PITTSFIELD — Big and bushy, short or shaggy. Dogs come in all shapes and hairstyles, so learning how to groom the different breeds of this very varied species takes not only talent but skill.
Paula Phillips knows how that mixture of talent and skill goes together because she's been a dog groomer for several years. She and her husband, Tom, who live in Peru, own Shamrock Professional Dog Grooming, which has been in Pittsfield for 16 years. But Phillips' experience as a dog groomer goes back way further than that. It started in her native Ireland, where Phillips grew up on a farm surrounded by animals.
We spoke with Phillips recently about her craft and this is what she told us.
Q: How did you become a dog groomer?
A: I was born and raised in Ireland, brought up on a farm working with animals since I was 6 years old. As a young teenager I worked in a kennel that showed springer spaniels. I got involved with them. They taught me how to groom, get them ready for the dog shows. That was my first introduction to grooming and then it just escalated from there.
Q: How old were you when you first started grooming?
A: At the kennel, probably 14.
Q: How do you learn how to do this job?
A: It certainly is a skill that has to be learned. There are schools you can go to learn. After I worked in the kennels I came here to the United States and I apprenticed with a groomer. Back then you apprenticed for two years. You don't get paid for it or anything, you apprentice and they teach you the skills. ... That's where I gained a lot of knowledge, plus there was reading and my love in my heart for it.
Q: Where in Ireland are you from?
A: I'm from Limerick. I came here in 1983. I met [my husband] here.
Q: Why did you come to the United States?
A: Because it was the land of opportunity. The Irish are always very adventurous. Back then there wasn't a lot of work there. What I was able to do here with my business I would not be able to do in Ireland. … That's why I call it the land of opportunity. (Paula originally lived in New York City then ran a dog grooming business in New Jersey before coming to Pittsfield.)
Q: What's the most important part of dog grooming?
A: Probably more than 50 percent of the whole grooming and finishing process is the bath. If it isn't done correctly than the groomer can't do the best job they can.
Q: Why is bathing the dogs first so important?
A: You always wash the dogs before you groom them because you want them to be clean. You can do the best trimming when the dog's clean.
Q: How long does it take to really learn this skill well?
A: It really depends on the groomer and their skill. Some people take it in and learn it and they just have have a natural ability and having a dog [helps], too. There's more to it than just picking up the scissors. It's like a passion. ... You have to have a love for the animals as they come in. When they come in here we get to know them.
Q: What do you mean by having the passion?
A: Just that absolute love for what you're doing. … We're not just grooming them. When someone gets their next puppy they'll start with me again and I'll take them to the end of their life. We're very sad when a dog dies. We shed tears, actually. It's very personal. They become part of our family here.
Q: What do you like about working with animals so much?
A: I just love their loyalty. They're always even-keeled. Some dogs don't like being groomed. But when you have this passion and the skill you learn ways of how to work around some dog's behavior. We ask a lot of questions.
We do walk-in nail trims. The first thing we ask at the door is does the dog like it? Does he need a muzzle? So we kind of get some history before we begin diving into something that we might regret. Even though we love dogs, they're animals. It's still our responsibility. They can't tell us no we don't like that. Their way of letting us know is to pull or maybe even nip. So we have to watch to save ourselves from injury and the dog's from injury.
That's what I mean about the passion. It’s learned, really learned, but you have to have the passion in you. The rest of it is experience with learning. You're always learning new products, new styles.
Q: You said earlier that grooming a dog is different than just picking up a pair of scissors. Can you describe what you mean by that?
A: You have to look at the dog. Right now we have a lot of mixed breeds out there. Let's say that a dog is a maltese. Some people will want that dog to look more like a maltese or more like the bijon. So you have to learn all those skills and all those grooming styles.
Q: How do you learn all those grooming styles?
A: You can go to grooming schools, read books, and practice. Practice with all the different breeds and all the different personalities of these breeds.
Q: What's the hardest breed to groom?
A: I wouldn't say there's any one that's really hard, but the ones that you need help with are the bigger breeds. They don't like to stand up. They like to sit a lot. You need help with those. You have to have an assistant [help you] with those dogs for the dog's safety and your own safety.
There are a lot of products on the market now where you can [hook] the dog on your table and help the dog through. Maybe I'm just old school, but I'm not into that. And the reason I don't like it is because if there are too many things hooked up to the table the dog freaks out and there's also the risk of it. That other person is there to calm them down, relax them. I like that way better.
Q: What are the easiest dogs to groom?
A: I call them wash and wear. They're just dogs with short coats, like a beagle, or a dog that doesn't have a lot of hair like a lab, or like a Jack Russell. ... They don't need as much grooming because their hair is short.
Q: How hard is it to untangle a dog's fur before the grooming process begins?
A: We've had dogs come in that are just totally matted. With those dogs sometimes we can shave them down. Other times, depending on how bad it is, if the dog's mat is all the way down to the skin, it would have to go to the veterinarian. They would have to sedate it for awhile because the hair is matted so close to the skin that the risk of injury is great. We as groomers don't sedate any dogs.
Q: How many times each year should a dog be groomed?
A: It depends on the breed and the type of coat. Six to eight weeks is a very, very common time in between. A nail trim every four or five weeks is good.
Q: How do most dogs react to being groomed?
A: Most dogs in general love being groomed. They love being pampered. They enjoy it.
Sometimes they can be fidgity. They don't want to stand up, they pull away from their paws. But that's where the experience and the passion comes in. If you have someone that has that passion and that mindset who loves grooming them and know how to take care of the dogs, know how much pressure to apply and when to stop, it's all in a day's work, let's say.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a dog groomer?
A: I mentioned passion so much, but you've got to have to want to do it. You can't just say I'm going to groom because I want to make a load of money or whatever. It's got to be in your heart. It's got to be something that you want to do.