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A More Colorful Dog Show With the HBO Special 'Well Groomed'
December 17, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Every year after the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, my cousin Dianne and I review the results.

We like it more when big old shaggy dogs win, like Josh the Newfoundland, and a little less when the winner is one of those dogs you carry around in your purse.

But no matter what dog takes best in show, we consider it a good year when the winner is not a topiary poodle.

You know the look: shaved to a buzzcut around the middle and at the top of the legs, then so fluffed and teased everywhere else that it looks like it's trying out for a role in Grease.

At a certain point, it just stops looking like, you know, a dog.

Little did we know that's just the tip of the over-decorated dog iceberg.

Well Groomed, an HBO Sports special that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET, dives in the world of serious dog grooming, meaning not the kind where Rover gets a bath and then gets toweled off.

Grooming in this world means turning your dog into a walking Easter Egg, with teased and sculpted fur dyed with a rainbow of colors so bright you're surprised all the groomers don't wear protective eye gear.

As the three featured groomers here explain, the goal is to use your dog as a canvas on which to create another vision. Some dogs become lions. Some become pandas. Some become dinosaurs. Some just seem to become a grownup's version of unicorns, a rainbow of sparkling colors.

Did we say sparkling? Yep, glitter and rhinestones are involved here as well.

Well Groomed follows its three groomers in the run-up to the annual Grooming show in Hershey, PA, which is the Super Bowl of the field.

These competitors have the same deep commitment as people who raise dogs for Westminster and other shows where the dogs are presented in their natural colors. They do just as much weekend traveling. They do even more conceptualizing.

And in the end, they deliver dogs that, well, put it this way, if you see one on the street, it will stop you cold. A few birds in the Amazon rainforest could compete with these dogs for color brilliance, but otherwise, very little that's found in nature resembles a poodle dyed and groomed to resemble a butterfly.

The documentary includes a brief segment from a television show where serious groomers respond to audience questions that often start with some variation on "How could you do this to a dog?"

They respond that they aren't doing it "to" the dog, that the dog is fine with it. Look, they say, the dog is wagging its tail. It's happy. It seems completely unbothered that it looks like a four-legged supersize box of Crayola crayons.

Absent any verbal input from the dogs themselves, this isn't an unreasonable answer. The most heartening aspect of Well Groomed is that the dogs – mostly, but not all poodles – behave like dogs. They bound around, they jump up and lick people's faces.

In grooming or show mode, of course, they stand still while people work on them or poke at them. They tolerate this patiently. When it's over, and they're home, they leap up onto the furniture.

In this context, that's a good sign.

But then, no one has ever questioned why the dogs do this. While the groomers say some dogs are more amenable than others, humans still drive this bus.

There's a modest rubbernecking undertone to Well Groomed, as there is with documentaries on, say, people who are deep Elvis Presley or Hummel figure collectors. Most of us are fascinated with this level of devotion to something we consider a little, well, unusual.

To be fair, all the groomers here seem like perfectly nice people. They love the animals which is a great start, and if this is how they want to spend their time and money, that's their call.

The most valid point raised by questioners on the TV show is whether the groomers are doing this to showcase the dogs or themselves. The answer is probably some of both, but the viewer comes away from Well Groomed conceding that even if this is slightly troubling, it's also largely harmless.

It's also optional. Those of us who prefer dogs in their native colors don't have to go to Hershey this September for the 2020 grooming show.

I don't think I will. I don't think Dianne will, either. But around 5,000 people will – and they'll get  the canine version of the Northern Lights.

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