Health & Fitness

Sometimes, Rover Needs a Spa Day, Too

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Our furry companions require daily grooming to keep healthy and feel good. Learn from the professionals about how to keep your dog healthy, and how the pros can help.

Baylie Ecklund, Stonebridge Kennels, puts razor to fur during a grooming session. (Karla Nagy photo)

You know how scruffy you feel when you’re overdue for a haircut? Imagine if you had to go for days without combing your hair or bathing.

Just like us, our furry family members look and feel better, and stay healthier, with regular grooming.

“It’s crucially important to keep your dog’s coat and skin healthy,” says Gwen Meyer, co-owner, Meyer’s Kennel, 5390 Irene Road, Belvidere. She and husband Kent are professional dog handlers, trainers and groomers. Marking its 25th year at this location, the facility offers grooming, boarding, training and doggy day care. There’s also a store, stocked with everything from designer leashes, all-natural pet treats and breed-specific people gifts, to specialty dog shampoos, therapeutic beds and aromatherapy diffusers.

“Kent is a third-generation dog handler, and Meyer’s Kennel was started by his parents in 1970, on Shaw Road,” says Meyer. “They moved [to Irene Road] in 1986, and Kent began managing for them in 1989. We bought it in 1996.”

One misconception is that only non-shedding breeds require professional grooming. “Whether they shed or not, dogs should be groomed every six weeks,” says Meyer. “A dog’s epidermis [the exterior skin layer] is completely replaced every six weeks. If those dead skin cells aren’t exfoliated, mats can form and prevent oxygen from getting to the skin. If the mats can’t be brushed out, we have to shave them. I’ve seen two different skin reactions when the mat is removed. If it’s been there too long, there’s a scaly or sore patch. Other times, the skin flushes bright red when exposed to the air, like it’s finally able to take a deep breath.”

Owners can alleviate skin and coat problems with regular brushings, but this is often neglected.

Most people are familiar with “show” cuts – a style of grooming particular to a breed of dog that’s shown in the ring. While some seem downright silly, most were originally based in practicality. For example, poodles were bred in Germany as water fowl dogs. When allowed to grow out, their coats form long ropes which absorb water and weigh the dogs down. So their owners shaved them, but left the chest and joints covered, as protection against the cold. The colored bow in the topknot? It helped the owner to identify his dog from others, from a distance.

Rachel Bloom, Dogwood Pet Resort and Grooming, Loves Park, shaves Freckles the cocker spaniel. Non- and low-shedding breeds should be groomed every four to six weeks, to avoid matting. (Karla Nagy photo)

Today, of course, poodles aren’t thought of as hunting dogs. Should you get that “froo-froo” cut anyway?

“I know the show cuts, and I’ll give owners the haircuts of their choice,” says Rachel Bloom, a groomer at Dogwood Pet Resort, 6011 Maxwell Place, Loves Park. “But grooming should benefit the dog, not the owner.” Bare skin can get sunburned in summer or frostbit in winter.

Dogwood, located behind Dogwood Pet Hospital, 4102 Mulford Road, Loves Park, also provides boarding, training and doggy day care. A groomer for more than 15 years, Bloom began working at a veterinary clinic during high school, and attended grooming school in Arlington Heights, Ill.

The grooming process involves other necessary services that most owners aren’t even aware of. “We clean out the ears and express the anal glands,” says Bloom. “All dogs need to have their ears cleaned, and several breeds, like Westies, Bichons, Shih Tzus and schnauzers, need them plucked. Removing the hair prevents water from getting trapped inside the ear and causing an infection.”

Anal glands contain small amounts of a pungent brown liquid that some dogs expel when frightened, similar to a skunk. But it’s basically an identifying odor, unique to each dog, and when two meet, they stiffen their tails to release a miniscule amount. That’s why they sniff there – an introduction of sorts. These glands can become impacted if not routinely expressed, causing a dog to scoot along carpet or the grass.

Eyes are another oft-neglected area. “Several breeds are prone to tears, like poodles, chow chows and dachsunds,” says Bloom. “Flat-faced dogs, like pugs, boxers and Pekingese, have excessive eye discharge because their eye sockets are smaller.”

Dogs also need to have their teeth brushed regularly. “Bad breath isn’t a given with a dog,” says Bloom. “It generally means they have tarter build-up.” Pet stores sell doggy toothbrushes and special paste, with flavors like chicken and liver, along with peppermint and spearmint. But it isn’t about the taste. Canine tooth enamel isn’t the same as ours, and human toothpaste is too harsh. Not all grooming facilities offer this service, because if an animal isn’t used to the process, it’s very easy for a groomer to be bitten.

“Owners can prepare their dogs for these visits by touching them everywhere, especially when they’re puppies,” says Baylie Ecklund, who grooms at Stonebridge Kennels, 6142 Burr Oak Road, Roscoe. “Rub their paws and touch each toe and toenail, look at their teeth, look in their ears. Do it out of context – not just during a bath or brushing – and make it pleasant. Say ‘Good dog’ and give treats.”

Socialization is a vital part of this preparation. New experiences can cause anyone to be on edge, and animals naturally bite and claw when they’re anxious. “I get many dogs that are nervous and stressed only because they haven’t been taken many places,” says Ecklund, a groomer for five years. “It’s not necessarily that they dislike me or the process. That’s why walks in public areas or visits to dog parks are really important.”

“There are 10 or 12 breeds that don’t shed and will need to be groomed for the rest of their lives,” Meyer points out. “For those breeds, start when they’re puppies, to create good experiences. Get them used to the feel of the clipper first, and then the sound.”

“When I have a dog that isn’t used to being groomed, I just go slowly and talk gently,” says Ecklund. “The calmer the person is, the calmer the dog will be. Some dogs get more comfortable the more often they come, but some are high-strung, just like some people.”
Ecklund suggests to apprehensive clients that they bring their pets in prior to the appointment, just for a visit, to help them become better acclimated.

Gwen Meyer does some scissor work on Fogerty, a soft-coated Wheaten Terrier from North Carolina. The Meyers own, raise and show Wheatens, as well as train and handle dogs for owners across the country. (Karla Nagy photo)

At Meyer’s Kennel, four people handle the dog during each step, over the course of about five hours.

“A dog that’s dropped off at 9 a.m. usually isn’t ready to go home until 2 p.m.,” says Meyer. “They get a rest after each stage of the process, because standing is very hard on their joints and paws. We’ve groomed dogs that were known for biting, that were so pleasant for us. It’s a system I set up after years of experience, and it works.”

Regular home grooming seems to be an easy solution, but it’s often avoided for several reasons. “Owners give up too easily sometimes,” says Meyer. “They say, ‘I tried clipping his nails and he didn’t like it,’ and they stopped – they let the dog win. The next time, the dog will remember and behave the same way, whether it’s a professional groomer or not.”

Other reasons involve myths, like it’s not good for the skin to bathe your dog too often. “That’s only true if you use the wrong shampoo,” says Bloom. “Use one made for pets, and avoid scented or herbal formulas, because they irritate the skin. If a dog doesn’t need to be clipped regularly, bathe every six to eight weeks.”

The most common advice from experts: Brush your dog. It’s not just about getting rid of loose hair or avoiding mats.
“The dermis, the layer of skin under the epidermis, contains the main hair buds and oil glands,” says Meyer. “That essential oil is what keeps the dog’s skin lubricated and the coat shiny. Brushing is a way to help to distribute the oil.”

One common complaint among pet owners involves dry or flaky skin. Many dogs are prone to allergies, not just from pollen but from food. “Read the label – too many ingredients are bad,” says Bloom. “If your dog has dry skin, fish oil tablets can help.”

“The four ingredients to avoid in dog food are grains, color additives, sugar and by-products,” says Meyer.

“Not all allergies show up as dry skin,” warns Ecklund. “Watch for red, tender paw pads. That’s a typical allergic reaction.”

Steve and Katie Swietzer with Great Dane Dudley. Right: Dudley settles in on Mom’s lap. (Karla Nagy photo)

Boarding is another challenge for some owners and their pets, but it, too, can be done successfully, with proper steps and preparation. As owners of Stonebridge Kennels, Steve and Katie Swietzer know this firsthand.

“People are hesitant to board their dogs, either because of a bad experience, or out of guilt,” says Steve. “But they shouldn’t feel guilty. We built this place with our four dogs in mind. We traveled a lot, and we know that anxiety. So, at every step, we asked ourselves, ‘Would we feel comfortable leaving our dogs here?’”

Both have degrees in animal-related fields but went into emergency-room nursing before opening the kennel.

“We knew we wanted a full-service kennel in a rural setting for the doggy day care,” says Katie. On a recent summer day, one of the Swietzers’ four dogs, Dudley, a shy black-and-white Great Dane, enters and sits on Katie’s lap. It’s a comical sight, but both are obviously very comfortable with the arrangement.

The kennels are climate-controlled; a mega air-charger brings in fresh air; UV lights in the ductwork kill microorganisms. Boarded dogs go outside a minimum of four times a day to run, play and potty. For an extra charge, boarded dogs can go into day care.
Owners who say their pet is aggressive around other dogs at home often see a different reaction at doggy day care. “Away from home, the dog is in neutral territory,” Steve points out. “He doesn’t have to be on guard and can just be a dog.”

Dogs in day care are separated by age, size and temperament. “Not all dogs should be in day care,” Steve points out. “Dogs that aren’t neutered or are just too aggressive aren’t accepted.”

Day care is beneficial not only to the owners but to the dogs. “They get exercise and attention, instead of being alone all day,” says Meyer. “They also get socialization, which helps to create better canine citizens.”

In addition to frequent walks, Canine Aquatics is offered at Meyer’s Kennel. An above-ground pool, kept at 92 degrees, is outfitted with a deck, ramps and doggy life vests.

“Swimming helps a lot with leg and hip muscles,” says Bob Czarnowski, canine trainer and swim coach. “Running and walking put a lot of pressure on a dog’s shoulders. This is better.”

It’s been said that no greater bond exists than that between a dog and human. Giving your dog attention through grooming, and providing new experiences and opportunities to socialize with other canines, can only strengthen that bond. ❚

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