WORST   in   show

Dog grooming is ruff work, Corey discovers


By Corey Levitan

        It's a live dog, not a puppet. Yet my right hand is take-a-guess-where, searching for a pimple-like gland I'm told must be "expressed."

        When I arrived for work at Poodles are People, I expected to shave fur and get yipped at. I wasn't prepared to engage in the single most grotesque moment of my adventure-writing career.

        "You wanted to be a dog groomer," says owner Antoinette Gonzalez. "This is part of what we do."

        Gonzalez and three employees primp up to 40 dogs a day at her Lomita store. The regimen also includes services that can be mentioned at the dining-room table, such as shampooing, drying, fur cutting and nail clipping. Dog owners are charged by the hour. A Chihuahua can be as little as $12, a standard poodle as much as $85.

        All breeds are welcome at Poodles are People. Gonzalez purchased the store four years ago, when it already had an established name. The 38-year-old Torrance resident won't admit whether she thinks that poodles are really people, but the way she responds "You can't ask me that!" kind of gives it away.

        "I know, you're afraid," Poodles are People bather Karen Reto tells a Shelty named Heidi, who yelps and flails hysterically while noosed to a pole in the back room. Over her head, the nozzle of a dryer screams nearly as loud. It's attached by hose to a canister, like a car wash vacuum.

        "It's all right!" Reto says over and over. "You're a good girl!"

        Across the room, a Shih Tzu named Chase is not thrilled with his hot-air treatment, either. He's pawing viciously at the door of the glass cage that's heating him up like a doggie microwave.

        "Don't call it a microwave," says Reto. "It's not really a microwave."

        While waiting their turn, dogs dropped off at Poodles are People are kept in 24 stacked cages in the front room, where clipping is performed on tables that hydraulically raise and lower. Index cards clipped to the cages describe what needs to be done and the precautions to take.

        Kelly, a fluffy white poodle, requires a bite-preventing muzzle while getting her nails done.

        "Don't put your finger near her cage," Reto tells me. "I wouldn't trust her."

        Chase doesn't even like being talked to.

        "If you try, he'll growl at you," Reto says. "The last time I did him, he was really good until I went up to him and said, 'Good boy.' It was really weird."

        Some dogs hate being touched so much, Gonzalez has to turn them away at the door.

        "If you can't touch them and you can't put a muzzle on them, then they go to the veterinarian," she says, recalling one 150 lb. bad memory.

        "This German Shepherd was giving me the signals that it was a good dog, wagging its tail and acting excited," she says. "So I started to pet it. The next thing I knew, he swung his head around and chomped and blood was rushing down my arm."

        Gonzalez shows me the half-inch scar.

        "It was a real deep wound they wouldn't stitch because of the bacteria in the dog's mouth," she reports.

        Gonzalez says she'll still groom Shepherds, "but now I'm cautious."

        She doesn't like Scottish terriers, either, she adds.

        "In all reality, you can't trust any dog."

        Gonzalez never dreamed she'd ever be a dog groomer. She was studying to be a nurse when a girlfriend opened a grooming shop in Manhattan Beach.

        "So I became a dog bather for the longest time, helping her out, and then they had an opening for grooming," she says. "It kind of slapped me upside the head."

        My training begins on Gonzalez's dog, a rottweiler named Kiona.

        "She's a sweetheart," Gonzalez says. "Go ahead, pet her."

        Trust my dog/You can't trust any dog ... Trust my dog/You can't trust any dog.

        I feel like one of those computers in a bad "Star Trek" episode, that starts to smoke and self-destruct when issued conflicting orders.

        I put a hand out. It is not mistaken for five hairy Milk Bones, so I commence petting.

        "You won't have any problems," Gonzalez says, although I wonder why she bolts Kiona to a bathtub wall bracket by two separate leashes.

        The shampooing goes well -- until Kiona decides to do that doggie-shaking thing. Suds drip from my eyebrows.

        "Sorry!" Gonzalez says. "She's trained not to do that!"

        I assume Kiona is trained not to maul humans to death, either, which is not a comforting thought -- especially when I observe her reaction to the car-wash dryer. Those bolts suddenly come in handy.

        "Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Cujo growls. Nostrils flare and teeth gnash (and those are just mine).

        Gonzalez cracks up. She knew this would happen.

        "She hates the dryer!" she says.

        I have just experienced the dog-grooming world's equivalent of being Punk'd. If I were a celebrity, Ashton Kutcher would emerge from a van right about now.

        In reality, you can't trust any dog GROOMER.

        "It's OK," Gonzalez tells me. "She doesn't hate YOU!"

        Poodles are People employee Lindy Lekavich finishes Kiona as I am summoned to a dog more my speed, Pinky the Maltese. This harmless canine looks like a guinea pig wrestling with a novelty Beethoven wig. I am handed a wire brush and instructed to comb through her knotted fur.

        "No, against the grain," Gonzalez tells me. "And you have to be very careful those wires don't hit her eyes." (Lasik surgery is not part of the package.)

        Although she's shaking, Pinky remains quiet and motionless. (Moving dogs, sharp objects and goofy adventure columnists are a bad mix.) This stands in stark contrast to what's happening at the next table.

        The blow-out Chase received in the back is nothing compared to the blow-out he's having as Gonzalez targets the hair between his foot pads with an electric clipper.

        "Aooo-ooooh!" Chase moans like Old Yeller in the throes of rabies. He does several violent flips, managing to shake off both his muzzle and the noose holding him in place.

        Employees Reto, Lekavich and Valerie Ronan dart over to help give chase to Chase. Luckily, Gonzalez catches him as he flies off the table -- even though he's biting at everything in his vicinity.

        "There are some people who would just let the dog go when he's trying to bite you," she says later. "But a dog can break a leg that way, so I had to take the chance." (Fortunately, Gonzalez was unbitten.)

         All the commotion causes me nearly to forget Pinky. Running the scissors across an imaginary bowl, I create bangs that transform her into a white-haired Moe from the Three Stooges.

         There, she's poifict. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

         "No, you have to do the ears, too," Gonzalez says. Tufts of fur must be yanked out with tweezers, something I wouldn't even try on my own ear fur. Gonzalez demonstrates as I wince.

         With this, I thought I had truly come to know dog-anatomy revulsion. Then Gonzalez breaks the news to me about anal-gland expression. I had never heard of this. I feel like expressing out the door.

        "I thought only vets had to do that," says Daily Breeze photographer Bruce Hazelton.

        "Most big dogs will express that gland themselves, because they're so huge," Gonzalez explains. "But little dogs can't. We have to get it out -- otherwise it gets impacted and it'll burst and then you have to have surgery."

        This goes to prove my theory that small dogs are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. They're the result of inbreeding, for human entertainment, what were once big old wolves. Doing this destroys their ability to survive without us. (Gonzalez refuses to comment on the undeniable truth of my theory, perhaps concerned about upsetting her yip-dog clientele.)

        I watch Gonzalez go first, on Heidi the Shelty. Her fingers locate the anal gland. They press down, then something clay-like shoots across the bathtub. To say it smells like poop is to say that pepper spray smells like salsa.

        There has to be something wrong with someone who doesn't mind doing this every day.

        "It comes with the territory," Gonzalez says.

        My victim is named Gabby. She is shaking. So am I.

        She looks uncomfortably like Chase -- same breed, same coloring, but is just as docile as Chase is psycho. I'm reminded of another bad "Star Trek" episode, when the transporter went haywire and beamed back two copies of every living thing -- one good, one evil.

        I request a glove, like my own doctor wears with me. I get cackles instead.

        "You don't need a glove," Reto says. "You might want another T-shirt, though. If you don't do it right, you can get it in your face."

        Forget the glove; now I want a scuba suit. I have a party to attend after this assignment.

        More laughter ensues. I change into the best kind of T-shirt for expelling a dog's anal gland: someone else's. Gonzalez fetches me an apron decorated with happy pooches as I snare two rubber gloves from the sink area.

        I'll spare you any more details. Suffice to say that I'm unsuccessful. I prescribe some doggy prune juice.

        Gonzalez steps in and shows me the correct form. Of all the lessons imparted during my adventures, this is the one I hope comes in the least handy at a later date.

        Out in front, there is a welcome interruption. Redondo Beach resident Tricia King has come to pick up Pinky. I present the dog and ask King's opinion of her new bangs.

        "The bangs are pretty good," she says. "You did the bangs?"

        King is apparently a fan of the Three Stooges.

        Gonzalez is now flitting about the store, from terrier to terror, with frustrated intensity. Dealing with Chase, plus entertaining a reporter and a photographer, has set her way back in her schedule.

        "We're constantly racing against the clock," she says. "We give a three or four hour timeframe to groom a dog, but something that takes three minutes can turn into 20.

        "Deadlines are the worst thing about our day."

        Hmm, I think I can name something worse. I still smell it in my nightmares.


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