By Jonathan David
When I was a younger man with a full head of hair (bald guy here, in case you didn’t know) I had a favorite brush and comb that I would use to style my hair. Oh yeah, I was that guy; I couldn’t get my hair just right unless I had my favorite brush and comb. You know—the ones that help you achieve the exact style you’re envisioning in your head.
Well, as pet groomers, we’re the same way—but tenfold! Brushes and combs are two categories of tools that we all know are essential to pet grooming, but the overwhelming truth is that we have so many different brushes and combs to choose from, it can be confusing and intimidating. But why are there so many different types of brushes and combs and what are they all meant for?
Well, the short answer is, there are so many different coat types, textures, lengths and requirements for specific grooming needs so we have brushes and combs to match. But the real answer is so much deeper than that. There are a variety of brushes and combs that are designed with specific needs and desired results in mind to help pet stylists achieve the best grooming—whether you’re showing your dog, competing in grooming competitions or doing everyday salon grooming.
Let’s start with a breakdown of the brushes and what they’re best uses are, but not limited to. Experiment sometimes and you may find some tools very versatile!
The most commonly used brush in our industry is the slicker brush. They come in many sizes and shapes, some made of plastic, others made of metal and some made of wood, but the basic principal is the same. They’re a brush with a rubber backing and a uniform cluster of dense, fine pins usually bent but sometimes straight with varying lengths. They’re most commonly rectangular in shape but can be found in round, square and triangular shapes, and some are double–sided with pins extending from both sides. The tension of the rubber backing, number of pins per square inch and length of the pins affect the resistance of the pins against the coat, changing the end result.
For example, some slicker brushes are dense with short, very stiff pins with very little flexibility. This type of brush is meant to remove short, tight undercoat from shorter–coated breeds by gripping a lot of the shedding undercoat and pulling it up and away from the healthy guard hairs. This brush against longer, softer coats would not glide through with ease; it would grip and pull the hair, and you risk breakage and damage to those longer, softer coats.
Slicker brushes are a great tool for fluff drying a dog’s coat, and using the right slicker for the coat type will affect the way the hair looks when it’s been completely dried. I prefer to use a slicker brush with less dense pins and some flexibility of the pins when I fluff dry pet trims with two to three inches of coat to achieve a nicely blown–out coat without causing damage or breakage. If the coat is a trimmed coat and is already cut shorter and I want to get it as straight and fluffed out as I can, I would choose a slightly stiffer slicker that will grab the coat and pull it up straight during the fluff drying process.
Another style of slicker brush that you’ll commonly see is one that has long pins; some as long as 2–3” that are not very dense and typically the pins are very flexible. They’re designed to be gentle on the coat, causing the least amount of breakage. They’re commonly used for fine hair that breaks easily but still needs to be fluffed straight, like that of Poodles, Bichons, Bedlington Terriers or dogs with similar coats.
The various shapes of the actual brush are a matter of choice and purpose. Perhaps if you’re doing a smaller dog, a smaller slicker brush would maneuver around the dog’s body and legs more easily. And you could use a small, triangle–shaped slicker brush for getting in between the eyes with ease or in between legs without having to move the dog around as much.
The thing to remember though is that slicker brushes do cause some amount of breakage or thinning of the coat when using the wrong one for the coat type or from overly aggressive brushing on dry coats. Brushing with too much force can cause breakage and thinning rather than detangle the hair. I always recommend using a brushing spray to reduce static electricity in the hair and to help condition and protect the hair from the metal pins of the brush. Brushing dry coat can be very harsh and you’ll find that your brushes will glide through and detangle hair more easily with less breakage with the use of a detangling or brushing spray.
The second most commonly used brush is a pin brush. A pin brush is typically made from wood, is paddle–shaped, either oval or rectangular of various sizes and have long, straight pins that are much thicker than the pins of a slicker brush. Pin brushes also have a rubber backing that affects the tension and flexibility of the pins which are spread much farther apart than those of a slicker brush. The pins can be either metal, plastic or wooden, and sometimes they have a tiny ball added to the tip of each pin. The pins are flexible and rounded smooth to be gentle on the skin and coat, with the exception of the ball–tip pin brushes. While the tip itself is smooth and can be very gentle on many dogs, when you’re brushing longer coats, ball–tip brushes can sometimes snag hair or get tangled. So when brushing out or drying longer coats, I prefer to use pin brushes without a ball tip.
Pin brushes are also an excellent choice when you’re trying to preserve as much hair as possible. They’re far gentler than a slicker brush by design and are excellent for brushing or drying long, silky coats like a Maltese or Yorkshire terrier, or long areas of a curly coat like a Poodle topknot, ears or neck hair that you’re trying to preserve for a spray–up.
Typically you’ll see wooden paddle pin brushes with metal pins, but sometimes the pins are also made from wood. Wood pin brushes are smooth, flexible and gentle. They’re the most gentle on fine coats and they’re an excellent brush to distribute products like conditioning sprays onto the dog’s coat. However, they’re not a good brush for removing matting from coats or for severely tangled hair. A slicker or metal pin brush would be better suited for that. But wood pin brushes offer a gentle way to maintain long, silky or delicate hair that is brushed regularly and doesn’t become tangled.
Boar Hair Brushes
Another one of my favorite brushes that I think are not used nearly enough are boar hair brushes. A boar hair brush is either paddle–shaped or is a block of wood or plastic, handheld brush with bristles on one side. The bristles are made of natural boar hairs that are stiff but gentle on the skin and coat, and have a variety of uses.
For short–haired dogs, boar hair brushes are an excellent tool to remove the dead coat, but also remove dirt from the skin and coat as well. The natural bristles made from the boar hair reach deep and gently massage the oils in the skin and help bring the oils up to the surface, giving a healthy gloss to the smooth–coated pet’s coat.
Sporting dogs and terriers can also benefit from boar hair brushes. After you strip, pluck, card or clip their back coats and do your finish work, a few passes over the pattern with a boar hair brush can help bring out that glossy, smooth finish—and help to brush in your favorite conditioning sprays. They’re also very useful for applying grooming chalk to various coats or for keeping a maintained, yet natural look when brushing your terrier coats.
Now that we’ve covered brushes let’s get into combs. I used to think a comb is a comb, but I have since changed my opinion—especially with so many amazing comb choices on the market.
Standard Pet Grooming Combs
Pet grooming combs are made from various metals as plastic doesn’t work well with dog coats. Some are wood or plastic–handled with metal pins, while the majority are all metal. The pins are attached to a metal spine and can be close together or spread further apart; usually identified as fine for the close pins, medium for a bit more spacing between the pins and coarse for the wider spacing.
Poorly–made combs will easily lose pins with a lot of use, whereas quality–made combs are stronger and stand up to the test of use and time. Some are made of polished stainless steel and some are cheaper metals that are painted, which tend to wear away and chip over time.
Of course, because there are different coat lengths and different sized dogs, there are many different sized combs. Some are heavy duty with long, thick pins for combing packed undercoat on breeds like Golden Retrievers, Samoyeds or Newfoundlands. There’s also a difference on the opposite spectrum; the fine combs with very tightly–lined pins are used on some coats to give the ultimate fluff and finish, and be able to achieve the most velvet–like scissor finish. Thicker drop coats may require longer pins to reach down to the skin to thoroughly comb and maintain longer coats.
There are new trends with combs, too. Half–moon–shaped combs have become popular in recent years because the shorter pins that taper to one side make fluffing tighter, harder–to–reach places on faces easier to comb and fluff, as well as for scissoring and shaping coats. There are even bowed combs that make scissoring rounded topknots and curves into coats easier, and to help set angles in the coat while adding style to your grooming.
Another one of my favorites are the tiny little guys of the comb family—the flea comb. These tiny combs are small with very fine, short pins which are excellent for combing through short coats to root out fleas. But they’re also really the best comb I’ve found to use while bathing a dog. Once I wet the face and soften the dry dirt and crust which can accumulate around the eyes, I use the flea comb to gently remove it by combing the hair around the eyes and nose. On that note, it works really well on the other end of the dog as well. Sometimes things “get stuck” and a flea comb can help comb those delicate areas with some shampoo to get a squeaky clean bum!
You’re going to encounter a lot of different coat types and a lot of interesting things going on with coats in your career. As you do, be sure you’re well prepared for everything. Also, try using some tools you’re not accustomed to—you just may discover that you’ve found something you didn’t even know you were missing but now you can’t live without! ✂️