Welcome to the wild world of competitive dog grooming, where poodles become living art

Salon talks to the director of "Well Groomed," who spent 4 years documenting this fascinating subculture

Published May 15, 2019 5:16PM (EDT)

Kobe, Cat Opson’s poodle, stands on the beach in California (Photo Courtesy of Cattle Rat Productions)
Kobe, Cat Opson’s poodle, stands on the beach in California (Photo Courtesy of Cattle Rat Productions)

Whether folks find the dyed and highly stylized dogs in “Well Groomed” adorable or eyesores does not detract from this fun and fascinating look into the wild subculture of competitive creative dog grooming.

Director Rebecca Stern profiles four participants in her new documentary: Adriane Pope, a South Carolinian who never won a first place in competition and craves victory; Cat Opson, a seasoned groomer in California; Angela Kumpe from Arkansas, the reigning champ who makes and sells her own line of products; and Nicole Beckmann, a young woman in Ithaca, NY, who is getting into the competition and just took over a grooming salon.

The women, all of whom work in pet grooming, are engaging, and Stern makes them all as distinctive as their peacocking poodles. (The contests are almost exclusively for poodles, and creative grooming is only for white dogs because you can color them best. Poodle hair grows fast and needs to be groomed, washed and brushed.)

To provide the uninitiated with a sense of the world of competitive dog grooming, the women (and they are almost exclusively women) are judged on the criteria of smoothness of scissoring, clipper lines, and color/dye lines. Competitions are regional, but the big one, run by the American Kennel Club, is held in Hershey, PA, during the world’s largest dog grooming show. Some of the designs are rather elaborate, as “Well Groomed” shows. Angela Kumpe transforms one dog to look like a ram. Another contestant carves “Snoopy and Friends” into her dog. Adriane has an “Alice in Wonderland” motif for her dog, complete with Mad Hatter and other iconic symbols. And then there is the dinosaur-dog inspired “Jurassic Bark.”

Competitive Creative grooming in America is enjoyed by approximately 1,000 participants. (That is just the competition numbers; that does not include the shop owners that offer creative grooming to clients.) So the playing field is small, but it is international: Japan, Korea, Brazil, the UK, Argentina and Mexico all participate in their own competitions.

Salon met with Rebecca Stern during the recent Maryland Film Festival to talk about dyeing dogs, competitive creative grooming, and her fabulous new doc, “Well Groomed.”

How many dogs did you film for “Well Groomed”?

Over the course of four years? Hundreds! Each of the women owns many dogs, and as Cat mentions in the film, they also rent dogs [for shows]. I filmed customers with dogs coming in. One week they could have a customer with 15 dogs, and the next week, they could have 15 customers that all have one dog. We should have counted.

Were the dogs well behaved during filming? Did they appreciate what was being done to them?

All of the creative dogs are show dogs, and they are the women’s dogs, so they are incredibly well behaved. I learned a lot about training animals from them. The women are so surrounded by dogs that they are incredibly clued in to what’s going on with the animals. I was with Angela the other day and she was telling me she was training a new groomer who doesn’t quite know how to tell if a dog is going to have a seizure on the table yet, so she needs to train her about that, or how to tell if a dog might get snappy. She needs to make sure the groomers are comfortable enough to handle the dogs when she is not around. That was interesting. I don’t know how to do that, and I don’t think most people do. But yes, the women’s dogs are incredibly well behaved. The customer’s dogs are different.

Do you have a dog?

I didn’t have a dog when I started this. But now I do.

What kind of dog do you have?

A little Australian cattle dog mix. He’s 30 pounds. I love him a lot. When we first got him, we thought he was a cattle rat terrier mix, because he was so tiny, but then we got a DNA test, and he’s not that at all. It’s disappointing. [Laughs.]

How much did the animals put up with during filming?

I spent four years with these women, and their personal dogs are so used to being groomed that adding hair dye to the process adds maybe 15 minutes to the grooming. The dogs don’t even notice. They are super blissed-out on the table. They train them from six weeks, maybe even earlier. It’s a constant experience for them.

For the filming, there were one or two dogs that thought the boom mike was a squeaky toy, and one or two that were terrified by it, so we did have to do a little bit of changing to film with them, but overall it was fine. We got an intensive zoom lens to film dogs that were a little more aware of the camera. We brought the camera around them all the time, and just had to watch that customer’s dogs didn’t pee on the equipment.

How did you find out about the subculture?

It’s really rare when you see an image you’ve never seen before. When I first saw creative dog grooming, I was incredibly intrigued, and I had a lot of questions. I was just learning about documentary filmmaking when I found out about this. I had been working in the field for about a year and a half, and I was going to panels and asking directors and producers why they pick subjects and they said it was based on curiosity. I had a lot of questions about [creative dog grooming], so I thought I would go check it out, and it’s an opportunity to hang out with animals while shooting a film. It’s also a real happy-go-lucky subject, so it was the perfect balm for my soul. I am mainly a producer and I’ve worked on a lot of very heavy topics, so for my directorial [debut] I wanted to focus on the lightness in life so that part of my life was also focused on that.

What was the criteria for the four women? And I’m curious why this field is almost exclusively female?

I would have expected more men, honestly, but there wasn’t. It’s an incredibly female-dominated field. All of the luminaries are mostly women, there’s one man. They created this very intensely tight-knit community where all of them spend time teaching, supporting and encouraging each another. It’s very feminine. There are a lot of men in regular dog grooming, but not in creative dog grooming.

For the characters, I was learning how to ask questions that would make people talk, and I was looking for people who would tell really good stories. I spent time in the community, and I talked to a lot of people, but these four were the kind of people where you ask them a simple question and they launch into a really good story about it.

The film can be seen as a celebration or a satire. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s celebration at the start, then everyone can take what they want from it. I fell in love with the women, so I think that’s evident in the film. I didn’t try to hide that.

I like how all the women grow. Cat was my favorite, but Adriane struck me as the most interesting…

Adriane earns her money and she spends it on things she can use now. She’s not a saver. She wants to live big. She told me a phrase that I absolutely love, “Buy the purse, take the trip, eat the pie.” I’m constantly worrying about the future. As a filmmaker, you never actually know how much you’re going to make, but as a dog groomer who is booked out, she knows how much she’s going to earn, so she can do that.

These women spend up to $25,000 on these competitions and earn $2,500 prize money at the Hershey show. Why do they do this? Is it bragging rights? Self-worth? The glamour from the pup-parazzi?

It’s all of the above. It’s their creative pursuit. Winning these prizes help the groomers get more business in their area. But there is also the reality that these groomers are so booked out that they don’t take new customers. Dog grooming is an interesting business financially. So is dog care. Dog care in America has grown into $8 billion annually in revenue. When I started, it was $6 billion. People are spending so much on their pets. If you look at the rates of pet health care, it’s gone up 20% more than [people] health care has gone up in the last 20 years, which is also really crazy. Dog grooming is blue collar work that is still very single owner-operator, and you can make a good living. Nicole is great because she knows if her business goes well, she’ll live a good life. Those opportunities are becoming fewer and far between.

The film addresses the controversy of dyeing dogs, suggesting it is humiliating or exploiting them. There are scenes in which dogs are bedazzled with earrings and "booty bling." People hate this, people love this!

Animals hit a very strong spot in people’s minds. Animals are a self-identifier. (You told me, “I am a cat person…”) I think the controversy is really based around misunderstanding or not liking another, which Angela talks about in the film. I spent four years with them and yet I never saw anything that I thought was directly harmful to the animals. People like to ascribe people things to dogs — which I do all the time to my own dog — but the reality of it is the animals are also not people, so they do not feel emotion in the same way. So, a lot of the arguments are circular. One moment you can say, “My dog doesn’t mind being crated or in a cage,” because that’s what dogs do, but the next moment, the dog has a complicated relationship with your grandmother because that’s something you also have. There’s a lot of projection. It has created a lot of strong feelings.

Media sensationalize this because it’s click bait, e.g., “Don’t you think creative dog grooming is terrible?” But this work is soothing for Adriane, and Nicole is looking to find more time to do this, and Angela creates products, which expands her work and commitment to creative.

The film is intentionally apolitical. There’s a gut reaction to everything these days, where there has to be a controversy around something. People are looking to play that up. That’s a sad state of affairs.

Would you creatively groom your dog?

If he would stand still, I would do the not-as-intense stuff.

You would decorate your dog with booty bling?

I would. Once you get the earrings, then you get the booty bling. Which is why it’s such a huge industry. I have the chalk crayons that you can use to draw on dogs, and I put a little bit of color on my dog’s one white patch.

What’s next, tattoos for pets?

Who knows?

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

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