Haircoat, Ears, Teeth & Nails
“Show me your dog, and I will tell you what sort of man you are.” …von Stephanitz, 1932
Although it is a characteristic of the German Shepherd Dog (which I have bred and judged almost since they walked off the Ark), the double coat is not unique to this breed, and the grooming techniques I have found to be best (and which I describe here) are applicable to many breeds. For readers who have terriers, sighthounds, poodles, and some others, you’ll have to modify these tips just a little. The soft, fluffy undercoat of many scores of breeds is very light and somewhat flyaway, while the topcoat is coarse, heavier, usually straight, and imbeds itself like a whipworm into the woven fabric in your wardrobe and living-room furniture, snaking in and out of the warp to defy your best efforts in brushing. Your Whippet’s coat may be a lot shorter than your Saint Bernard’s, but there are more similarities than differences, once you realize that at the same cut-short length, the hairs of almost all dogs are of the same types. Tightness of curl just throws another characteristic into the recommendations for coat care. Classifying haircoat types on the basis of length, the German Shepherd Dog’s is considered to be “normal” or intermediate, compared to the short hair of the Boxer and the long hair of the Newfoundland.
There are a number of reasons for hair loss, but it is an ongoing process that annually has two major peaks, when people are most likely to complain about shedding. At those times, the undercoat is most noticeably affected first, and then the topcoat is lost one or two weeks later, as a rule. It is most obvious in the breeds that are commonly called “double-coated”, although in reality all dogs except the hairless breeds have both types, and even the Xolo, Crested, Hairless Rat Terrier, etc. have a little hair someplace, and those few follicle sites have both types, if you look hard enough. In bitches about two months away from an estrus cycle, the undercoat often is released in great hunks, especially if the bitch is not regularly combed during these months, and is very easily drawn out with the comb if she is groomed more regularly (which, for a few weeks semiannually, may mean at least every day).
Breeders who have paid attention to something other than their TV sets have long ago learned that the changing length of days (amounts of daylight) is the trigger for these estrus changes in the domesticated dog. A good reason why we call them “seasons.” There are some primitive breeds and wild canines in which only one estrus a year is the rule (or even none until the dominant female in the pack moves on or dies), but let’s leave those few out of the discussion for now. You will notice that in the temperate zones, which is where most dog ownership occurs, more estrus events are clustered close to the months of September and March than in late June and approaching the New Year, when we have the longest and the shortest periods of daylight. I believe the reason is the time lag as the dog’s body (specifically its hormone production) adjusts, catching up to the change in length-of-day that happens around June 21 and December 21.
It takes approximately those two months for the dog to go through its photon-induced hormone and hair-loss cycle in preparation for its heat cycle. Now, before you excitedly remind me that males go through their own coat-loss cycles, let me say that males also have hormones and also are affected by length of daylight changes, but their hair loss (at least in winter, in my considerable experience) is not as dramatic as in females. The high summer temperature that many people want to blame is not the cause; otherwise, they’d only lose the insulating undercoat, and certainly not in winter.
The loss of copious quantities of the crinkly-soft undercoat is followed by the considerable loss of harsher straighter topcoat about a month later. If you see undercoat loss one month, then topcoat loss the next month while the undercoat is beginning to grow back, and you have kept the dog worm-free, it’s almost certainly the semiannual molting process. Good grooming begins with good nutrition, and worms inhibit the assimilation of nutrients in the inflamed intestines. But all you need for most breeds are three simple, economical tools, so forget all those made-in-China multitudinous gadgets or expensive visits to a grooming shop. Do it yourself.
These hairs of the undercoat vary from short, fine, and wavy (described by some as fuzz or down), to thick, slightly longer, fine and wavy with a small bristle on the tip, to even longer, soft with a slightly more visible bristle and waves in the bottom two-thirds. All three types are best groomed with a good undercoat comb. These combs are usually chrome-plated or stainless steel, but all should have rounded points so as not to scratch the skin, and smooth teeth for low friction, as the wavy nature of the hair is sufficient for the comb to remove most of the dead strands and not pull too hard on the healthy live shafts. The label may recommend the comb for toy breeds, but as long as it’s sturdy and comfortable to hold, it can be used even on your German Shepherd Dog. Look for a good welding job where the teeth are held in the spine of the comb.
Hold the comb so the teeth are perpendicular to the dog’s skin, or, if the coat is a real mess, slanted a little so the teeth may be dragged like a lawn rake over the coat, but not stuck into it like a pitchfork. Comb one small section at a time, in the direction of hair growth, using very short stokes—six inches or less. You will usually build up a “bank” of fuzz, fur, and some guard hairs at the end of that section. Scrape up the mass of soft hairs with the comb and put that in a bag or pile. When there is not much more fuzz coming up and no drag at all on the comb, even if slightly slanted the other way, move on to the next section and repeat the procedure. I find it best to start near the tail and work toward the head, so you won’t comb into the thick, uncombed areas. It’s more comfortable for the dog that way.
After the entire coat has been combed and you have a hefty pile of wool, go over the dog again, combing backwards against the direction of hair growth, being sure the comb is perpendicular to the skin. Back?combing catches many undercoat hairs you will miss even with the most fastidious first combing. As long as the combing is not too vigorous, only the dead undercoat will come out. By removing the dead undercoat, you are also cleaning your dog, because a lot of dirt and debris is loosened and removed in the grooming process. Frequent combing will generally prevent this dirt from accumulating, and a regularly groomed dog may never have to be bathed in his lifetime, barring a run through a sewer, skunk’s nest, or herd of goats.
Whether you have to remove topcoat because of internal worms or normal seasonal changes, you will need different equipment than you used on the undercoat. The hard, straight guard hairs (though some are slightly wavy toward the roots) which are long enough to extend through the crinkly undercoat, usually defy combing. The teeth of the comb slide between these hairs, which are held in place not only by the skin, but also by friction or static electricity with the adjacent hairs, so the comb typically catches only the wavy undercoat.
The dead topcoat hairs lie side by side with the live coat, but because they are not receiving oil from the follicles, are microscopically ragged, and have different resistance to friction. During my employment in the elastomer/polymer industry, I discovered that certain blends of natural and synthetic rubbers have the proper hardness, resilience, and frictional properties to draw out those dead hairs with no pull at all on the live hairs. This rubbing of the live hairs stimulates oil flow, as does bristle brushing. At that time I started marketing a molded rubber item shaped like a thick doughnut, having the exact properties of friction and toughness, and which was ideal as a nearly indestructible toy as well as useful for grooming. I called this “groomer” The Groommaster, but don’t advertise it anymore. You possibly can do as well with the toe of a sneaker, or a piece of shoe sole, if you can find these made from natural rubber. Substitutes made of vinyl and other polymers are not satisfactory.
Holding this groomer or a suitable substitute, stroke the dog firmly in the direction the hair lies. Working from the head toward the tail, work one section at a time, moving on to the next patch only when no more straight topcoat comes out. Unlike combing, use of the groomer does not build up a bank of fuzz unless the dog has not been combed at all and is losing his undercoat. Rather, the stiff, straight hairs of dead topcoat collect in a pile at the end of each stroke. The groomer is also very effective on the throat and other areas where the soft intermediate type hair grows (neither especially hard and long, nor only wavy and long). Use gentle, upward strokes so you don’t make the dog uncomfortable with too much pressure over the trachea.
The third tool is a fine-tooth hacksaw blade. You’ve seen those ankh-shaped curry-comb tools with the ends of the looped blade held in the handle. The main reason I don’t like those, besides the fact it requires something from a store instead of your basement tool cabinet, is that part of the commercial blade is drawn across the coat in the same way a knife is used to cut a rope or a piece of food. However, if you hold the straight hacksaw blade always perpendicular to the direction of the lay of the hairs, and drag it (again, like a rake) toward the hair tips (generally, this is from head toward tail or torso toward toes). The fine teeth of the blade grab the split ends of dead topcoat as effectively or even better than the rubber groomer does, and you drag the hairs out from between the live non-split hairs. If you haven’t used the comb first, it’s a bigger job, so comb and get rid of what undercoat you can before tackling the topcoat.
After combing out the undercoat and grooming off the topcoat, clean the dog by wiping him off with a damp towel to remove any remaining static dust and dandruff. If you have a show coming up right away, a lanolin spray or rub might help, but wipe it all off before entering the ring.
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