A competitor trims hair of a dog during a pet dog grooming competition. Picture: Reuters

Hershey, Pennsylvania - On a stage in a conference hall in central Pennsylvania, at least 14 000 years after humans domesticated wolves into dogs, Milena Kon was turning a dog into a gazelle. And an elephant. And a lion. And a giraffe.

This evolution, taking place during one of the nation's highest-profile dog grooming competitions, involved strategically dying the white fur of a poodle named Soleil to the hues of African animals, sculpting her hair into horns and tusks, airbrushing elephant toenails to her back legs and attaching googly eyes to her rear end.

"Anything artistic is what I'm drawn to," Kon, a graphic designer-turned-dog groomer from New Jersey, said before the event. "And I love dogs. They're my passion. They're my weakness."

All had some part in a $6.5-billion pet services industry that has doubled over the past decade, fuelled by the rapid rise of what marketers call the "humanization" of pets. When it comes to dogs, that has meant a migration not only from the backyard into the house, but also into the bed and the car, where they're often treated as nicely - and expected to smell as nicely - as the rest of the family.

Groomers have responded. When the expo debuted here 30 years ago, 350 showed up. This year, nearly 5 600 came.

"The biggest factor of all is that so many people consider their dogs to be children," said Todd Shelly, president of Barkleigh Productions, which hosts several dog-related trade shows and publishes Groomer to Groomer magazine, which would feature the creative contest's winner on its cover. 

Mercedes-Benz and other prominent companies are increasingly advertising in the publication, he said, because they've come to view groomers as "influencers" - people who have the ears of a dog-loving nation.

And while there's much overlap between the grooming world and the show dog world, Shelly said, more and more groomers are devoted to what is arguably the vanguard in American dogdom - the rescue dog.

"I had dogs growing up. I think we just hosed them off in the backyard," said Corina Stammworthy, who not long ago was a biotechnology graduate student preparing for a career in research. Instead, she opened a self-service dog-bathing shop that later added grooming, and now she employs 14 people.

Her customers represent a wide socioeconomic range, she said, and their pets are anything from mutts that come in weekly to show dogs. "We're finding more and more the line's being blurred," she said.

In a stainless tub next to a mound of wet towels was a bewildered chow mix named Brownie. He was being lathered by the gentle hands of Miranda Kalonarou, a groomer from the Astoria neighbourhood in Queens and the winner of the rescue contest last year. She was using the provided shampoo, though it was not ideal.

"It does matter," she said, but given the time limit, she opted against lugging her own products to the garage. "A good cut starts with a good bath. And he's filthy."

Out in the exhibition area, at least a dozen booths were selling shears that all looked similar to a layperson, but which their representatives assured were not. On one side of a hallway, a salesman extolled the virtues of an "effortless" pair of scissors that "does most of the work." On the other side, Bob Edman, a towering former machinist, stood confidently over a shiny array of his own, Aussie Dog Shears.

They are the best product for the price, he said. He goes to all the expos, and lately, he said, he'd been wowing people with his new "phenomenon," a copper comb that he says has antibacterial properties, among other advantages. Edman said he was certain he'd sell all his stock, though he insisted money is not why he makes dog scissors.

He does it for the groomers, he said, who are "not phonies," but are generally just good people.

Few ordinary dog owners want rainbow hues, groomers said. Even so, hundreds of people came to watch the creative grooming spectacle on the last day of the expo.

A dozen groomers were in the running. All their dogs were poodles, which is typical, said Emily Myatt, a grooming school owner who flew from her home country of Australia to judge the competition.

"You want a dog that likes to be shown off, and poodles are those types of dogs," Myatt said. "They like to strut their stuff. They're very prancy."

The Washington Post