Dogs are one of the most physically diverse species on the planet. The differences between a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard, for example, seem obvious and significant. Yet, genetically they are almost identical with only three or so different genes between them out of tens of thousands.
Geneticists call this unique aspect of canine genetics a “big effect” when one or two single genes change something on a much larger scale. Such big effects are a relative rare occurrence—I am told by professional geneticists—and always inspire further investigation.
We humans look much more similar to each other as a species than dogs do, and yet we have many more differences at the genetic level—even between close family members. Almost certainly, this explains how humans have been able to so dramatically and quickly alter the appearance of the dog to suit our purposes.
THE DIFFERENCE IN DOGS
Dogs are very different from each other in appearance—especially in coat. Here is a good way to clearly observe the differences in dog coat types: Watch the finals in any AKC Dog Show, either in person or on television. All the recognized breeds compete in their seven groups: Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non–Sporting and Herding—competing for Best in Group. The seven group winners go on to compete for Best in Show. At a dog show, we grooming professionals can best see juxtaposed and on clear display each coat type correctly groomed for its function and its breed standard; the way it is supposed to look.
I believe that every professional groomer should attend a dog show at least once in their career. These diverse coat types, correctly groomed, are spectacular and inspiring! Seeing such beautiful and widely–varied coat types helps us to learn how that coat type served an important function for these dogs throughout our shared histories as co–evolved species.
Given this beautiful and fitting diversity in coat types in dogs, it is sometimes hard to understand why so many of us end up treating every coat type exactly the same—using all the same products, doing all the same shave–downs—no matter the unique history, needs or features of the dog’s coat on the table before us.
The terms “fur” and “hair” are clear and simple and can be used to distinguish the canine coat into two broad genetic categories: undetermined length (UDL) and pre–determined length (PDL). Once you explain these terms to your grooming clients, conversations about coat care become much easier.
I credit a fellow Chicago–area Certified Master Groomer, the great Billy Rafferty, for popularizing these terms. Billy owns the successful salon Doggy Dooz in Chicago but made his fame as “Oprah’s Groomer” on national television. In 2009 he published the acclaimed book Happy Dog for the dog–owning public. In his book, Rafferty suggests this helpful basic distinction about these two genetic categories of coat type as “fur types” and “hair types” to help their owners understand their unique needs.
The terms fur and hair are becoming more commonly used, as a simple internet search will reveal. Although some will define it as single versus double coat, which is causing some confusion. Any time we use such terminology we should be aware that this is more of a popular usage than a scientific description.
All pelage, or the hair, fur or wool that covers any mammal, is made purely of keratin. The only differences are in their genetic programming for texture, color, length and growing patterns. So, actually, hair and fur are just nicknames.
Regardless, I propose we go with these helpful terms. The more we groomers can standardize our professional terminology and create a jargon within our own ranks that we all universally speak and understand, the more like other highly–respected professionals such as doctors and lawyers we become. We will also be better able to communicate to our clients and each other.
While I have identified the fifteen coat types requiring different grooming strategies, we must first ask the broader question, “Is it fur or is it hair?” Once we know if a dog is a fur–type or hair–type, then other grooming decisions become much easier.
Fur is what the definitive veterinary skin and coat text, Muller & Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology, calls the “natural” or “normal” coat of dogs. It is genetically PDL, with a pre–set and pre–determined length. The bulk of coat over the dogs’ body grows to a certain length and stops. It sheds out its massive amounts of fast–growing undercoat seasonally. The major shedding seasons take place twice a year, in the months leading up to the summer and winter solstices, but they continuously shed throughout the year.
Fur–type coats in dogs are generally shorter, thicker and carry more dander than hair–type coats. They often come in two or three layers. Fur relies on the outer guard hairs which are the structure of the coat. These primary guard hairs make up the protective topcoat and support the more numerous but less substantive secondary insulating undercoat hairs. The primary guard hairs must be longer and sit well above the undercoat for nature’s ingenious shedding system to work.
This is why we should never clipper or shave these fur–type coats. Clippers do not distinguish between guard hairs or topcoat and undercoat—they just take it all off. Undercoat grows in and falls out much faster and will come back in a rage, thicker and more gnarled than ever, if the guard hairs or topcoat is also removed. These guard hairs, with long dormant periods in their growth, take many months or even years to come back—if they come back at all. Often if double–coated breeds are shaved, the primary hairs will stay dormant permanently, creating a lifelong disaster for the poor dog.
Dogs need these natural coats to protect their thin skin; the largest and most important organ in their bodies. Our job as groomers is to make sure we protect the critically important, slow–growing topcoat while assisting in de–shedding the undercoat. A good bath and condition, high velocity dryers, brushes and combs are all we need to help the fur–type dogs remove excess undercoat while protecting their needed topcoat.
Hair–type coats have a much slower growing cycle with much less shedding. These hairs are generally smoother, finer, longer and have fewer follicles per square inch. The primary and secondary hairs are often closer in length to each other, making deep combing before cutting even more important. These hair–type coats produce much less dander. The misnomer “hypoallergenic” is often wrongly applied by opportunistic breeders to these types of coat.
The hairs are uniquely distinguished by shape; both individual hairs and the shape of the follicle itself. When the hair is perfectly round and the follicles straighter, the hair hangs long and loose, such as with a Shih Tzu or a Yorkie. When the hair is oval or elliptically–shaped, and the follicle bent, it comes out wavy, such as with a Portuguese Water Dog. And when the hair is flattened on one side and the follicle twisted, the hair comes out curly, like a Poodle.
The hair–type coats shed less but they mat and tangle more. Our job as groomers with hair–type dogs is to clean and condition these coats, de–mat or de–tangle them, and trim the hair to an appropriate length, preferably at least one inch long.
Hair types are also the groomer’s artistic palette. Because hair grows and grows until we cut it, our trimming skills can shine, guided by breed standards, owners’ wishes and our creative vision.
THEY NEED US
Given the thin skin but thicker hair of all dogs, we know they rely entirely on their natural coats—whether they are fur or hair—to protect them from everything in the environment that can hurt them. Groomers well–trained in skin and coat are estheticians who nurture and care for the critical skin and coat of this wonderful canine species.
Whether to properly de–shed undercoat of the fur–type dogs while preserving their topcoat or de–mat and trim hair–type dogs, they all need our grooming expertise! ✂️