Going for the Gold
Four questions posed to competitive groomers from around the world reveal the opportunities and challenges that you will face when deciding to enter the contest ring.
There are many great groomers out there that have never tried to compete. Often, these diamonds in the rough are afraid to give it a try because they do not have a good support system, are too nervous or simply don’t understand what is involved. That is a shame, because competitive grooming can be a great way to advance your skills, your career and the reputation of your business.
To help dispel some of the misconceptions out there about competitive grooming and encourage readers that have thought about trying a grooming competition at one time or another, I asked a number of extraordinary competitive groomers from around the world about their experiences. Interestingly, regardless of when they started, how long they competed or at what level they began, many of the answers I received were quite similar in some regard, and all were inspiring.
What made you start competing?
I get asked all the time why I started participating in grooming contests. Like many competitive groomers, I was encouraged by another grooming professional that saw promise in my work.
For Cheryl Purcell, it was her mom, who knew competitive grooming veteran, grooming judge and international grooming consultant Marea Tully. They drove Purcell to her first competition at age 30. She had left her career in restaurant management to become a pet groomer and open a grooming salon with her mom, but the competitions gave her a chance to grow.
The opportunity to better her skills is what motivated international speaker and competitive grooming judge Judy Hudson. When she joined the grooming industry, it was not looked at as a profession. Hudson decided that if she was going to groom, she wanted to be one of the best in the industry. Competitions were a natural progression of that mind-set, as was obtaining a National Dog Groomers of America Master’s Certification and becoming a pet tech certifier.
GroomTeam USA member Michelle Breen Krahenbuhl said, “Competing seemed like a natural extension of showing dogs, and seeing competition win photos in magazines made me think, ‘I can do that.’ So, I jumped in.”
Groom Expo West 2016 Best in Show Winner Teruko Nozaki-Miller began competing because she wanted to have more confidence and the ability to groom without having the worry that she was not capturing the breed profile and creating the best finish.
Kelly Knight started competing after attending her first grooming trade show and watching the competitors in the ring. She said it was mesmerizing. “I wanted my grooming to look more like the competitors in the ring."
Anne Francis got into her first contest at the urging of colleagues who were competing at the New England Pet Grooming Professionals Show. She ended up placing third (finishing above her grooming school instructor) and was hooked. A very competitive person, Francis has been competing for 21 years but started seriously pursuing a spot on GroomTeam USA about four years ago. After her father passed away, she said to herself, “You only live once, so you better focus on your goals.”
Karen Tucker is another groomer who started competing because a coworker encouraged her to get in the ring. While she took a break from competitions for several years, she is back to keep her eye and skill current.
It was the pursuit of a certification that ended up leading Teri Becker DiMarino into the contest ring. After seeing her skills firsthand, certifiers Pam Lauritzen, Vivian Nash and an apprentice named Liz Paul encouraged her to compete. “They liked my work and were wondering why I wasn’t competing,” says DiMarino, who didn’t realize that competitive grooming was even a thing back then. After Paul walked her through the process, DiMarino won Best Groomed Dog in Show in her first contest. She went on to compete from 1986-1993, taking two years off in the middle to coordinate Team USA.
Jodi Murphy remembers going to her first trade show and being in awe of the grooming competitions going on there. “It was a world that I never knew existed,” she says. “The dogs were groomed beautifully, nothing like I had ever seen before.” When Murphy saw American Cockers in full coat, she knew that’s what she wanted to achieve. She bought a puppy from a show breeder who helped her get started with the grooming.
Kitty Dekeersgieter from Brussels got into grooming contests because she craved the competition and opportunity to improve her skills. She started conditioning herself by timing her work and picking it apart to be better and faster.
Canadian groomer Jackie Boulton was introduced to the world of competitive grooming by a former employer. She was convinced to give it a try at Intergroom, where she has been competing for 25 years now. When asked when she is going to stop, Boulton’s answer is always, “When I stop having fun.” Something tells me we will be seeing her around for a long time.
Italian groomer Umberto Lehmann, president of the European Grooming Association, did not realize grooming competitions existed until 1985, when a friend turned him on to a contest called the European Championship in England. There, he received the first win of his career, and that was all it took.
Colin Taylor from England started competing because he wanted to see if it would help his confidence. Growing up, Taylor never did very well when it came to competitions, and he thought maybe participating in grooming contests could change that. He went on to win some of the biggest contests in the world and is now a leader in the industry worldwide.
What are some of the biggest obstacles that you faced?
Over the six years Hudson competed, she found the biggest challenge to be juggling her kids’ ballgames while keeping up contest dogs’ coats and running her mobile business. Luckily, she had the support of her friends and was able to go to contests that were within driving distance, many times taking her kids with her. While it wasn’t easy, Hudson says it was worth it.
Purcell competed from 1994-2010, earning a spot on GroomTeam USA for six years and winning five best in show awards and multiple best all-around groomer awards. She says there were two things that were particularly hard for her to overcome: First of all, she did not have experience in conformation and had to learn how to show groom; and second, it was a challenge to find good dogs in the A division. Purcell says she found the best way to keep her contest dogs in good condition was to own them or keep them for the breeder.
DiMarino feels competition obstacles were very different back when she was active in the contest ring. “We had to lug all of our equipment—including our tables and dryers—to the contests, as none were supplied,” she says. “There were no bathing/drying areas set up, so all the dirty work was done in the hotel rooms.”
On the other hand, DiMarino feels people got along better back then, as there was not as much money, prizes, points or notoriety on the line as there is today. “It was a friendlier time, and we all helped each other,” she says.
Murphy says the most difficult obstacle for her has always been finding dogs for competitions. It can be very hard to borrow dogs for every class at every show. Even if a competitor can find the dogs, chances are they won’t have a chance to practice and get to know the dogs’ structure and how it measures to the breed standard. This is especially difficult for new groomers. The seasoned competitor will have a lot more experience and know how to fix faults and bring out the best in any breed.
Murphy always found it best to own her contest dogs and borrow the breeds that she didn’t own from friends. She ended up owning five American Cockers, a Mini Poodle and a Standard Poodle. She borrowed terriers and other breeds from reputable breeders and friends, as needed.
Foreign competitors like Dekeersgieter, Lehmann and Brazilian groomer Sergio Murilo Villasanti all faced challenges that we in the U.S. typically never have to worry about, including the major expense of international travel, the challenge of securing a visa and overcoming language barriers.
Dekeersgieter was creative in finding money to travel around the world after creating a line of grooming apparel that she traveled with. This way, she was able to pay for her trips by having a booth and selling at the various shows where she competed.
Many competition groomers have similar feedback, whether they are former or current competitors and whether they are from the United States or abroad. Most mention how it can be difficult to get great dogs and the effort it takes to coordinate them for all the different shows. It is all about the show schedule and rules. Competitors have to make sure they have the right breeds in each string of competition dogs, with two or three different sets of dogs in condition and with the required amount of hair according to each show’s rules.
It may sound easy, but there is so much complexity under the surface. For example, many competition groomers have had dogs that they’ve conditioned for several months to several years shaved down for whatever reason.
To avoid situations like this, I recommend having a contract with the dog owner stating that you are the only one allowed to condition their dog’s coat and how often it must come to you to be cared for. The contract should also stipulate that the dog must be available on the necessary show dates, and that if veterinary care is needed, they will not shave the legs. In addition, if you are borrowing a breeder’s dog that is a female, it is important that she not be bred during the periods she will be needed for competition.
The other major challenge that is common to most competitive groomers is the expense. The cost of travel, being away from the shop and paying for borrowed dogs can be taxing, not only on your wallet but also on your time and energy. I remember all the sleepless nights bathing and re-preparing dogs for contests. I also remember all the free baths I gave to ensure the dogs were in the best possible shape before I ever got to the show.
What is the best part of the grooming competitions?
For many competitive groomers, the best part of competing is the opportunity to perfect their craft. They not only learn the ins and outs of working on each breed they select to compete on, they also truly discover the essence of the breed.
Personally, I always found that gaining a next-level understanding of a new breed kept me fresh and engaged. After every contest, I would take my judges’ critiques and review my groom, comparing it to the breed standard. Each judge has his or her interpretation of the breed standard, as well as preference for technique and finish. Competitive groomers can always learn something from every judge at every contest, and there is always another breed to master.
One of biggest things Heather Roozee has gotten from competitive grooming is that she has learned so much about not only dog grooming, but also herself. She has learned how to lose, take constructive criticism and come back and try again. She has made great friends, and the wins have improved her name and business at home immensely. Roozee says, “Even though I am just grooming pets, I have no doubt that competing and knowing structure helps me make my pet grooms a notch above my competitors.”
In addition to learning through competition, Boulton took advantage of the seminars offered at many of the trade shows that host contests, which enabled her to gain insight from some of the top professionals in the industry. Also, seeing all the new equipment available on the exhibition floor has always recharged her batteries and gotten her excited to return to her clients to share what she has learned.
When it came to ranking the best parts of competitive grooming, the camaraderie that can develop between groomers came in a close second. Most competitors have made long-lasting friendships in the contest arena.
However, some former competitors—like DiMarino—feel that the size and prize money associated with today’s contests have had an adverse effect on the positive spirit of competition among participants. For example, while many competitors find social media to be a wonderful way to keep in touch with new friends from the contest ring, some competitors have made bad choices and shared things that were not appropriate and were hurtful. This type of behavior is truly a waste of good energy. Our industry is small, and we need to do things to bring us together, not break us apart.
What is your goal related to grooming competitions?
DiMarino reached her ultimate goal in the competition ring when she was selected for the gold-medal GroomTeam USA in 1987. Describing the honor as “a thrill beyond belief,” she was ultimately a member of three gold-medal teams.
Boulton’s ultimate goal was realized this year, when she officially earned the No. 1 position on Groom Team Canada, an achievement that is a great source of pride.
Like many other competitors, Dekeersgieter focused on the most prestigious contest titles, like Intergroom’s World Champion Groomer. In 1997, she felt like she achieved her final goal.
For me it was the Oster Tournament of Champions, once the largest international competition with the most diverse competitors other than the World Championship, not to mention the biggest prize awarded at the time. After winning that, I knew it was time to move on.
For the majority of groomers who have competed at the top levels, the ultimate goal was to make their country’s groom team. After achieving that goal, many have turned their attention to giving back by sharing their knowledge and judging.
Lehmann gave up competing and started judging, but his real goal was to standardize the rules regarding competing classes and judging procedures across Europe, as well as establish a list of qualified judges. With some respected colleagues, he founded the European Grooming Association (EGA), which counts 15 national associations as its members and has more than 20 contests held under its rules, including the World Team Championship.
There are so many ways that competition grooming can open doors for you. The most obvious, which was mentioned by many of the groomers who I interviewed, is the positive effect it can have on your business. Grooming competitively has the power to enhance the quality of your work, your efficiency and your overall confidence.
And the benefits do not have to stop once you decide to leave the contest ring; many former competitors still get their grooming fix by preparing show dogs, breeding and handling at kennel club events. Many of us judge grooming contests and present seminars around the world, while others have written books and developed videos and educational materials.
While all of the questions above can go a long way in providing groomers with some insight into the world of competitive grooming, the most important question will always be, “Is this the right direction for you?”
Jump in and find out—and don’t forget to enjoy the experience along the way.
Christina Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. She is currently the National Training Manager for Oster Professional Products and produces grooming DVDs through her website GroomerWorks.com.