On 96 Fulham Road in Chelsea sits The Pet Spa, where London’s most pampered paws go to get their monthly wash and fluff dry or coat conditioning treatment. From the mini pupcakes in the shop to the Training Academy tucked inside, this is a grooming salon like no other. When it comes to finding an industry expert, I didn’t need to look much further than the spa’s co-owner and training director Julie Harris. Entering the industry aged 16, Julie has gone on to develop qualifications, raise standards and found the English Groomers Group. A proud member of the prestigious Guild of Master Groomers, finding a spare five minutes in her hectic diary of grooming, teaching and demonstrating all over the country was a task in itself. Relaxed and approachable, Julie laughed with me as I told her about my first and only attempt at using a clipper on my dog (never again), sharing her own story of success and invaluable advice. Who said pedicures were just for human paws anyway?
How did you get to where you are today, have you always wanted to be a dog groomer?
I’ve always loved animals, but in the late seventies there weren’t really any careers apart from being a vet, so I decided to get a job in a show kennels during the school holidays and was hooked. I got my GCSEs but I didn’t go back to school or do my A Levels, staying at the kennels for a couple of years enjoying that side of grooming and handling dogs. I then came out of the industry for about 15 years, retraining and working in pharmacy but grooming as a hobby. I then came back to the industry in my late twenties and found there had been lots of improvements, with qualifications and career prospects. I started with a City and Guilds and went on to get every qualification they chucked at the industry. I was also one of the first groomers to get the life censorship which was great, then became a member of the Guild of Master Groomers – there are only 26 of us in the country, so it’s quite elitist.
Where did The Pet Spa come from?
I had my own salon as part of the Petsathome franchise for fifteen years which was brilliant. When they made the decision to take their salons back I decided to get my teaching qualifications and work in grooming colleges. The Pet Spa came about when Harrods opened a spa, run by Stephanie Mehanna who is my business partner here. When they closed the spa she moved out here to Chelsea and that’s when I got involved, running the training academy.
Looking back over your career, what is the best part of your job?
For me, teaching is the best part. I find that my students constantly inspire me to be the best I can; they ask so much of you, they make you stay up to date, stay motivated. Also it’s undoubtedly the dogs. The dogs we have in our care are just amazing, some of them are more challenging than others, but you get something out of every single dog you handle.
What’s the most difficult part?
In all honesty, the most difficult part is also the students – it’s a double edged sword. Teaching can be really challenging, they demand the best out of you and it can be hard to get the best from them.
How do you teach a beginner to deal with aggressive dogs?
Usually at the beginning of the course you tend to choose the dogs the students use, so you know them quite well. You might give them a dog that is slightly challenging but you wouldn’t give them an outwardly aggressive dog that would scare them and taint their view of the industry. In all honesty if a dog has been handled correctly throughout their lives there’s a mutual respect here when you are grooming them.
In your opinion, what is the hardest thing for a complete beginner to get the hang of?
The biggest challenge all students have is handling the dog. Some dogs, who are not groomed by their owners often, will know exactly how to get out of the grooming process. They will jiggle around, try and sit down or get off the table, and will do this more with the students because they know it’s somebody inexperienced. Dogs are very perceptive so I think students do struggle with handling in the early days.
But this is something that comes with time and practice?
Totally and with technique – I give all my students an in-depth lesson about theory, behaviour and handling so they know what to look for in a dog. If the ears are back it means one thing, if they are forward it means something else – there is an awful lot for them to read.
Has the industry changed over the years?
There have been huge changes! When I started grooming 30 years ago I think there was one doggy hairdryer, so the change in equipment is a big one. Groomer welfare is really important now; there never used to be groomer’s uniforms, so animal hair would penetrate the skin.
Qualification is a big change as well, we are still not a licensed industry so anyone can pick up a pair of scissors and say they are a dog groomer, but we are more regulated. There are so many more courses and qualifications available.
When it comes to the spa packages and things like this, it varies quite considerably – at the Spa we don’t do anything gimmicky. All our products are handmade before we use them, using natural ingredients that have real benefits. We don’t go into nail painting or dyeing things pink!
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps and get into the industry?
Don’t rush your skills, they take time to develop. Some people go on a course and think they should be able to trim a poodle, don’t rush, enjoy it and get a lot of pleasure out of it because it becomes a way of life. We’re forever looking for things on the internet – it is encompassing when you get involved in the industry because there is such a passion for it. Be prepared for a lot of hard work, but if I can do it with only GCSEs you can too if you work hard!
Final question, do you have a favourite breed to groom and if so why?
I have had briards since I was 16 and show them, so I get a lot of pleasure out of making my dogs look lovely. As far as grooming goes, a few years ago I would have answered this and said poodles, but nowadays we’ve got so many of these lovely little designer cross breeds – cockerpoos, cavachons, I just enjoy anything I can scissor really. When their owners greet them and think they look fabulous, the dog will be saying ‘yes I do don’t I?’
If Julia has inspired you to pick up your grooming scissors and have a go for yourself, why not sign up to a dog grooming course? We can’t promise you will be Crufts ready by the time you leave, but will be one step closer to making your pup the talking point of the park.