Groomer to Groomer

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Degree of Difficulty

Getting Down to Business

By Teri DiMarino

The 2013 competition season is off to a blazing start! It is the beginning of the new two-year GroomTeam USA term, and with a number of the “heavy-hitters” retiring from the competition ring, it could be anybody’s game going forward. There have already been a number of surprises in the ring with more to come, I’m sure. Many up-and-coming stars are filling out their entry forms, making their travel arrangements, and preparing their dogs for the big weekends. I would like to think that we will also be seeing a few “diamonds in the rough,” as well.

As a judge, I am often asked what it takes to win in the grooming contest ring. My answer is usually the same: planning, preparation, and the right dog. But it’s the line I often hear next that has always disturbed me: “It seems like the same people always win.” No! No, they don’t! People just don’t seem to notice them when they lose, and even if it is the “same people” having a good weekend, I’ll bet that they have “planned” that trip, “prepared” well for it, and have acquired “the right dogs.”

Please notice that I did not say “great dogs” or “show dogs.” While many of the successful competitors DO have a list of their favorite models, these dogs are not ready for all of the contests all of the time. Most contest rules call for at least six weeks of growth or enough hair to make an obvious difference in the dog’s appearance.

These groomers have spent years making connections with breeders, pet owners, and other groomers in an effort to get the best dogs they can for the contest ring. Many of them network with each other and reciprocate with “loaner dogs” when they can. Some shows actually have a list of owners, breeders, or fellow professionals who will “rent” their dogs for these contests.

Remember that these dogs must be kept “in coat” and in good condition until the contest. This can be quite a chore for the owner/groomer of a Poodle in show coat or a hand-stripped terrier. It is the wise competitor who always has a back-up dog. The quality of the dog can be a factor in how well a groomer does, but it is not the only aspect.

There are many factors that come into play when judging a grooming competition. Some of these issues weigh a bit heavier with some judges than with others, which is normal. The following are some of the things taken into consideration:

Breed Profile:

Does the groom fit the distinctions that set it apart from other breeds? For example, perhaps the competitor has totally shaved the topskull of that American Cocker with a #10. (Yes, I have seen that.) The breed standard calls for a domed topskull, thus the groomer has taken away one of the breed-specific trademarks that makes the groom a correct American Cocker groom.


How is the clipper work? Is the scissoring smooth and without choppiness? If it is a hand-stripped breed, has the work been done properly and without irritation to the dog? There should be no nicks, cuts, or abrasions on the dog. If the dog has sensitive skin and cannot handle the closeness of a #30 on the face, the competitor should tell the judge, as they would rather see the face taken with a #10 than see the dog irritated.


Perhaps the competitor has not bathed or dried their dog properly. This could affect the final groom. There is nothing worse for a judge than judging a dirty, matted dog.


Is the groom in harmony with itself? Does the dog appear heavy in the front, top heavy, or weak in the rear? If it sort of looks okay but there is just something wrong that you can’t put your finger on, it’s probably that the dog is out of balance.


Are all of the legs about the same size? Sometimes the left side of the dog looks completely different from the right. Is the topknot lopsided? Is one hip fuller than the other? Is the skirt higher on the left side of the dog?

Last but certainly not least…

Degree of Difficulty:

The degree of difficulty has been a final decision-maker in many contests. All things being equal, more often than not, the difficulty factor gets the final nod. Difficulty can show its face in many segments of the groom, and before we can make a judgment, we have to understand just what constitutes a degree of difficulty.

As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, “all things being equal…” By this I mean that there may be equally well groomed dogs in the class. They may all have “issues,” as total perfection under the pressure of a contest can be elusive, but one groom may not be any better or worse than another. Which factor will the judge pull into play in their decision-making process?

Judges are often presented with a plethora of variables among the competitor’s models, and these variables are taken into account. Some groomers enter the ring with more coat than others. Others may bring in a dog that appears to be already finished. Having too little coat can be just as big a handicap as a dog with too much, as one wrong snip with the scissor can put an irreparable hole in the dog’s coat.

Judges also look at the amount of hair on the floor. For example, in an All Other Purebred Class, two equally well groomed dogs may have equal amounts of hair on the floor, except one is a Bichon and the other is a Portuguese Water Dog. That verifies that the PWD groomer tipped their dog’s hair, while the Bichon’s groomer had a bit more work to do. This is, after all, a grooming contest. Barkleigh shows take before and after photographs of the entries, making any change (or lack of change) very apparent.

A common statement judges hear is that all of the dogs in the ring are show dogs, and that’s why some groomers always win. Nothing could be further from the truth. While some of the dogs in the ring are retired (or active) show dogs, many of them are not. Some dogs have physical issues that the groomer has to deal with or disguise, like a roach or sway topline, ewe necks, or poorly set tails to name a few.

And let’s face it. Just because a dog was in the show ring doesn’t mean he’s physically sound. Sometimes a groomer may take a nicely built dog and make them look cow-hocked or long in body, giving the dog faults he doesn’t really have, or they do nothing to hide the dog’s existing faults, making them look worse. Camouflage grooming and dealing with the physical shortcomings of these pets should be practiced daily in our salons as part of good grooming procedure. A physically superior dog up against an equally well groomed dog with problems separates the experienced groomer from the novice, and fixing these problems is often rewarded with a higher placement.

Some stylists may have a very difficult coat to work with, like the soft coat of a young mixed breed or the “bulletproof” coat of a Doodle. Others may discover that their hand-strip dog is blowing coat. Or perhaps the coat won’t pull. Coat type, texture, and preparation are all checked during the pre-judge. While the judge can feel the coat for themselves, it is the wise groomer who takes advantage of the pre-judge time to point out issues like poor coat, coat damage, or other physical problems.

And then there is the groomer who enters the ring with a totally strange dog that they just may have met ringside for the first time. Perhaps it’s a “rented” dog, and it may be a less-than-stellar example of the breed. Maybe the dog is missing or lacking coat. The contestant may not have had an opportunity to get his nails as short as they would like. The dog’s ears may need a last-minute swabbing. They may need to spray and brush out the coat before starting the groom just to get it to behave under the scissor. This sort of difficulty is one we all deal with on a daily basis: taking in a new customer and making him look nice. This degree of difficulty has been a deciding factor in many a contest. Upon entering the ring, most judges will ask, “Have you groomed this dog before?” At the end of the day, this one element may make the Best in Show difference in a ring full of beautifully groomed dogs.

Judging a grooming contest is no easy task, and now I have just listed a number of variables that will really get you thinking next time you are watching Barkleigh’s GroomerTV. “Ringside judging” is always easy, but please understand that there are so many hidden things beneath the hair, which are not seen by the spectators. Sometimes it’s what you can’t see that decides who the winner is.

See you ringside. ✂