“Please don’t make him look like a Poodle.” This is a line that just about every professional pet stylist has heard at one time or another. People will bring in a Shih Tzu or Maltese and still comment that they don’t want their dog coming home “looking like a poodle.” Frankly, I can’t think of many things better looking than a well groomed poodle and I will never understand what the customer is picturing their dog will look like if they don’t say that. As much as this frustrates many of us, we just have to put on our best ‘listening ears’ and assure the client that their request will be honored.

But every now and then I would ask a client exactly what they mean by that statement. Most say “I don’t want the puffs or the foofoo look.” As professionals, it’s our job to translate “foofoo” into something more meaningful, like “OK, so you don’t want pompoms, right? How about a nice puppy cut?” (Insert sarcastic grin here)

Poodle styles have changed dramatically over time; most significantly in the past twenty years. I love taking out some of the old books and perusing the photos of the older trims. I soon realize that this is usually what the customer is probably trying to avoid. What many people think of when they hear the word “Poodle” is foofoo and pompoms. Could this “branding” be one of the reasons behind the dramatic increase of poodle cross breeds? Do some people actually think that a poodle is born with well-trimmed bracelets or sporting a Continental? I guess the logic is that if you cross a poodle with a Labrador (or anything else, for that matter) they become immune to “looking like a poodle.” But we can beat this topic forever, so let’s move on!

A Brief History 

The subject of the evolution of traditional poodle trims could fill volumes and each explanation would be questioned or contested by countless more stories. A fun internet site to visit is www.poodlehistory.org. This site is full of pictures, essays and history of the poodle breed, as well as an insightful section on the development of our modern grooming practices. It’s safe to say that poodle trims evolved over hundreds of years, stemming from the practical to the preposterous. Most of the older styles were utilitarian trims, intended to keep the dog fairly well insulated in the body for their water retrieving ventures, while the close clipped rear facilitated swimming without the hindrance of coat. The bracelets were smaller and functional in that they kept brambles and burrs from digging into the dogs’ legs during the hunt. Once the dogs began hitting the show ring, the traditional trims remained but eventually developed into the highly refined styles we have today. I think we can all agree that we would be hard pressed to see one of today’s show champions participating in retrieving exercises or the sport of dock-diving while in full show coat. I have no doubt that the shaved neck bands of trims like the Town & Country, Royal Dutch or Sweetheart patterns probably came about as a result of matted neck coat being shaved off, but an effort was made to retain the remainder of the coat in some sort of attractive, somewhat balanced trim.

Banded Patterns in the Contest Ring

The older, banded style poodle trims were once the standard in the grooming salon as well as the competition ring. Lamb or Puppy trims were thought of as plain and boring, and it was deemed a sign of true talent if a groomer executed a properly set banded pattern. Bonus points were usually considered if the groomer set the pattern in from scratch on an overgrown dog. We would often joke in the ring that some judges would give a first place if you took ten pounds of chopped liver and set the pattern in the ring. So popular were these trims that an early phase of the certification process included setting a banded pattern on a dog. But many times these banded trims were executed with a total disregard for the conformation of the dog. A Town & Country would do nothing but accentuate the roach back of some dogs, while a neck band on a dog with poor shoulders or an ewe neck would do nothing but draw attention to the problem. And a Continental or English Saddle was rarely seen in the contest ring. But we did see the occasional HCC, or Historically Correct Continental, also known in some circles as a Modified Continental.

These banded patterns were actually a true test of a groomer’s skills. But as grooming competitions became more popular, groomers became savvier and started paying attention to the setting of these patterns prior to the competition. Six weeks of coat growth was “the norm” back then and most competitors were on their dogs setting in that last groom exactly six weeks prior to the show date. There was rarely a dramatic change in the pattern and, many times, minimal hair under the table. Eventually growth requirements morphed into asking for enough coat to make a distinct change in the dog’s appearance.

But all this did not come without controversy! Over-preparation came to a head at Intergroom in 1993. In a class of 52 poodles, a number of them had what was seen as barely enough coat, my black standard entry included. I had groomed her six weeks prior but an underlying thyroid disorder all but halted her coat growth. I groomed her anyway, knowing full well I didn’t have a chance at a ribbon. There was a lot of conversation about inadequate coat after the class and show managers decided that something had to be done about it.

The Death of the Banded Pattern

After the debate at Intergroom, National Dog Groomers Association of America Contest Director Shirley McBride decided something had to be done. At their next contest that year, NDGAA Fun in the Sun, Shirley enacted a minimum growth rule. It was decided that there be no distinct pattern on any dog and the shortest areas of the dog should be ½” on Toys, 1” on Miniatures and 1½” on Standards. If there was a pattern visible, the short banded areas had to meet these minimum length requirements. Shirley walked around the ring with a ruler, measuring and disqualifying dogs as she went. It quickly became obvious that if a contestant was going to compete with a dog in a banded pattern, that dog’s contest career for that year became very limited, as the coat in the shaved areas had to meet the minimum.

Contest groomers scrambled to find additional dogs to compete with, but many of them began to embrace the simplicity of the Puppy and Lamb trims, as these trims extended the number of times a dog could make it into the contest ring throughout the year. Eyes began to focus on the European groomers who were executing very stylish trims that were known as the Scandinavian or English Puppy Lions, the T-Clip, the Full Puppy and the Modern. Not only were these trims elegant, but the newly-enacted growth restrictions were easier to conform to, given that there were no sharp lines or bands carved into the coat. The same dogs could be used for numerous contests throughout the year.

There were several other benefits to this change in style. These trims made it easier to hide faults of a dog, thus allowing the use of “less than perfect” models. Many of these high-style trims also called for a spray-up show topknot, making it possible to bring in a show dog that was still in show coat. The contest ring also began to see more and more acceptable show trims, like the Continental and the English Saddle. And, as they say, the rest is history.

A Good Comparison

A good example of how Poodle grooming has changed can be seen in a side-by-side comparison of the books written by our own Shirlee Kalstone. Her first book, “The Complete Poodle Clipping and Grooming,” was originally published in 1968, followed by “Pet Poodle Grooming Made Easy”, published in 1972. The newest version of the original book, “Poodle Clipping and Grooming, The International Reference,” published in 2001, shows how far the industry has come. This latest edition still pays homage to the banded trims, but with full respect of the build of the dog. The photographs in the older version are a treat to study, as the legs on all the dogs are extremely full but narrow at the bottom and the rear legs show no angulation, yet the bands and patterns are all properly set. The new version shows the advancements we have all made in our industry with proper structure of the dog being paramount. These are just two examples to show how far we have all come. I have both of the latter mentioned versions, both autographed by Shirlee. I treasure them and still enjoy paging through them.

Shirlee was on the forefront of the changes in Poodle styling worldwide and witnessed these changes first hand. “When Miriam van den Bosch came to Intergroom in 1996 and won the Oster Invitational with her beautiful white Standard in a European style Puppy Clip, that was a definitive time in trim changes here in the US.” Shirlee went on to say that the fuller legs, often called “leg of mutton” because of the way they were full at the top and tapered down toward the hock, quickly fell out of favor with groomers, as they became more educated and opted for the more stylized trims. Banded styles, many of which included tasseled ears and huge moustache and beards, fell by the wayside. Pattern setting became a lost art.

Spring Forward into “Retro” Mode!

With banded patterns thought of as old fashioned and out of style, I found it fun and refreshing to have watched Julie Wilkins groom in the Extreme Makeover class at this year’s Intergroom. Julie entered the ring with an overgrown black Standard Poodle and proceeded to put this dog into a nicely balanced Town & Country trim, complete with moustache and beard. Someone asked me what she was doing and I knew what it was at first glance. Upon finishing the groom, Julie donned a pink poodle skirt and presented her dog. She was exhausted and proclaimed that it was by far the most difficult thing she had ever done in the ring. While the owner of the dog was, at first, apprehensive to have her dog in this trim, she proceeded to parade the dog around upon her arrival back home.

While Julie did not place in the contest, I believe she succeeded in creating a new awareness and curiosity for these styles. With all of the emphasis on Freestyle grooming and Asian Fusion styles, perhaps it’s time to dust off our old books and take a look at the styles that were once so popular and helped put Poodles on the map. I’m not saying that these styles are for everybody, but for someone looking for something different, old is new! I say let’s go retro and bring back the foofoo styles!