PITTSFIELD – Tall and bushy, short or shaggy. Dogs come in all shapes and hairstyles, so learning to care for the different breeds of these very different types takes not only talent but also skill.
Paula Phillips knows how this mix of talent and skill comes together, having been a groomer for several years. She and her husband Tom, who live in Peru, own Shamrock Professional dog grooming, who has been in Pittsfield for 16 years. But Phillips’ experience as a groomer goes back much further. It started in her native Ireland, where Phillips grew up on a farm surrounded by animals.
We recently spoke to Phillips about her craft and she shared it with us.
Q: How did you become a dog groomer?
A: I was born and raised in Ireland and grew up on a farm working with animals since I was 6 years old. As a young teenager, I worked at a kennel that exhibited Springer Spaniels. I got involved with her. They taught me how to groom themselves and get them ready for the dog shows. That was my first introduction to personal hygiene and it just escalated from there.
Q: How old were you when you started grooming yourself?
A: In the kennel, probably 14.
Q: How do you learn how to do this job?
A: It’s certainly a skill that needs to be learned. There are schools where you can study. After working in the kennels, I came here to the United States and apprenticed at a groomer. You studied for two years then. You don’t get paid for it or anything, you apprentice and they teach you the skills. … I acquired a lot of knowledge there, plus reading and the love for it in my heart.
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 unlimited possibilities. The Irish are always very adventurous. There wasn’t much work there then. What I could do with my business here 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 and then ran a dog grooming business in New Jersey before coming to Pittsfield.)
Q: What is the most important part of dog grooming?
A: Probably more than 50 percent of the entire care and finishing process is the bathroom. If it’s not done right, the groomer won’t be able to do the best job possible.
Q: Why is it so important to bathe the dogs first?
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 is clean.
Q: How long does it take to get really good at this skill?
A: It really depends on the groomer and their skill level. Some people pick it up and learn it and they just have a natural gift and a dog [helps], to. There’s more to it than just picking up scissors. It’s like a passion. … You have to love the animals when they come in. When they come in here, we get to know them.
Q: What to do You mean having passion?
A: Just this absolute love for what you do. … We don’t just care for them. When someone gets their next puppy, they start again with me and I’ll see them through the rest of their lives. We are very sad when a dog dies. We actually shed tears. It’s very personal. You will become part of our family here.
Q: What do you enjoy so much about working with animals?
A: I just love their loyalty. They always have a straight keel. Some dogs don’t like being groomed. But if you have that passion and ability, you’ll learn how to bypass some dog behaviors. We ask a lot of questions.
We do walk-in nail care. The first thing we ask at the door is if the dog likes it? Does he need a muzzle? So let’s get some history before we start delving into something we might regret. Although we love dogs, they are animals. It’s still our responsibility. You can’t tell us no, we don’t like it. Their way of telling us this is by tugging or maybe even pinching. So we must be careful to protect ourselves from injury and the dog’s from injury.
That’s what I mean by passion. It’s learned, really learned, but you have to have the passion in you. The rest is experience with learning. You are 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. We have a lot of mixed breeds out there right now. Let’s say a dog is a Maltese. Some people will want this dog to look more like a Maltese or more like a Bijon. So you have to learn all these skills and all these grooming styles.
Q: How do you learn all these grooming styles?
A: You can attend nursing schools, read books and practice. Practice with all the different races and all the different personalities of those races.
Q: Which breed is the most difficult to groom?
A: I wouldn’t say there’s one that’s really heavy, but the ones you need help with are the larger breeds. You don’t like to get up. You like to sit a lot. You need help with this. You must have an assistant [help you] with these dogs for the safety of the dog and your own safety.
There are now many products on the market where you can [hook] put the dog on your table and help the dog through. Maybe I’m just old school, but I don’t like it. And the reason I don’t like it is that the dog freaks out when there are too many things plugged into the table, and there’s also a risk that it will. That other person is there to calm them down, to relax them. I like it better that way.
Q: What are the easiest dogs to care for?
A: I call them washing and wearing. They’re just short-haired dogs, like a beagle, or a dog that doesn’t have a lot of hair, like a labrador, or like a jack russell. … They don’t need that much grooming because their hair is short.
Q: How difficult is it to detangle a dog’s coat before the grooming process begins?
A: We’ve had dogs that were just totally matted. In these dogs we can sometimes shave them. Other times, depending on how bad it is, if the dog’s mat has gone down to the skin, he would need to go to the vet. You would have to immobilize it for a while because the hairs become matted so closely to the skin that the risk of injury is high. We as groomers do not sedate dogs.
Q: How many times a year should a dog be groomed?
A: It depends on the breed and coat type. 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 respond to grooming?
A: Most dogs love to be groomed. They love to be pampered. you enjoy it.
Sometimes they can be fidgety. They do not want to get up, they withdraw from their paws. But this is where experience and passion come into play. When you have someone who has that passion and that attitude, who loves to groom and knows how to take care of the dogs, you know how much pressure to apply and when to stop, it’s all in Alright Let’s say a day’s work.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a groomer?
A: I’ve mentioned passion so many times, but you have to want it. You can’t just say I’m going to groom myself because I want to make a lot of money or whatever. It has to be in your heart. It must be something you want to do.