Because I’m woof it! How dog grooming became big business

‘I’m not going to get any dog in a headlock. These are beings that are alive. I’m not running a torture chamber.” Stuart Simons, 48, is a dog groomer and co-founder of Tails of St Leonards, which, at mid-morning on a Friday, is extremely busy but surprisingly quiet. That’s because the Afghan hound they call Zorro has not yet arrived. Ernie, a six-year-old racing greyhound until he retired, had never seen a ball; he is here to get his nails done. Bear is also six, a bernese mountain dog with a (step) brother, Sully, of the same breed, and they both need grooming every three months. If they get dirty in between, their owner puts a swimming costume on and walks them into the shower. If you knew how big these dogs are, you, too, would find that image difficult to shake. I’m still a bit puzzled about the swimming costume. Does your dog mind if you’re naked? Amber is a cockapoo that goes wild with joy whenever she sees a man, but cockapoos always have a really strong opinion about something.
Stuart Simons with Ralph.Stuart Simons with Ralph. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian
Then there’s Simons’ own dog, a standard poodle called Ralph, and his colleague Maria Pratley’s cockapoo, Oscar. Oscar had such bad separation anxiety that, when she is washing another dog, he has to lie underneath the bath. Otis, a cavapoochon (part cavalier king charles spaniel, part poodle, part bichon frise) is biddable, as a third groomer, Sophie Humphrey, shaves him back to glory, but his eyes keep asking: “Why? Why does it matter what my tail looks like?” Simons is under no illusions about his profession: “People say, ‘I’ve booked him in for a treat, for a spa day,’ but dogs don’t want to be here. They’d rather be out and about.” Nonetheless, they need these visits, because a matted life is miserable. Grooming is a serious, and also very big, business.

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Simons started grooming nearly 20 years ago, as a side hustle when his main job was in musical theatre. He still does musicals and cabaret, and has a second salon in east London. He had the idea when he was visiting family in Vero Beach, Florida, in 2004, and noticed that there were groomers on every corner. “I just thought to myself, ‘We always follow the US. It’s coming.’” Between 2010 and 2016, the grooming market grew by 25%, according to one study, with pet owners spending steadily more on their dogs, partly down to changing norms around husbandry. It has become routine to worry about their moods, their diet and their allergies. They’ve morphed into children, which is how people unabashedly talk about them.Simons calls Ralph “a child in a dog suit – so intelligent”; the owner of the berneses, Vanessa, 53, says she adopted Sully “when his parents got divorced”; Kim Denman, 62, says of Zorro, “My kids are grown up – he’s my new baby. He had me up at 10 to six this morning.” It makes sense in one way: you love them, you feed them, you tell them to do things and they don’t listen – they are essentially children. But it’s weird if you have even a fleeting memory of dogs in the 70s and 80s, as Simons and I do – people still loved them, but they happily hit them over the head with rolled-up newspapers, and nobody ever talked about “socialisation”.
Sophie Humphrey grooming Amber.Sophie Humphrey grooming Amber. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

By 2018, pet care and grooming – this is leaving aside food, the main expense, and vet bills, which is the thing everyone complains about – cost approximately £1.7bn a year, and the projection then was that it would rise to £2.1bn by 2023. But, by 2020, grooming costs in the UK had already reached£3.8bn. Two things had happened: the pandemic, and the cockapoo.

Everyone’s heard of the lockdown puppy: 11% of households had, between them, bought 3.2 million new pets by the end of 2021. There are now 12m dogs in the UK, and 33% of households have at least one. As lockdown lifted, “businesses had to adapt, because people didn’t want to go out without their dogs,” says Simons. Along Kings Road, St Leonards, signage reading “Dogs welcome” is the new “No smoking”. Register offices take dogsmaids instead of bridesmaids, and there’s a niche side industry for wedding outfits and concierge services (AKA clearing up dog poo, which even I, a feminist, can see is not the work of a bride). Simons has done countless grooming sessions for weddings, though the most memorable romantic gesture involved trimming the words “Will you marry me?” into the side of a cockapoo. “I never heard what she said. And I never saw the dog again,” he says, reflectively.
Maria Pratley working on Zorro.Maria Pratley working on Zorro. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian
The most popular single breed in the UK, now, is the crossbreed, a deliberate cross between two Kennel Club approved breeds, not to be confused with the mixed breed, which is just the result of two random dogs getting it on. Pomeranians and poodles are often used as the base breed for specific qualities (the first is cute and small, the second hypoallergenic), resulting in the pomsky (half Siberian husky), the pomchi (half chihuahua), the cockapoo (half cocker spaniel), the Maltipoo (half Maltese) and the labradoodle (half labrador).

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. Children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Abby Harris and her greyhound Ernie.Abby Harris and her greyhound Ernie. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian
“Long-haired” and “short-haired” don’t really hold up as denominators where dogs are concerned: they’re hair-bearing or fur-bearing. A hair-bearing dog’s coat is like human hair, and will grow and grow until you cut it – this is the poodle, the lhasa apso and the Afghan hound. Fur-bearing means it will grow to a predetermined length and then stop, but that doesn’t mean it stops short – the fluffy pomeranian is a fur-bearer. There are dogs that are a mixture – as Simons points out, “cocker spaniels are fur-bearing on the body and hair-bearing on the legs and ears”, which is why their ears always smell like dishcloths. (No groomer has said that to me. It is merely something I have observed.) There are also gradations within each category, so dogs bred as ratters – border terriers, wire haired dachshunds – have to be “hand-stripped” rather than clipped, which involves plucking out unwanted hairs either entirely manually or with the help of a special tool.

Long story short, or hair story fur, if you prefer, this is the business of experts – if you shear a dog that’s meant to be hand-stripped, if you groom the puppy coat too early, if the owner doesn’t brush the dog in between grooms, you can really mess things up, change the coat colour, destroy the waterproofing, cause alopecia. There are breeds that can suffer serious health detriment if you don’t groom them at all. Simons once groomed a dog with hair so matted that, when he removed the hair from its legs, its nail beds started bleeding because the hair had been constricting its blood supply. Opinions will clearly differ about the best starter dog, but, from a maintenance perspective, getting a poodle-cross as your first pet is like getting a violin as your first musical instrument – which is to say, surprisingly hard.

“Certain breeds of dog have more high maintenance owners,” Sophie Humphrey says, diplomatically. “A lot of owners want the hair to remain long, but if you want that, you have to look after it.” People think it’s like going to the hairdresser, and they can just ask for what they want. But, in fact, “it’s like going to the dentist when you haven’t brushed your teeth. If they go, ‘You need a filling’, you can’t turn round and say, ‘But I don’t want a filling’.” As she speaks, the fourth and final groomer, Claire Clarkson, 43, is washing eight-month-old Zorro. You’ve never heard anything like it. He sounds so human, so amazed and appalled, like a builder falling off some scaffolding. He’s just making his presence felt though, apparently. “If he was that unhappy,” said Clarkson, “he’d be doing a lot more than ‘Ar-ar-ar’. He’s a proper protester, Zorro. If he could have a picket board, it would say, ‘Do not touch my bum’.”

Most animals are creatures of habit. It will be important to develop a consistent schedule to follow with your new pet. Potty breaks at regular intervals, feeding at the same time(s) every day, playtime, walks – everything needs to be scheduled. At first, this can seem overwhelming but soon enough, you and your new pet will be on the same schedule.

Claire Clarkson grooms Teddy.Claire Clarkson grooms Teddy. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian
Humphrey trained as a groomer straight from Plumpton College, but the more usual route is via humans – Clarkson worked in hair and beauty, while Pratley was a barber for 25 years before she shifted to dogs. (Is there anything she misses about man clients? “Nope.”) “People always say, ‘My dog’s haircut costs more than mine does’,” says Simons. Unlike so many things people say, this is no exaggeration: a “shave-down” is between £40 and £75, a scissor cut between £50 and £90, depending on the breed. Which makes sense to Simons: “Look at the dog. It’s wriggly, it will take two hours, sometimes it will poo on the table. At least a human will sit still. It’s a much bigger job than your hair.”
A dog takes a bath at the salon.A dog takes a bath at the salon. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian
The principles of grooming, for all but poodles and Bedlington terriers, are simple – if you knew the theory of five different styles for head, feet and tail, you would be able to master the breed standard – but that masks a huge number of crucial techniques, from nail clipping to hand stripping, control and restraint, bathing and cleaning, and the training is quite involved, though the industry is unregulated. Simons runs The Groomers Spotlight, a guild to prove groomers’ qualifications, not unlike a Spotlight for actors. “In any creative, unregulated industry, people need some way to know what they’re getting.” The trend is to make groomers more like hairdressers – open-plan, lots of cute dogs you can see, a social experience – which is a staffing challenge more than anything. “People who work with dogs, they often aren’t very sociable,” Simons says, though his own team is a carefully curated exception.But there is deeper knowledge than anything a City & Guilds qualification can teach you. Dachshunds have a tendency to bite. In September and October, almost every dog has fleas, which are trying to find a warm host; the rest of the year, they live in the carpet. Brachycephalic (flat-nosed) breeds should never go in a drying cabinet because their internal cooling system is shot. Cavapoos are prone to heart defects. None of the groomers in Tails of St Leonards have ever been bitten, because there are so many signs a dog will give you before the bite – a lip curl, a whale-eye. Noise doesn’t always mean anything: Ernie, for instance, is a “classic sportsman”, says his owner Abby Harris, 41. If he gets an injury he’ll hugely over dramatise: massive yelp; hop around; never walk again. Then he’s fine.” Even dogs with short hair should see a groomer for their nails, though Clarkson and I both have staffies and neither of us have ever set foot in a salon as a punter. “Is it ever nice?” I ask, as she grooms Teddy the maltese, which takes for ever, “to leave all this at work …”

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Dogs have wet noses because it helps to absorb scent chemicals.

“And have a proper dog at home? Yes.”

Sophie Humphrey and Stuart Simons groom Otis.Sophie Humphrey and Stuart Simons groom Otis. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

This doesn’t stop me sharing my hair woes with Simons, as my dog is almost completely bald, and, after a number of visits, the vet finally lost patience with me and said: “It’s like if your husband goes bald. You just live with it.” (“Funny you should say that,” I said, “because my first husband actually was bald.”) “We have a great relationship with the vets round here,” Simons says, “so nothing against vets. But our entire knowledge is skin and coat, so we take it a bit more seriously.”

Look, it takes a long time to train, and it can be very noisy, and the work is very physical and none of this is for the faint of heart, but I’ve rarely seen so much pleasure in a workplace. But then, I wasn’t here for the one day a month they devote to cats. It’s a great day, money-wise, but that’s all danger money. Simons explains: “You can only do what a cat allows you to do. They have weapons. You can get cat-scratch fever. A dog will go, ‘I don’t like that, wham’. A cat can really store resentment. There’s a massive gap in the market for cat grooming. Because they’re arseholes.”