Interview with dog groomers Marilyn and Kathleen Jacobs.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, August 2010
Article en français: ‘Deux soeurs, Deux toiletteuses‘
About Marilyn and Kathleen Jacobs
Picture two attractive, chatty, thirty-something twin sisters from French-speaking Belgium. Breaking with the family tradition for white collar careers, they had the determination and audacity to pursue their calling in dog grooming. After years of apprenticeship, they now each run their own successful salon.
I visited the sisters in the family’s gorgeous garden in La Hulpe, in affluent southern Belgium. Enjoying the sunny day and sipping fresh drinks, we discussed the life of a pet groomer, with its risks and perks, and everything in between.
About dog grooming
Talking to the sisters, I discovered a profession that requires physical strength, courage, endurance, drive, dexterity, a solid business head, patience, honesty, excellent people skills and of course, a passion for dogs.
LAURE-ANNE: Dog grooming is seen by some as yet a decadent luxury. How would you respond to that?
KATHLEEN: We are sometimes told that it’s a frivolous profession. True enough it does not address world hunger, but it’s not like every other profession does. Why should we be held to higher standards? Besides, it’s not purely about aesthetics: it really contribute to the dog’s well-being.
LAURE-ANNE: I always thought dog grooming was just about the looks. Not the case?
MARILYN: Oh no. Most dogs would really benefit from being groomed at least every three months (every change of season), when they moult a lot more.
Also, breeds like the Shih Tzu need quite an intensive grooming routine. If the owner doesn’t keep up, they quickly need professional to fix things.
Some long-haired breeds also need to be trimmed often or the hair gets to an unmanageable length. Some dog’s hair grows at 1cm per month (just like human hair). This can be faster in the summer.
We also do nail trimming. Untrained owners are afraid they might cut into the quick, especially for older dogs, for whom the quick is closer to the tip of the nail. This can cause the dog a lot of pain and bleeding. Many people go to the vet’s for that, but it is a lot more expensive.
LAURE-ANNE: Ah haaa…. Nail cutting! Any tips?
KATHLEEN: If your dog has at least one (even partially) white nail, find where the quick ends on that nail, and base yourself on that position to estimate where it ends on the other (black) nails.
LAURE-ANNE: What other services do you offer?
KATHLEEN: I also sell dog merchandise like collars, grooming products, toys, treats, …
MARILYN: Also, we also groom rabbits and cats!
LAURE-ANNE: How many employees do you have?
MARILYN: I do not have any yet. I first want to assess the business after a few years before taking that decision.
KATHLEEN: I have tried on and off for the last four years, but I am giving up on the idea for now. The added paperwork and hassle just have’t been worth it for me. The employees are not as committed as I am, as it’s not their livelihood. But basically, I am also not a teacher at heart.
LAURE-ANNE: How many dogs do you see per week?
MARILYN: We work eight-hour days from Tuesday to Saturday. Each visit is about 1h30, but some dogs take a lot longer. We manage three to five dogs per day, sometimes more. So that makes about twenty dogs per week.
But some dogs are particularly uncooperative, or their hair is really high-maintenance. That can take a lot longer than 1h30 per visit.
LAURE-ANNE: How much time does your admin take you? I heard a lot of dog pros complaining that it took so much of their time.
BOTH: Thankfully, we have an accountant, so it ‘only’ takes us about two hours a week.
LAURE-ANNE: So what happens in a typical session?
- We check the ears for wax deposits and overgrown hair. We have to pluck these to prevent mucus plugs (Yorkshire Terriers are quite prone to this). It can be virtually pain-free if you know what you’re doing.
- We check the pads for any asperities/debris
- We bathe and shower the dog (using special dog shampoo). The dog’s coat is visibly cleaner and softer after that, and they smell really fresh.
- We brush and untangle the dog’s coat. This can produce gigantic amounts of hair! LAURE-ANNE: “All the less for your living room, right? “
- Yes! We can also cut or shave the dog’s coat. This can be a real relief for them in the summer.
LAURE-ANNE: What are your favourite aspects of this job?
MARILYN: I love seeing the before/after difference in the dogs’ behaviour. It’s like they’re relieved. They tend to sleep really well after a session.
I also love the daily contact with dogs and people.
(KATHLEEN nods in agreement).
LAURE-ANNE: And the worst?
KATHLEEN: I get frustrated when I go the extra mile to accommodate a client’s last minute request, and I barely get a thank you.
I also find it very frustrating when people ignore our advice. We often see dogs requiring a really uncomfortable session just because of that.
LAURE-ANNE: What is the worst case you’ve ever had?
MARILYN: I had a Newfoundland with knots so old that worms were feeding off the matted hair.
LAURE-ANNE: Don’t you get angry with the owners?
MARILYN: No, because they’re not hurting their dog on purpose.
KATHLEEN: We have to try to be non-judgmental, or the owner may not even come back and the dog ends up paying the price.
Once, I had a teenage German shepherd who had been wearing the same puppy collar it had since a really early age. It had become so tight it dug into the skin. Also, the owner let slip that the dog was normally tethered outside. But I didn’t say anything, because going to the groomer’s was the one visit the dog had outside its home.
LAURE-ANNE: Have you ever called the SPA (Belgian equivalent of the RSPCA)?
Marilyn: No, because then the owner will never come back, and the dog is much worse off.
LAURE-ANNE: Have you ever been injured?
KATHLEEN: Yes, a few times. Once a Standard Schnauzer bit me in the face and broke my tooth.
LAURE-ANNE: Did you finish trimming him?
LAURE-ANNE: Have you ever not finished a session?
BOTH: It would take a very extreme circumstances for us to not give back a groomed dog.
LAURE-ANNE (to KATHLEEN): So what happened the other times?
KATHLEEN: A Golden Retriever bit me when I tried to carry him. It was quite the scary sight when he snarled at me afterwards. When my next customer came in, it was like he came to his senses.
LAURE-ANNE: So you’re particularly at risk of dog bites as a profession?
MARILYN: I’ve only been bitten once. It was a Dachshund who got scared of the dryer. He bit my hand trying to get to the hot air.
KATHLEEN: I would say we are more at risk than another profession, though. We have to handle the whole dog, and some simply hate being touched in specific places. I also find that most dogs are really scared of the hair dryer, so that’s a risk too.
LAURE-ANNE: Is it a cut-throat profession, or do competitors get along reasonably well?
MARILYN: Actually it can be quite cut-throat, which is a shame. Before I set up shop, I gave the other salons in the area the courtesy of a head’s up. They seem to have really appreciated it.
KATHLEEN: I have to admit, I felt threatened when a new all-in-one salon opened up nearby. It had the works: pick-up and drop-back service, pension, a walking service… But they soon had to scale right down now. I think they started on too big a scale.
LAURE-ANNE: How far are we from central, national professional standards for dog groomers (in this case, for Belgium)?
KATHLEEN: There aren’t any formal professional standards, but I get the feeling that the profession as a whole is improving nonetheless.
People can professionalise themselves through a course and apprenticeship, but it’s not compulsory. We did it, though.
LAURE-ANNE: What should I watch out for if I suspect my groomer is not acting professionally?
MARILYN: I would ask if you can stay during the session. If the groomer refuses, this should be a warning flag. It’s like a hairdresser asking you to leave when they are cutting your kid’s hair.
LAURE-ANNE: Dog grooming is quite a physical job. You have to bend down, lift dogs (sometimes as much as 60 kg), and stand all day. What are you plans for when you can no longer physically do the job?
MARILYN: Actually, I’ve had a leg operation and I shouldn’t really have a physical job. So it hurts once in a while, but I really don’t see myself working behind a computer all day.
KATHLEEN: You can sign up for a professional insurance policy and a special saving plan.
Also, as they become less physically fit, many professionals start dealing exclusively with small dogs. So there are solutions.
LAURE-ANNE: Are you in regular contact with other dog professionals?
KATHLEEN: It’s always useful to know your nearest vet’s. Also, owners regularly make an appointment with the local pet photographer after visiting me, so you end up developing relationships there.
LAURE-ANNE: What’s the funniest moment you can recall?
KATHLEEN: I guess it’s this lady with her Bichon. Every time she visits (and I mean every single time), it starts pouring it down with rain the second the dog hits the pavement. We were joking that we could should sell her appointment dates to the local meteorological station.
LAURE-ANNE: Has the financial crisis affected your businesses much?
MARILYN: My pipeline is normal for a young salon: about ten days. It takes about three years to determine whether you are viable in this business.
I do know that the crisis has affected the profession in general, though. Many salons around us have had to shut down.
Incidentally, a new, cheaper concept is picking up at the moment: ‘dog wash’. That could be related to the crisis. The idea is that owners bring their dog to a salon, but groom him themselves on your equipment.
KATHLEEN: My pipeline seems unchanged by the crisis: I am typically booked ahead for about 6 weeks.
How do you become a dog groomer?
Kathleen has been running her own salon since 2001, and Marilyn started in 2007. They have both been working in dog grooming for fifteen years.
LAURE-ANNE: How old were you when you started dog grooming?
BOTH: We were both twenty when we started the apprenticeship.
LAURE-ANNE: Did you encounter resistance from your family for your choice of career?
KATHLEEN: Our family did have some reservations, as we broke the tradition for getting a university education. But over the years, our parents saw our diligence and dedication, and their perception has gradually changed.
My dad is really proud now that I am running my own business.
LAURE-ANNE: How did you get the idea of dog grooming as a career?
BOTH: We needed to choose a career when we left secondary school. As we both adore animals, it was obvious we should work with them. It seemed a good choice.
LAURE-ANNE: Did you have much experience when you opened your respective salons?
BOTH: We did an apprenticeship as part of our qualification, then we went on to work for a few salons to get more experience. It’s tough being an apprentice, as the owners can’t always afford to pay you much, but you are expected to work very long hours.
MARILYN: I continued working for a salon for a few years before I opened my own in 2007. I wanted to be sure I learned all the ropes before taking the plunge. Kathleen was bolder.
LAURE-ANNE: What sort of a set-up do you need when you first start? Is it a heavy investment?
MARILYN: The whole equipment will set you back around 10,000 euros. This includes:
- the examination table,
- the power hair dryer,
- the bath,
- the trimmer and
- special blade-heads.
Add to that the fact that it’s quite utility-hungry (hot water and electrical appliances). Plus you’ll need a high-risk job insurance (because we work with animals). So you’ll quickly run into high set-up and running costs.
LAURE-ANNE: What professional qualifications do you have?
BOTH: We followed the three-year apprenticeship as canine beauticians (aka “Esthétisme canin”).
In the first year, we learned to handle animals through washing, lathering, rinsing and drying.
In the second year, we were taught to brush and untangle, and to deal with the ears. There are very different techniques for different breeds and hair types, and we got to perfect these during that year.
The third year consisted of scissor work, shaving, and ‘trimming’ (a special plucking technique).
Perhaps most importantly, we were taught techniques and best practices of how best to handle the dogs (approaching them, putting a muzzle on them, carrying them, etc.).
Aside from the practical modules, we also had to follow some theoretical courses:
- First aid;
- Common diseases;
- Common parasites; and
During the final exam, you have to trim two breeds in front of a jury. One of them must be a poodle.
About the dogs
LAURE-ANNE: Do you have your own dogs?
KATHLEEN: Yes, Keya here (she points at a gorgeous teenage Border Collie/Bernese cross frolicking in the garden).
MARILYN: I am thinking of getting one from the next litter of Keya’s parents.
LAURE-ANNE: Do you take Keya with you to work?
KATHLEEN: Yes, and it is going great. She just quietly lies in a corner.
LAURE-ANNE: Are there particular breeds that you refuse to take on?
KATHLEEN: I don’t do “trimming” on large dogs (trimming = plucking about one hair out of three over the dog’s whole body to make their hair more wiry ahead of a conformation show). It is done on wire-haired dogs, but on an Airedale terriers, it takes forever as they’re big dogs.
LAURE-ANNE: What is the largest-sized dog you can handle?
KATHLEEN: I frequently groom Leonbergers and Newfoundlands. I had a St Bernard recently. His head touched the top of the shower unit!
LAURE-ANNE: How do you deal with really scared dogs?
MARILYN: You have to:
- take your time,
- be firm, and
- speak softly.
I also switch on the hair dryer way in advance so they can get used to the sound. There was this one time, when the dog just kept struggling. I really just had to stop and take a break, take a few deep breaths and think of something else, then try again.
About yourselves as dog groomers
LAURE-ANNE: If you were a dog, would you want to land in your salon?
KATHLEEN: Absolutely. We really took the time to get qualified, and build experience. And we do the job with art and diligence.
MARILYN: I think a dog is also lucky to come to my salon because I am always very patient and gentle, even with more recalcitrant ones. You’d be surprised by how many groomers really quickly get physical (some slap the dog at the first sign of rebellion).
I tried it for myself
I’d never visited a groomer before so I brought my fox terrier/English bulldog cross, Roger, try it out. He’d rolled himself in a juicy patch of cow and I have to fess up: I left it be for two days until the appointment.
I left with a different dog:
- a soft dog (he is normally wiry as it gets)
- who smelled nice (also something new),
- did not shed (as opposed to the mountain of hair we find every day); and
- was very relaxed (he is MISTER anxious normally).
Despite the fact that my dog is extremely scared, Marilyn managed to get him washed, dried and brushed without fuss. Roger and I were sold: we’re going again in the summer for a cut!
Do you want to share something in relation to this article? I would particularly love to hear from you if you have a position on the following:
- The added value (or not) of dog grooming parlours: So, frivolous luxury or integral part of dog care routine?
- Do you visit your own dog grooming parlour? How often?
- Do you have a funny anecdote to share about your grooming parlour experience?
- What’s the worst and best thing that happened to your dog while visiting a grooming parlour?
- Does your dog like it, or hate it?
If you’d like to meet Kathleen or Marilyn in person, why not make an appointment and see for yourself:
- KATHLEEN JACOBS: ‘La Truffe‘ in Brussels (meaning: ‘The Dog Nose’ in French). Address: Rue Edith Cavell 122, 1180 Uccle (Brussels). Tel: (0032) (0)2 345 64 44 .
- MARILYN JACOBS: ‘Les P’tits Coussinets‘ (meaning: ‘The Little Footpads’ in French). Address: Rue des Combattants 122, 1310 La Hulpe. Tel: (0032) (0)2 633 52 32.
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