While there are some universally– recognizable and fairly consistent coat types on most dogs worldwide, each individual dog and its coat can be somewhat unique—even among dogs of the same breed or coat type.
Usually our grooming choices with these predictable coat types are fairly clear, but some recent trends in breeding for profit over functionality have complicated our work.
Groomers committed to doing the right thing by each dog’s individual coat face the challenge in our daily work to determine what the dog’s coat is and what it needs. These days, we also face the proliferation of “designer” cross–breeds. Most of these deliberate cross–breeds have “combination” coats that serve no functional or natural purpose in contrast to the older, long–evolved coat types which are purposeful and functional. These random combinations of coat types, marketing–driven as a cute name or as mythologically “hypo–allergenic,” have made our job of correctly grooming to coat type even more complicated.
A FAD IS BORN
This year, I observe forty years since I first groomed a dog professionally. As a lifelong owner and lover of dogs, I am particularly struck by the canine cross–breeding fad that has grown increasingly over these past four decades since I first began to groom.
Wally Conron, a dog trainer doing noble work training service dogs for disabled people, bred the first Labradoodle in 1989 for a blind client in Hawaii whose husband had allergies to the shedding Labrador retrievers that Conron usually trained. He called it a “doodle”—an adorable name, admittedly better than a “mutt,” which such dogs had previously been labeled—and started the significant dog–breeding trend and fad in which we now live and work.
Conron made international headlines in 2014 when he granted an interview to Psychology Today magazine, expressing profound regret for what he had started and its long–term consequences to dogs everywhere. Conron’s interview in the magazine article does not speak at all to our biggest concern as groomers: the difficulties presented by some of these combinations in dog coats.
An important historical observation regarding the rise of doodles and the so–called designer cross–breeds happened in the same decades as the rise of popular access to the internet and rapid expansion of the marketing powers of social media. The internet has made many wonderful things possible, but it has also allowed much misinformation to reach large audiences without any filters for accuracy. It also allows mass sales marketing to the easily persuadable.
This goes a long way to explain the spread of misinformation about the proper care of dogs that we groomers often are confronted with. We all get clients that come in with wildly wrong ideas about what should be done to properly care for their pets. The internet has also greatly increased in the last four decades the lure of breeding for money, for the cute and for the adorable names; doodle, whoodle, schnoodle, scoodle, bernoodle, sheepadoodle, etc.
The breeders that care little about what coat types are being combined have often made our jobs more difficult. There is a general lack of information about the care needs of most dog coats. The sellers do not always accurately portray the needs of these combined coat types when they sell them to new puppy buyers. They don’t warn them about the intense matting during puberty, or the need for regular monthly grooming. Some of our clients report to us that they were instructed by their breeders that these puppies only needed to be shaved down once a year.
COAT IS SKIN
To better understand the various combinations of coat type, first we must understand some basic anatomy of dog hair and skin. All mammals, like us, have hair. All types of hair are different forms of keratin. Hair is actually just an appendage of the skin. Essentially, hair is skin.
One cannot be a groomer without understanding the skin that gives rise to the coats. This pelage common to all mammals manifests in several forms. We groomers commonly see what we call hair, fur or wool. There are also hairs such as whiskers which are part of the sensing system for the dog or cat.
Hair is an easy term for what we humans have on our heads. Genetically, it grows to an undetermined length (UDL). It grows until we cut it or it breaks on its own. Fur is an easy way to refer to the pelage that genetically grows to a pre–determined length (PDL). It grows to a certain length and stops. Wool is a good name to describe the undercoat of fur; the soft, fuzzy insulating secondary hairs that support the primary hairs.
Hair–type coats are in need of being cut. They mat and tangle more. Fur–type coats are not generally cut, especially on the top and sides of the torso, neck and tail. Our job as groomers is to de–shed and pull out the loose undercoat while preserving the vital and very slow–growing topcoat, or primary hairs. Fur sheds and isn’t cut. Hair mats and needs to be cut.
Individual, mature hair strands have three layers: cuticle, medulla and cortex. But the wooly undercoat only has two of those three, as do puppy hairs. Wool is much more porous and lacks pigment. The growth cycle from emergence to shedding is very fast. This is why we should not shave fur–type coats because we risk causing long–term damage when we remove the topcoat. These primary hairs, which are much more substantive and make up the infrastructure of the coat, grow very slowly and have a long dormancy period. Undercoat, abundantly present in fur–type dogs, will grow in and fall out very quickly several times a year. This is where we need to concentrate our efforts. A clipper on a fur–type coat does not discriminate between primary and secondary hairs. Our job is to remove undercoat and protect the topcoat, or primary hairs.
GROOMING THE COMBINATIONS
Combination coats merge different coat types on one dog’s body. They are often a cross of fur–type coats with hair–type coats, just as Wally Conron first did four decades ago, forcing a naturally–shedding coat onto a coat that will not allow shedding. It’s the worst of both worlds; it needs to shed but it’s not allowed to. Clearly, both from a coat genetics and care point of view, not a good idea.
Note that many of these cross–breeds have “poo,” “oodle” or “doodle” in their names because the poodle’s curly coat is a popular cross. It is the least dander producing and always so beautiful. The breeds they are crossing to poodles have lately become bigger and more heavily coated. In the 1980’s we were getting cockapoos and schnoodles. Today, it’s sheepadoodles, bernedoodles and newfipoos which require even more work to get through their coats.
The result of these fur/hair combinations? Lots of thick, tight mats if they get a little wet, a little long, go through puberty or do not get brushed regularly at home.
If the combination includes a wire coat, then a good de–shedding tool or possibly hand–stripping before the bath could be very helpful. Try to find out the parentage of the combined coat, then try to address each type. Rake out undercoat, but also trim to specifications.
Some combinations don’t require much special attention. Hair–to–hair crosses such as maltipoos generally can just be groomed normally without having to address undercoat issues.
The worst combination I have seen was a chow–poo which had prickly, thick undercoat and rock–solid mats in between the toes. Anytime a primitive, triple, arctic coat is crossed in, remember to charge a lot more—you will be working harder! Shaving these coats down, however, can result in the same long–term skin and coat problems as shaving a primitive coat. Do not expect that to–the–skin, combed–through feeling.
Any number of combinations is possible and no one discussion can cover them all. Sometimes different coat types will appear in different parts of the dog’s body, such as a furry torso area with lots of undercoat, and silkier thin or wavy hair on the legs. Blending these visually can indeed be a challenge, so good client communication at check–in will be helpful.
The key to grooming the fur/hair cross coats is to groom both the fur and hair parts of the coat separately. An extremely efficient and helpful technique is to place a high velocity dryer near your tub and blow close and perpendicular to the skin while still in the bath. If there is significant undercoat matting, pre–soak in conditioner before the bath. This is often called “close–open–close” and it really helps loosen the undercoat. As soon as shampoo is rinsed, or as soon as the final conditioner is applied, blow the HV dryer as close to the skin as tolerated directly at a 90–degree angle. It is best done after the shampoo is completely rinsed out in order to keep from blowing dirt into the delicate skin. This saves a lot of brushing and deep combing later.
A good general rule for grooming combination coats is to groom what you feel and see. Evaluate varying lengths and textures. Determine what is fur and what is hair. De–shed the fur. De–mat and trim the hair. Decide as best you can what coat types were combined to produce the coat on the dog on your table, and address each in separate steps. ✂️