With a few soft words, Jorge Bendersky coaxes Merv, a trembling Brussels Griffon, into position on his grooming table. "It’s like dancing a tango," Bendersky explains as he runs his clippers down the little dog's side. "You have to synchronize your heart with the dog's, and just lead him into the positions."
With his celebrity clients, bold tattoos and charming Argentinean accent, Bendersky isn't your average dog groomer. In fact, don't call him a groomer at all — he's a dog stylist, thank you very much. Groomers keep dogs clean; stylists make them fabulous.
"Dogs have become such an important part of our social lives; their style is important," Bendersky says. "If your dog is going to be walking next to your Manolo Blahniks, you want him to be stylish."
Bendersky is one of a new breed of dog groomer — ahem, stylist — who's going way beyond the standard wash-and-clip job. And styling dogs isn't just for the Manolo Blahnik set these days. You can get a fauxhawk for your Yorkie or a dye job on your poodle anywhere from Atlanta to Seattle, including many small towns in between. In Peoria, Ill., for example, fashionista dogs go to GucciPucci, a dog spa, for beautification.
"Two years ago, people weren't coming into grooming salons and saying, 'Can you give my dog a mohawk?' I think it's becoming more mainstream and we're going to see a lot more of it," said pet style expert Dara Foster, founder of PupStyle.com.
Bendersky does everything from variations on the breed standard haircut to more eye-catching dye jobs and creative styles. Prices for a session can range from $85 to $300. It all depends on what the owners, and their dogs, want, he says.
"I will talk to the owner, find out what is the lifestyle of your dog and try to find the haircut that complements that," he says. His clients have included Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Ellen Barkin and Tatum O'Neal, as well as many "A-listers," including privacy-loving Academy Award winners and members of the New York elite, whom he declines to name.
Pet style emergencies at midnight
Often the most difficult part of the job is not the dog, but dealing with the owners. Couples fight in front of him about how to style their dog (his tip to guys: "If you want a dog to look manly, you shouldn't get a poodle"). And celebrity clients call in the middle of the night with grooming emergencies. What sort of emergency warrants a midnight call to the pet stylist?
"Oh, their dog stepped in poop, or pooped on himself a little bit," Bendersky says. And they haven't heard of paper towels? He raises one eyebrow and smiles. "I'll do it, for a price." (That price is $300 an hour for late-night house calls.)
Working at the New York Dog Spa and Hotel in Chelsea, Bendersky says he's seen it all. One client put blush on her dog's face because she thought he looked pale. Another requested henna treatment for her dog because she feared his grey hairs were making her look old — actually, Bendersky adds, that's become a fairly common request. Does he do it? "Oh, yeah."
Beyond Bendersky's New York City clientele, regular dog owners are expanding their grooming horizons by tuning into reality shows like The Animal Planet's "Groomer Has It" and TLC's "Extreme Poodles," which explores the growing world of "creative grooming." Creative groomers use dye, clippers and shears to transform dogs into lions, flowers, dragons, and pretty much anything else they can imagine.
As creative grooming gets more exposure, regular dog owners are asking their groomers for fancy haircuts or a touch of color. Todd Shelly, editor of Groomer to Groomer magazine, says football teams' colors are a popular request.
"It will keep growing, as long as people are educated that it's safe, it's not harmful to the dog, and it doesn't take a long time," says Shelly, who is also vice-president of sales and marketing for Barkleigh Productions, which sponsors creative grooming competitions.
Critics look at pink poodles and cry "abuse." Some creative groomers even get hate mail accusing them of cruelty. But groomers and stylists say that couldn't be further from the truth.Slideshow: Shear poodle madness!
"What is abusive is a person walking into the salon with their dog's hair matted, ears infected, nails ingrown," Bendersky says. "We see that every day, and nobody talks about that. Nobody blogs about that."
'They're in for a lot of attention'
What about psychological abuse? Dogs don't embarrass easily, so hot pink ears or a purple mullet don't cause them angst.
"A dog will let you know if they don't want that done to them," Shelly says. "The ones that are good with it, love it. They have that personality, they love the attention and they jump up on that [grooming] table. They certainly don't know that they look like, but they know when they get off that table they're in for a lot of attention."
The trick, Foster says, is making sure your dog is the one who craves attention. Some dogs love being fussed over at the groomer, and others hate it. "Be cautious about doing anything that makes your dog uncomfortable," Foster says. "You have those owners that are just in it for the attention they get. You have to make sure it's the right thing for the animal, and not just to feed their ego."
As for Merv, the Brussels Griffon getting his summer haircut from Bendersky seems to approve of the stylist's methods. At the end of his trim he happily rolls over for a belly rub. "There you go," Bendersky murmurs. "Good dog."
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