The Groomer’s Dilemma: The Matted Dog

On April 4, 2024, senior groomers Sabrina Schofield and Lisa Robinson met with Cathy Davis, owner of Backyard Pet Grooming for an in-depth conversation on matting. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Good morning! We are talking about matting in dogs today but before we begin, please tell us about yourselves! How did you learn how to groom, where did you get your certification, and how did you go from amateur to master groomer?

Sabrina:  Good morning!  I’ve been grooming in a brick-and-mortar salon for 15 years and another two now in a mobile salon.  I got into grooming because I wanted to pursue a career working with animals.  I first tried my hand at being a bather – this was great fit for me and I loved working with the dogs, learning their body language and so forth.  What I thought the next career step would look like was working in a vet office starting out as a vet tech and working my way up.  Unfortunately, my first vet assistant job did not turn out to be as joyful as I was hoping it to be.  The dogs were sick, they were hurting and it was really hard on my heart.  I made the decision to go back into the grooming world.  I mentored under a master groomer in a private shop for a year in Virginia.  

Lisa: I got into this about 20 years ago.  I was actually making manuals for PetSmart as part of my job at Staples.  My PetSmart client just came after me once he saw my work ethic, and he stayed after me for about a year before he talked me into enrolling in their academy.  From the time I picked up my first pair of scissors I was in love with grooming.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  Compassion, patience, love – it was all there in the job every day and it still is. Every day.   I’ve kept building skills by taking courses online, through rescue work, and I’ve done a lot – a lot — of work with the elderly.  The relationship with the client and the baby is very personal – it is just deeper connection in a mobile setting and less gets missed in mobile.

I’d actually like to dig in on that a bit – most people would think that a job in a grooming salon is the same job as a mobile groomer job.    Since you have both done both jobs, how are the two different?

A matted dog sitting on a green benchSabrina:  Oh gosh, they really are different.  In a mobile setting, of course everything you would get in a salonis in the van.  All the professional supplies are the same and services are the same but the experience is different for the dog and the groomer.  In a salon, the environment is more chaotic.  They are taking in dogs at a higher volume and the level of intensity is higher.   The dog’s nervous energy comes in to the salon with the dog and then multiplies across the other dogs which makes overall a more stressful experience.  The wait time is another big factor.  In a salon, they stagger parts of the groom and the dog has breaks where he’s waiting for the next thing.    With a mobile groomer, the whole experience is more compacted—in a good way.  As Lisa said before, with handling the pets and building that relationship in a less stressed environment there is way more love!  It is the same with the clients, who are seeing you as a guest in their home, a friend and a partner.  The whole job becomes more intimate – it is a personal service in every way with mobile grooming.  

Lisa:  All of that is so true.  I really get to know the people and the dogs at a whole different level with mobile.  The one thing I would add to what Sabrina said is that we are by ourselves on the bus which simplifies the flow and avoids mis-communications that sometimes come through with multiple handoffs.

I know from talking with some of our other groomers that that aspect – being by yourself in the van all day — also makes the job more lonely.  The social aspect of having a team to work with is just not the same.  So that’s another difference.     

For today’s discussion what we planned to focus on is the matted dog, so let’s talk about that a bit.   Among the many challenges you might experience in going from door to door to door, one that is pretty common is encountering a dog whose hair has gotten all tangled up.  Maybe hopelessly tangled up.   So – how does this happen?  You give a dog back after a grooming and its hair is silky smooth.  Then you see him a couple of months later and the dog is just tied up in knots.  

Sabrina:  Matting is a perfectly natural thing that happens.  Dogs are happy, fuzzy, on the go little guys.  The matting happens in the high friction areas.  Depending how much hair is where and what kind of repetitive action is going on, different kinds of tangles get started.  Think of matting as a combination of oil, dirt, dander, and debris that accumulate and allow the hair to texturize.  The hairs clump and then you add action and movement – rolling, running through sprinklers, digging in the back yard, etc.  those hairs marry together.  You see it a lot in the ears and face.   A dog uses its face like we use our hands – they explore the world through their nose and their mouth so they put their face in all kinds of fun and interesting places.  They wag their tail against things.  Their arms are moving all the time creating friction there.  Different breeds and coat types respond to this differently — some are more “sticky.”   If left, the mats will grow and spread through the dog.  The more texture the dog’s hair has, the worse this will happen.  

Lisa, I’m wondering if you can elaborate here.  Obviously, dogs have different kinds of hair.  Some is straight, some is wiry, short, long, and so forth.  But what do we mean when we say “texture” that makes it more or less prone to matting.

Lisa: Texture means the thickness of the individual hairs, the tendency to curl, the extent to which they hold water. So, you have texture as a factor in matting but you also have release as a factor.   Take doodles.  Their hair is very textured. Usually, a doodle cannot blow its coat which is an event that occurs over a few weeks in which a huge amount of hair is shed all at once. Other long-haired dogs even like a Maltese cannot blow their coats either so they are relying on a brush out for those older or broken hairs to get on out of the coat. All dogs do shed – don’t get me wrong – but the long-haired dogs need grooming to keep the coat in good shape.  But you take these factors, texture, release (or lack of it), and friction – it’s a recipe for matting. 

I see.  So, let’s put ourselves in the point of view of a pet owner whose dog has gotten all matted up and they can see a professional grooming is what is needed.  What should the pet owner expect when they talk to the groomer because they are probably thinking the groomer can fix this situation in one fell swoop.   Because that’s the groomer’s job, right? To fix it. 

A dog on a table with a heap of hair, being groomed to remove matted hair.Lisa:  Truly, if the matting has run amok over a good portion of the dog’s coat, the owner should expect a do-over.  It is the kindest solution for the pet.  There is nothing nice about the process of de-matting.  It is not painless for the dog, no matter how slowly the groomer works or how excellent her tools are.  We are talking the safest length for the baby – this is what the owner should expect. That doesn’t mean shaved down to the skin, but it will be on the short side. 

Sabrina:  I tell the parent “I will leave the hair as long as the mats will allow.”  This does not mean we always go to the skin, but here is what the owner has to understand.  We cannot cut through the mat.  The tools won’t do it.  We have to go under it where the fresh new regrowth lives.  When this has happened, when the mass is lifted off, you can see in the pet’s demeanor – what having all that weight lifted off does. They are light, they are re-energized, they are alive again with all that heaviness removed.  From there, the pet has to get on a regular schedule with some in-between brushing if the hair is ever to be humanely and sustainably longer.

Let’s say the client has called and now the groomer is at the door.  You are meeting everyone for the first time and you have your hands on the dog for the first time. What is going through your mind as you reach down and feel the dog’s coat?

Lisa:  That’s funny that you ask it that way.  When I get there, I actually greet the baby first, then the parent.  And what I am feeling for is just everything.  I’m feeling for lumps, bumps, scratches, cuts, any kind of flinching, joint issues, just everything.  And I am also conveying a sense of love.  That’s really important.  From there, I am coming to a full of what condition the coat is in.  You only have about 30 seconds to do all of this.  From there I’m in a conversation with the pet owner about what they would like to have done during the grooming and what is about to happen.  Here I am giving a sense of what can be done compared to what they might done.  

So your hands tell you a lot. 

Lisa:  They really do.  All the senses really, touch but also smell.  Your nose will tell you when something that feels like a mat is something else entirely.   I’ve been doing this for so long I know not to take anything for granted.  What feels like a mat can be a scab, cyst, or other medical condition.

Once you get on out to the van, Sabrina, where do you begin? Do you start with the bath first or the nails or the mats or what? Where do you start?

Sabrina: You always want to start with the matting, never a bath first.  In fact, we try to make it as clear as possible in general: when you have mats, water always makes them worse and when they dry, they are still tighter to the skin than they were before.  Pet parents with pools really need to understand this.  So yes, once you’re in the van you get what matting you can off of the coat right away.  Do not add water!   

Dirty hair de-mates easier than clean hair.  Shampoo & conditioner does not really help, and dry heat also fails to help out the situation.  You would just be making what’s bad worse.    Once the worst of the matting is out you can move on to nails, ears and the bath, the blow-dry and getting the hair to an even length overall.  

Lisa anything else to add on this?

Lisa: Yes, just one thing.  Once the baby is in the van, we start assessing the behavior with the goal of helping the owner understand what is going on and developing a plan for making the maintenance of the dog’s hair, ears, nails, & teeth more manageable.  For example, some dogs don’t like their feet done, some don’t like brushing.  But helping the dog understand that touch is just part of life goes a long way for some dogs.  It becomes normal for Mom & Dad to touch the feet — it’s no big deal.  So, when the groomer touches the feet, same thing:  no biggie.  That’s where we want to get to.   For the hair, starting short is the way to go.  If the baby doesn’t like being brushed, asking the parent to brush the matted dog is going to go badly.  The dog is going to hate it and the parent is not going to be successful.  What you want to do is start short, get the brushing to be normalized and tolerated, then we can go longer with the hair. 

So, let’s say you’re finished with the groom.  Mats are gone, the dog is clean, smells great, hair looks great.  How do we keep things going well now that we’ve had the do-over?  Lisa, you can take a run at it.

Salon grooming for white poodle dog, showing removal of matted hair as part of the grooming session.Lisa: It’s really our job to have this conversation with the client.  We have to decide where we are going with the hair length.  Put them on a schedule for a certain number of weeks.  We can provide instruction on brushing technique, make sure they have the right brush and comb set, show them the de-tangling sprays that help out in a pinch.  The goal is to have the parent be part of the solution and part of the process to get the baby looking like the breed standard.  It’s a team effort. 

So obviously some combing and brushing is going to be required.  So, Sabrina, why do dogs hate this?  Why do owners not want to do it? What are the barriers to getting it done?

Sabrina:  The more that parents brush and handle, the better for everyone.  One of the biggest hurdles for the pet is not being used to being handled.  The feet, the face, the tail.  Dogs have to come around to seeing this as normal and to tolerating it.  As dogs, they want to be in control of their little bodies.   When the parent does trust building work like this it is super helpful.  Also, we can show the proper ways to use a brush and comb to keep the hair in good condition.    So, practicing the brushing with treats and love BEFORE the brushing is really needed in a de-tangling kind of way goes so, so far in building that tolerance and trust.   If you want the hair to be long with a certain look, there has to be a partnership. 

I am wondering about the scenario where you have a pet parent that says “no.”  They feel like you ought to be able to de-mat the dog for them and if you don’t, they just say “I’ll do it myself.”  Does this happen a lot and what does it take for the parent to be successful?

Lisa:  It does happen, quite a bit actually.  Here’s what we can do.  We can provide a comb and a brush.  If the parent does not want us to take the baby’s hair down to a safe length, I will be more than happy to give them the tools to try.  It’s just really hard.  Not being a professional and having a baby that is in this state – it’s almost impossible.  I will give them the tools and offer my phone number but there’s no way around it being excruciating.  I’ve also had a pet parent have to take their dog to the vet because they have injured the skin.  It happens because it is so, so hard to tell the difference between where the mat stops and the skin starts when the two are fused together.  It’s just dangerous.  So, if you are not a professional, know that it is dangerous.  The tools that are used for de-matting are razors.  They are very, very sharp.  

Sabrina:  Can I add something here?  Even with a professional groomer and the right tools, it is a super unpleasant process.  We can provide the tools but even the most gentle and lengthy slow de-matting process is uncomfortable for the pet.  So, it is difficult and uncomfortable.  Many times the parent will come to see that it is unsafe, difficult, and painful.

The last question that I want to address is finding the rhythm.  Both of you have had situations where you started with a dog in terrible condition and over time, you’ve partnered up with the parent so that now the dog looks amazing.  How did you pull this off?

Lisa:  First, find a groomer that you’re comfortable with.  You’re more likely to share and be open with someone you feel comfortable with.  You’re more likely to ask about the tools, and using them correctly, and getting in the habit of applying the tools.  Then, scheduling. Every 4-6-8 weeks (you and your groomer can work out the right pattern for your dog’s hair and activity level).   Also, providing the proper tools.  And for me – it is follow up.  For my clients, the new ones, I do follow up with them and help them build that relationship with their own dog that will turn around the grooming experience. 

I want to thank you guys for helping us explore this topic.  I know that matting is just a fact of having a long- haired dog.  It is an inevitability that every long-haired dog owner will face — a little bit of matting from time to time.  And a little bit can become a lot of matting in a hurry.  We know that matting is something that you wrangle with every day and – while it isn’t easy – there is a way to get through it.  Thank you both.