Mind of a Handler

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Mind of a Handler

with Laura Reeves 

Host, PureDogTalk Podcast

Way back in the day, when I acquired my very first paying client as a professional handler, I needed to learn some new grooming skills PDQ. I was presented with an Irish Wolfhound and had NO clue how to trim her properly.

So I sought help from the best place I knew — a Wolfhound breeder of long standing. As she walked me through the standard and proper trimming of her breed, she made a comment to me that has stayed with me for well over a quarter century.

She said to me: “You are ‘carving’ a picture of the breed standard with your grooming.”

Wow. That was so powerful. It said I needed to actually *know* the breed standard, have that picture in my mind and be able to apply that to the dog in front of me. I’m in a perpetual battle to master that enormous skill with every new breed I show.

Whether I am pulling a wire coated breed, scissoring or simply brushing a dog in to shape, knowing the breed standard and visualizing my trimming/grooming as actual “carving” has been a tremendous benefit.

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To give you a very real “for example,” two hand-stripped breeds: German Wirehaired Pointer and Spinone Italiano. The GWP is longer than tall in proportion, well-tucked up, tight skinned and essentially “aquiver” in their essence. “Extreme and excessive grooming to present a dog artificial in appearance is to be severely penalized,” according to the standard. The Spinone is square in outline, substantial, with a notable “divided dewlap,” divergent planes on the head, level underline, break at the 11th vertebrae, 30 degree croup and, very critically, shown natural, without any “pattern” to their grooming.

Both of these breeds require the same basic element of grooming — hand stripping. But the *application* to each standard is radically different. A talented groomer with a solid grasp of a breed standard can help “make the picture” of the dog that meets the standard. I can create an illusion of angulation or accentuate what exists. I can lengthen or shorten a dog’s profile with careful trimming. I can highlight a topline that meets the standard or I can “carve” the vision I want the judge to see.

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I’ll give a very specific example. The GWP topline shows “a perceptible slope from withers to base of the tail” vs the Spinone’s “break” at the 11th vertebrae. For a Gwp that perhaps rises a bit over the loin, I can leave the hair at the withers and mid back a bit longer and strip it very tight back to the hips. For a Spinone with a “flat back,” in other words not showing the correct break in the topline, I can pull some extra coat at the proper point in the topline to show the expected profile.

In scissored breeds like Irish Water Spaniels and Portuguese Water Dogs, I can quite literally “carve” the dog of my dreams if I have proper coat with which to work. AKC dog judges are trained to *feel* what’s under the hair. Sometimes the groomer’s sleight of hand is for naught as the judge is able to feel what the grooming aims to hide or highlight. That is part of the dance, the competition, the beauty that is purebred dog shows.

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Poodles, Bichons, Kerry Blue and Soft Coated Wheaten terriers, all of these are breeds in which a talented trim can make or break the correct outline of the dog. For groomers who are getting started in trimming show dogs, the very best advice I can offer is to study, study, study. Learn and *visualize* the correct silhouette of the breeds with which you might work. Groomers working in the pet industry will be well served by understanding these ideal visions as well. All owners have in their mind’s eye, the Westminster Kennel Club version of their “Fluffy.”

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I find it helpful to post up photos on my groom room wall of well-trimmed dogs in the breeds I’m grooming. This helps me cement that vision. Kind of a “paint-by-numbers” version of trimming.

As we study and learn each new breed we trim, anything we can do to grasp the nuance of a breed will assist in creating that picture in our minds. Once firmly planted in mind, we hope it will flow to our hands!

Good luck and good grooming!