Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Setting Goals for the New Year

I've long believed that setting goals is a great way to lend clarity of purpose and a sense of power and control to the otherwise overwhelming vastness that is the future. It's like editing your potential. And it's something that I've always done quite naturally. In fact, as a young child, I was notorious for making proclamations about how things are, how they ought to be, and how they would be. And why not? I had considered all the angles I could think of, I had studied the world and everything in it, and I felt perfectly comfortable letting people know exactly what was what. The adults around me could rarely change my mind or even budge me once my feet were set. I was a powerhouse of focus and determination. I think "stubborn" was the word my parents liked to use.

Of course, as I got older, I learned that even the strength of a will like mine doesn't stand a chance against the forces of reality. The world moves and we are moved. It took many years to realize that there isn't enough strength to survive on strength alone. There isn't enough in the world. And anyway, the hammer is just not always the best approach. If you don't balance your strength with flexibility, patience, and judgement, you'll eventually wear out.

So I spent a lot of time working on mental flexibility. Putting things in perspective is a great way to bounce back from failure and learn as much as possible while moving on to the next adventure. Unfortunately, it's possible to become too flexible and lose sense of the future. For a while, as new circumstances and new people came into my life, new possibilities came into view and old ones disappeared. Flexibility means that that's OK because every opportunity is equal in importance and interest. But floating ahead without form, a future without real goals is just a soup of potential. In order to realize that potential and gain the benefits of both the struggle and the victory (hopefully!), the victory has to be defined. You have to be willing to inspect the soup and consciously pick out the parts that, from now on, are going to be most important.

So here are my business goals for 2010:

  1. To add grooming staff to enable the shop to service more clients and to free up more personal time for me to pursue other goals.

  2. To develop my online client tracking and appointment software for sale to grooming shops.

  3. To develop Groomerisms educational products for sale to grooming shops.

  4. To update this blog with a new article at least once per month.

  5. To attend at least one grooming education seminar.

And there it is. I look forward to an exciting new year!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Winter Grooming

The best kind of grooming is regular grooming. Whether your pet is a fluffed out poodle princess or a seasonally shedding sheltie, there is an appropriate grooming interval that a discussion with your groomer about the specific needs of both you and your pet can help reveal. If that interval is 4-6 weeks, as it typically is for most drop-coated or curly-coated breeds, or closer to 8-12 weeks, as is often the case for short-coated shedding breeds, it's generally a good idea to stick to that interval year-round. Often, however, winter gives pet owners pause when it comes to their regularly scheduled grooming.

"Well, it's cold now, so we're going to wait a bit," is a common comment heard at grooming shops across the un-temperate parts of the country. The reasoning usually is that a pet whose coat is allowed to grow out a bit longer will be more comfortable in the cold weather. Unfortunately, skipping or stretching grooming visits often results in exactly the opposite -- a less comfortable pet. Why is that?

First of all, drop-coated and curly-coated pets who are prone to matting get a double whammy. The extra length of coat combined with the snow-balls and moisture the coat is exposed to creates an ideal environment for tangles to form and tighten and grow. So now your longer coated dog's matted coat actually does the opposite. A matted coat dries more slowly, leaving your pooch wet and shivering after a romp through the snow. Additionally, the tangles in the coat prevent it from insulating efficiently -- an unmatted coat insulates by trapping a pocket of air close to the body while a matted coat just traps dirt and moisture. Of course, this can be prevented by being more vigilant in brushing and combing at home, but that's a lot of extra work without the extra benefit you would expect. Adding a bit more length of coat doesn't really add to the insulating power of the coat the way putting a cute doggie coat on your pet would. By the way, those coats will help accelerate the formation of tangles as well, yet another reason to keep up with a tidy, insulating haircut!

Second, a dog who spends the majority of his time indoors is really not going to appreciate any extra insulation while he's inside, enjoying an otherwise comfortable life with central heating. If he suffers in the cold, doggie clothes will keep him cozy while he's in the cold, without his having to wear his "winter gear" while he's indoors as well!

And while they don't suffer from the cold nearly as much as our designer dogs do, a dog with undercoat often needs a bit of help keeping his coat's insulating power in top form. Undercoated dogs often run into trouble when hairs that were released but didn't shed out properly mat up or otherwise block that nice double-pane window effect and interfere with natural insulation as well. Brushing at home can certainly help keep the coat in top condition, and you should feel free to put off grooming for however long you can stand the eau d' ungroomed dog!

If the points above don't convince you to keep to your schedule, bear in mind that the haircut is usually the most apparent, but arguably, not the most important part of professional grooming. You can certainly request a longer haircut in the winter time so that you can enjoy all the benefits of a professional bath and comb-out, nail trimming and ear cleaning, without taking as much (or any) coat off. Your groomer can make sure your pet's rear end, pads of the feet, eyes and other problematic, debris-catching areas stay clean and tidy while preserving the length of the rest. There's no reason to miss out on the joys of a clean, styled pet just because the snow flies, now is there?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Ideal Client

Recently, I was listening to an audiobook called Book Yourself Solid: the fastest, easiest, and most reliable system for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if you Hate Marketing and Selling by Michael Port and Tim Sanders. Although it seems at first glance to be a handbook for pulling in huge numbers of people, the book actually emphasizes quality over quantity. By cultivating relationships with clients who are very compatible with your services and your philosophies, you are more likely to do your very best work. When you are exactly what your clients have been looking for and your clients are exactly who you want to serve, everybody wins.

As an exercise, the book recommends making out a list of qualities you would expect to find in your ideal clients. As you might expect from someone with perfectionist tendencies, my list is probably too long and certainly too detailed, but here it is!

My ideal client:
  • continually seeks education about pet care and solicits, listens to, and values my expertise as a pet professional

  • understands or accepts the limitations of grooming with regard to coat condition and pet behavior and respects my professional judgment

  • keeps their pet on a regular grooming schedule and in a length that is compatible with the upkeep they are willing to do at home, the lifestyle of the pet, and the pet's tolerance for maintenance

  • has their pet spayed or neutered for the health of their pet and to help prevent overpopulation and bad behavior

  • keep appointments and arrives roughly on time, especially during busy times of year

  • is flexible with pick-up time and allows me to call when their pet is finished

  • makes sure that their pets' biological needs are taken care of before drop-off

  • really appreciates the value of a precise, quality haircut

  • controls their pet with a leash or carrier, cleans up after their pet outside, and generally ensures that their pet doesn't offend, scare, or injure anyone in or around the shop

  • understands that accidents can happen when sharp objects and moving pets come together and does what they can to teach their pets good grooming manners, keeps them in good shape to minimize their risk of irritation and injury, and closely watches any minor scrapes that do occur to make sure that the pet doesn't fuss with them and make them more serious

  • is open and detailed with medical history, aggression problems, and other information that are pertinent to grooming and can help make the grooming process as smooth as possible

  • understands and appreciates the standards of sterilization and sanitation I make at the shop to help prevent the spread of infection, parasites, and disease but also realizes that there are risks associated with taking your pet out in public and takes responsibility for keeping their pet healthy

  • when the condition or behavior of their pet forces a change in grooming plan, my ideal client trusts me to do what is best for their pet and says things like, "Do what you think is best"

  • is generous and honest in their feedback and refers others who can benefit from my services
  • Saturday, July 25, 2009

    Solon Home Days

    Yesterday, my shop assistant and I spent our evening over at Solon Home Days with the Kelley's Kritters booth and some adoptable kittens. I brought over the two remaining "dumpster kittens," who are staying at my house. Although they were initially a bit anxious about the crowds, they relaxed after a while and enjoyed a lot of affection from passing children. Kelley found a home for one kitten, a gorgeous orange tabby, and a lot of people stopped by to visit, volunteer, buy raffle tickets, and make donations. Hopefully the trend will continue for tonight and Sunday night. If you're in Solon, visit Home Days at Solon Community Park on SOM Center Road. And if you're at Home Days, be sure to visit Kelley!

    Kelley's raffle items are numerous and include gift certificates to local businesses (including K9 Design!) and gift baskets full of goodies. Check out the end of this post for a complete list of raffle items. Drawings will be on Sunday evening around 8:00 and you do not need to be present to win! Raffle tickets are $2 each, 3 for $5, or 7 for $10.

    You can see a list of cats and kittens for adoption at the Petfinder site for Kelley's Kritters at

    Kelley is always in need of donations and volunteers so be sure to take advantage of a great opportunity to help out homeless cats in Solon and surrounding areas by contacting her:

    If you're looking to add a new feline family member, you can visit the website to fill out a pre-adoption questionnaire and get the ball rolling. Cats of all ages, colors, and personality types are available for adoption. Adoptable cats are tested for FIV/FLV, vaccinated, wormed, and spayed or neutered. Kelley also provides a nice starter kit. Adoption fees vary but typically range from $50 - $75.

    Raffle items:

    1. Indians Autographed baseball - Asdrubal Cabrera #13, 4 tickets to a 2009 game (weeknight subject to availability).  Value – unavailable.
    2. Jack Daniels Winter Extravaganza gift basket;  Total Value $400 value.
    3. (2) 18 holes of golf with cart at Grantwood Golf (weekday only), $50 to Rusty Bucket, digital convertor.  Value $200.
    4. Horseback Riding Lessons (7) at Promise Land Farms, Mantua. $150 value.
    5. Indians tickets (August 13th versus Texas Rangers, 12:05PM. Section 175, Row P, Seats 5 &6), 2 Indians shirts (one men’s’ and women’s’) + 2 coupons for medium Sub Combo at Dibellas (medium sub, 20 oz beverage, chips or cookie). Value $120.
    6. Panera Bread – “Bagel Pack For A Year.” 13 bagels and 2 tubs of cream cheese, every month for 1 year! $175 value.
    7. John Roberts – manicure & pedicure (with Felisha, Chagrin Falls location, $80), Arbonne NutriMinC Anti-Aging Body Care System (Body Serum and Hydrating Body Lotion), ($85); Total value $165.
    8. Andrew Jordan Photography - Pet Photography Session & 8x10 print, $150 value.
    9. Solon Sampler  ($10 Mitchells Ice Cream, $10 Wildlife Gardens,  $25 Longhorn gift certificate, Gionino's  Free Pizza, (2) coupons for medium sub combo meal at Dibella’s, $20 tanline certificate, $40 Jimmy Dadonna’s, Free in-home estimate from Country Curtains).  Total Value $150.
    10. $100 Flemings gift certificate, Arbonne Intelligence Hand Cream and Herbal Foot Cream ($30); Total Value $130.
    11. Dino Palmeri – manicure & pedicure (with Amy, Solon location), ($85) and Arbonne Ginger Citrus bath salts and sea salt scrub ($30), Tanline gift certificate ($20); Total Value $135.
    12. Blade & Hue Salon – manicure & pedicure, ($70), Nieman Marcus beach bag with Arbonne Reactivate sea salt scrub, herbal foot cream and cleansing gel ($60). Total value $130.
    13. Learning Resources, Pretend & Play Animal Hospital (3+ year, $40), Mobile Machinery Shop Toy ($5), $15 PlayMatters gift certificates, cat stickers ($5), 6’ x 6’ custom fleece blanket from “Barbies Binkies,” ($50), Total Value $115.
    14. Wine Gift Basket;  2006 PETs, Petite Sirah – Vinum Cellars, California.  2008 Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon, Valle, Chili.  Chardonnay, Harthill Farm, California.  Wine for Dummies 2 painted wine glasses cat theme, wine charms, 4 wine corks, hand towel & miscellaneous crackers & chocolate). $100 value.
    15. Swarovski crystal necklace, bracelet & earrings, $75 value.
    16. $60 off 1 hour booking of Whirly Ball, or Buy 1 game of LaserSport, get a game free!  (2) coupons for medium sub combo meal at Dibella’s.  $75 value
    17. $20 K9 Design & Grooming for any combination of grooming services and/or pet products; Doggie basket, $50 value.
    18. $20 K9 Design & Grooming for any combination of grooming services and/or pet products; Cat basket, $50 value.
    19. $25 Spa-K9 Dog Grooming & Daycare Gift Certificate & dog gift basket, $50 value.

    Saturday, June 27, 2009

    Reiki Time!

    Almost a decade ago, my husband, Mike, was turned on to reiki by a friend of his. He said that over lunch one day, this friend -- Christy -- put her hand over his on the table and said, "Just keep talking, don't pay attention to your hand." At some point during the conversation, Mike began to feel a strange sensation. It was the feeling of a hot, swirling energy on his hand. "It was very distinct," he said. And that got him hooked.

    He took a reiki level I class with Christy and started to develop his reiki skill with meditation and focus exercises and practicing healing others. He told me that he had once worked on someone's headache and said that he could sense a "ball of energy" in her head. Experimenting, he began to move his hands around, trying to move the energy ball. He said that it felt like it was moving with his hand, from one side of her head to the other, and then finally, he drew it away and out of her.

    When the session was over, she said that her headache was gone. And, although she could not see or feel what Mike's hands had been doing, she commented on how strange it was that the pain was moving around her head before it disappeared. Very interesting!

    Over the years, however, Mike lost touch with reiki practice, focusing on other things. Every once in a while he would bring it up to me though, wishing that he hadn't "lost" the power. Then he met Gretchen at work and began talking reiki. She has been practicing for a while now and offered to help Mike rediscover his own power. Mike and I met up with her at a health food store and ate good sandwiches and talked for a long time. Gretchen offered to come to our home and do reiki treatments on us and we took her up on it.

    I had a lot of mixed feelings on the sessions. To me, reiki looks like a guided meditation, with movement and proximity guiding the subject's thoughts. If you're not familiar with reiki, it is an ancient healing art originally from Japan. Reiki is said to be universal life force energy that flows in through the crown chakra and out through the healer's palms. So the practice of reiki involves focusing on creating this "flow" and then holding your hands either on or over different parts of the subject's body in an effort to direct healing energy to them.

    Reiki disclaimers typically state that reiki is for fun and relaxation, but reiki devotees (and increasingly, medical practitioners) consider it a genuine supplemental medical treatment. And while the benefits of relaxation and meditation are well-documented and support the idea that our emotional states have profound impacts on how well our bodies work, studies done on reiki and other "spiritual healing" arts are showing measurable, physical benefits in laboratory and hospital settings.

    There are a number of studies whose results you can find online with various kinds of disease models and different kinds of tests. A good listing of articles can be found here. Several studies use "sham" healers as a placebo group and pit them against reiki masters and measure results. Since people can not tell which are attuned reiki masters and which are just pretending, the fact that the results on the reiki side were better suggests that it's not just a mental benefit. And readings of the biomagnetic fields (essentially our body's natural electricity) has been found to be much stronger around the palms of trained healers than in people who do not practice healing touch.

    Gretchen told Mike about a usui reiki healing series of courses held at Lakeland Community College. So we signed up. Last Tuesday we took Reiki I and received our first attunement. On Thursday, Reiki II. After a week's break, we'll be going back for two more classes -- one focusing on chakras (eastern medicine's energy centers of the body) and finally Reiki III, the master class, on July 9.

    Thursday, June 4, 2009

    Adventures in Kittens

    Yesterday a client dropping off mentioned that there were some "kittens out there."

    "Where?" I asked.

    "We saw them as we were driving in," she replied.

    She saw three, huddled together, next to the dumpsters, as a matter of fact.

    Another client had also spotted them and the two of us managed to wrangle them up. The first was easy to catch. The other two darted back behind the dumpster, amid the piles of smelly things, and it took a few tries to flush them out and capture them. We set them up in a cage at the shop with a mushed dog cookie to nibble on. A little bit later, some of the wait staff from the restaurant caught another one and brought her over, for a total of four.

    They are about four, maybe five weeks old. Their eyes are still blue but they have full sets of teeth on board. They were horribly filthy and stained from dumpster diving. And their foraging didn't seem to be very successful -- they were weak and skeletal. But now they've had baths, numerous courses of kitten chow, an amazing number of bowel movements, and a quiet, restful night. Already they're looking stronger and more vibrant.

    They're afraid, though not "born in the wild" afraid -- maybe just "not used to much handling" afraid. They have no sign of fleas or upper respiratory infection either, which makes me think they may have been dumped out there rather than having been born out in the woods somewhere. It's all speculation, of course, but the thought of someone dropping off babies like that is intolerable. Even sending them off to certain death at a city pound is a better fate than letting them starve or freeze or be eaten by something in the night on their own. Dumping kittens is pure cowardice, whether they are dropped somewhere remote or somewhere with people. These are domestic animals -- humans bred them to be companions. They are our responsibility.

    These babies are another reminder of how important it is to prevent pregnancies and more kittens. I remember reading a statistic somewhere that in order for all the cats in the US to have homes, every single person in the country would have to have seven cats. Not every household, every person, man, woman, and child. For the love of these unwanted babies (and since these will be wanted, will be adopted, will be taken care) for the ones I can't get to, please, spay them all. Neuter them all. There are just too many of them and too few of us. Adopt, always adopt, and always spay and neuter. Each of those single, simple acts by just one person will stop hundreds of thousands of dumped or feral kittens from ever existing. They can't suffer if they are never born. And it's the same for the dogs.

    So these little darlings, these lucky few, have names now. From left to right they are Ellipsis, Placid, Rhys, and Wednesday.

    Ellipsis is definitely the spitfire. She the dominant one, who charges the food dish and spits and hisses if she feels threatened. Today she realized she likes the fingers that come in and scritch her under her chin and massage her head and hit that elevator butt button. She leaned in and purred. Soon she'll be screaming for her meals and pawing at people for attention like a regular kitten.

    Placid is the calm one. She is a lovely tuxedo cat with peaceful eyes. She's much less frightened than the others, more docile and trusting.

    Rhys is the only male and if malnutrition doesn't stunt his growth, he's likely to be a big boy. He has big feet with white socks. I can't imagine he'll grow into anything less than a big teddy bear.

    Wednesday is the shyest of the bunch and her eyes are ever watchful. She's also a tuxedo, with a nice white blaze on her face and a white belly. Her ears curve a little at the top, giving her an almost cartoonish appearance. She's likely to be one of your stereotypical aloof cats when she matures, mysterious and watchful. She'll be the perfect lady for someone who loves a more independent personality.

    Of course these are just first impressions and although I've seen many many kittens grow up, they usually have some surprises in store as their personalities solidify. I expect them to relax soon -- within a week, if not in a few days -- and start playing and wanting to cuddle like average, well-adjusted kittens. I'll probably miss these days then, because they're nice and quiet and calm right now!

    They'll be seeing a vet soon and I will definitely be asking my rescue contacts about a vet who does early spaying and neutering. They're probably too thin just yet, but they'll be ready for new homes in a few weeks, I should think. Anyone in the area who's been thinking about growing their feline family, please contact me at the shop! I'll be asking an adoption fee to cover vet expenses and of course I will be looking for good, responsible homes for them.

    Thursday, May 28, 2009

    Beating the Heat

    In the spring and summer, a lot of clients come to me for shave downs. While the right haircut and regular grooming can certainly help keep pets more comfortable, in most cases, the length of his coat is really not contributing a whole lot to the problem.

    Dogs don't regulate their temperature the same way people do. Humans sweat and the evaporation of that moisture helps us cool off. Dogs don't sweat, so exposing skin with a shorter clip doesn't help them stay cool the same way shedding layers of clothing does for us. Dogs lose heat by panting -- the evaporation of saliva does most of their cooling work. They also find cool spots to lay on, which helps lower their core temperature. This is the reason you can usually find your dog laying on the cool kitchen tiles or in the basement when the heat rolls in.

    Outdoors, dogs like to dig themselves a hole and lay on the cool dirt. Laying down a "bed" of stone or ceramic tiles in the shade will give your dog a cleaner, less destructive, alternative to help him cool off.

    Always provide fresh water for your pet. You can also give him ice cubes, either in the water to keep it cooler, or just as a fun, crunchy, and cooling snack.

    You can also wet your pet down to get the cooling benefit of evaporation. Hosing him down, providing a kiddie pool of water, or taking him for a swim will help cool him down quickly. Just remember that water helps mats to form more quickly and tightly! If your pet has any length to his coat and is prone to either matting or packed undercoat, be vigilant about regular brush and comb-outs. It doesn't help to give your pet a quick cool-down with water if he spends the rest of his time overheating because he is matted!

    Regular grooming to keep your pet's coat at an appropriate length and untangled will help to maximize his coat's insulating properties. Like double-paned windows do for your house, the layer of air trapped in a well-groomed coat helps stabilize the dog's temperature and protect him from excessive heat.

    Hot pets might appreciate laying on a cool towel -- toss it in the fridge or the freezer for a few minutes and then lay it down for him to lay on or wrap it around his abdomen to pull heat away from his core.

    Another big contributor to overheating in dogs is their weight. They gain weight around their middle, and the excess fat locks in body heat and heats up their organs. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight will do far more to keep him cool than any other tip or trick out there!

    You'll probably notice that when things are really sweltering, your dog doesn't like to move around as much. That's because getting the blood pumping also heats up the body. So minimize exercise with your dog during the hottest parts of the day.

    Like people, dogs can suffer heat stroke and it can kill them. If your pet is panting and salivating heavily, has pale or purple gums or tongue, or seems weak or confused, he may be having a heat stroke. It is very important to get his body temperature down to a safe level as quickly as possible and you should seek veterinary help immediately. Elderly, overweight, or breathing-impaired dogs are at highest risk for heat stroke.

    Have fun out there in the sun but remember to respect the heat. Be alert, plan ahead, and minimize its negative effects on your pet!

    Shave Time!

    This is the time of year when the hair starts flying! I've been shearing shedding dogs and matted dogs alike like sheep since the weather warmed up. Cats, too! Here are some insights about spring and summer shave-downs.

    1. Non-shedding dogs with extensive matting, matted cats, and shedding dogs with packed undercoat are not the only pets who can benefit from a good, short clip. In fact, I highly recommend that shaves happen before pets get to that condition. If you have a high-maintenance pet and no time to maintain, or if you have a big shedder and you can't take it any more, a short haircut will help keep you and your pet much cleaner and more comfortable.

    2. Many people clip dogs because it makes them "cooler." But a short shave does not necessarily help keep dogs cooler. Dogs with undercoat in particular often are more comfortable with their coat than without it. A properly kept coat will act as a good insulator against the heat. When the sun starts shining, the downy undercoat falls out, leaving a space between the guard hairs. The air in that space helps to buffer the animal against the heat and keep him comfortable. It's important that the undercoat is brushed regularly as it falls out so that it doesn't get tangled and caught and interfere with cooling.

    3. Similarly, other types of coats can trap a layer of air if they are not taken too short. Non-shedding breeds like shih-tzus and bichons can benefit greatly from a "fluffier" clip. By leaving 1/4" - 1/2" of coat, we can mimic the summer coat of an undercoated breed and give them a little extra cooling power. However, if the dog is badly matted or lives a lifestyle that tends towards matting, shorter is always better! A matted coat is always hot and heavy and painful and should be removed ASAP.

    4. Another complication sometimes seen in dogs shaved very short is sunburn! White dogs seem to be at greatest risk, but any dog is susceptible. They do not tan and are vulnerable for as long as their skin shows through their coat. Their backs are the most commonly affected. If your pet needs a very short shave, be sure to limit his sun exposure as much as possible. There are sunscreens made especially for dogs that can help. Also, a light t-shirt can help protect the dog from the sun. Sunburn in dog can result not only in painful burns, but scarring and permanent or semi-permanent hair loss in the affected area.

    Because t-shirts and sunscreen are normally not good options for cats, and because cats are most safely clipped with a very short blade, it's always a good idea to keep shaved cats indoors until their coat has filled in enough to protect their skin from the sun.

    5. While shaving is a great way to keep dogs clean and comfortable, keep in mind that some coats recover better than others. When a shedding coat is clipped short, it sometimes interferes with normal shedding. If the hairs don't fall out properly, sometimes new hair doesn't grow in to replace them. That can mean thin or short patches that don't grow as well as the rest of the coat, bald spots (particularly on the rump), or a coat that comes in with a much higher proportion of fuzzy undercoat (versus the more attractive topcoat). One way to counteract this is to spend time weekly either carding (pulling out undercoat by hand or with a special tool) or brushing with a rubber brush to encourage the short hairs to fall out as they normally would.

    Shaving is a good option for a lot of pet owners for a number of reasons. Just remember, it's not appropriate for every pet and sometimes there are better ways to achieve your goals. Your groomer is a great source for advice regarding your best options for keeping your pet happy and healthy as the weather warms up.

    Saturday, May 16, 2009

    More on Anxiety

    "Sometimes I think the primary difference between how my dog and I experience fear is that he tends to be afraid when there is legitimate danger, while I have the capacity -- and the inclination -- to scare myself with my highly evolved mind in the absence of any real threat." - Thom Rutledge, Embracing Fear

    While I love the insight behind this statement, I think dogs are not quite immune from our particular brand of fear. More and more often humans are guilty of inadvertently creating and/or reinforcing inappropriate fears in dogs. In other words, we can teach our dogs to be afraid in the absence of real threat. Whoops! I think this is partly because of the growing social empathy towards dogs -- the move, as a society, to treat pets as family members rather than tools or property. From that perspective, the embracement of pets as people is fantastic and heart-warming and well, frankly, long overdue. But there are some side-effects, like an increased risk for "doggie phobias" in otherwise well-kept pets.

    My last blog post talked about techniques for reducing stress surrounding the grooming experience. This is a more general top-down view on what causes dogs stress and how we can take steps to ensure that our dogs are not experiencing unnecessary or excessive anxiety and stress. The only pets with no stress are the ones who are beyond all harm, so it's important to recognize that anxiety, fear, and stress are natural, useful emotions that all living, breathing, problem-solving beings face. However, prolonged stress without reasonable cause takes a huge toll on the quality and length of life for both pets and people. Stress is not a bad thing. It serves a very important purpose -- it helps us act and react in ways that help to keep us safe and healthy. But like anything else, it should be experienced in moderation!

    So let's talk about how stress develops. Although dogs do not have the level of self-awareness or memory capacity that people do, they experience the world similarly in a lot of ways. Mentally, intellectually, they are a lot like young children. They observe, they react, they record outcomes of behavior, and their brains automatically adjust based on their past experiences. Hunger is a kind of stress -- it's the body calling out that it requires more fuel. If dogs are fed at the same time every day, their brains and bodies become attuned. They get hungry at that time of day. People also learn to recognize "feeding times" and our family schedules develop to first create and then take advantage of this kind of body/mind conditioning. Our brains are constantly trying to anticipate what's coming and how to react. The brains of dogs do the same.

    Like hunger, fear and anxiety are stress reactions wherein the body releases hormones and prepares itself for action. The brain believes that something significant is going to happen and triggers the body to prepare. Pupils dilate, the heart speeds up, and a host of other processes kick in. The big difference between when that starts and stops in pets and in people is that we have self-awareness and the ability to rationalize. We can think to ourselves, "There's no reason to be afraid," take some deep breaths, calm ourselves, slow our heart rate, and basically call off the alert. (Some of us are better at this than others!) But unlike dogs, we can choose to desensitize ourselves, develop a plan to do that, and then carry out that plan. We can make a conscious decision to expose ourselves to the source of our fear over and over until our body doesn't react anymore.

    But dogs don't put value judgements on their emotions the way we do. They don't have any sense of whether or not a fear is irrational or not. They simply react, evaluate the outcome, and adjust. In other words, they learn from experience, automatically and unselfconsciously. When dogs hear thunder, they might be naturally afraid because it is loud and threatening. But when nothing happens to them, eventually thunder stops affecting them. They will certainly take shelter from the rain, but the noise is no more threatening than grass or rocks.

    But thunderstorms are a great example of when human interaction with pets commonly creates or exacerbates fears. Rather than allowing the desensitization process to happen naturally and contribute zero energy of our own to the experience, we tend to want to jump in and fix it. But when we bring our concern and our stress about our pet's anxiety into the mix, we often inadvertently reinforce the fear. Or worse, if we've had a dog in the past with thunder phobias, we might go on high alert during a storm and help create anxiety in a new dog! The thunder is scary because it does affect the environment -- it makes the people stressed out. Thus fear is reinforced and thunder will continue to trigger anxiety in the dog. Often times, the human stress and dog stress will continue to escalate and the fear will become extraordinarily powerful. In the wild, wolves and bears and chipmunks do not leap through windows in a frenzied panic attack during thunderstorms. But if we domesticated them and tied their survival sense to our state of mind, they very well might!

    There are plenty of specific techniques out there -- recipes if you will -- that give step by step ways to relate to dogs in a way that will prevent escalation of phobias, so I won't get into that here. But don't try to reinvent the wheel -- learn from the mistakes and successes of others. A search for "dog phobia" or "operant conditioning" will give you lots of places to start. And then customize your approach to suit you and your pet's unique needs. Keep your observations neutral, cultivate your curiosity, and don't get lost in frustration! The key is to remember not to feed the drama. Take the drama away. Neutralize the situation. Then set out to teach your dog, one situation at a time, when it is and is not appropriate to be afraid. Your dog wants to look to you for leadership, wants to know and depend on your assessments, so the path to a more peaceful pooch is open and unblocked before you. It's a never-ending process, not a destination, but it's a highly rewarding journey!

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009

    Stress-less grooming

    There really is no such thing as stress-free grooming, but with some understanding, practice, patience, and cooperation, it is certainly possible to minimize your pet's stress level throughout the grooming process. Some animals naturally resonate at a more anxious frequency, but the goal should always be not perfection, but continuous improvement. So here are some tips to help your pet find his zen grooming place.

    1. Communication
    While there are no magic formulas, most groomers are happy to recommend some techniques for making grooming easier for your particular pet. Ask and then try them out and ask if they helped.

    2. Scheduling
    Different shops have different drop off and pick up policies, so ask what those are. Whenever possible, schedule your pet for grooming during a "non-activity" time when your pet would normally be home, relaxing. Pets have excellent internal clocks and they can get pretty antsy around their dinner time, or when they usually take their walk, or when they're expecting the school bus.

    3. Tuckering
    Tired pets are calm pets! If your pet is anxious or overly exuberant at the grooming shop, tucker him out with a good work-out before dropping him off. An hour-long walk or game of fetch goes a long way toward promoting a peaceful grooming experience.

    4. Project Peace
    There cannot be enough said about the power of a pet owner's energy. Your state of mind strongly influences your pet, especially when they are a little stressed out, so make sure you are projecting calm and confidence rather than letting your emotions get out of control, too! Be the leader; set the example.

    5. Practice!
    If your pet knows what to expect, he's going to be a lot calmer about the whole grooming thing. Practice riding in the car -- short jaunts that are fun. Practice visiting the grooming shop, just for a social call. Practice grooming stuff at home -- get Fluffy used to brushes and combs and noisy things. If your pet is not kennel trained, consider practicing that, too. Introducing grooming-related elements to your pet's life slowly and in a non-threatening way can change your pet's attitude from "Whoah! What is that scary thing?!" to "Hey! I know how to do this!"

    6. Reinforce the Right, Only!
    That means if your pet is shaking, cowering, slinking into the grooming shop (it's not uncommon), resist the urge to cuddle and soothe. If you say, "Good girl," to a dog who's shaking like a leaf, you're actually encouraging that fear to continue. Instead try to distract, bribe, or trick your pet into getting happy (squeaky voice, squeaky toy, treats, jumping up and down, whatever gets her excited). Then make a fuss over your brave good girl and encourage that attitude to come forward more often.

    7. Peace and Patience
    All pets, all pet owners, and all grooming shops are different. Stay observant, curious, and upbeat in your journey toward stress-less grooming. Working with animals is an open-ended process. Looking for and finding ways to alter patterns of behavior is a great way to bond with your pet and further develop your insight into what really makes him tick. Enjoy the journey, recognize even the smallest bit of progress, and remember that there's always room for improvement!

    8. Condition Matters
    Keeping your pet on a regular, appropriate maintenance grooming schedule is key to minimizing stress. A well-kept, tangle-free pet will always have a more positive grooming experience than an overgrown, overdue pet. When your pet is on a recommended schedule, everything about grooming is faster, easier, and more comfortable -- the bath, the comb-out, the haircut, ear plucking, nail trimming, etc.

    9. Wait for It
    A lot of pet owners try to minimize their pet's anxiety by rushing the groomer. While very young, very old, or medically compromised pets usually benefit from a shorter grooming shop stay, most animals do better in the long run when they spend a long time at the shop. When they are allowed to settle in for a while, absorb the atmosphere, relax, and figure out that this might take a while, it really changes their perspective. They are physically unable to stay in high alert forever, so by waiting them out, they get the opportunity to practice being calm at the grooming shop. Because it's more energy efficient to relax, all they need to realize is that they're not going anywhere for a while and they will calm down, re-engage their brains, and start to enjoy (instead of fear) the experience. After they've been at the shop a few times, they get in the habit of relaxing more and more quickly. Most of my "long day" grooming clients are fast asleep 5 minutes after check-in and will nap in between grooming stations. Sleeping at the grooming shop? Now that is zen.

    10. No Stress Zone!
    This goes without saying, but always be kind to your groomer. It can be very challenging to stay centered when the shop is hoppin'. Remember that what you say and do impacts your groomer's stress level. And a groomer's stress level can impact a whole roomful of animals. If you're not in the mood to share joy and peace and love, try to keep your cranky to yourself. Limit unreasonable or impossible demands to a bare minimum. Appreciate our expertise and respect our professional judgement. Maintain a sense of humor but don't laugh at other client's pet's haircuts. Be honest, be fair, be on time. Groomers are pretty forgiving as a rule -- we have a lot of practice keeping our cool even as we get peed on -- but we sort of expect human beings to know better. So leave your stress at the door and share your zen.

    Thursday, April 23, 2009


    I spent a few moments outside this morning plucking loose coat from my shepherd/ lab mix, Hoffa. She has a lovely, soft blonde coat and sheds minimally throughout the year. Twice a year, however, she sheds with a vengeance. Of course this is spring shed and her downy white undercoat is releasing in preparation for the warm weather ahead. Her peak shedding lasts a week or two and everything she walks past turns white with hair. She's like my personal shedding barometer. When Hoffa's shedding, everyone is shedding. The phones light up and life gets very busy at the grooming shop.

    But I digress! There's nothing particularly inspirational about shedding dog hair. Unless, that is, you're a sparrow. I left a good pile of plucked fuzz on the driveway this morning before I left for work and indulged for a few minutes in the car, before pulling out and getting on my way, in watching the sparrows come to collect. It didn't take long before there were three or four of them picking through the fluff, testing it like ladies squeezing melons at the grocery store. And the best part, it was all good! They were grabbing up beak-fulls and then greedily hopping around, pecking and picking, and trying to grab just a little bit more before they wandered off to whatever project the fluff was for. Their joy was palpable and they seemed to dance as they contemplated and collected their perfect, fuzzy, warm, cozy dog-hair nest lining. I can't remember the last time I had such a successful shopping day.

    That's the glory of spring, really. It's trash to treasure time. Spring is for garage sales and flowers breaking through, joggers and bikers making spandex useful (if not always aesthetically pleasing), the kind of warm rain that renews, baby animals everywhere, food popping up out of the ground and growing on trees, blue sky and sunlight that genuinely warms. I sometimes wonder why we don't move our New Year's resolution-making tradition to this magical yearly time of slough and renewal. Truly it is a new year.

    Thursday, April 9, 2009

    The Power to Teach

    One of my biggest stumbling blocks in working with animals and pet owners is that I often feel useless as a teacher. I've always struggled with sharing knowledge, not because I want to keep it to myself -- on the contrary! -- but because the greatest powers I have are all locked up in my intuitive side and defy my attempts to translate them rationally to other people. That last sentence probably did a good job of underscoring my point. I know how to do stuff, but I don't always know how to instruct others. Ever try to teach someone to whistle? I feel that other people already know the answer and just need to hear the right combination of words coming from me in order to unlock their own power to simply accomplish whatever it is they're trying to accomplish. I talk to them, I demonstrate, but when they try to do it, it just doesn't work out. But I can't exactly give them bullet points on why that is. How to speak to be understood?

    I ran into this phenomenon from the opposite side, as a student, at a riding lesson last weekend. I haven't been riding in years but I enjoyed the lessons I took in college and decided I would like to get back up on a horse. The instructor put me on a bouncy, eager horse named Lana and by the end of the lesson I had walked, trotted, cantered, and jumped. But I was struggling -- and these were struggles I remembered from my lessons in college -- with balance and body position throughout. "Keep her slow by leaning back," the instructor kept saying. I would pull myself back and start bouncing hard on the saddle. And the horse didn't slow down. "Move your hands forward," she would say, "Keep your fingers together." All the while I'm listening to my back scream at me, "THIS IS NOT A GOOD POSITION!" I know if the instructor were in my body, she would feel what I felt and be able to adjust automatically, intuitively. And I know that once I happen upon the perfect posture, my intuition will remember it and it will be a part of me. I won't do it wrong anymore and my back will thank me. But I haven't found that position.

    Until then, I know I just have to keep riding and adjusting and trying to convince my body parts to cooperate with a moving horse. But even though I know that's how most learning works and that's how it has to be with my clients who are frustrated with dog training issues in particular, I still can't help but feel that there has to be a better way. I love the Wii balance board for its scientific simplicity -- move your body around until the dot is in the center and that's what it feels like when your balance is perfect. How fantastic! But most physical learning does not happen that way.

    Instead the teacher interprets what the student says or does and makes suggestions to improve. Then the student first interprets those suggestions and then tries to follow them. And then the student decides if it feels like it's getting better or not. And the teacher agrees or disagrees. It's convoluted, confusing, necessary. I can show a client a training technique and say, "Do this" and I can tell them, "Feel this"... But it's such a complicated matter. It's about the relationship we build with the dog. It's about their history and their patterns. It's about our emotional states and reactions. It's about distractions and levels of distractions and biological needs and methods of communication and levels of understanding. There are many variables! And so much of working with animals has to do with timing. But once we get a handle on it, it seems so effortless, so easy. I've been working with animals all of my life and learned as a young child, through trial and error. I do it without thought, it's so easy for me. So why is it so difficult to communicate? Why does it take so long, with so much effort, with so many words, to teach someone how to train a dog to heel, for example? Why can't I just condense and express the information and have it speak directly to someone else's intuition?

    I guess in this case the major complicating factor is the different personalities involved -- there's a teacher, a student, and an animal, who is essentially the student's non-English-speaking student. Next week, my riding instructor is going to put me on a horse with a "less pingy" canter. The relationship between my body and the horse will be less complicated and I'll have more concentration available to think about the finer points of balance because it won't be quite so painful to make a mistake. I'll be able to compare the experience of riding a quieter horse and find the place where my posture could work on either horse. The same can be said of dog training -- while there are rules and structures and techniques, it all boils down to flexibility and consistency. Dogs are different and the same approach exactly won't give the same exact results in every dog. Even if you have a very concrete system, there is a huge degree of variability in the time frame and the level of intensity required to teach an animal a new behavior or eliminate an old one. I guess, as a teacher, the role can only be to make suggestions that help keep the ultimate goal in sight. A teacher cannot get inside you and move around like a puppet so that you can experience and absorb the knowledge directly. A teacher can only communicate with a student, try to pinpoint errors, suggest adjustments, and then let you try and see how that works out. And all the while -- hopefully! -- learning to become a better, faster, more efficient teacher in the process.

    It's worth mentioning, worth mulling over, that the words themselves are only one tool in the teaching process. Perhaps by pursuing the perfect words I limit myself. Perhaps part of our design as interactive beings is that we are incapable of directly absorbing words and translating them into physical knowledge (unless we are savants!). Maybe it's part of our checks and balances system that guarantees that human beings will continue to move, to interact, to communicate, and to practice collectively. Otherwise we might all be stuck in books and learning without ever striving or struggling or asking for help. But my intuition still believes there are perfect words for every situation. I'll keep trying!

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    Because Life Looks Better When the Sun is Shining

    It's been quite a tumultuous winter, full of highs and lows. It's been a bumpy ride personally, professionally, politically... Right now I think a lot of people are feeling like we're riding a roller coaster in the fog -- can't see the ups and downs coming or the turns approaching, but we're moving fast and, with a few spectacular exceptions, the general trend is downward -- and there's no clear sense of when this thing is going to level out. Of course, while you're in the midst of it, all stress is major stress. And moreover, shared community stress is bigger still and tends to be self-propagating to boot. Conversations become horror story one-upper battles as we share our woes. But typically, the "it could be worse" perspective just serves to remind us that "it can always get worse." And probably will.

    And although a lot of our current financial issues are rooted in a collective sense of entitlement and throwing-off of responsibility, lack of foresight and lack of cohesion, dismissal of sustainability and any sense of cause and effect, there's got to be a better way to comfort each other, to educate each other, to empower each other. How motivating is it, really, to simply stand in the shadow of such a formless, faceless fear and obsess over it? Or to search for someone to blame? What really helps is to remember that good and bad are relative terms. Setbacks are often no more life-altering than curves in a road, and sometimes they can even turn our life around in new and interesting directions. There is beauty in a storm as well as in a clear, sunny day. I say, if you can't bask in the sunlight, bask in the pathos. Embrace the uncertainty. Life is certainly going to move along, up and down, as it always does. Like the roller coaster ride, the emotion is half the fun. It's not only about finding the good and focusing on the positive, it's about neutralizing the negative or, better yet, finding a perspective that transforms the negative and uses its power as inspiration for greater good in the future.

    We live in a world of infinite possibility. Challenges are not there to block our infinite potential, but rather to test us and to train us and to prepare us for success. If life were easy, we would never have evolved into beings capable of hopes and dreams and imagination. Overcoming challenges gives us our greatest joy. A triumph without challenge doesn't feel very rewarding! The candy bar you pick up in the grocery store and eat in 30 seconds flat is not the same candy bar you eat after a month stranded on a deserted island. Intrinsically, it the same, but within our minds we have the power to transform reality and elevate it. The first candy bar after being rescued definitely tastes better. No question about it! The trade-off for that power of super-enjoyment is that we are capable of super-suffering as well. If we are not careful, we can fall victim to exaggerated anxiety and stress and depression and fear.

    Everything loses its emotional impact in time. But to polish life up again, one needs only to sink into despair and then come out again with a fresh perspective. Or bounce up into joy and then come back to earth. The human spirit, sensing the loss of intensity, will actively seek out experiences that will feed emotion, any emotion, and bring back the heightened sense of really living, in any form. The mistake we often make is in wanting to find the fast and easy way and not realizing that the only thing fast and easy is something new to us. We are built to seek out new experience, learn new things, develop new skills. If we realize this, if we consciously, thoughtfully seek out learning experiences, we can keep our sense of wonder fresh. Additionally, by making plans to create experiences that will bring joy to ourselves and to others, through sharing our past journeys, we can help others find new learning, new sources of inspiration. We can avoid the self-fulfilling prophecies of negative emotion, the lonely addiction of our more selfish emotional pursuits, and strengthen our bonds with the world through a constantly renewing sense of universal hope and growth and good will.

    The key to weathering uncertainty is simply to fortify and then share your light. Ambition is a state of mind of never being satisfied, never being content with your place in the world. Financial meltdown makes everyone ambitious and anyone who embraces the ride is going to find that the lower the valley, the higher the peak they will be able to climb on the other side. Adversity builds momentum if we allow it. Of course there is such a thing as falling too far, too fast and thoughtful use of all the breaking and steering systems under our control will help to keep us from crashing and burning, but the downward momentum itself and its severity does not have to frighten us beyond all reason.

    In this global, interconnected web that humanity has become, we have so much power over each other. Sometimes that sense of community frustrates us as we are thwarted in our goals and plans and enjoyments by the interference of others, but that price is not high for the luxury it affords us. Because we work together, as a collective, we have tremendous freedom from the basic problems of survival. We have time to spare to pursue anything our hearts' desire. We, each of us, are capable of choosing our own trials. We pursue our goals and dreams and upgrades and we accept that we will become attached to our way of life. We know that suffering the loss of a standard of living is simply a lesson in what's really important to us. We know that the price for attachment in an impermanent world is the anxiety about losing it and the pain we experience when we do. But it is all worth it, the struggle and the worry and the uncertainty. When the sun comes out, though it shines the same, it will feel warmer and lighter than we remembered it.

    Friday, March 6, 2009

    Puppy Season

    Puppy season is here. They are wriggling, fuzzy, bundles of puppy breath and pure joy. Everyone knows that. But, in true animal rescue advocate fashion, I'm here to give you a list of reasons why you should not get a puppy.

    1. Puppies don't interview reliably. Seriously, unless you are an expert temperament tester or have a magic spell that translates genetic information into future personality tendencies, you really just have no idea what kind of dog you're going to get. How compatible will he be with your family and lifestyle? Sure, you're "raising him right" but do you really have any idea what that means? Adult dogs will tell you who they are -- shy, outgoing, energetic, loving, anxious, intelligent, whatever -- the grown-ups put those things out on the table. And physically, there are a lot of variables, too. Adult dogs will say, "Here I am. I shed a lot." That's good to know! Puppies even change color sometimes. Brown dog for 2 months then beige dog for 10 years. How many adult dogs have you seen and said, "Gosh, who would want such an unattractive dog?" Of course, they didn't know! All puppies are cute and sweet and wonderful. But it only lasts about a year. If you're going to live with a dog for the next decade or two, go pick out a dog you like. Or better yet, go pick out a senior dog. They have the same potty training issues as puppies but they don't chew stuff up.

    2. There is a surplus. There are simply too many dogs. And unfortunately, most people making puppies these days are doing it for money. Well, maybe not most. I'm not sure. But the people making the most puppies are doing it for money, definitely. If we stop giving them money, maybe they stop making puppies. Maybe we don't have to kill so many "extra" dogs. It's a lot of extra dogs. Visit and they'll tell you all about it. It's a lot of unnecessary death. And the lives preceeding the death are not so fabulous either. It's a waste and a shame and a tragedy. Don't support people who make puppies for money because, well... it can't be good karma. I'm just saying. And imagine if we started running out of dogs? Then people could breed them because people want them. Imagine what kind of world that would be... y'know, the kind where dogs are precious instead of products. What's up with buying and selling family members, anyway? And since modern dogs really don' t have any kind of job -- they don't guard the house or the flocks or chase bunny rabbits to earn their keep nowadays -- what else can they be other than family members? Think about it.

    3. So much work! There's a reason puppies are so cute. It's so we forgive them for being such a hassle! Housebreaking, teething, training, oh my... They have small bladders and short attention spans. They yodel... all night long. They make big messes. Everywhere. Constantly. They have no manners. They sleep when you want to play and play when you want to sleep. Having a puppy is a full-time job. And it lasts for a year. Sometimes longer. Eventually you come to realize that they're past the point where you can use the puppy excuse to downplay their bad behavior and they're sure not as cute as they were back when... and then you realize that "raising him right" didn't actually happen as you planned. You worked hard enough at it, but where did this wild child come from? Why doesn't he like to play fetch? You bought so many toys and he destroys them all. What's going on here? If you had adopted an adult dog you could blame all of that bad behavior on someone else, on some other circumstance. You could take credit only for the good progress. You could pick out the dog who likes to play fetch or who sleeps a lot or who never jumps on people or who is perfectly housebroken or who is so beautiful you can't imagine life without him.

    That dog may be at the shelter or the pound right now. It's worth a look.

    Friday, February 20, 2009

    Grooming Value

    In uncertain times, value is key. We are all reexamining our budgets, our habits, our futures, and making whatever adjustments make sense. We start to look at things in terms of, "Do we really need that?" and, "Is this a good deal?" We all like to throw around our hard-earned cash on "frivolous" things from time to time, but what is the definition of frivolous? Isn't something that simply and reliably makes us happier actually a necessity? Perhaps we should be thinking in terms of making investments in a better mind set. When the world is scarier, interesting things happen -- people become more self-sufficient. We educate ourselves and we learn to adapt. While most natural creatures begin to compete relentlessly when there is a scarcity of resources, human beings tend to realize that it is with a spirit of cooperation that we all succeed a little better. Perhaps some individuals give up and perhaps some individuals get more than is fair, but in general, we can reach higher highs as a group than we can as competitors.

    So what does all this have to do with pet grooming? Well, it's become obvious through the last few economic downturns that pets are a priority. They provide obvious, undeniable psychological benefits. They help to stabilize and inspire us during difficult times. They make fun more fun. They make grief more bearable. They are welcome distractions, nonjudgemental friends, and gratefully dependent children. They are a lifeline that reminds us all that we are connected and although unique and independent, we are never alone.

    Now some might (and do) say that while pet ownership is great, society is going too far and treating them the same or better than people. Pet spas and daycare and vet bills and little strollers and doggie clothes and bows and fancy food dishes... They're animals, right? These luxuries are beyond their little animal mental capacity to appreciate, right? Well, yes and no.

    Our pets have learned, through early socialization, to depend on us for food, shelter, and other basic life-giving necessities. And they are highly intuitive beings (meaning, essentially, that they don't spend a lot of time plotting or planning... they just act and react). That means that our emotions affect them profoundly. They need for us to be confident, peaceful, joyful. In the dog world, particularly, but for cats as well, an unhappy human does not bode well. An unhappy human is as bad a sign for a domestic animal as a long winter, a draught, or incoming storms are for wild animals. When we bond with them, we become their weather. The storms they have to face are our storms, whether they understand them or not. So they learn the tricks that work on us -- they learn to affect the weather, so to speak, by doing things that they believe make us feel good in some way. They do this because it makes them feel good -- to take an active role in comforting or otherwise engaging the source of their comfort and survival -- but the end result for us is an animal who will do whatever he can think of to make us happy. And unlike other people, who may care about us and our emotional well-being, animals do not get discouraged by our lack of enthusiasm. As long as they are fed, they will do whatever they think it is that gets them fed. Forever. They don't give up on us.

    My ideas about the benefits of regular grooming come out of that line of thought. At its most superficial level, without any other benefits, the simple transformation of a dirty pet into a clean one is already a great way to make the world a better place for pets and people. Even if the pet doesn't really care to be clean, the extra happiness his owner feels will be picked up and reflected by the animal. Similarly, a good-looking haircut gives people and through them, their pets, increased joy. But, as if that were not enough already, grooming is much more than a superficial process.

    Bathing pets is a sanitizing process. Like people shampoos and soaps, pet products are designed not only to remove benign dirt and old body oils, they also remove the surplus of microorganisms that pets and people are constantly picking up as we move through the world. Bacteria, yeast, viruses, molds, dander, dust, mites and all the various creatures that we know about but can't see can become overwhelming to the immune system if they are not dealt with periodically. Today's artificially engineered pets are at greater risk than wild animals because in domestic animals, we concentrate more on treating disease than we do on breeding resistance to disease, especially in breeds who are physically the most different from their natural ancestors. The diet and lifestyle restrictions that we place on our pets also contribute to a less robust immune system and domestic animals simply need regular, intelligent external support to maximize their health. They are bred to survive as companions to humans and because they are good at that role, the trade-off is often a decreased natural health level. Diet, exercise, veterinary care, and grooming are all health supplements.

    *Bathing to remove oil, dander, microorganisms
    *Conditioning to repair and protect the coat and skin
    *Deshedding to eliminate dead hair that can build up and cause skin problems
    *Detangling to prevent tangling and matting that can cause severe discomfort and skin problems
    *Sanitary trimming to prevent infections related to the build-up of fecal material, urine, or discharge around the eyes and ears
    *Manageable hairstyles for pets with more high-maintenance coats, to provide a clean, comfortable lifestyle with reduced workload for the pet owner
    *Ear cleaning and plucking to reduce the likelihood of ear infections
    *Nail trimming to prevent painful joint twisting with every step or injuries from long nails being caught and pulled

    And beyond that, a professional groomer who is knowledgeable in areas like veterinary medicine, holistic pet medicine, training and behavioral issues, and other pet-related areas is a wonderful resource for pet owners. Regular grooming by a professional is an opportunity for a distinct set of well-trained eyes to watch over your pet for you, to catch signs and symptoms of medical and behavioral issues before they become more severe, while they can be dealt with more easily. A groomer who sees your pet for hours at a time on a regular basis gets to know your pet well and can catch changes in their coat, skin, odor, body, behavior, etc that you (as a daily observer) or your vet (as a yearly or bi-yearly observer) may miss. A groomer's perspective can be a great asset for pet owners who are interested not only in getting help with their pet's grooming needs but who want to learn more about what and why those grooming needs are for their particular pet, what sort of common health issues their pet may face, ways to deal with various kinds of problem behaviors, and recommendations for finding other kinds of pet professionals who can become part of their pet care team. Most groomers are more than happy to share information, to point out health warnings, to give coat and skin care training information, to talk about training issues, and to generally spend time helping clients understand and care for their pets.

    The socialization aspect of grooming is of great value as well. The more your pet is regularly exposed to new and challenging experiences, the more confident and anxiety-free he will become.

    Going to the grooming shop involves transportation to a non-threatening environment, handling by strangers, loud noises, unusual experiences, and other animals. Your pet is taught a variety of behaviors that are useful and translatable to other areas of his life -- how to behave when someone picks you up, how to enter and exit a cage safely, how to behave up on a grooming table, how to behave when there are scissors or clippers near your face, how to behave for a bath, and on and on... Groomers with experience in animal handling become very, very good at getting safe behavior from animals. Animals who are groomed regularly are much calmer and behave in ways that help to keep them safe and focused on the people in charge even in challenging environments. A groomer who is a good animal handler will teach your pet to trust and respect human beings in a way that even you, as the owner, can't accomplish by yourself. It is an entirely new level of socialization for your pet and, when it is conducted properly and regularly, can pay off enormously in terms of your pet's confidence level and general anxiety level.

    In other words, grooming is a perfect example of a cooperative effort that benefits everyone -- pets, owners, and the groomer. Working together to make the world a better place for animals makes a better world for us all. Becoming better pet owners, better groomers, better collaborators adds tremendous value to the lives of everyone involved. Cleaning up a cat or a dog isn't frivolous -- it is a fantastic investment in the health and well-being of us all.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009

    Pet Profiles: Kirkegrim

    In Norse mythology, the Kirkegrim guards churches and cemeteries against evil spirits. Commonly in the form of a black dog or a dark, child-sized man, our Kirkegrim takes the form of a little, wide-eyed black cat. He was a feral kitten, tricked and trapped out of his life in the parking lot and transported into a strange new world of people and other cats and a few dogs. He's lived in our house for about a year now and slowly, ever so slowly, is making himself at home.

    He can frequently be found lurking at the top of the basement stairs or in the doorway of the spare bedroom. Both locations allow him quick and easy escape routes to safe places where nobody can get him. Before the base strips were in, he could often be spotted crawling out from under the kitchen cabinets, especially around meal times. He is uncomfortable under scrutiny and will tense to run any time anyone makes eye contact with him. Moving within five feet of him will usually send him scurrying. He will leap and scamper off at any noise in general.

    And yet, he always seems to be nearby -- just at the edge of the family activity. When we are in the bedroom and all the dogs and cats and people are settled in to sleep, he's a dark shadow in the hallway, peeking. The other day, while we were watching a movie, he snuck up on the cat tree in the middle of the living room and snuggled up with one of the other cats. My husband noticed him and said, "Is that Grim?." When he noticed us looking at him, he quietly slipped down and away, into another room. When we are in the kitchen, he sits in the doorway at the top of the basement stairs, watching. If you move slowly, sometimes you can pet him then. At breakfast time he is in his usual spot, in the bedroom doorway, waiting for the food to come. While the dogs are distracted with their meal, he quietly, quickly makes his way across the kitchen and hops up to eat with the other cats. This is when he is most vulnerable to scritches and snuggles and, when needed, capture. He has a feral cat's appreciation for a free buffet and his tunnel vision for food makes him easy to lay hands on.

    But Grim's true kryptonite is the butt scritch. As suspicious and flighty as he is, Kirkegrim cannot control his elevator butt. Touching him anywhere on his back will generally send his front half downward and his rear end up. A few scratches or strokes and he falls right over, begging for a belly rub. He purrs and squirms with wild abandon as his feral, frightened brain takes a break and his happy-snuggly-kitty side comes roaring to the forefront. Basically, he's a sucker for snuggles. If you can get close enough to touch him and there are no big, noisy, scary distractions, he just melts like butter. It takes a bit of patience and good timing to win those precious moments with him but, boy, are they worth the effort. It's a wonderful feeling, to touch another being, and to watch their anxiety transform into pure joy.

    Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    On Purpose

    Setting goals has never been my forte. I'm good at foregone conclusions and great at rash decisions. But goals? Those are structured, planned, budgeted, executed. We -- free spirits, intuitives, emotional beings -- no, we don't have goals. We make plans, we have ideas and dreams, but that's not the same thing. We get stuff done, sometimes big, amazing things, but we're driven by this moment, always, never by the future. At least, not after a certain amount of life has happened -- because eventually you figure out (no matter how sheltered you've been) that the future doesn't do what you tell it to and being too specific is just a really good way of finding that out the hard way. And, shockingly enough, sometimes we just change our minds. Who knew that could happen?

    So the trick is to keep the future loose. But, as the song says, "don't let go." You can't build anything if you don't start somewhere and just start laying down your bricks. And even when you realize, somewhere on down the road, that the somewhere you started to build isn't really in the ideal location, or is made from the wrong kind of bricks, well, at least you've practiced building, haven't you? At least you've narrowed in a little bit on what it is your heart most wants to create. And not to get too sentimental or new-agey, but the path of fulfillment is a winding road peppered with signs hammered in place by our heart. Hopefully our brain is helping a bit with placement, because we all know that our emotional centers are fickle and subject to time and the tides and will lead us in circles or into danger and confusion if we are not watchful, but in the end, fulfillment is whatever the heart says it is. It cannot be defined by anyone else or by any standards that do not come from within us. And it's communicated to us in a language of chemical signals and well... feelings.

    Unlike animals, who must and do obey their emotional centers at all times, human beings have the ability to do something sometimes called "rationalization." While our heart speaks to us of past experience and the sum of all the information we've absorbed -- our intuition, our emotions, chemicals, and hormones, and physical "pangs" -- our rational mind makes all the final decisions (with the exception of reflexive actions) and plots and points out our future. Basically our human intellect can suggest future directions for that meandering path of the heart to make its way toward. Our rational powers can even push our heart off in directions it doesn't want to go, though that often leads to emotional disaster.

    We can also train our heart to feel differently over time. That's called "conditioning" and if it happens on purpose, with purpose, it can be a powerful tool for personal growth. Conditioning is, essentially, teaching physical processes to react in a certain way to stimulus. We condition our muscles when we exercise; we condition our dogs when we train them; we condition ourselves when we stop or start any kind of habit. Conditioning is the way that our rational mind speaks to the "natural" world. And it's our rational mind that carries the responsibility of trying to sort out and interpret those wacky, heart-shaped sign-posts all around us. The rational and intuitive parts of ourselves are, when balanced, equal partners in shaping our day-to-day experiences and the overall shape of our lives. But although they communicate freely and constantly, and they are both essentially us, they don't speak the same language.

    And so it can be daunting, to determine how to proceed without having a goal or with having future plans that no longer quite seem to suit, when neither heart nor mind have any overwhelming opinions about where to go next. I have never been interested in opening my sails to the wind and letting them blow me around. And I haven't yet mastered trimming my sails and harnessing the wind to get me exactly where I think I would like to go, so setting off in any direction is risky at best. But change is in the air. Is it simply the restless border between winter and spring? Or does my heart signal a crossroads? And if so, where does it lead?

    Tuesday, February 3, 2009

    A Bulldog in the Basement

    This past Sunday, my husband came home, found me in the living room and said, "Honey, there's a dog in the street. Should we go get him?"

    I grabbed a leash and headed out there to see what was going on.

    What I found was an SUV stopped in the middle of the street, the couple who owned the SUV standing off the street in someone's driveway, and an American Bulldog begging for a scratch or a scrap. The woman from the SUV told us that he'd just wandered in front of their vehicle and, when they stopped, started sniffing around their tires. They had called the local dog warden already and we let them know that we would take over and let them be on their way.

    I put a leash on the dog and my husband went into the house to get him a plateful of dog food. He was not a well-kept animal -- his skeleton was clearly defined, he was not neutered, he had some old scars on his legs as well as other suspicious bald spots, callouses on his hip bones from sitting on hard surfaces, a cloudy infected possibly blind eye, and a tongue that threatened to fall right out of the left side of his face. He smelled like old urine. He ate like a starving hippopotamus. But he was otherwise polite and attentive, good-natured and charming.

    We waited out in the cold for a good 20 minutes without any sign of the warden, before we decided to bed him down in a kennel in the basement for the night and decide what to do with him the next day. He was a perfect houseguest, obviously familiar and comfortable with a kennel, quiet, relaxed. Obviously well-socialized at some point, he was simply a really good dog.

    The danger in having a really good dog in the house is pretty obvious. At one point I said to him, as he snorted gleefully at me, "It's a good thing you're so ugly, or I'd be in trouble here." Of course, "ugly" is a relative term -- my personal ideal version of canine beauty comes in the shape of a German Shepherd Dog. Compared to that standard, the stocky, overmuscled body, the big round, rock head, the flat faced, snorting, wrinkled, alien-baby face of a bulldog is ugly indeed. For someone who really enjoys taking care of a large number of animals, picking favorite and least favorite breeds is a good way of developing personal boundaries and limitations. No bulldogs! No pugs! No labs! No goldens! No huskies! But it never really matters. The world throws a bulldog in your basement and you can't help but think of how he would fit into the household.

    And then discount that option because enough is enough, the inn is full, and this dog is a good dog. And good dogs (especially with alien-baby faces) are easy to place, even with blind eyes and scars and tongues that don't stay inside. I found a nearby vet clinic with an available appointment and off we went for an exam and deworming and the other things a stray needs before they're allowed to fraternize with the rest of the household. I was thinking of options for him -- who do I know that is in the market for a new dog with an alien-baby face? As it turned out, the receptionist at the veterinary hospital was.

    "He needs a home? Really?" she said. "My husband would love him!"

    And so the deal was done. With a promise of good (and probably discounted) vet care and a home with animal people who think snoring, snorting, and drooling are cute, I handed him over to her. Because of my long history with structured, responsible animal rescue and adoption procedures, I have to say I felt a bit irresponsible handing him over like that. I did not conduct a proper background check. I didn't hold him for 72 hours and run an ad in the paper to give someone the chance to claim him as their lost, beloved pet. I didn't even ask if she intended to have him neutered, let alone ask her to sign a contract promising to give him even a basic level of care.

    Basically, I just assumed that this veterinary receptionist, a perfect stranger to me, was agreeing, without us even discussing it, to take over all of the responsibilities that I had not taken care of. It's not like me to make those kinds of assumptions or to be so trusting! But it felt good and right and so easy to say, "He's all yours. Congratulations!" More than that, I felt like I was being let off the hook. I escaped an awful, embarrassing fate -- to tell the world that I, the one who teases, mercilessly, the flat-nose-breed fan club members about their poorly put-together, inelegant, snuffling, snarfling, silly, bossy, bug-eyed, wrinkly "not real dogs," that I had fallen in love with one.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009

    Job Fairy, Where Art Thou?

    I am currently in a tentative hiring mode. I say tentative because I'm not in a hurry. I'm taking it slow. It is very challenging for me to trust someone else to come into my space, share my responsibilities, touch my equipment, interact with my clients, and otherwise affect the business that I have so carefully and lovingly set up here. Hiring is not something I have a great deal of experience with and not something that I particularly enjoy. I stink at it, really.

    And as much as I value the learning process in general, this is one area where I wish the job fairy would just come and deliver to me the exact right personality, skill set, and personal situation to match up with what I need and what I can offer. I also hope that I have the right kind of vision to recognize them when they show up at my door. Perfect fit or not, it takes me a long time to feel comfortable around new people. And my discomfort tends to be contagious.

    But I am determined not to work alone forever. One of my original goals for the business was to provide the kind of work opportunities that I was unable to find when I was an employee. I longed for the ability to serve my clients well and fully, to take time to communicate and educate and to make myself available as a resource for anyone who was interested in my perspective. I found myself often in a profit-driven environment, where the primary owner of the business was not involved in the daily operations except, as I saw it, to ask me to lower my standards of care. And profit was driven not by efficiency and increasing value but by circumventing the legal system and avoiding making investments in business-builders like employee education, advertising, client education and better service. My passion was a problem, my efforts were measured in dollars and cents without the option of working smarter, and my drive to share knowledge and help the clients and coworkers around me were met with surprise and sometimes criticism.

    I freely admit to being a diva. I am never satisfied and humility is something I struggle to embrace. I'm an idealist, an empath, and an alpha. I get myself in trouble frequently because I assume that others can see that my intentions are so bright and beautiful and good that I give myself permission to speak in absolute, unapologetic truths. I assume that other people realize that I arrive at no conclusion lightly, that I am constantly absorbing and filtering new data and refining my thoughts. Although my thoughts are ever-evolving things, at the moment I speak them, I put behind them the force of my conviction. I'm good at conviction.

    I thrive on debate and I enjoy a lively exchange of viewpoints. I don't really know when to quit. It is a challenging perspective, for me and everyone around me, but I've realized that it is who I am. My ongoing struggle is to harness the power of my convictions without expecting to be universally loved for them or driving away those that I would rather keep nearby. But my ideals have allowed me to serve a particular type of pet owner well and in congruence with my own personal fulfillment formula. I chose a good area for an educationally focused business -- my clientele in general is interested and engaged and willing to actively participate in the care of their animals. They recognize and appreciate quality, they value learning, and they enjoy the interactivity I offer. I am constantly amazed at how supportive they are.

    My hiring decisions have to bring in more energy and fill in the gaps where my skills and temperament fall short. It's a tall and specific order and one that I haven't even managed yet to fully, objectively define. There isn't a lot of room for error. The position that I'm offering is part-time and entry-level. I don't have much to offer, financially. But in terms of learning, growing, and sheer opportunity to contribute, the benefits are limitless. The right candidate will be getting in on the ground floor, will be part of an environment where creativity is valued and encouraged, where attention to detail is treasured, where challenges will be heaped on as soon as the willingness and ability to step up is demonstrated, and where communication and cooperation are working realities. And more importantly, where skill is recognized, built, and rewarded. Some day this will be a well-oiled, self-propelling machine and I will have room for people comfortable with polishing it for a paycheck. But right now I need someone with an insatiable desire to learn how the machine works, has thoughts about how to make it better, would welcome the opportunity to be taught how to drive it, and is ready to make their career a priority.

    Where is that brilliant, ambitious upstart searching for a platform from which to set the world on fire? Where is the wise and resilient soul with the vision to support and enhance my work who is willing and able to add their energy to mine? And when I find that candidate, will I be able to keep up?

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009

    Welcome to the Snow

    My favorite aspect of the independent grooming shop is the sense of community. I've always believed that grooming should be cooperative -- not simply a service provided but a real partnership that exists to enhance the lives of dogs and cats and the people who love them. I strive to create this in my business, to communicate openly and honestly with my clients, and to share my years of animal care experience with anyone who is willing to listen. My passion comes through in my work, in my words, and in my sometimes off-putting tendency to lecture clients as if they were the merely human custodians of my animals instead of the other way around.

    But on a morning like this one, when the winter storms are bearing down and the roads have disappeared under a white blanket, it is a pleasure to call and be called by clients and agree, as a community, that the shop will not be open today. It is official, the referee has called it, it is a Snow Day. Like friends meeting for coffee, the safety of others is a priority. There are no cancellation fees or managers called or policies upheld. There are no excuses, no accusations, no frustrations. The important thing is that everyone is safe and warm. This is the pleasure of owning a small business.

    Of course, rescheduling those appointments is going to make the rest of the week difficult, with increased tangles and overbooking and stress. Clients will also be making up for lost time, cranked up and in high gear. Their inconvenient time constraints and the constant phone calls and assorted interruptions as my clientele reboots will slow down the work flow of the shop. And all around, clients and neighbors and strangers on the street will be cursing the snow and the winter and all its trappings for weeks yet to come.

    But today is a different kind of day. Today is a day of enforced leisure, meditation, and the easy kind of zen that comes from working hard, building relationships, making decisions and taking responsibility, and then, when the opportunity arises, simply embracing the weather.