Learning the Craft
Great professional groomers aren’t born; they are made. Of course, natural talent does play an important role, as it will in any craft. However, it is more often the lessons learned through some type of structured educational process that define a true professional in the grooming world and ultimately positions them for success.
There are several different ways that someone interested in building a career in pet grooming can obtain this type of structured education. They can apprentice to a successful journeyman, learn to groom dogs for the show ring and then cross over to pet grooming, or attend a formal grooming school (either on site or via distance learning). Each of these options has inherent benefits and drawbacks, and what may be the best option for one prospective groomer might not be a great fit for another. However, all of them hold the potential to produce competent professionals, as evidenced by the variety of success stories that can be found throughout the grooming industry.
If you are someone who learns best by being shown what to do and then doing it, apprenticing may be the ideal choice for gaining a grooming education. Today’s-on-the-job training includes a paycheck, making it a viable way to learn the craft for those who cannot travel away from home to attend a grooming school.
There are also benefits to the employer in an apprenticeship, whether it is formal or informal. Even a graduate of the best grooming school must be trained to do things in the way a particular salon prefers, but if they’ve been trained in the salon, that’s how they learn to work from the get-go.
Daryl Conner, Master Pet Stylist Meritus, Certified Master Cat Groomer, popular speaker and winner of multiple Cardinal Crystal awards, chose the apprentice route. She knew she could not afford to go to school or take the time to travel to one, so she called every veterinarian in town and asked who the best groomer was—an excellent means of research. Then, she says, “I showed up at Diana Rutherford’s kennel and begged her to train me. I spent months scooping poop and bathing dogs for a nominal fee before she began to teach me, one breed at a time, starting with cockers.”
Conner worked for a few years learning on the job and filling in any gaps by going to dog shows and reading books. A common theme among the professional groomers surveyed for this article is continuing education. No one at the top of his or her craft ever stops learning, including Conner, who says, “Diana Rutherford gave me an excellent start, and I continue learning to this day.”
A potential disadvantage of the apprentice system is that the learning may be more haphazard than the training a school can provide, as it depends on regularly booked grooming appointments. The curriculum at most large schools can be organized into bath dogs, clippered dogs, scissoring or other categories, since grooming is often discounted and there is a more flexible pool of practice animals. In addition, animal husbandry, coat and skin health, and first aid are subjects that, for many, are better learned first in a classroom rather than as they occur.
Show Dog Grooming
Scott Wasserman, Master Pet Stylist Meritus, director of education at LaBest Academy of Animal Arts in Edwardsville, Ill., multiple Cardinal Crystal Award winner and known to many in the trade as “Mr. Terrier,” learned to groom on show Airedales, then moved on to apprentice with two of the top professional terrier handlers. He rounded out his grooming skills by working with a poodle handler.
So, how did he end up grooming pet dogs?
“It was a way to make a decent living doing what I loved,” says Wasserman. “But it started when a friend of mine from dog shows got a catalog in the mail about the New England Pet Grooming Professionals contest in 1992. I thought it sounded like fun. I groomed a hand-stripped Airedale, a standard poodle and a mixed breed. I won first-place with the Airedale and third-place with the mixed breed. That earned me the Best All Around Groomer award in the B division, and I was hooked.”
Sue Zecco, CMG, NCMG, international grooming competition judge and speaker, former GroomTeam competitor and multiple Cardinal Crystal Award winner, learned to groom right out of high school. She knew she wanted to do something with animals and heard about an animal care program at Holliston Junior College. Although the hands-on learning was limited, after completing the course, she opened The Pampered Pet Grooming Salon in 1977. She bought every book on grooming she could find, and if anyone called with a breed that was new to her, she just followed the instructions step by step.
When the Massachusetts Association of Professional Groomers (now New England Pet Grooming Professionals) started, she began going to the organization’s seminars and competing in its grooming events. The purchase of a poodle to use for competition put her on the path toward the show ring and further fine-tuning her talents. “I’m very grateful that the instructor in the animal-care course was so picky,” says Zecco. “She taught me to be that way about my work.”
Zecco’s advice to those seeking the best way to learn to groom is to make sure you are learning from someone who excels at the craft. “They have to be up to date on styles, techniques and equipment—everything,” she says. “If you can find someone that has gone the competition or show route, that is great, but every school is only as good as its instructors.”
Gregg Docktor, director and owner of Merryfield School of Pet Grooming in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agrees that good instructors who stay up to date on the latest developments in the grooming industry are what students should look for in a grooming school. And he believes that it is the quality of his school’s instructors that puts it at the head of the pack. Irina Pinkusevich, NCMG, well-known competitor, GroomTeam member and Cardinal Crystal Award winner, is a prominent member of Merryfield’s staff of instructors, all of which have certifications or come from a show background.
Melissa Verplank, CMG, speaker, judge, former member of GroomTeam and author of Notes From the Grooming Table, is also the founder and CEO of Paragon School of Pet Grooming in Jenison, Mich. She learned to groom using what can only be called the sink-or-swim method. “When I was 18, I’d bathed and helped a little with the grooming at a kennel,” she says. “One day, the groomer got fired. The boss called and said, ‘You’re the new groomer,’ and gave me a book.” Verplank took on the challenge, reading various grooming magazines and books, and perusing pictures of show dogs to improve her skills.
Verplank’s Paragon School of Pet Grooming provides a more straight-forward approach to learning, offering various programs to suit any groomer or aspiring groomer’s needs. These onsite, hands-on programs run the gamut from an all-breed 600-hour career course, to one covering the basics in 240 hours, to an 80-hour brusher/bather program. In addition, established professionals can come and fine-tune their skills for competition or certification, or just work on a specific issue for a day.
Because everyone’s needs are different, the Paragon School of Pet Grooming also caters to those whose situation does not allow them to attend the physical school. Paragon offers home-study programs that parallel the hands-on courses. Students provide their own dogs to work on and send in pictures for critique. They are given the option of purchasing DVDs or of signing up for Learn2GroomDogs.com, which is a series of streaming videos on the Internet.
A relatively new addition to the rank and file of grooming schools is Animal Behavior College, which recently added a pet-grooming program to its course offerings. Steve Appelbaum, president of the school, says the program takes a well-rounded approach that combines distance learning with first-hand experience. “If distance was just as good [as hands-on learning], a book and a video would make you a groomer,” he says. “That’s why we modeled the grooming program after our successful dog training program and combined the two methods, in-home and hands-on.”
Animal Behavior College’s grooming students must successfully complete a 100-hour externship at an approved grooming salon, in addition to passing the course study requirements that include written guides and some of Zecco’s and Jay Scruggs’ Super Styling Sessions breed videos. Appelbaum believes that distance learning is appealing because it is convenient, and it is often more affordable than many brick and mortar schools.
But does distance learning work? The consensus seems to be that although nothing quite replaces supervised hands-on learning, a motivated student can acquire much of the knowledge they will need from a good distance course.
According to Zecco, distance learning is a good way for those who already understand the basics of grooming to touch up and broaden their skills; but to learn from scratch, she recommends going hands-on if possible.
Carla Bagley, is a groomer in St. George, New Brunswick, who chose to go with hands-on training—a choice she is very happy about. She later took an online course from Nash Academy on terriers and loved it, but says that her previous first-hand experience proved invaluable.
“It was very informative and detailed, which was great for fine tuning, but you had to already know how to groom,” she says. “Some students had only taken online courses and were finding it very difficult. If you had a lot of drive, you could learn online. But it would be so much harder than watching someone [demonstrate] and then correct your work—and it would be much slower. If you don’t have a foundation, you don’t have a house.”
Finding a Quality Program
Donna Gamelin, a career school expert and former director of admissions at Pedigree Career Institute (a former grooming school) has some valuable advice on how to select a good grooming school. “Whether you are a prospective student or an employer considering hiring a graduate of a school, choose only institutions that have met national accreditation standards,” she says.
There are several organizations that provide accreditation to schools. Some are regional while others are national, but all require that schools meet certain standards to receive accreditation. “Only nationally accredited schools are eligible for Title 4 funding, which means federal financial aid and can include low-cost student loans, scholarships, and outright grants. It’s not a foolproof method of selection, as a school can be an A level or a C level, just as students can vary, but it shows that their structure meets external standards. Curriculum, staff qualifications, materials and everything else that has to do with creating a successful graduate is evaluated.”
Most of the industry experts surveyed for this article gave similar advice. Additional suggestions included:
Ask respected groomers for their grooming school recommendations. (Internet forums are another great place to look for recommendations.)
Consider student/instructor ratios to make sure individual attention is available.
Check with the Better Business Bureau and the state education commission to make sure no complaints have been filed.
It is also important to ask the school how active its instructors are in attending grooming seminars and trade shows, competing or going to dog shows. “Learning is a continuing process that should never stop, for schools as well as students,” says Verplank. “Just as groomers should continue their education whenever possible, schools need to reevaluate curriculum and recreate it to keep up with what’s current. As long as someone current and active in the industry helps keep the curriculum up to date, you are in good shape.”
Remember that any school or learning program is worth exactly what the student puts into it. Some students enter with a will to learn and a willingness to go above and beyond the curriculum requirements; these are the ones that will excel. Some are simply satisfied with going through the motions, and that’s exactly the sort of employee they will end up being. Schools can only provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful; how well they utilize those tools is up to the individual.
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