Introduction | An article detailing our experience of learning how to groom Elsa, a Lhasa Apso with a naturally long, non-shedding double coat.
As first time dog owners everything was new to us when Elsa came into our lives. Her puppy coat was still quite short, soft and fluffy and she had the most beautiful little curls on the tips of her ears. We knew that a Lhasa Apso would need daily (yes, daily!) brushing and regular trips to a groomer but nothing could prepare us for the challenges ahead...
The last thing Elsa wanted to do was sit still and be brushed when she was a puppy in the midst of teething. She had a very short attention span and even less patience; nipping our hands and biting the brush were much more fun for her. We did out best to establish a routine and discovered that by keeping her mouth occupied with a treat we could escape with our fingers intact.
We juggled brushes, treats and thought that we were doing a great job, maybe it wasn't so difficult after all...
In this phase we also took Elsa to a groomer for a puppy groom to get her used to being handled by a professional - it was nerve-wracking as we didn't know how she would react but she came out looking fluffier than ever, leaving behind a slightly nibbled groomer who wasn't overly impressed, although she had done a really good job! We were given instructions to train her to get used to being gently held by her muzzle/chin. So far so good.
We decided to try a different groomer next time around and to our horror she came out with her full fringe shaved completely off! It grew back quick enough but we were a bit apprehensive about having her fur cut again at this point. It was a few months until we took her again and in this time her puppy coat grew, a lot!
We continued brushing daily but found that combing was difficult and instead we used a standard slicker type of brush with short bristles because we found this to be easier. This was our first big mistake.
Because Lhasa Apsos are double coated, underneath the outer coat that we were brushing, large, dense mats had already formed in the undercoat around her front legs and in the fine wispy hair behind her ears. The picture below makes me cringe because you can actually see how matted she is by her shape, particularly the big chunks around her legs!
When we finally realised the mats had formed they were already so dense that we never thought we'd be able to brush them out. They were like balls of cotton wool stuck close to her skin. Having her fur clipped short did cross our minds... Interestingly, we learned that shaving a double coated dog could actually do more harm than good as the diagram below explains:
|STRUCTURE OF THE COAT ON A DOUBLE COATED DOG (IMAGE CREATED BY BROOK WILKINS)|
We decided to persevere and looked to the internet for help. YouTube was a very good source of informative videos about how to remove mats from fur. We also found that there are lots of tools available to help including 'mat breakers', combs with rotating teeth which glide through the fur and various sprays/ conditioners. With these tools in hand and reassurance from others who had been through similar with their long-coated Lhasas, we soldiered on. As her coat continued to grow it seemed to get worse before it got better but with continued patience, regular grooming at home and with a professional groomer, I am very pleased to tell you that we did manage to get through this awful phase! Now that she has her adult coat it is much easier to maintain.
Here are a few of the things we have tried and tested and would recommend, along with some of the tips and tricks that we have picked up along the way...
Part 1 | Invest In Good Quality Grooming Products
One thing that we found out quite quickly was that bathing Elsa with certain shampoos or using the wrong tools could actually make her coat even harder to groom. There are lots of products available to suit every budget, so you will be able to find one that's right for your dog's coat type and texture (some Lhasa's have thicker/ wavy coats, Elsa's is relatively fine and only has a slight wave when it dries naturally). Investing in good quality products and tools will save you time and money in the long run. Here are our recommendations:
Essential Grooming Products & Tools
I would suggest using conditioners sparingly as they can weigh the coat down, but I'd highly recommend Secret Weapon. It's expensive but a little goes a very long way because it's designed to be diluted. You can either add it to your shampoo directly or dilute it with water to use as a spray.
Sprays and Serums for Drying, Detangling & Conditioning
Certain sprays will detangle the fur, speed up drying time and protect from heat damage. These products can also be used between baths to soften and condition the coat if it feels dry which helps when brushing. A few of our favourites are:
- Chris Christensen Precious Drop (Conditioner)
- Chris Christensen Ice on Ice (Conditioner/ Detangler/ Sunscreen)
- Hypknotic by Secret Weapon (Detangler)
- Colin Taylor Grooming Fast Dry Spray - Aloe & Avocado
- Serums: Pet Silk Brazilian Keratin oil and Chris Christensen Liquid Silk Protein are also great coat smoothers/ conditioners.
Brushes & Combs
- Tangle Teezer - Excellent for removing mats gently and for everyday brushing, particularly around the face and ears. They actually have specific ones for dogs available now, but we've always just used the human ones. If your dog's fur is particularly thick then try the one specifically designed for thick and curly hair!
- Pin Brush - Essential for damage-free drying.
- Rotating tooth combs - Unlike combs with fixed teeth, these don't snag in the hair which makes it much easier to brush through.
- Slicker Brushes - Great for removing dead undercoat and giving the outer-coat a sleek finish.
There are various different dematting tools available but we've found that a mat breaker and a rake are the most useful, particularly in areas that are difficult to reach. As long as you brush in the direction of the hair growth you won't cut the outer coat when using these tools.
Scissors & Clippers
Sometimes small knots just need to be snipped out! We'd recommend buying at least one pair of blunt-ended scissors for trimming areas like the face and between paw pads where dense mats can form if left unattended. For more advanced home grooming we'd recommend a pair of thinning scissors along with a pair of long scissors for trimming the coat. Clippers are very handy for trimming around paw pads and private areas. Please don't attempt to clip or trim your dog at home without any guidance from a professional groomer - it's much more difficult than it looks and takes a lot of practice!
Other useful products
Ears | Vita Canis Ear Cleaner.
Teeth | Dorwest Roast Dinner Toothpaste has a gritty texture which helps to keep plaque build up to a minimum.
Nails | We'd recommend a file/grinder rather than clippers. You can find these on Amazon for around £15 and ours was worth every penny because Elsa absolutely hated having her nails clipped!
Towels | Henry Wag have a great range of highly-absorbent microfiber towels.
Part 2 | Teach Your Dog To Love Being Groomed!
Lhasa Apso's need to be brushed daily, regardless of the length of fur because even a short coat can become matted. We also bath Elsa and trim her face and paws fortnightly and give her a 'full groom' every six to eight weeks. Training Elsa to accept and hopefully enjoy these activities was essential from a very young age, particularly because we wanted to grow her coat out...
We started by giving Elsa treats so that she would associate grooming with something nice. When she was a little puppy we found these fantastic treat licks, a sort of gravy filled roller-ball dispenser, that she would happily lick while we brushed her. As she got older we started giving her a chew while we brushed her as we usually do it in the evening to get rid of any tangles, mats, leaves, mud, slugs (yup!), plant seeds, twigs and whatever else she has picked up over the course of a day! Over time she grew more and more tolerant and, by keeping on top of her grooming with daily brushing, we can usually have her brushed from nose to tail in about 10 minutes now.
Elsa is very headstrong and when she was younger my husband and I had to tackle her together; one person to hold the treats and Elsa from wriggling too much, the other to brush! We have never tethered Elsa while brushing her and always let her have a break if she seems to be getting stressed out at all. It took us almost a year to pluck up both the courage and Elsa’s trust to let us trim the fur on her face between her eyes, but we got there in the end!
As with all training: patience and persistence are key so don’t give up!
For advice and help with general training we would highly recommend Zak George's Dog Training rEvolution videos on YouTube.
Part 3 | Daily Grooming - Techniques & Tips
Although Lhasa Apsos are classed as a non-shedding breed; any loose, dead downy undercoat does fall out. This is why it is important to make sure that you brush through both layers, not just the outer coat.
We start by making sure that everyone is comfortable. We have a bench that we put Elsa on that we can stand next to and a non-slip mat for her to stand on. A quick once-over with a Tangle Teezer or pin brush smooths the outer coat and gives us an idea of whether or not there are any mats. Next, we gently start brushing with the rotating tooth comb working around her rear, across her back, hind legs and then moving towards her front legs, chest and finally her head. We continue to part the fur out into sections, running the comb through the full length of the fur around her whole body. This whole process takes about 10-15 minutes if the coat is relatively mat-free. Areas like between her chest and front legs can be quite tricky as they are usually the parts that get matted the worst. Grooming her in an elevated position (on the bench) makes these areas much easier to get to, and sometimes approaching them from behind the leg or underneath the body makes brushing even easier. Finally, we run the Tangle Teaser/ slicker brush over her fur once again to remove the rest of the loosened undercoat.
After a full brush and de-matting session we can find that she is just as bad the next day, sometimes worse depending on what she’s been up to! We eventually learned to accept that she’ll always have a few tiny mats no matter how much we brush her. The important thing is not to let a tiny mat develop into a bigger problem, so keep on top of them. Even if you can’t get every single one out, try again later or the next day. Elsa's coat definitely became easier to groom over time as we learnt how to handle her grooming and the coat texture changed with the growth of her adult/ outer coat.
Regular brushing is also important because you learn about the shape of your dog's body and will be able to recognise any changes such as weight loss/gain, lumps, bumps and parasites like ticks quickly.
NOTE: Sometimes applying liquid/ spot-on flea & worming treatments can cause the fur to become matted. It's important to keep these areas brushed but to allow the solution to be fully absorbed before bathing (check with your vet). Alternatives are available in the form of edible treatments.
If you hit a snag that the comb doesn’t easily brush through, try turning the comb and gently pull it through the troublesome area vertically. If this doesn’t pull the knot out easily then you’ll need to grab the mat splitter and run it vertically through the mat. Then, once broken apart, use the Tangle Teezer to gently tease the fur apart by brushing outwards from the middle of the mat in various directions until the loose fur is removed.
Densely Matted Fur
If you find an area that is densely matted, use a combination of the mat splitter and rake tools. A grooming spray will also come in useful here. Hold the fur as close to the skin as possible so that you don't pull the skin while removing bigger mats. Once the matted area is loosened, use the Tangle Teezer to tease the fur apart by gently brushing outwards from the middle of the mat in various directions.
Elsa is allowed to run around, play and get dirty just like any other dog. In fact, we usually go out of our way to let her get exceptionally dirty on bath days! Regular bathing helps to keep her fur in good condition; we simply put her in the bath - shampoo, rinse (sometimes condition) and she’s done! We squeeze as much water off her fur as possible before wrapping her in a towel.
This part of the process is much more time consuming… Elsa usually likes to run around like a maniac when she is wet but once we have soaked up as much as possible with a towel we lift her onto the grooming table and spray her with a conditioner/ detangler and then begin to dry with a hairdryer and the pin brush brush, gently parting the fur repeatedly over her entire body until completely dry. The outer fur dries much faster than the undercoat so it's important to keep parting and brushing the fur while drying to make sure you dry both layers otherwise you may have some problems with the undercoat matting if left to dry naturally. When the fur is wet it’s also a lot easier to see and remove areas of matted fur and check the skin for any potential issues or parasites like ticks.
Elsa sometimes suffers from tear-stains, usually when the air is very dusty, or when the fur around her eyes needs trimming.
Top Tips for Tear Stains An eyebrow/beard or any fine tooth comb is a very handy tool for brushing the fine hairs around the eyes to remove any eye 'goop'. It can also be used to brush on the tear-stain remover. Water bowls can harbour bacteria that cause fur staining so, if you are using a ceramic or plastic bowl, switch to using a stainless steel one, it really does help!
The insides of Lhasa Apso's ears are also quite furry and need proper care and attention to ensure that mats don't form inside them. Some people recommend 'ear plucking', essentially pulling some of the hairs out with tweezers (please seek advice and guidance from a vet or a professional groomer before attempting this at home!), but we have never felt that this was necessary with Elsa, we just brush the fur gently with a Tangle Teezer during her daily groom. If there is any ear wax stuck to the fur inside her ear we use Vita Canis Ear Cleaner on a cotton bud to gently wipe it away.
Regular brushing can prevent plaque build-up and dental issues so we try to brush Elsa’s teeth 2-3 times a week. We found that dog toothbrushes were too big for her small mouth so we improvised with a children's toothbrush which is a much better size! Dorwest 'Roast Dinner Toothpaste' has a gritty texture which helps to keep plaque build up to a minimum. We used to give Elsa dental chews but have stopped now that we've learned more about their ingredients... there are lots of new alternatives available to the traditional ones available in supermarkets, but even the ones being marketed as 'all natural' are made up of things like potato flour, potato/tapioca starch and glycerine and I'm not convinced that these are the best things for Elsa to be eating!
We keep Elsa’s paws in good condition by using paw wax on warm/ cold days to protect against the elements. Paw butter is a nice conditioner, but we don’t find that she needs to have this on all the time so it's more of a post-bath treat!
Elsa only ever seems to need her front nails trimming but she absolutely HATES having her nails clipped which makes this part of the grooming process incredibly difficult for us. You have to be very careful not to cut the quick inside the nail so you can't just take a guess and cut, you need to be able to see the nail properly and guide the clipper carefully. Luckily most groomers and vets will do this for you as a walk-in service. Top Tip - if trimming nails with a clipper is impossible, buy a nail grinder instead. We got this one from Amazon for less than £15 and it's amazing! It took Elsa a little while to get used to the sensation on her nails, but she will now allow us to gently file her nails with the grinder without any fuss which has made the process much less stressful for everyone involved!
Part 4 | Trimming & Styling
It's important to find the right groomer for your dog.
Although Elsa's coat has some length, we still prefer to keep the style practical and manageable. Because proper grooming is such a significant factor with this breed, it's a good idea to get your Lhasa used to being handled by a professional groomer at a young age, so we started taking Elsa for regular trims when she was a puppy. We tried a few different grooming salons in the first couple of years... some were really good with Elsa, others shaved random chunks of fur off, or Elsa seemed unsettled in the salon so, even if we really liked the groomer, we still tried different options until we found somewhere that she was comfortable going. Fortunately we had more good experiences than bad!
Most groomers will have experience of clipping Lhasa's coats very short because this is a popular, low-maintenance style, but if you want to keep the style a bit longer then you will need to find someone who has experience of 'hand scissoring', and don't be afraid to give the groomer in-depth details of how you'd like the coat to look - I even used to take photographs and drawings with specific instructions on what I'd like trimming and what I wanted leaving alone! Tip - Try an online search for groomers in your area who specialise in grooming Lhasa Apso's or dogs with 'drop coats'. Many independent groomers/ salons will also have social media pages where you can see examples of other dogs that they have groomed. Alternatively, if you're not too fussed with the style of the coat, grooming schools or trainee groomers usually offer discounted services to practice grooming your dog!
Learn how to groom your dog yourself!
Many grooming schools run short courses (usually just 1 day) where you can actually learn how to groom your own dog from top to tail! I took Elsa to Four Paws Groom School in Northwich, Cheshire, where I learned everything from trimming her nails to hand-scissoring her coat. Click here to read more.
Approximately 4-5 weeks after attending this course I attempted my first solo 'full groom' at home. Despite writing notes on the day, I had to rack my brain to remember everything! Once I started I just took my time and tried my best not to get carried away with the scissors...
I'm very pleased with how she turned out after this first attempt... but I did make a bit of a mess on one of her back paws! I cut a little bit too much fur off at a slanted angle instead of straight across - oops! At least it's on the most inconspicuous part of her body - it could have been much worse!
Doing it yourself is definitely not easy, please do not attempt to trim or clip your dog's coat without proper guidance from a professional groomer! The whole process of bathing, drying and trimming takes me almost 3 hours altogether (including rest breaks), and I still have a lot of practising to do! Along with the cost of the course itself, I've also had to invest in some more equipment including clippers and scissors so that's another thing to think about if you are considering learning how to trim your own dog at home. Personally, I feel like it's been worth every penny because I really enjoy it, and I have a bit more freedom (and control) over how Elsa's fur is styled!
After leaving Elsa's fur to grow to an unmanageable length, I had lost a bit of confidence with trimming her myself so, almost a year after doing the original course, I also spent some time with another professional, award-winning groomer called Lisa Hart for some extra training. Lisa has over 14 years of experience and has won several grooming awards; she is particularly gifted when it comes to 'Asian Fusion' style grooming which she regularly practices on her adorable Miniature Schnauzer, Esme. I'm not brave enough to try this sort of style on Elsa so we went for a more traditional, but practical cut to suit her features. It was great to work on Elsa alongside Lisa, she was so helpful and really gave me the courage that I needed to develop my own grooming techniques a little bit more. Elsa looked absolutely amazing at the end of the session, we took a lot of bulk out but kept her coat relatively long - I couldn't have been happier! Thanks again to Lisa for all of your help and advice!
Afterword | Keep Your Dog's Skin and Coat Healthy with a Good Diet
Good skin and coat health starts with a nutritional diet.
After doing a lot of research into the different brands and varieties of dog food that are available we decided to start feeding Elsa ORIJEN and have never looked back! Not only has the Fit & Trim recipe helped to stabilise her weight, she is healthy, has lots of energy and a beautiful, shiny coat!
Tip - Another benefit of feeding a good quality diet to a dog with long fur is that it produces healthy, firm stool - there is nothing worse than a dog with long fur and an upset tummy!