Dying for Dye
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Every eight months or so I’m tagged in the same Facebook post about four times. It's always related to creative grooming. I’m sure you've seen them. Standard poodles cut and dyed to perfection to resemble Sherlock Holmes, a jungle, NASA, or some other delightfully clever idea. It’s become a little redundant for me after all these years but my job seems to be a weird novelty for people so I simply like the post and move on. I love coloring coats, although my enthusiasm for the process has dwindled due to my lack of real devotion, skill, and creativity.
Within the long threads of conversation attached to these myriad posts there are always two resounding opinions. One: aw cute! That poodle looks like a Pokémon character. Two: (In the voice of Patrick Warburton) Look at how humiliated that poor animal is, she’s got to be so embarrassed to be painted like a frog. What kind of terrorist would dye a dog?
It is to the Warburton-esque culture for whom I now pen this post and to them say: Cool it you puritanical narcissist. Not everything is a reflection of your own stagnant posturing.
It's totally acceptable to give a small shrug and say it's not for me, it’s not my jam, I don’t get it; then move on. What I find fascinating is how irate people get over things that are so innocuous. No one is hurting the dogs -- they are pampered and trained and enviably spoiled. They are walked and treated and given more affection and time than most Upper West Side Manhattan private school heiresses. Suck it, Serena Van der Woodsen, you've got nothing on these bebes.
Where did people direct their anger and frustration before the internet? People are nearing an aneurysm with their raging all-caps rants about the evils of painting dogs to look like zebras and which way the toilet paper roll should face. What happened in life to make you so hostile & resentful? Why is this so upsetting to your sense of what… nature, morality, respectability?
Let’s keep going with a helpful hypothetical.
I don’t have a standard poodle, but let's say I did. My theoretical dog, Schnitzel, is a perfect canvas: a white standard poodle, perfect legs, good coat. Statuesque, really. As a working groomer, I finish my floofy clients for the day and turn my head to Schnitzel who is waiting patiently (she’s used to being at work with me). She’s very recently been bathed, brushed, and “beautified” (pads, nails, face, ears, & privates). Let the art commence. We brush color onto her body one quadrant at a time. Mind you: this dye is non-toxic, made specifically for dogs. Between each quadrant she gets a break that includes treats, kisses, water, and general affection that would rival a tender kindergarten Valentines Day celebration. This process proceeds until all four quadrants have been colored. She’s a little damp and drippy from the dye, but now comes the really good part. I tuck her into a warm bath and massage her body, watching the dye pass through the water like tadpoles escaping a larger fish. It’s as comforting to her as it is for us, when we surrender our scalps to our stylists who massage the shampoo into and then out of the mess that is our hair. Once the color leaves her fur for the bath water, she’s fluffed and dried. The dryer is loud but that's normal for grooming and doesn’t surprise or scare her -- Schnitzel has been well acclimated to the grooming process. Over the next few hours (yes, hours), she sits and stands as necessary while I use various combs, clippers, and scissors to cajole her coat into shape. Because her coat is already in good condition (again, nod to regular grooms), she doesn’t mind. In fact, it’s comforting. I can tell because she lazily closes her eyes and nudges me softly as I offer her treats while reminding her she’s beautiful and good.
Because, unlike most of us, she is beautiful and good.
Look. Here’s the thing. Here's what really makes me nuts about these internet rants: the insinuation that Schnitzel feels humiliated, embarrassed, or (if she’s a he) emasculated. Schnitzel feels no more humiliated than my own kids who in bursts of independence dress themselves in wacky tights and fluffy shirts and who pass themselves in the mirror 10 times in admiration of their cuteness. They, too, are beautiful and good. They float around the grocery store in cowboy boots and tutus like they’ve just won a pageant.
It’s only when an older child or a droopy adult tells them they look silly, asks them why their clothes don’t match or what a unicorn’s doing with a sword, that they feel embarrassed.
Dogs have instincts and cares: they’re driven to procreate and subsequently, care for offspring. But they don't associate the color pink with girls any more than they associate Florida with Disney. They simply don’t have that kind of cognition or societal pulse. They understand female and male insofar as sex and reproduction but they don’t understand our historical views of feminine and masculine. They respond to how they’re treated, positively or negatively, praise or shame, reward or neglect.
When I dyed my little male Toy Poodle Lando’s mohawk hot pink I was shamed for emasculating him. He pranced about the backyard trying to make friends with the deer population and was, otherwise, so praised that his ego was about the size of the deer he chased. At seven pounds his confidence was on par with Lebron’s. He was “The Man” and he knew he was hot shit. Then our neighbor walked by our yard and in an attempt to shame us, called Lando (the F word. Not fuck, but the shitty derogatory one that implies something inane about his sexuality.) I hate to admit that at that time, my face turned as pink as that man’s button-down Sunday shirt.
Every once in a while I bait my husband for not being comfortable enough with himself to wear pink or purple, because it's easy fun and he’s a worthy adversary. The truth is soft colors don’t suit his identity. And that's just fine, I don't actually care what anyone wears. It's about the fun of teasing him and playing devil's advocate for the way society defines “manly.” The difference between him and Lando, though, is that he’s got an understanding of what society expects. Lando didn’t know he was a dog, let alone that we were part of a population. He had no concept of expectation other than “I am expected to poop outside,” which I believe he thought was more of a suggestion than an actual rule.
The way we treat people and dogs alike affects their self confidence and how they define themselves. Lando was praised and loved and he felt twice his size; alternatively, had I laughed and pointed at him, he would have hidden in shame under a table. If only we could all be as unflappable as a gay man in drag; confident in our choices and unaffected by the expectations of others. If only those social media rants weren’t so razor sharp, intended to cut us down for benign ideas and interests that really only hold stake for the owner, we’d be a healthier and kinder species. But no matter how hard those queens work to mute their haters, the haters are always willing to use a bigger font. It takes a lot of practice and strength to allow yourself the grace and poise to choose your own trajectory when others are so willing to compromise a stranger’s wellbeing instead of the historical norms we’re trained to find comfortable.
I will always love coloring my dog’s mohawk. It's fun and it makes people smile. So before you sweat through your whites and rage at the damage I’m causing Schnitzel or any other dog’s dignity, ask yourself why it offends you so, and which of us is really affecting the dog’s integrity.
I love creative grooming. Those dogs are incredible. More, those groomers have vision. It’s something we need more of in this world, and the fact that they also have the skill to execute that vision is, quite simply, admirable. If all you can see in these pictures are abused animals then maybe it's time to look inside and ask yourself what’s really offending you. Because it’s not the treatment of the dogs or the whimsy of the art; it’s something deeper. Something inside yourself -- something that’s tied to vision and to skill or, more accurately, a lack thereof -- that probably needs some quiet, lower-case reflection. I said earlier that the fictional Schnitzel is beautiful and good. And she is. Other people’s insecurities don’t adulterate her experience of the world no matter how bold or cacophonous they may be. Because she’s a dog and is, thankfully, illiterate. Naturally, she would never consciously try to adulterate theirs either. But we humans don’t have that luxury. We’re just groomers, vets, and rescuers. We go through our day hiding our insecurities just like everybody else. Some of us every once in a while bring to the surface our colors, if only to have the opportunity to watch them fade away. The least you can do, Mr. Hard-Ass Bougie Loud-Mouth, is to please grant us that struggle.