The therapeutic value of people with disabilities working with dogs is well established. Therapy dogs in hospitals and nursing homes have scientifically documented positive returns in health and well-being benefits; children struggling in schools learning to read have much better outcomes when they read to a dog; service dogs can literally be life-savers for their handlers.

Studies with veterans have demonstrated that there are even health benefits for the trainers that work assisting people with disabilities to work with a dog.

Our society’s almost universal embrace of the benefits of people with disabilities working with dogs, beneficial for both the dogs and the people, has been one of the most elevating and transformative discoveries of modern time.

A NEW ERA

We are living in a new era of higher consciousness about the human-dog bond, where even federal law in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects the special role that only dogs play; an era where our culture has begun to truly internalize that special relationship that has so profoundly affected the evolution of both species for thousands of years.

The grooming industry has surely benefited from this elevated consciousness about the beneficial nature of the human-dog relationship. Groomers and grooming schools can build on and enhance this new awareness, and can make substantial contributions in return that benefit dogs and persons with disabilities, as well as ourselves and our businesses.

We can do this by being deliberate in our efforts to include persons with disabilities when we consider who to train and hire.

MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

We are all aware of reported shortages in numbers of skilled groomers or bathers and groomer assistants in our industry. Grooming is, after all, very hard work that requires significant training,  extraordinary patience in working with live animals in sometimes stressful situations, and often for a paycheck less than we know we deserve.

My commitment to open some slots in my grooming school, and to do some hiring of persons with disabilities, grew after a family member developed a psychological disability. A lot of doors were closed for her and vocational training options were extremely limited. Her love of animals inspired me to add into my business a way that I could be helpful.

While clearly some disabilities would exempt someone from being able to complete the entire task of grooming dogs, I have since found that the people with disabilities that I have trained at my grooming school and hired in my grooming shop, who had fewer choices in fields of work that were open to them, were that much harder working. They were also sometimes more appreciative of the chance to prove themselves when they did get meaningful work. I have observed that these members of my team are not as focused on what rate of pay they receive but more focused on the privilege and joy of the work itself.

Citing the groomer/bather supply shortage, even international training programs such as PetsAustralia.org recruit and advertise openly encouraging persons with a disability not to be discouraged from trying some aspects of a pet grooming career.

Not everyone can be a groomer or groomer assistant obviously, no matter what their abilities or possible disabilities. After working for decades as a professional teacher in public and private high schools, with all the attendant special education training, and after decades as a Master Groomer, I have begun to develop helpful guidelines to assist in matching candidates for jobs in the grooming field.

SAFETY FIRST

Any person wishing to work in pet grooming must be willing and able to work with live animals safely, calmly, and patiently. The tools we use in grooming can be sharp and dangerous, so the same standards apply.  Any consideration of the potential of any person with a disability must begin and end with their ability to be safe with the animals, the tools, and themselves.

There are many types of disabilities affecting physical, mental, and emotional functioning. Often people may present to you with several diagnoses, and sometimes they may not present to you at all – they may certainly choose to keep their disabilities private. Top groomers in our industry have had to hide their disabilities and heroically struggle alone. Today we all can provide help to each other in an era where ignorance and stigma are being washed away with new understandings about what is possible.

LEARNING AND GROWTH

People who have some form of cognitive or developmental disability may still be able to learn how to be very helpful in a grooming business.  Some that thrive only with a reliable and well-ordered schedule may not be able to comfortably adapt to the flexibility and even chaos sometimes present in a busy grooming shop.

But the most important criteria to address early on is their ability to retain what they learn from day to day. Grooming is a complex skill that requires any trainee to acquire first the basics, and then build on that with increasingly technical proficiency.

If a person with a disability is interested in working with you, they will often have expert professionals that have assisted them in their schooling or their transition to more independent living. These professionals should be able to help you honestly assess if the learning and growth necessary to the job will be possible.

Even a person confined to a wheelchair whose hands work well can learn to cut hair, as long as they have assistance in bathing dogs and moving them around.

RESOURCES AVAILABLE

I have been struck by the commitment and skills of the hard-working professionals in support positions that have come to my business to aid in the transition of the person with a disability to work in the grooming profession.

One such program is Total Link To The Community (www.totallink2.org)in Northbrook, Illinois. They provided staff regularly to help a trainee named Lindsey who is now a part time employee.  Total Link staff developed written and visual organizational charts as she trained to staff our indoor doggie playcare. They helped translate expert books on the subject to clearer language. They supervised her developing a comfortable routine. They stayed in the picture for months, even after she began to work more independently, and they are still available to step in at a moment’s notice if I have an issue.

Another area program provided a sign language interpreter to a student with hearing loss. Be sure to ask these experts during the transition training about what financial arrangements or regulations are applicable. It may be beneficial to some receiving government assistance to find meaningful work as a volunteer.

If a potential student or trainee with a disability has come from high school in recent years then you may be able to examine a copy of their IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or their 504 Plan. These carefully prepared documents could give you insights into what will and will not work for your trainee.

WHAT THEY CAN DO

The focus should be on what they can do – not what they can’t. Not every attempt will be successful, but that is true for all people in all types of jobs.

If cutting hair is not an option, their ability to dry a dog may be adequate and helpful. Since drying dogs can sometimes be one of the time-consuming aspects of a groom, being able to have help to blow dry dogs for several hours a day is still a very marketable skill, freeing the groomer to cut more hair.

If grooming or bathing is not an option, perhaps they can assist in a Doggie Daycare or a Boarding Kennel. Some can learn to do Canine Massage.  Love Fur Dogs is richly blessed to have monthly visits from one of the most respected canine masseuses in the Chicagoland area – Katie Mehrtens of The Right Spot for Pets. The dogs take no notice of the fact that Katie is legally blind and she has done a great deal of good for the health of the fortunate dogs in her care.

Groomers are always looking for help, and people with disabilities are always looking for meaningful activity. While it can require a little extra patience, it can be a win-win relationship for all concerned.✂

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, ICMG, is owner of Love Fur Dogs in Glencoe, Illinois. She runs the Train To Groom program (www.traintogroom.com) in her state of the art facility. Jennifer is the “Ask the Groomer” columnist in Tails magazine and was named Best Dog Groomer 2015 in Chicagoland by Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Tribune.