Why you should care

You’ll never look at hosing down the family dog in the same way again.

One woman carefully snips Cleopatra’s crown into her poodle’s thick, black coat. Another carves zebras and elephants into a white poodle’s fur to create a Madagascan landscape. Popeye and Bluto face off on two legs of another patient poodle, and a shark wraps around the side of a glitter-dusted dog with a sea horse staring out from its haunches. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

The thought was that you could sculpt a live animal, and let your mind go wild.

Jerry Schinberg, founder of the All American Grooming Show

Each year, extreme dog groomers battle to win the Creative Grooming competition at Intergroom, a dog show at the Garden State Convention Center in Somerset, New Jersey. Poodles are the breed of choice for this growing community of pet stylists who use color dyes, scissors and imagination to metamorphose their dogs. It’s not easy turning a dog into a dinosaur, but the hours of painstaking effort can yield a cash prize of $1,000 and a coveted spot on the cover of Groomer to Groomer magazine.

Grooming is big business nowadays. The American Pet Products Association reported that people in the United States spent about $58.5 billion on pet products in 2014 and $4.73 billion on grooming/board services alone, up 7.26 percent from 2013. Is it any wonder basic grooming has bred an elite, extreme offshoot? About 3,000 groomers visit Intergroom each year, attending seminars titled “Making Masterpieces Out of Nightmares in Record Time” (how to fix a matted dog) and “Quick Bling and Color” (how to use dye and glitter on dogs). Groomers in the competition dress up and perform skits or songs that complement their animal fur creations — the entertainment isn’t judged, but it adds to the event’s camaraderie.

Dog grooming was unheard of when Jerry Schinberg, 75, founded America’s first grooming event, the All American Grooming Show , in 1973. “The thought was that you could sculpt a live animal, and let your mind go wild,” he said. In the past decade, creative grooming has grown from a small, predominantly Midwestern hobby to seven large-scale competitions from coast to coast supported by two trade groups — Creative Groomers Association (CGA ) and the National Association of Professional Creative Groomers (NAPCG ) — serving the needs of some 5,000 members.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is against dyes being used on animals, even nontoxic, child-friendly versions. “There’s nothing ‘creative’ about subjecting dogs to the potential harm of being restrained and then chemically dyed,” says Daphna Nachminovitch, senior vice president of cruelty investigations at PETA, who says fur dying constitutes a “frivolous” ordeal for the animal. In Florida, home to some of the industry’s most celebrated groomers, it was illegal to dye pets until the law was revoked in June 2012 .

Groomers say their competitions are just about showcasing skills and that contestants care deeply for their dogs. CGA board member Sandra Hartness is frustrated with PETA’s attitude. She says she gets a range of reactions to her animals. “Everything from, ‘That’s awesome,’ to death threats.” But as far as she’s concerned, she says, “Dogs don’t care what color they are.”

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 5, 2015.

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