so adding a drop of mouthwash to a skunky spot helps pinpoint where those spots are. I'd keep dabbing until I couldn't find any more smelly spots.
  7. Prepare the deskunking recipe: I'd put a handful of baking soda in my bucket, add a squirt of Dawn, and then drizzle in just enough peroxide to make a thick paste. 
  8. Apply it: I'd scoop some of the paste up with a paper towel and smear it all over the skunk-sprayed areas. Since Luke would probably have gotten it right in the face, I'd be using a lot of paste there. Keep in mind that peroxide is a bleaching agent (it can turn black dogs a rusty color) and most of these ingredients are relatively caustic, so don't get them in anybody's eyes.
  9. Be thorough: I'd let that all sit for a while, sniffing at his fur, trying to locate any more skunky spots. Skunk smell is tricky (when it's really strong, you feel it in your gut more than register it as a smell). I'd want to be thorough. But if I noticed Luke blinking or rubbing at his face at this stage, I'd assume he got skunk oil in his eye. In that case, I'd hurry up and get him to the tub.
  10. Make a beeline: I'd lose the flexi and grab onto Luke's collar to take him into the house, straight into the tub in the bathroom. Do not pass go, do not try to play with your brother, no you cannot have a drink right now. Right to the tub. Before I turn the water on, though, I'd do one more quick sniff check. It's important to understand that water spreads skunk oil around, allowing it to travel down the hair shaft to the skin, where it's impossible to remove. 
  11. Check again: before you add water, make sure you've blotted and baking-powder-pasted every fine, misty droplet of that oil.
  12. Rinse away the paste: I'd try not to get water anywhere I didn't put deskunking paste, that way, if I missed a spot, I can still get it later. I'd start out by flushing Luke's eyes, very gently with lukewarm water. I'd do that for a good minute at least, making sure his eyes look clear and clean. He'll hate it and shake his head a lot and get me and the bathroom soaked, but it's better to annoy him than to leave skunk oil, soap, baking soda, peroxide and/or vinegar in his eyes. Any of those things can cause major irritation and possible permanent damage. Then I'd get the rest of the pasty spots.
  13. Repeat as necessary: After he's rinsed, I'd towel Luke off and do another sniff-check. Apply more paste as needed.
  14. Wrap it up: Either bathe him or put him to bed.
If you're not a groomer, you might want to skip bathing and live with the leftover skunkiness until you can get your dog in to see a grooming professional. If you've followed my steps, you might be OK to do a full bath, but you'll get better overall results if you let your groomer handle it.

That said, you might not be able to get into your regular groomer right away (the good ones are always booked out). Bigger shops are more likely to have walk-in services available than smaller shops. The big box stores often have the best availability. Wherever you go, be sure to tip well.

In any case, you will likely catch subtle whiffs of skunk on occasion. This can last up to 6 months. The smell will get stronger when the dog is wet. It's the nature of skunk oil and even the best deskunking can fail to remove 100% of the oil. Misting the dog with vinegar and dabbing some minty mouthwash on his collar periodically does help, though.

Since Luke did not get skunked (and never has, knock on wood) I bought him a cute skunk plush dog toy. I got mine at Big Lots and he's terribly cute. I looked online for him and couldn't find any, but if you want a skunk toy for your dog, this one from Amazon is pretty cute and doesn't have stuffing, which is probably better anyway.

You might be wondering, "What about those deskunking products they sell at pet stores?" I've deskunked a lot of dogs and I've tried quite a few commercial deskunking products, but I've never found one that works better than the baking soda and peroxide recipe. Feel free to try one and let me know how it works out for you.

Anyway, the skunks are out there and they have every right to defend themselves from nosy hoodlums like Luke, so if you have a dog, check your cabinets and make sure you've got some peroxide and baking soda hanging around. Don't mix them together until you need them, though. The bubbles don't last and it's that oxygenated bubbling volcano effect that makes combining the two such a good cleaning agent.

Above all, remember that prevention is the best cure. Power up your flashlight and check your yard before you take the dogs out, especially after you catch catch them fussing at the window at night!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Look at me!

In order to make Groomerisms work, I have to get comfortable with being noticed.

Like "regularly finding multiple four and five-leaf clovers" Irish.
I've never been the "look at me" type. I came from a big Irish family where only the loudest get heard. Rather than compete, I opted early on never to shout. I preferred to go my own way, by myself. As a child, I spent free afternoons visiting animals. I didn't know the neighbors but I knew all their dogs and cats and ponies. I retreated frequently to quiet places, and lost myself in books.

I never disliked people. I just found their company draining. In high school, I performed in all the musicals, not because I liked the attention, but because I realized it was important to put myself out there, to socialize, and be a part of the community. I'm still about as introverted as an introvert can be. I'm not shy or aloof, but keeping company with animals is much easier than keeping company with human beings.

I'm not bad at selling myself either. In fact, attracting grooming clients was easy. A little chatting, a little sharing of knowledge, a little understanding goes a long way. People just want to know that their animals are in good hands. Empathetic groomers with a good eye and a steady hand are always in demand. I'm especially good at asking clients the right questions to get at the heart of what they want and need in a pet style. I don't say, "What do you want your pet to look like?" I say, "How do you want your pet to feel? How do you want to feel when you look at him?"

Attracting Groomerisms clients is much harder, though. What are the right questions?

As a groomer, I know what I want, but not all groomers are like me. In fact, we're an extremely diverse bunch with a variety of backgrounds and motivations and needs. Marketing to other groomers feels a bit like standing on a street corner wearing a sandwich board display, hoping that something I've put down will catch someone's eye.

Today, among the older scribblings and doodles, there's a message on my sandwich board that says:

Here I am. Look at me!
What do you see?

I have the best neighbors.
Groomerisms is about taking good care of yourself and the pets in your charge. It's meant to offer a little something to everyone connected to the grooming industry. Education for clients, support for groomers, humor and beauty for everyone.

I want to write useful, compelling, and informative pieces. I want to create compelling illustrations and infographics. I want my comics to be funny and relevant. I want to make pet portraits that capture the spirit of the bonds we hold with animals.

How am I doing? Please browse around and take a look at my offerings. If you think of something you need that I don't have, please let me know. If I can't help you, I can probably track down someone who can.

I'm Vania. This is my face. And my tattoo. And my fish portrait in my bathroom. Hi!
Join me on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter handles are all Groomerisms) and share your thoughts, wisdom, and stories. Thank you for looking.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Whole Story

My last post to this blog was 4 years ago. I thought about cutting ties and starting a brand new blog, but some of these older posts are good. And although my life has changed drastically in many ways since I wrote them, even the cut threads of my personal narrative are part of the continuous woven tapestry of my life.

Since you're probably new here, let me introduce myself.
My name is Vania Velotta and I was a professional groomer for almost 20 years. I started this blog while I was running my own grooming shop because I had thoughts I wanted to share with clients and other groomers.

The Groomerisms concept was born out of a desire to find a playful way to bridge some of the communication gaps between pet owners and pet professionals.

I'd like to share the whole story, though, so let me back it up to the beginning.

April 1997
I was an undergrad at Oberlin College, taking classes in biology and chemistry and writing. It was a tough semester academically, but I needed some spending money, so I applied for part-time work at a grooming shop in a western suburb of Cleveland.

My resume listed one previous employer: the boarding kennel in my hometown where I'd worked the register, scooped poop, and dished out Iams for two and a half years.

My only actual grooming experience was with the family sheltie, who came to work with me on Sundays, so I could bathe and neaten him up in their walk-in tub.
Sheltie Sampson
Sampson hated having his feet trimmed
almost as much as I hated hairy Grinch feet.

I got me the job, but I learned pretty quickly that I far from qualified to be a professional groomer. I did a lot of bath dogs and shave-downs to start.

The shop was clean and professional, with four talented, generous groomers on staff who helped me pick out equipment and showed me how to use it when they had time. They scissored up the worst of my mistakes and complimented me on my animal handling skills.

I earned a small but steady paycheck, learned a little technique, and considered it a fun experience. But I had no intention of making a career of it.

I wanted to be a veterinarian. I thought there was no higher calling in life than saving animals and I thought that's what vets did.

Growing up, we always had cats and I was always crazy about them. My parents were pretty laissez-faire about pet ownership, though. The cats went in and out as they pleased, unaltered, often unvaccinated, and took their chances.

I estimate the average life expectancy of my childhood cats was about four years. I loved new kittens but I bonded with every cat. I was devastated by every loss. By the time I was three, I was telling people I wanted to be a "veteran" when I grew up. Eyebrows raised, "A what?" they'd say. "You know. An animal doctor." A saver of cats.

June 1997
I was working with a cat rescue organization on campus and had a steady stream of foster cats keeping me company as we searched out forever homes for them. We had them tested for FIV and FLV, vaxed, fixed, and made adopters sign a no-declaw, indoor-only contract. Although we didn't the facilities to do anything other than have sick cats humanely euthanized, we were having a huge positive impact on the number of unwanted kittens born around town. As we kept up our TNR efforts, we saw the number of FIV/FLV positive cats go from 50% to less than 10%.

We were saving cats.
This baby is turning 16 in a couple months.

During summer break, I got a job as a veterinary assistant in a busy five doctor practice back home in Connecticut. I cleaned cages, folded towels, and wrapped surgical packs for sterilization. I assisted on surgery days, shaving bellies for spays and watched the dials on the anesthesia machine.

Working there made me realize how fallible medicine is. Sometimes the vets could save cats hit by cars, but usually not. Also, it became painfully clear that animals didn't like going to the doctor any more than I did. They got poked and knocked out and cut open and euthanized there.

I still wanted to be a vet, though. I liked learning, I liked the idea of being called a doctor, I loved working with animals. I accepted the fact that a vet's office was a stressful place. Emergency drills left me shaking and feeling like no amount of schooling could ever make me feel adequate. But I was determined to push through it.

And then I started having trouble observing surgeries.

I remember a day watching the overhead lights dance on the beautiful pinks and blues of a big dog's innermost places and I thought,"All living things look like this on the inside." My dogs, my cats, my family, me.

I went vegetarian when I was 12 because I decided I didn't like consuming stolen body parts. A dead animal was an empty shell, not a tasty snack. But this was a living body. The tissue and blood and bone was full of living nerves, speaking to a brain still capable of feeling fear and pain. As the vet examined the length of intestine, white gloves palpating, searching for blockages, healthy coils lay glistening on the blue surgical drape. This part of the body was never meant to be so exposed.

I was hit with a cold sweat and creeping blackness at the edges of my vision.

I never actually fainted, but I came close a few times. I found that I could still watch surgeries as long as I stayed seated and didn't try to stand. I figured I could power through and get past the baffling squeamishness. But when I got instantly woozy watching one of the vets put a big needle in a tiny kitten's chest, I realized that I was getting worse instead of better. I couldn't detach myself. I couldn't dial down my empathy enough to deal with animals turned inside out. Not even to help them.

How could I be a doctor of veterinary medicine if I couldn't even watch a simple procedure without getting dizzy and nauseous? And yet, how could I not be a vet? I'd never even considered any other life path. My high school class ring was custom-made with a dragon on one side and a veterinary caduceus on the other. The point of going to school was so I could be an animal doctor.

And my body wasn't having it.
Junior year of college, I gave it up and decided to go into web design instead.

My earliest work was actually kind of cute.
HTML coding was a hobby I'd picked up freshman year. I was far from home, living in a dorm, and uninterested in drinking. I had free time, free internet, and not a lot of friends, so I'd stay up late, reading terribly designed internet tutorials about web design and coding.

In the narrow gaps between the biology and chemistry I was still committed to study, I fit in a javascript programming class and several studio art classes. I got work/study jobs as webmaster for two different offices at the college.

December 1999
I graduated and made my way into the world. The dot-com boom was in full swing and I had just enough experience to qualify as an entry-level web designer. That was the heyday of comic sans and blinking text, but I had better taste than most, so I didn't have any trouble getting interviews, which led to job offers.

Giving up on vet school was disappointing, but now I had a chance to start making money instead of spending more on education. I'd pivoted at the last minute and landed on my feet. I felt like a grown-up person with a real job. I bought my first new car and then my first home - a two bedroom condo with a Metroparks view.

But the dot-com bubble burst, marketing budgets quickly dwindled and disappeared, and with them went the fancy Silicon-Valley-wannabe start-ups with their ping-pong tables and free lunches. I was laid off twice by failing companies in as many years. After 9/11, it got even worse. Then it was hard to get an interview, let alone a job offer.

But I had a mortgage to pay, so I answered a groomer wanted ad. Groomers are always wanted. By May 2002, I was working six days a week, doing upwards of ten dogs a day.

September 2006
Fast-forward a few years, past a few more grooming jobs. I was married, living with my husband near Cleveland. Together, we opened a grooming shop called K9 Design Dog and Cat Grooming in a cute little village bordering one of the area's top-ranked suburbs.

My first groom client at K9 Design
Thanks to a stellar credit score, I'd managed to finance the whole thing with some low interest credit card cash advances, but that meant we didn't have the budget to hire help with the build-out.

We worked fourteen hours a day for several weeks getting the space ready to open. We did all the painting and installed about a mile of tile. We acid-stained and sealed the concrete floors, working through the toxic, chemical fumes and their headache-inducing high.

The cage bank I ordered from Canada wasn't due to arrive for another month, so I bought some wire cages to tide me over. I had a cheap, wobbly grooming table set on a wooden box because it didn't go up high enough. I had a shop vac and a mish-mosh of brushes, clippers and dryers.

On opening day, there was only one client on the books. He was cute, but typically cocker: full of mats and cranky about it. His owner wasn't interested in shaving him down. We compromised with spot shaving and she pre-booked him on a maintenance schedule.

My earliest clients all paid by credit card, so technically it was my mother-in-law who gave me my first dollar bill. She scribbled "good luck!" on the front and framed it to hang in my lobby.

After my years in high-volume shops, I welcomed my slow early days as a chance to finally study my craft. Between stamping stacks of advertising postcards, I joined email lists and read grooming articles. I learned what a proper bichon is supposed to look like (you can imagine my surprise). I got a copy of Notes From The Grooming Table by Melissa Verplank and began to see the art of dog grooming in a new way.

I couldn't find appointment tracking software that I liked, so I used my web programming know-how to build something myself. The clients loved it. They loved my work and referred their friends and neighbors. I never did finish sending out all the postcards. After a while, my website and a line in the yellow pages were the only marketing outreach I did.

Over eight years, I stayed small, serving about 1500 clients total, many of them on a regular repeating 4-8 week schedule. I can't say how often I introduced a puppy to the clippers for the first time or made an old dog clean and comfortable for the last time. My records show I did about 11,000 grooms at K9 Design. I always had trouble finding good help, so almost all of that was me, check-in, bath, brush, clip, and check-out.

I had a big space and my rent reflected that, so I had to work hard to stay profitable. I'd made more working for other shops than I did working for myself. And everything was my responsibility - from the clients to the pets to the clean-up.

After a few years, I got pretty run-down. I didn't have enough energy for other things. The canvas on my easel sat blank for months, then years, at a time. I chopped my hair off because it required too much brushing. Though I regretted it - short hair is not a good look for me - as soon as it grew out, I'd chop it again.
It started out so shiny, though!

I rallied for a while, setting stricter limits on how I booked my days and firing clients who asked too much of me. I began playing audiobooks while I worked to give my brain interesting things to chew on. In the winter, when things were naturally slower, I started working on a draft of a novel in between haircuts.

Writing again felt wonderful but it made grooming harder by comparison. Incoming client became unwelcome distractions from what I really wanted to be doing. Telemarketers and door-to-door sales calls infuriated me. I still loved working with the animals, but I had less patience for chit-chat with my clients. I knew that I needed a change but I wasn't in a position to make one. It also didn't help that my marriage was slowly falling apart.

February 2011
My husband and I called it quits but continued to share the house. I had too many pets to rent and move into my own place right away. We finalized the divorce a year later. I owned K9 Design outright, along with just enough savings to put a down payment on a tiny house.

The shop was a good earner for a two-income household, but it was a stretch to pay the bills by myself. My landlord was steadily edging up the rent on the building. I could try to find a smaller, cheaper space, but I didn't have the money or the know-how to do another build-out. Or I could close down and groom for someone else.

I couldn't stand the thought of going backwards.

But I was lucky and I met someone amazing. A brilliant tattooed vegan cat person, like me.

That's a whole different story, though.

He moved in and we made plans together.

September 2014
We closed the shop and got married in Cape Cod, just before the weather turned cold. My "temporary" grooming career had stretched in highs and lows across two decades. And then it was over.

Sort of.

My last haircut at K9 design.

You don't ever really stop being a groomer, do you? It's not my job, but I still do it. I bathe my German Shepherds in my bathroom tub and blow them out in the driveway when the weather's nice. I carry nail clippers with me everywhere so I can trim claws in need. Sometimes I offer to makeover pets for close friends and family. I've been dreaming about acquiring myself a mid-size white poodle so I can play with color and style.

I miss my set-up and my long-time clients. I miss the animals I worked with for so long. I miss the income - especially the tips. But professionally, I'm happier as a struggling artist/writer/whatever than I was as a successful groomer.

Time will tell if my body will someday force me onto yet another path, but for now I've fallen back on another old hobby of mine - thinking up ways to help other groomers with their businesses. I started Groomerisms back in 2008, enlisting the help of nationally syndicated cartoonist Jenny Campbell to draw up The Tangle Chart and the "You Charge More Than My Hairdresser" comic. I didn't have enough time while K9 Design was open to make a real effort at selling the brand. It was more for me than anyone else.

But now I want to make Groomerisms products something that you want.

Good advice from The Gumroad Small Product Lab.
I've certainly not been idle these last eight months. I landed an internship with I've been learning the ins-and-outs of modern marketing, social media, and the blogosphere.

You may have noticed that I'm actively trying to build Groomerisms' social media following. I redesigned the website and created a bunch of new offerings as well.

I'm hustling, as they say, from a desk chair that my two Oberlin cats have been using as a scratching post for the past sixteen years.

What a journey. And here we are starting up a bumpy, uncertain new road.

Most days, nobody buys anything from Groomerisms. But there's usually a re-pin or a like or a share somewhere that I can celebrate.

I literally do a happy dance every time I get an email letting me know that someone decided to purchase a copy of the Tangles Are Trouble or the Double-Coated Breeds Dog infographic.

The positive reviews that came back on my first stab at an e-book were equally as precious to me as its few sales. Daryl Conner called the The Groomer's Guide to a Low-Stress Life "helpful, thought-provoking, and fun." I've been Daryl's fan for ten years now.

So what's next?
  • Creative Grooming / Color Workshop - just the other day I volunteered to organize something in the Cleveland/Akron, OH area. A worthy challenge, and a little daunting. But I'm confident I can pull together something awesome, even if nobody shows up. There's already a lot of interest, though, which is exciting. If you want more info on that, out the survey and I'll put you on the mailing list: (Also, advice welcome.)
  • Trade Shows - In all my years as  a professional groomer, I only went to one grooming event. It was a Super Styling Sessions seminar with Sue Zecco and Jay Scruggs. I always wanted to go to more, and bigger events. Maybe see what it's like to compete. Sit through a few classes and meet some groomers I only know online. Now I could go as a vendor and peddle my posters. I wasn't ready this year, but there are lots of possibilities for next year.
  • Groomerisms and the Art of Zen - I'm excited to start blogging regularly again and create posts that are useful to both groomers and pet owners. has some newer articles on it, but I will likely bring those over here and keep everything in the same place. (Groomtracker is the name of my grooming appointment software that will someday be available for sale). 
  • More Art - Though writing is my first love, it's been a lot of fun working on pet portraits. I wish they were more popular and requests for them would start pouring in. I want to draw until my hands cramps and who better to draw than your pets? In the meantime, I'll keep working on Groomerisms infographics and t-shirts and posters...
  • Bylines -- I've been thinking about submitting articles to the major grooming magazines but I'm not sure how to approach them. I'll be looking into it soon, though.
So, that's my story. It's not over. It's just beginning, I think. Thank you for reading and thanks for supporting!