Caring for and conditioning drop-coated breeds takes an ongoing commitment to mastering and maintaining proper grooming skills.
President Calvin Coolidge wrote, "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Persistence, determination and hard work makes the difference." While it is unlikely he had dogs in mind when he wrote it, his words can easily reflect the commitment required to groom and exhibit drop-coated breeds at a national level.
To successfully compete at the group or Best-in-Show level, experts say owners and handlers can develop their own winning edge by understanding the prerequisites involved with grooming, maintaining and conditioning these demanding and delicate coats. It isn't difficult, but it does require some basic knowledge, patience, commitment and, above all, persistence.
While the origin of the term "drop coated" is unknown, most owners and handlers say it refers to those breeds - including the Bearded Collie, Skye Terrier, Maltese, Shih Tzu, Yorkshire Terrier, Lhasa Apso and Silky Terrier - on which the coat falls over the sides of the body to the ground or, if not entirely, almost to the ground.
Keeping Up Appearances
What makes drop-coated breeds difficult to groom is that their hair is highly susceptible to damage and breakage caused by harsh shampoos, excessive blow-drying and exposure to environmental elements. A damaged coat, say the experts, can take anywhere from a month to a year to repair - a discouraging prospect for those competing at a national level. Therefore, every aspect - from brushing and bathing to housing and kennel conditions - requires special attention in order to maintain these sensitive yet exquisite coats.
The most important aspect of grooming drop-coated breeds, according to multigroup judge and 35-year veteran of the sport Peggy Hogg, is to establish a daily routine and stick to it. When competing at a national level, you must set aside enough time every day to groom and check for mats. "The Maltese standard," says Hogg, "calls for a mantle of long, silky white hair. That's their trademark. You don't get that unless you really work at it. It must be a labor of love. Otherwise, grooming would be sheer torture."
Luke Ehricht, a professional handler with over 200 Best-in-Show wins, concurs. "If you want them in top condition," says Ehricht, "there are absolutely no shortcuts and no slacking off. These are not dogs you can groom perfectly and then say, 'I'm not going to groom this week and then pick it up the following week.' The damage that can be done by not doing it regularly is very noticeable." If you decide not to brush your dog for two weeks and it mats up, depending on the damage, you may be looking at an entire year to grow out a new coat.
Effective brushing begins with using the proper tools. Both Hogg and Ehricht prefer a soft, metal-pin brush on a rubber-cushioned base, one in which the pins will give and not break the hair. Depending on the dog, soft, natural bristle brushes and Greyhound combs also work well. Neither recommend a slicker brush, as it can break the hair.
Regular brushing stimulates circulation and aids in the distribution of natural oils, bringing out the natural shine and luster of a coat. However, Ehricht stresses there is most definitely a right and wrong way to brush a drop-coated breed. To keep the damage to a minimum, Ehricht suggests following strict guidelines that include brushing only a clean, well-misted coat, brushing only in the direction of the hair growth, brushing in sectioned layers, and brushing the entire length of hair without flicking the brush at the end.
Secrets of Proper Shampooing
Shampoos and conditioners can either enhance and compliment individual coats or detract and depreciate them by stripping them of natural oils, weighing them down or gumming them up. Selecting the right products involves much trial and error, coupled with personal preference. Some owners and handlers use a diluted mixture of shampoos and conditioners designed for humans. Others, including professional handler David Fitzpatrick, prefer shampoos and conditioners designed specifically for the pH levels of dog coats.
Fitzpatrick, a 28-year veteran of dogs with over 150 Best-in-Show wins, uses a super-cleaning shampoo, as well as a product designed for whitening, to keep his Maltese coats flat. For some of his other dogs, however, he prefers a very mild shampoo that won't strip the natural oils and will keep the coat looking alive.
In addition, experts note there are specific coat textures each breed should have - yet not all dogs have them. The right conditioner can help keep the dog's coat looking and feeling like it should according to the standard. "You can't just say, 'For this breed you use this shampoo and for that breed you use that conditioner.' It's very individual to the dog," says Ehricht.
For instance, if you have a Yorkie with a silky coat, Ehricht suggests a minimal amount of conditioner, otherwise you'll end up with a dog that is very greasy-looking, since Yorkies tend to have a lot of natural oils in their coat. However, if you have a woolly-coated Yorkie, your goal would be a conditioner that makes the coat look silkier. On the other hand, a Lhasa Apso that has a heavy, textured undercoat and a coarse outercoat would require a conditioner for some shine and to eliminate static, yet not so much as to soften the coat.
Furthermore, a Shih Tzu with a 50/50 coat (half undercoat, half outercoat) would need a conditioner to keep the coat manageable and straight but not gummy, a conditioner that will work with the two different coat textures involved. For a Shih Tzu with very little undercoat, you would use less conditioner because your goal is to make the coat look fuller. For the Shih Tzu with a really big coat, you use more conditioner to make it lay better.
As with brushing, blow-drying can enhance or diminish the final result. The goal, according to Hogg, is to get the hair to lay flat against the body. "To prevent the hair from air drying," explains Hogg, "I like to wrap my dog in a towel to keep damp those sections of hair I'm not working on." To achieve the flat coat that lays properly, Hogg says it is important to blow-dry the hair in the direction you want it to lay.
No Place Like Home
In addition to consistent grooming, dogs need plenty of exercise, fresh air and natural light to maintain their mental health as well as their muscle tone. However, some dogs naturally excel at getting into mischief by tugging their topknots and stepping on, running off or breaking off their coats. To minimize damage to drop coats, the correct setup of house and kennel is essential, say the experts.
According to Ehricht, the nylon in carpet breaks the ends of the hair, as do some types of concretes, pavements, grasses and gravel flooring. Therefore, vinyl, tile or wood floors are popular with breeders, owners and handlers of drop-coated breeds. For those wanting house dogs plus mature show coats, a lifestyle change more conducive to the dogs might be in order.
Such was the case with Ehricht and his wife, Diane, also a professional handler. The couple remodeled their house, installing wood, tile and linoleum floors for the dogs. "We do have some carpeted areas," explains Ehricht, "but those areas are off limits to the dogs."
Several years ago, Ehricht happened upon a pigpen on an old farm where he found the ideal flooring for his outdoor kennels. "It's a rubber-coated quarter-inch meshing," says Ehricht. "It is very soft and the meshing is small enough to prevent the dogs' feet from falling through it. Yet, it is open and airy and, when installed in a raised kennel situation, it prevents the water and moisture from pooling so the dogs are never in wetness."
When his dogs are in show coat, Ehricht tries to exhibit them for two days on one bathing. However, he notes that some showgrounds are not conducive to showing drop-coated breeds. For instance, one show was held in a recently mowed hay field. The result after one pass around the ring was a dog that resembled a haystack. Another show, Ehricht recalls, was held in an old factory. His dogs' coats absorbed the grease and motor oil from the concrete floor and it took three washings to make the dogs presentable.
"With the amount of time it takes to prepare a dog and the amount of damage that type of environment can do to the coat - it's really not worth it," says Ehricht. "If it's going to take a month to repair the damage that will happen over the period of one weekend at a show that is in a bad location, that's not worth it to me. There are enough shows to choose from that you shouldn't have to show in those conditions."
Wrapping It Up
Body wrapping techniques are frequently employed as a preventative measure on some breeds, such as the Maltese and Yorkie, and as an alternative to home remodeling. "Wrapping," says Fitzpatrick, "basically involves sectioning parts of the dog's hair and banding it with paper and rubber bands. Wrapping is done both for hygienic reasons - to keep urine and feces, as well as food, away from the hair - and as a form of prevention to protect the ends of the coat from breaking off on harsh flooring.
"Generally," Fitzpatrick continues, "the Maltese and the Yorkshire Terrier are the two drop-coated breeds that are body-wrapped, while the Lhasa Apso and Shih Tzu typically have just a topknot and their faces wrapped." Fitzpatrick notes, however, there are always exceptions depending on the dog and the owner or handler.
Fitzpatrick keeps his dogs wrapped from three to five days at a time. "Most dogs," he says, "can go three days and some can go five days. But we check the faces every day to make sure the hair hasn't come loose from the wrap and become twisted around the wrapping band." In addition, Fitzpatrick checks the face wraps to make sure there is no hair poking in the dogs eyes and to prevent mats from forming inside the wrap. "Checking the face daily," says Fitzpatrick, "is really an observation program where you're trying to prevent something from happening before it starts."
The most important thing, of course, is to get started. Hogg encourages newcomers to buy dogs from responsible breeders, as they are the people most likely to pass on grooming techniques and trade secrets, as well as the history of grooming; experienced exhibitors should look to their own grooming gurus, their mentors. Even if you have to pay a professional handler to show you the ins and outs of grooming, says Hogg, it is money well spent.
Written by Tracy Libby who is a free-lance writer from Sunriver, Ore. She competes in conformation and obedience with her Australian Shepherds. Reprinted from the AKC Gazette.