A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Grooming Tools and Tips (#ADBC)

This is Part Two of my posts for the spring 2013 Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC). To find out more about this month’s carnival, see FridaWrites’ call for entries. To learn what a blog carnival is, read past issues, find out who can participate, and other good stuff, visit the ADBC homepage. Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit. The theme for this quarter’s ADBC is “Resources and Tools.” My first post was about toys and chews that keep your dog busy while you rest.

My three service dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, a grooming-intensive breed, which is my least favorite thing about them. Most Bouvier owners take their dogs to a professional groomer, but because groomers use lots of fragranced shampoos and soaps and sprays and toxic flea and tick products, this isn’t an option for me due to my multiple chemical sensitivity. Other reasons you might not take you dog to a groomer is you can’t afford it (in which case you probably don’t want to get a Bouvier or other breed that needs frequent haircuts because buying the tools to do it yourself is pricey, too) or if you live in an area where there are no groomers nearby.

Unfortunately, I have very little energy for grooming (that’s what being a “spoonie” means), so I’ve learned to make the most of the time I have when I get out the toothbrush, combs, shears, or clippers. If you also need to DIY your dog grooming, this post may be for you, especially if . . .

  1. You don’t care if your dog looks “good.” This post focuses on tools and tips for a utility cut, a cut that supports the health and functionality of the dog, not its fashionableness. If you care whether your dog has the right cut for its breed — or even if you care whether people know what breed your dog — some of my tips might come in handy, but they should be heavily supplemented by learning* how to do a much more complicated grooming routine than I’m going to describe here.
  2. Your dog is a breed that has hair instead of fur, as is the case for most of the hypoallergenic breeds. No matter what you do to a Bouvier, a Poodle, an Irish Water Spaniel, etc., their hair will grow back pretty much the same as it was before you cut it. Therefore, no matter how terrible a job you do, you can rest assured that eventually the evidence of your incompetence learning curve will be destroyed.

Attitude: Training Yourself and Your Dog

There’s a reason I’m making a lot of jokes. Grooming is big deal for service dog (SD) teams. For one thing, when our dogs accompany us in public, it’s important that they look (and smell) clean, neat, and professional. For another, grooming is an essential part of maintaining our dogs’ health, and considering how valuable our SDs are — in dollars and in our lives — we cannot afford to skimp on that maintenance.

Nonetheless, the reality is that grooming can be a burden for some SD partners, especially if we are sick, exhausted, or in pain a lot. I’m simply physically unable to do as frequent, professional, and thorough a job of grooming as I’d wish. But beating myself up for that won’t help me do a better job of grooming my SD. On the contrary, approaching the situation with humor — and celebrating the grooming I am able to do — takes the pressure off of me and my dog, creating a more relaxed and positively reinforcing environment for both of us. (One of my standard responses to people guessing my SD’s breed wrong — which happens a LOT — is, “No, he’s just a Bouvier with a really bad haircut.”)

I plan to write a post in the future on teaching your dog and yourself to enjoy grooming. To fit with the theme of the carnival, today’s post focuses on tools. Still, regardless of the situation, I’ve found that what makes the most difference in the grooming experience for my service dogs are:

  1. Using the right tools
  2. Grooming often enough to prevent problems (such as matting) that can lead to discomfort
  3. Giving my dog a sense of safety and agency in the grooming process

All of these issues overlap: the right tools help you and your dog relax, but no matter how perfect the tools are, if your dog is freaked out, the process will still be exhausting and stressful. So if you try out a new tool, and things go badly, set it aside until you have a plan to make using that tool a happy experience for both of you. That’s why my first tool suggestion is . . .

Your Dog’s Favorite Treat

The whole point of making training easier and less tiring is to use whatever works best, and with the vast majority of dogs, really delicious treats work very well. If you’re teaching your dog a new cue, such as where or how you want him to stand, you can use food to lure him into place and then keep feeding treats as he stays in that position. Over time, you can reduce the number of treats to make your life easier.

Likewise, when your dog is doing what you want — offering a paw for toenails to be clipped or holding his head still for tooth brushing or lying on her side to allow grooming her belly — mark that moment with a click or YES or praise and follow up with a treat. Do that often enough, and your dog will start offering that behavior.

Don’t skimp. Use what your dog loves the most (as long as he doesn’t get so excited about it that he loses his head), and be generous. I use tubes of pureed low-fat cottage cheese for really challenging aspects of training. Other popular high-value treats are cubes of chicken, pieces of turkey hotdogs, slices of liverworts, freeze-dried liver, or peanut butter.

Slow and Easy (or, “It’s OK to have a HALF groomed dog”)

You know how sometimes you’re clipping your dog’s nails or brushing his coat or giving him a haircut, and you’re just exhausted and in pain, and the dog is NOT cooperating, and you just wish you could STOP? Well, you can. And you probably should.

There is no rule that says all nails must be trimmed on the same day or that your dog’s ears must be brushed on the same day as his tail. You can even shave the left side of your dog on Monday and the right side on Wednesday. (Or, as is more often the case with me, shave the dog’s back, sides, belly, tail, and most of the legs on one day, leaving him with enormous, shaggy paws and head to be shaved another day.) This assumes you have a couple of days when you’re staying home, when it doesn’t matter if your service dog is a fashion disaster!

Show and Tell — A Low-Quality Video of My Favorite Grooming Tools

If you are more of a video person than a reading person, and you have really low standards for videos, here is a five-minute video of me showing my favorite grooming tools. Unfortunately my cognitive impairment is on display, as I forget the word for “slicker brush” and speak in a tired monotone, but you can at least see the various tools I like the best. I captioned this video using Amara (formerly UniversalSubtitles.org) but for some reason, the captions don’t show up in the embedded Youtube version below. Please click here to see the video with captions. Transcript of the video is here.

Clippers and Blades

FridaWrites already kinda stole my thunder on two of my favorite grooming tools (or, to look at it another way, she saved me a lot of work, so thanks, girl!), but I’ll mention them here: The Andis ProClip AGC2 clipper and the Oster TDQ blade. You can see them in the video or read more about them at FridaWrites’ carnival post.

I have used a couple of the top-of-the-line Oster clippers over the years, and they were adequate, for the most part, but I am so much happier with my Andis. It is quieter, faster, and smoother. It’s also slightly smaller and lighter.

All my blades are Oster blades, and as far as I know all Oster and Andis blades are interchangeable, so I didn’t have to buy new blades when I switched clippers. My favorite blade is the TDQ, which stands for “take down quick”! It’s an extra-wide coarse blade that cuts short all over. It’s great for a summer haircut where you just want to get the hair off and you don’t care if your dog looks like a show dog. I have two of them so I can switch one out when it gets hot and keep going with a cool one.

We do the whole dog with the TDQ, with two exceptions. For his face, I use scissors, and for his the toes and pads, I use the Oster #30 blade (the Oster “Elite Cryotech” size 30. I say “30 inch” in the video, but that’s wrong. A 30-inch blade would be two-and-a-half feet long! The #30 actually cuts 1/50th of an inch). The #30 is for shaving practically bald; do not use a #30 blade anywhere that you don’t want your dog to be BALD! I like using a clipper blade for between the pads because it’s easier to go fast and remove a lot of hair without being as likely to cut your dog’s feet as you would if you used scissors (although it can happen, I’m sad to say, so you still need to use care with the clipper).

Mat Breakers

The Mars Coat King — The Best Thing Since Sliced Hair

Bouviers have rough, thick, double coats that vary from wavy to curly. Barnum has the curliest, thickest coat of any Bouv I’ve had. It’s gorgeous, and it’s a grooming nightmare. It’s like trying to brush out a shag carpet. If it’s not kept groomed, it mats very easily.

The best way to keep such a coat combed is to strip away excess hair as often as possible. Stripping the coat makes it easier to get to the skin and pull out the dead undercoat hair that otherwise gets trapped and matted under the outer coat. The Coat King works by cutting the hair as it brushes. Thus, it both breaks through mats and reduces the bulk of the coat.

The Coat King page at The Groomer’s Mall describes this tool well:

It works by quickly and easily removing loose hair, especially thick under-coats. It’s great for unraveling and dematting. Leaves the coat full and healthy — gives it that “show quality” look. All have curved, sharpened blades with rounded ends for safety, and wooden handles for easy gripping.

Note to readers with MCS: a friend of mine who has very severe MCS found, as did I, the Mars Coat King completely tolerable right out of the package, which almost never happens with any non-food item. The wood does not give off a wood smell, and the blades are likewise high-quality and inert.

The tools are very comfortable in the hand, too — lightweight and well-balanced. And unlike other mat breaking tools that tend to have the blades inserted at the top of handle in parallel, the head of the Coat King is perpendicular to the handle, so it’s a natural position for brushing, much like using a regular brush. This is not only more comfortable and sustaining for the groomer, but poses less risk of scratching the dog by coming at them sideways.

Coat Kings aren’t cheap, but they are so worth it because they are the only tool that does what they do (and does it well) and they last forever. I bought my first Coat King over a dozen years ago, and it’s still in perfect shape.

Coat Kings come in different head sizes and different styles. Basically, the head size is the width of the tool (standard size is below, but there is also a mini, a double wide, and even a triple wide, which is mostly for horses or goats). If you have a small dog or if you’re working in a close area (such as the face or arm pits), the standard or small size is better. When you’re trying to cover a lot of ground on a large dog, a wider head means cutting your time and effort in half.

Original Coat King with 12 Blades (Medium). The head of the tool is a Y-shape of stainless steel coming out of the top of the handle, and then going across it horizontally is a bar on which are attached the grooming blades.

An Original Coat King, medium style (12 blades)

The styles range from very fine to very coarse, and this comes down to how close together the blades are. I have found the coarsest style to work the best on Barnum’s thick, curly, wiry hair. The fewer the blades, the easier it is to run through the coat. For the standard width head (the “Original Coat King”) which is a bit over an inch across, the coarsest style has six blades (which is what I use); the finest has 26 (which I can’t even imagine using).

According to the website’s guide, “Use coarse styles to comb out the undercoat – fine styles for finishing.” Since combing out and thinning the undercoat is all I care about (Barnum won’t be going to Westminster), I never use the medium or fine style tools I got back when I was experimenting with what works best. This Groomer’s Mall guide gives some suggestions for what style Coat King (the number of blades) to use on different breeds of dogs — for sheepdogs they suggest the coarsest size (six or 10 blades) and for Afghan Hounds the finest (20 or 26 blades).

Another way to maximize your efficiency (and thereby reduce your energy output) is to get a double-wide blade. This allows you to cover twice as much coat with each sweep. I managed to find an extra coarse (12 blade) double wide Coat King on AmazonOne of the wisest purchases I ever made. An extra-coarse double wide is hard to find. I couldn’t find a picture of one online, but here is a medium (23 blade) double wide:

Mahogany-colored wooden handle with steel head with 23 curved blades.

A 23-blade double wide Coat King

Mat Rakes and Mat Breakers

There are many types of mat breakers. The Coat King is the best and most versatile, but if you want to try out a cheaper version — especially if you’re only dealing with mats on occasion or in limited location (the beard, the outer thighs, and the elbows are common trouble spots in my experience), you can try another curved blade mat breaker such as the Paw Print Mat Breaking Tool:

Red and black rubbery plastic handle with curved blades inserted vertically along the top of the tool.

Mat Breakers with Five or Nine Blades each


High-Quality Shears

The right scissors make a big difference, and again, you get what you pay for. Having bought inexpensive scissors that don’t work at all and having bought expensive, high-quality shears that I’ve used for many, many years, I strongly encourage you to go with high quality.

I use two scissors for all my scissoring work. (I have a couple of others, but they’re not worth using.) One is a pair of basic seven-inch straight shears made of Japanese stainless steel, which I use for touch-ups or any general scissoring. The brand is Image Tech, which I can’t find online anymore, though they may be related to Aussie Shears. They have a smooth action and, as long as I get them sharpened periodically, have a nice, sharp blade.

The other is a pair of Michel Tisserand’s Diamond Line four-and-a-half inch slightly curved, round-tip scissors. They’re also made of Japanese stainless steel but they have some sort of odd (and pretty!) finish that’s different from my straight shears. These small scissors are good for trimming between the toes (matted toe hair can be a big problem for Bouviers, and especially in the woodsy area where I live, with all the pine sap, it’s important to keep the toes “naked”) and around the eyes, ears, face, etc. (There’s a lot of tricky face work on a Bouvier, even if you do a utility cut.) They’re the best scissors I own in terms of ease of use, lightness, sharpness of blade, and versatility.

How do you find good scissors that last a long time? First of all, buy something that is designed for dog grooming. Probably seems obvious, but having tried other household scissors in a pinch, I can tell you, it’s not the same.

Secondly, go with a name brand that has “street cred” and that goes into detail about the materials and manufacturing process. If you’re not sure which brands are best, ask groomers, breeders, or other people you trust what brand they use. You might also ask if there are brands they do not recommend.

I’ve found that where you purchase from is not necessarily that useful. For example, I have bought both excellent and lousy dog grooming supplies from Care-a-Lot, and on this page you’ll see that there are scissors that are $7 and scissors that are $70. I’ve bought both ends of the spectrum from them. My two best shears both came from them, and I also bought some duds, like these Aaronco scissors, which literally could not cut Barnum’s hair; a five-dollar pair of office scissors worked better! If you see shears advertised (like these Aaronco scissors) as “low cost but high quality for beginning groomers,” interpret that to mean, “low cost and poor quality for people who don’t know any better.”

Sometimes it’s not that straightforward, which is where asking around helps. Both Oster and Andis are very popular and respected names in dog grooming supplies. They both have a range of clippers, from cheapo ones to professional quality, and comparable styles cost about the same and seem pretty similar, in description. However, I used a couple of Osters for several years and when my last ones broke I wondered if it might make sense to switch brands. I asked Barnum’s breeder and a couple of other people if they liked Andis better, and some of them did. I took a chance and purchased the Andis, and that turned out to be the right decision. However, I’d found out the return policy beforehand so I knew I could get my money back if the experiment did not work out.

Maintain Your Equipment

The only thing that matters just as much as, if not more than, the quality of your grooming equipment is the maintenance of them. No matter how good your scissors are, they will dull with use. Shears need to be cleaned and sharpened regularly. The same is true of clipper blades. Find a professional sharpener of dog-grooming blades or shears and get them sharpened every few haircuts or whenever you first notice a reduction in performance.

Also, read the manual before you use new equipment. Really. It will tell you which surfaces need to be oiled and with which product and which parts should never get oiled. It will tell you how to clean the various parts. Instructions can vary in significant ways from brand to brand, and I have made incorrect assumptions in the past when using new equipment.

All clippers, clipper blades, and scissors must be maintained before, during, after, and between cuts. Clean and oil your blades before use and after use (before storing clipper and blades till your next cut). And while you’re grooming, stop before you notice a drop-off and performance to clean and oil the blade. I find that the best way to maximize efficiency (and reduce time and energy) is to use two of the same blade. I use one till it gets hot, then swap it out with a cleaned, oiled (cool) blade, and use that. If Betsy’s helping me, one of us can clean and oil the first blade while the second one continues working on the dog with the cool blade.

Chime in!

I hope this was helpful. Which grooming products do you like best? Please comment! Happy grooming!


A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Grooming Tools and Tips (#ADBC) — 21 Comments

  1. This is really helpful! I am sitting my husband down with your post and with Shai’s when we have some time and figure out what other tools will help on our fuzz bunny.

    You’re so right about doing part of the dog at a time–we usually clip nails on just one paw a day over four days. Stress free that way! Doing a few small tasks–ear cleaning and tooth brushing or working on ears or paws really makes things manageable and helps make sure that we make some progress regularly rather than procrastinating.

    Grooming products are so expensive–thanks for letting us know what works so we don’t have to use trial and error for everything.

    I do like using the nonscent baking powder deodorizing spray by Foster and Smith when needed between baths; I am sensitive to perfumes, fragrances, shampoos, etc. but am not bothered by it. Others with more sensitivity may be.

    • Hey FridaWrites, thank you for the comment! I’m so glad to know this is helpful, especially since you already wrote about some of the same tools! You’re reminding me that I forgot to include my favorite shampoo item, which are the dog shampoo bars I reviewed before. http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/product-review-fragrance-free-dog-shampoo-bars/
      FWIW, I’m pretty sure she makes a baking soda soap/shampoo bar, too, which I think could also be a good deodorizer.

      • It’s definitely helpful. Do you think a King Coat would be good for brushing a poodle coat? My labradoodle has a poodle coat–it grows like hair rather than fur–it doesn’t shed except like people hair–tiny amounts normally. He sheds less hair than any humans in our family. Not sure if Bouvier is quite the same.

        • Bouviers are the same: they don’t shed. The dead hair from the undercoat gets trapped by the outer coat, and that’s what mats if it’s not brushed out. But if the coat is so thick and curly, it’s hard to get at the undercoat and get it all brushed out. The Coat King thins the coat so it’s easier to get to the undercoat. I think poodle coats are actually less dense, thus easier to groom, than Bouv coats, but you could certainly use a Coat King if you wanted to debulk or if you had matting problems. There’s info and pictures on the Guide pages that talk about overusing the Coat Kings. That has certainly never been a problem for me, but I can see how you could do it with a dog wtih less coat and a person with more time and energy.

          • Sorry for butting in, but I grew up with poodles, and my brother has a mutt that even the vet says looks just like a labradoodle, and I now have a Bouvier, so I can say without a doubt that Bouviers have denser coats than poodles or labradoodles.

          • Much as my ‘doodle boy looks like Barnum, he definitely does NOT have a similar coat type. Hudson’s coat is both less dense and finer. I’ve actually collected his fur to spin into yarn, because it’s silky-soft, and it makes a really nice yarn. I doubt that a Bouv’s coat would be the same.

            My preference with his coat is to just use a good slicker, with a metal comb to break up mats if needed. I brush his hair twice to get it totally unknotted – the first time, I brush with little flicking motions, to make sure the knots are getting pulled all the way out to the ends of the fur. The second time, it’s mostly just smoothing the coat, with long strokes from head to tail. That second time picks up a lot of fur that the first pass loosened but didn’t remove.

  2. I bowwed out of this episode of the carnival, because I figured grooming tools would be pretty popular. I love love love my master grooming tools ergonomic grip brushes but they are not MCS safe. I had to drown them in vinegar, baking soda water, then run them through the dishwasher and set them outside for a week before I could stand them, and I don’t have any problems with sensitivity.

  3. Hey Starre. That sounds interesting. Given that I now have this issue w/my wrists, etc., and I think ergonomic issues are a common concern for others, too, I’d be interested in learning more about these. Do you have a link or more info on those you’re willing to share?

  4. Thank you so much for doing this post! I just recently got a Bouvier Service Dog, and while I’m familiar with grooming other breeds, it was before I became disabled, so I feel as if I’m starting from the beginning with learning to groom my new dog with my limitations. You’re like the third person who I’ve found who recommends the Andis AGC2 for Bouviers, so I’ll definitely be purchasing them in the near future, especially since I discovered that my Oster clippers were no match for a Bouvier coat.

    • Hi JJ.
      Thanks so much for posting this comment! It really feels good to know it’s helpful!
      The coat is the part of the Bouvier I like the least. It’s really a lot of work, even if you keep them in a short clip and don’t keep the beard.
      Plus, each Bouvier is different. Barnum is my third, and his coat is much curlier and denser than my previous two. Each one has had a more challenging coat than the one before. I have heard from some people that this is the trend in US breeding of Bouviers — for thicker, curlier coats. I know they look gorgeous in the ring, but I really wish we would trend back to the crisper, lighter coats!
      Congratulations on your new service Bouv! I hope we’ll hear more about you both. 🙂

      • Hi Sharon,

        Sophia definitely has one of the thicker, curlier coats. I brush her about three times a week, and I can still find that her coat is starting to mat. The teen who was responsible for her grooming before I got her hadn’t been doing it, so when I got her I had to cut her coat down to about an inch all over to get rid of the mats. I also went ahead and clipped her facial hair down too, so she doesn’t have a beard anymore; it makes cleanup after meals much easier. I’m thinking that keeping her coat around an inch and a half to two inches would probably be the ideal length.

        She’s almost two years old, so she’s got some growing to do, and I’m still teaching her new tasks. Her parents were both about 130 pounds, and while I don’t think she’ll get that big I do think she’ll be about 100 pounds when full grown. She’s mostly mobility and medical alert (asthma, tachycardia, steroid-induced diabetes), but since I have an auditory processing disorder, too, I’ll also be training her to notify me when somebody calls me. In the few weeks I’ve had her, she’s already learned to counterbalance me and get my Mom when I need more help than she can provide. She’s also been to the Emergency Room twice with me, so I’m very impressed by her and Bouviers in general. She’s a complete couch potato when not working, which works out great for me since I have limited mobility. I have a long list of problems with both my legs and back, so I love that she’s happy to lay around on the days that things are flaring.

        • Sophia sounds great! I’m so glad she’s working so well for you. As long as her hearing is good, I’m sure she’ll be able to do a good hearing alert for you. (Gadget was kind of hard of hearing, but Barnum has terrific hearing and is very alert to sounds.)
          I think a lot of people go with a one-to-two inch clip for their working Bouv. I end up taking Barnum’s down even shorter because of the terrible tick problems in this area — much easier to check when it’s short. (The most recent post shows how he looks now with his latest haircut).
          I think Bouvs in the US are also trending (or have been for the last ten years) toward larger sizes. I know there are a lot of 100-pound-plus Bouvs. Barnum’s my biggest, around 80 lbs, give or take. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a bit bigger SD, but there are pros and cons to both sides. People always tend to think Bouvs are bigger than they are because the hair makes them look so much larger!

  5. Coming in late, but since my hand control issues mean I can’t hold things, both clippers and dremels are unusable by me. So that left his pedicures up to other people. However, we have now achieved scratch board success, and Dilly keeps his own front nails done very nicely! The back ones are much less of an issue for both of us, so an occasional third party touch up handles those. We used Shirley Chong’s method applied to a skate board ramp so I don’t have to hold the board for him. Works a treat. Search youtube for Shirley Chong dog nail file for many examples. So our favourite nail grooming equipment is now a skateboard ramp covered in sandpaper tape! Exercise for him, zero effort for me. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Sunday's Recap: The Best Dog Supplies According to the Experts | Top Dog Tips

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