Basset. Working dog. The Whippet Media
Basset. Working dog. The Whippet Media

Grooming the Working Dog

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I very recently found out that not everyone has the opportunity to groom true working dogs.

The dogs that guard a yard overnight, go shooting for the day or ratting of an evening. Living in such a rural area, I barely go a day without grooming at least one worker. It was only brought to my attention recently that this isn’t as common as it used to be. When a non-rural family member visited my salon and a client arrived to drop their spaniel off fresh from a shoot. My family member’s first words were, “dogs still go shooting?” 

Grooming the working dog is slightly different to your average pet as you need to understand a little about the job they will be doing.

Will the dog be swimming in swamps? Charging through bushes? Excavating underground tunnels? It’s important to know this in order to give the dog the best service. 

So when a customer books in a working dog, the very first question to ask is…

What type of work? Followed by. Is the dog living outside? Working dogs aren’t limited to the usual Gundogs and Terriers. Many of the working dogs I groom are guard dogs which live and work outside in all weather.

Guard Dogs

The majority of guard dogs live outside 24/7 and as such the coat has to be looked after carefully. Usually when bathing pet double-coated breeds, I will use a nice conditioner to help the dead coat slide out. For outside dogs, however, too much conditioner will soften the coat too much and take away some of its waterproof properties.

It’s a fine line. If the coat is too soft it doesn’t offer much protection. And if it’s too dry and coarse it also doesn’t offer protection.

The optimum is to have a healthy, shiny coat which is only slightly harsh and coarse to the touch. To achieve this, I use a conditioning shampoo but no conditioner afterwards. If I do need to use conditioner, I tell the owner that the coat may be less weatherproof for 3-5 days after the groom.

I also only trim what the owner requests. The majority of owners want the fur between the pads left natural, or only trimmed a little. Just enough to offer some protection for the paw pads. This is particularly important for dogs that are often patrolling on hard surfaces. Feathering is also left fairly natural as it also offers protection when lying down on concrete or gravel.

I am not afraid to shave a double-coated breed if it’s necessary due to excessive matting.

I am, however, always wary if it needs to be done for outside dogs. While these dogs always have shelter provided, there is a risk that they will sleep in the sun and get burnt. And so I will always try a little harder than usual to save the coat.

If there is no other choice, I make sure I have the owner’s written consent. I also provide a list of precautions to take including:

  • The dog should wear a T-shirt (or horse rug if it’s a giant breed) to protect them from the sun and wind.
  • Sun cream should be used on sunny days on exposed areas not covered by the T-shirt.
  • Advise to move the dog into an indoor kennel if necessary, explain that the dog will now be much more susceptible to temperature changes.

Working Gundogs

The majority of these dogs are Spaniels, with a few Pointers and Hounds thrown in. With these dogs it’s important to ask if the dog is allowed any scented shampoo or perfume/cologne after the groom.

Certain types of hunting, the excessive smells can scare away the quarry, confuse the dog’s nose, or cause arguments when there are large numbers of gundogs together. 

For any dogs with longer feathering, but Spaniels in particular, the owner’s opinion on trimming is key. Most working dogs request all feathering on the legs to be removed. This is due to the soft fur attracting brambles, twigs and grass seeds when working. Some require a slight skirt to protect the tender skin on the belly. Intact males especially, usually require some fur left on the trousers and groin area to protect the sensitive areas. 

The way the jacket is treated depends on the breed of dog.

For wire-coated breeds I strongly recommend handstripping to keep the coat as weatherproof and harsh as possible. Providing the dog with maximum protection for the job. For silky-coated Gundogs, it is usually possible to maintain it easily by either handstripping, carding or using a coat-king. This maintains the dog’s natural weatherproof properties while keeping the coat manageable.

For show-type coats, while I recommend handstripping it is not always possible. Most working dogs need a minimal amount of coat to perform best. Often, I will handstrip the jacket, but scissor the skirt almost completely off with chunkers.

If the dog is going to be doing a lot of water-retrieving, handstripping really is the best option.

It means the dog can exit the water, shake, and the water is naturally directed away from the skin.  It is not always possible, however, and so often if clipping is necessary most owners request a 7f. While it isn’t the perfect length to keep the dog warm and dry, it does mean the dog dries quickly as soon as it is out of the water. 

Greyhounds and Lurchers

Another common type of worker I see is the racing or coursing dog. There isn’t lot us groomers can do in terms of coat care for these smooth coated workers. Often dandruff is a big problem. So I will use a nice conditioning shampoo to moisturise the skin. The most important thing for these dogs is actually nail care.

My biggest piece of advice is do NOT cut their nails.

We all know Greyhounds have those awful talons that we want to cut and dremel back. But actually for racers and coursers they need these long nails to aid their grip to give them a boost of speed.

Most owners will shape them into points to give the dog the best grip when they are running.

Terriers

Almost all of the working Terriers I meet are ratters. Some are professionals, most belong to horse owners. They spend their days ratting around hay and straw bales. I treat all of these Terriers as though they are professionals. It’s not uncommon for them to learn a new job as they get older and to spend more and more time ratting. 

Terriers were originally designed to go underground in burrows to chase quarry out into the open.

The wire coat was ideal for this job as it protects the skin while the dog makes its way through burrows.

For this reason I always attempt to strip a working Terriers coat before resorting to clipping. This help them stay reasonably weatherproof. A harsh jacket protects their skin if they do have to go underground, through bushes or through bales. Dry straw especially can feel quite harsh and sharp to the touch. 

If I can’t strip the coat and carding doesn’t bring it back to its correct texture then I will clip it as necessary. I usually clip on a dark blue comb attachment as opposed to the 7f most pet Terriers request. This extra length is enough to offer a little bit of protection to the skin, while short enough to still be practical for a working dog.

If the coat is particularly soft, I always recommend to the owner to use a coat in poor weather.  

Besides their coat, the second most important thing for Terriers is their feet. They need to be able to dig, and for that they need their nails. While I love nub nails and cat feet, dremelling nails right back is not ideal for Terriers that need to dig.

While the nails don’t have to be specially shaped like the working Sighthounds. They can be trimmed like any other pet dog. They just need to be left ever so slightly longer than you would usually take them.

That being said, the majority of working Terriers I groom almost never need their nails trimmed because they wear them down through excessive digging.

Nails aside, when grooming always check in between the pads for impacted dirt and grass seeds, as this is a common problem with these dogs.

Precautions

For guard dogs, it is important to always be wary. A correctly trained guard dog is a pleasure to work with, they guard their property and nothing else. The only major concern is potential kennel guard in the waiting cage post-groom. However there are a lot of “guard dogs” which are just poorly trained that are allowed to show aggression towards anyone. This is because in the owner’s opinion, that’s their job. These dogs are muzzled at all times in my salon.

When you are taking on any new guard dog for the first time, it is a good idea to get the owner to muzzle the dog prior to handing it over.

Besides guard dogs, the majority of working dogs tend to be very similar to your average pet dog. In all cases I would recommend not allowing dogs to spend time loose in the salon together. Especially if you have working Sighthounds or Terriers as they have a strong prey drive. It may be worth asking the owners of working breeds what command they use for “leave”, just as an added precaution.

Many old-school working dog owners will not want you to give the dog any treats, so always ask if this is allowed.

Besides the obvious risk of allergies, they may have a good reason to save high-value treats for specific reasons.

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