A Hairy Business

"Pee, poop, puke, and dog hair. That's what I should have named my shop," quips Julie Anderson. Add to that bites and expressed anal glands, and one gets a pretty good idea of a typical day at Rover Makeovers, a pet grooming shop on Main Street in Cambridge. "I don't know how you can do this job and not love dogs."

Anderson's passion for canines goes as far back as she can remember, when she read every book she could on dog breeds, despite allergies that kept pets away most of the time. Born in Iowa but raised in Madison, the 52-year-old groomer began her 21-year career working in pet shops before learning the art of grooming. "I didn't know if I could do it," she said about her career choice. "It takes a lot of patience, but I find I have patience with animals, but not always people."

She opened her Cambridge shop in 2005. The quaint space is filled with a flurry of activity. Two grooming tables are at the center of the room, with a large washtub and sink toward the back. A small pooch – newly buffed and puffed – peers out from a crate, anticipating its owner's return. A small fan blows softly inside the crate to complete the drying process. Well-behaved dogs are awarded the freedom to roam the shop freely. The best might even receive a piece of Anderson's homemade dehydrated beef liver. "Dogs love it," she says.

Amid loud blasts of powerful blow-dryers and yelps from four-legged customers pacing around the room, Anderson and her contract employee and friend, Denise Stone, calmly trim, clip, brush, pull hair out of ears, and speak to their clients. "Poor thing," Anderson says to one small Yorkie. "You've got knots on your wiener." She holds the dog to her chest while Stone gives it a "sanitary trim" around its matted private area. The dog smells of urine and cigarettes. "You cannot get that smell out," Anderson says, shaking her head.

The two women each work on one dog at a time, making the dogs' experience, they say, less stressful compared to that of the larger pet stores and grooming salons they've both worked at. Together, they take misplaced pee or poop, or worse – expressed anal glands – in stride. "It's like cutting into a grapefruit," Anderson says of the disgusting, spurting liquid they're often forced to clean up. "You don't know which direction it will go. It's hit my hair and Denise's mouth." Then she smiles. "That's just one of the perks."

Stone has been working with Anderson for nearly two years. A 1099-contracted employee, she earns straight commission, which is common in the industry, Anderson explains. "Usually it's a 50-50 split, but Denise gets 55%. I appreciate her. She gets all the toenail trims and tips, because she's good at it." Stone, who earned a certification from the Wisconsin School of Professional Pet Grooming in Okauchee, Wis., provides her own clippers, scissors, and blades. She works part time, five days one week, four the next. "Denise is the best groomer I've ever had here," Anderson says. "She's certified. I'm just certifiable," she laughs, explaining that in Wisconsin, pet grooming licenses are not required.

In a bustling economy, a good day at the canine salon will bring in eight dogs a day – four for each of the groomers – in theory. "Business did drop a bit [in 2011]," Anderson says. It was the first time in seven years her income went down. "I thought I'd gotten past the bad economy. I even bragged about it! But it hit in 2011."

As a result, many of her regular six- to eight-week customers became eight- to 12-week visitors, and that hurt the pocketbook. Anderson then points to her calendar. One day next week, she notes, they're fully booked. "That will be the first time since Christmas," she says, hopeful. "I think we'll start picking up. Come spring, we'll be swamped."

Two unrelated cocker spaniels, Belle and Tucker, watch anxiously out the storefront window for their owners to arrive. Meanwhile, Anderson hoists Sam, a beautiful, mild-mannered, 10-year-old standard poodle onto a grooming table. It will take about three hours to groom Sam, who visits every eight weeks. "He gets the 'Town and Country' cut," she says, pointing to an image from the pages of a grooming book. His coat will be shaped into the breed-approved pattern, sans the balls around his ankles or the shaved toes.

"He looks so pretty when he's done," Anderson says, grabbing his snoot with one hand while trimming under his throat. Curls float to the table. "Faces and paws are the most sensitive areas, typically," she says, though Sam takes it all in stride, even when she lifts his leg for the sanitary trim.

Meanwhile, Stone works on another large dog, Emmie, a striking golden lab. She's in for her spa day – a regular bath, ear cleaning, toenail trim, brush, and blow-dry. Like Sam, Emmie is on her best behavior.


Bad hair day

Things often don't go so smoothly. "A bad day is when every dog poops or pees, and the worst is when they do it when they're in the crates after they've been bathed," requiring a second bath. "Bite-wise, we have some scars, but we try to work in ways to avoid that." Anderson requires owners to present proof of rabies vaccinations prior to any dog's initial visit.

Other work-related injuries are less obvious. Repetitive motion over the years has cost Anderson three surgeries on the same arm – her rotator cuff (which was 90% torn), elbow, and wrist. "It is hard on your joints, especially as you age," she admitted.
"So many people think this is such a fun job. I love it. It's artistic. You can turn a total mess into something beautiful, but by the end of the day, my back is killing me. I usually wear a brace."

Anderson says Rover Makeovers doesn't get an inordinate number of difficult dogs, those she terms "special needs." Owners of such dogs are charged a premium, and some owners even hold their pets throughout the visit. "If a dog is snappy over their tail or ears, that's no big deal," Anderson says. "It's the dogs that fight you the entire time – those that would just as soon bite your face off. Most have separation anxiety." She understands their reluctance, in a human sort of way. "I compare it to going to the dentist. Nobody likes to go, but you've got to go," she says.

Stone, meanwhile, finishes with Emmie and grabs a few spare moments to sit down and eat a sandwich. "Dog hair is a major source of fiber in our diets," Anderson smiles, glancing at her friend. "I'd rather have my hands on a dirty dog than on someone else's head."

Anderson studied photography at MATC in Madison years ago, and worked for a while in a photo lab. Her first marriage prompted a move to Illinois where she remained for 12 years, eventually opening her first grooming service. In 2000, she and her son moved back to the Madison area and she waitressed in Stoughton for a while before deciding to open the shop in Cambridge.

With about 2,100 groomings a year, Anderson says she could make a lot more money if she wanted to, but she chooses not to. "I'm happy with the money I make," she insists. "I've had to do eight to 10 dogs a day with other groomers. It's very stressful, for the dogs, too." One job, she recalled, left her so burnt out she thought she'd groomed her last dog. She considered her options. Though waitressing proved more lucrative than photo lab work, she wasn't thrilled about returning to either profession. "Then I saw this little building for rent," she said, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"I've had this goal for a while that I would just manage the place, but I just can't seem to get there. I would love to have employees, but can't afford it. I'd have to groom 10 dogs a day, and I won't." Instead, her self-imposed limit of four dogs allows time to handle business details – pulling and filing client cards, making reminder calls, handling the day's bank deposit, and cleaning. She's also planning to spruce up the shop with a coat of fresh paint, a new wash tub, tile, and a rubberized floor.
Because her passion for photography has never waned, Anderson started an in-home pet photography service on the side, an additional revenue stream.

Of Rover Makeover's 491 active clients, 172 are regulars, while 318 visit on an infrequent basis. "I'd love for that to be reversed," Anderson admits. "I've had 600 or more active clients in the past, and slow business means I had to color my own hair this time around," she said, but she's not complaining. "For someone who doesn't have a degree, this is probably one of the best jobs you can have."

Her career has helped the relationship Anderson has with her son, age 26, a grad student in organic chemistry at UW-Madison. "He used to be embarrassed that I was a groomer, that I didn't get an education. Now he's proud of me," she said. "I wish my dad were alive, because he'd really be proud, too.

"He used to call me Dog Biscuit."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.