The very subject of mats and tangles or de-matting dogs can induce silent screams in many groomers. Certain dogs’ coats are more prone to matting than others, and it seems like it is always hard work for us and not much fun for the dog, either.
Let’s face it…this is not the most inspirational aspect of our work. However, there are ways to greatly reduce your mat-induced stress by learning to work with a dog’s natural coat, not against it. This can be one of the most important skills groomers can possess. These little-known but tried-and-true methods of removing mats work amazingly well, and with minimal effort on our part and no pain on the dog’s part.
Determine the Coat Type
Deciding on the best approach for a matted dog begins by determining whether that dog has a “Fur”-type coat (predetermined length or PDL; hair that grows to a certain length and stops), which would include your Golden Retrievers, Labs, German Shepherds, etc., or if it is a “Hair”-type coat (undetermined length or UDL; hair that grows and grows until it is cut or breaks), which would be your Poodles, Shih Tzus, Yorkies, etc. Whatever the hair/fur is doing on the upper torso, or jacket, is critical in determining its coat type.
Once the fur or hair determination has been made, the conversation with the pet owner becomes less complicated. A grooming schedule can be set with fur-type dogs scheduled around the predictably more intensive shedding months of the year. Hair-type dogs can be scheduled based on the owner’s length preference and lifestyle, and the puberty coat change that can lead to intense matting and tangling virtually overnight can also be discussed.
Isn’t Shaving Easier?
Dogs aren’t like humans whose hair can eventually grow back following a bad haircut. Groomers are in the coat protection business—not the coat destroying business. While simply shaving a dog down might seem like less hassle in the short term, in the long run, shaving is almost always not the best approach. There are several reasons why all groomers should prioritize protecting and restoring a dog’s natural coat.
First, scientific studies have confirmed that the thin-skinned dog relies entirely on its much more extensive fur/hair coat for protection. Coat and skin are described in veterinary dermatology textbooks as having eighteen important functions for all dogs, including hydration, nutrient storage, immune support, thermoregulation and other vital protections from diverse external threats.
Chief among these threats are cancers caused by sunshine and ultra-violet light reaching the dog’s skin. Dogs need their natural coats to protect their skin’s Langerhans cells (part of their immune system) which can die or become cancerous when exposed to direct light of any kind. Dog cancers have dramatically increased in recent decades and sun exposure to skin is paramount among the causes. This reason alone is enough to help caring groomers commit to never shaving a dog for any reason except medical or otherwise under veterinary supervision. Even then they must be clothed, covered with sunscreen or kept inside until they have adequately grown back enough coat.
There are other threats to a dog’s health if their protective coat is removed—many of them microscopic. Shaved dogs are more likely to have a host of other issues such as parasites, injuries, infections, fungus and more.
Most importantly, fur-type coats cannot be shaved (especially on the jacket or upper-torso area) without doing permanent damage to the coat. Unlike hair-type dogs, the genetic programming of their follicles and growth cycles differs between the topcoat and undercoat. Because shaving does not differentiate between the two, a shaved coat can’t grow back the same as before after being shaved.
Hair-type coats can usually be cut shorter if medically necessary without permanent damage, but the above cautions about staying out of the sun and being protected from other environmental threats should be carefully observed. I never go shorter than a #4 blade, and then only if necessary.
De-matting of a Hair-Type Coat
Fur- and hair-type coats are de-matted differently, and using the following steps can make the job easier for you and painless for the dog. Remember to keep track of the extra time de-matting takes and charge for it!
Let’s use as a hair-type matted coat example of a combination-coated Bernedoodle. They are, as many doodles are, a cross between fur and hair types and, therefore, highly prone to matting. During puberty, this heavy hair-type coat can get extremely matted very quickly, especially if they get wet.
All the sensitive areas—behind ears, under armpits, feet and sanitary regions—can be clipped short, as needed. The goal here is to save the jacket area, torso, neck, and top and sides of the head, and keep as much on the legs as possible to protect the dog and give the owner the look they love about their dog.
Step One: Pre-scissor all the matted areas down to anywhere from a half inch to one inch in length from the body. The thicker the hair and the tighter the mats, the closer to the skin you must go, but you only need to cut off the top half of all the mats. After finishing this step, there will still be mats on the dog, but they are open on the top and are shorter.
Don’t use your best finish scissors to do this! I always keep a set of big old “hack-off-the-mats” scissors for this kind of work.
Step Two: Pre-condition by wetting down the dog in the tub and slathering them with lots of creamy conditioner. Work it into the coat and massage it down to the skin. After massaging it in, let it soak for 10 minutes or more, depending on the thickness of the coat and the severity of the mats. Remember to charge for the extra conditioner you will be using!
Step Three: Bathe as normal with a gentle shampoo, rinse thoroughly and generously apply conditioner again.
Step Four: Use your high-velocity dryer while the coat is soaking in conditioner as close to the skin and mats as the dog will tolerate. Remember to always wear hearing protection and have the dog’s ears covered in a hoodie when using a high-velocity dryer. Hold the dryer perpendicular, at a 90-degree angle, to the pre-scissored, open-topped, conditioned mat and watch it fall apart!
Step Five: Final Rinse, blow dry and brush out as normal. The formerly matted hair-type coat can be easily brushed and groomed without having to brush so hard that the skin might be injured. The pre-scissoring on the mats will leave the coat uneven but you can even it up by running a guard comb through once it’s all brushed out.
The key to this whole de-matting process on a hair-type dog is the pre-scissoring to open the mat and then soaking it in conditioner.
De-Matting of a Fur-Type Coat
Heavy matting in shedding, fur-type breeds is very different from what happens in hair-type dogs. Hair-type coats genuinely knot up, but fur-type coats always have two parts to them: the topcoat (or guard hairs) and the insulating undercoat made up of wooly secondary hairs that shed out rapidly multiple times a year.
Our job with a fur-type coat is to protect the outer topcoat while freeing the undercoat which has already been released from the skin but hasn’t been able to shed out on its own because it has become tangled. Remember, on a fur-type dog the matting is in the undercoat, not the topcoat.
Let’s use as our example a heavily matted Bernese Mountain dog. This is a fur-type shedding coat, but if the dog is very old, young, very active, neglected or a swimmer, this undercoat can get badly entangled and not shed out as it normally would. The wooly undercoat can even sit tight against the skin and form an interlocking pelt. Long-term neglect can cause this to harden and feel like it is impenetrable, but it is not—I promise!
Step One: Pre-condition by wetting down the dog in the tub and slathering them with lots of creamy conditioner. Massage it in deeply, all the way to the skin. Let it soak for 10 minutes or more, depending on thickness of the coat and the amount of pelted undercoat.
Step Two: Blow in the soaking conditioner with the high-velocity dryer as close to the skin as the dog will tolerate, holding it perpendicular to the skin. This will help the conditioner penetrate the matted undercoat and reach to the skin. Blow thoroughly wherever the undercoat is matted.
Step Three: Bathe as normal using gentle shampoo and rinse thoroughly.
Step Four: Use your high-velocity dryer between shampoo and conditioner. The shampoo will open the hair shaft cuticle a bit which will enable the air from the high-velocity dryer to better “grab” the entangled undercoat. Point the nozzle of the dryer at a 90-degree angle, perpendicular to the skin, as close to the skin as the dog will tolerate. The goal here is to get the forced air to lift the matted undercoat away from the skin. Remember, the matted undercoat has already released from the hair follicle so the air should lift the pelted undercoat away from the skin, even if only a quarter inch. Then you will easily be able to use your mat splitter to slice the mats open.
Step Five: Final condition, split mats apart as needed and continue to dry. Fur-type coats let go of their matted undercoat very easily, but if the pelted undercoat is substantial and resistant, you can take a mat splitter and break it apart into smaller chunks. Splitting them apart helps the dryer lift the pelted mats away from the skin where they can be brushed out easily.
Charge for your extra time and feel good that you have protected that fur-type dog’s vital protective topcoat for its lifetime, while painlessly removing the matted undercoat.
The Customer Conversation
Engage the matted dog’s owner in an educational conversation about the cause of the mats. Is it neglect and far too infrequent professional grooming? What about exposure to water? When hair- and longer fur-type coats get wet and are left to dry naturally, they will mat up tightly and quickly.
As you talk to your clients, focus your talking points on what is best for that dog’s coat type. Explain the steps that you will have to take, and the time and expense involved in doing what is right for the dog. Make it clear to the owner in a sympathetic and educational tone that, in addition to frequency of their grooming appointments, the dog’s coat type and their lifestyle choices are central to what the costs of de-matting will be. Agree to help them out the first time, but then mandate a regular prevention grooming schedule going forward. Taking a few minutes for customer education is well worth your time.
Ask them about the optimal length to cut a hair-type coat for their preference and lifestyle. Given their goals, how often should they be coming to you? What should the owner do and what tools should they have at home? Carry the tools you recommend in retail and train customers to use them correctly, and always record the dog’s matting history in your software or files.
Many groomers are beginning to charge for grooming services based on their time rather than flat rates. Calculate your cost of being in business and know what you must pay yourself and staff (if you have any) so you know how much you need to make per hour and how much to charge for de-matting by the minute. My shop upcharges based on the extra time it takes for de-matting or extra seasonal de-shedding services on top of the base full-groom price.
All dogs of all coat types should be put on a regular, preferably mandatory, grooming schedule. This is especially easier now that the “pandemic puppy” population explosion has highlighted our importance with so many new dog owners having trouble accessing a good groomer. Be bold in requiring them to either stay on a schedule or look for a different groomer.
Groomers are increasingly requiring regular schedules and charging for extra time to de-mat so that we can protect their dog’s skin and coat. Education and prevention are clearly the best ways to deal with the matting problem before it starts. ✂️