[by Róisín Curé in Dublin] A few days ago I got a call from Annie Taylor, the lady who bred my beloved puppy. As well as breeding border terriers and Jack Russells bursting with health and full of character, she's a dog groomer too.
"The 20th anniversary of the Irish Professional Dog Groomers Association Championship is on in Dublin at the weekend," she said. "Would you like to come and sketch the event?"
"But dogs are impossible to sketch," I said. "They never stop moving."
"That's why you'll like this event," said Annie. "There will be lots of time to sketch them on the stands while they're being clipped."
That sounded good to me, and just before dawn on Sunday we were motoring up to Dublin in Annie's van, Howie, one of her terriers, on my lap. He was attending the show in a professional capacity, as he was to "volunteer" his services as a demo dog for a grooming technique known as hand-stripping.
A hall had been set up for the competition. Grooming products were for sale on stalls around the perimeter, but most of the area was laid out with about twenty grooming tables on which dogs stood patiently, awaiting orders. Each table had a metal upright from which a harness dangled, to keep a dog's head steady, or to prevent it from sudden moves, but not once throughout the entire day did I see any dog lunge or try to jump down.
The first dog I saw was a schnauzer in its pre-roomed state. I thought it looked great already - its eyebrows were beautiful, white feathery hoods turning its eye sockets into pools of darkness. The groomer sat by, waiting for the clock to start: each groomer would have two hours to produce a beautifully-clipped dog.
I wanted to sketch around the tables, but it was a bit crowded, and I was conscious that the groomers were in competition, and perhaps not keen on having a yoke with a sketchbook in their face. I did manage to capture a magnificently-eyebrowed Scottish terrier called Ike, having been exquisitely coiffed by his groomer, Tom O' Mahony. I only had seconds but sometimes that's no harm - it keeps your sketch fresh. Tom was not uncoiffed himself.
Next in my sketchbook came Bailey, a little shih tzu. When he'd been clipped and groomed to the satisfaction of the contestant, she put a Hallowe'en bow tie around his neck, with a tiny pumpkin print on the band and a silver pumpkin in the middle of the bow. He appeared to have a sweet character.
"Are the groomers the dogs' owners?" I asked Annie.
"Not for the most part, no," she said, "they are clients."
"That explains why they aren't being affectionate with them," I said.
"Not that exactly," said Annie, "if they were being affectionate the dogs would be all over them, and they'd get nothing done."
I was finding it hard to find places to sketch in comfort.
"It's a bit cramped for sketching," I told her, "but it can't be helped."
"There's a demo of a clipping just starting across the hall," she said. "There's much more room for you to sketch there."
Off I went, just in time to see a miniature schnauzer called Bella in her pre-groomed state on the stand. She looked like a shaggy ball of blue-silver wool, albeit freshly-bathed. Suzanne Garrett, the groomer who would be doing the demo, talked as she worked, encouraging questions from the audience. I learned all about different grooming styles, keeping the dog safe during a clipping (ie not nicking sensitive bits by accident), not ending up with bald patches and lots more. Bella was super-patient.
"I notice the bitch is very calm," I said to Suzanne. "Does she love being groomed, or does she just tolerate it?"
"I'll be honest," said Suzanne. "Dogs who come to my salon don't look overjoyed to be there, but neither do they protest. They are resigned...apart from the poodles, who love it. They are born to it, and are often groomed from four weeks old."
(After the demo, I noticed that the poodles were the only dogs who didn't have harnesses on them while being groomed, and Annie told me they proffer their little legs to be groomed.)
Suzanne's job requires physical strength - and patience.
"I'll sometimes have two owners discussing how much their dogs hate me, right in front of me," she said.
After an hour or so, Bella emerged a new girl, a glossy, elegant creature, having shed her cocoon of soft grey wool.
After Bella's transformation was complete, I trotted off back to the competition area to see how the clips were progressing.
"What's Asian about the Clipped Asian?" I asked an onlooker who looked knowledgable.
"It's a very close clip," said the woman. "Seemingly it's something to do with the tiny families in the likes of China and Korea and so forth. The dogs become surrogate babies and are clipped close, the better to wear clothes. The face is very important - it's all about looking sweet, you see."
I thought of the sailor suit that my scruffy boy wears, and realised that my approach isn't very different. My puppy is very much my baby, now that my human ones aren't tiny anymore.
I met a friendly Swede called Anki, who was transforming her miniature poodle, Sky, into a celestial haze of black softness. That's Sky on the right in the sketch. (She's not navy, she's black as midnight, but I don't use black watercolour.)
"This is the Scandanavian T-clip," Anki told me. "The T stands for Toilet - as in the original sense of the word - but it's not used anymore."
Sky wagged her tail furiously as her mistress's sister approached. I loved her character and, not for the first time, began to hatch plans for becoming mistress to a little girl poodle of my own some day.
Beside Sky was another black poodle beauty. I couldn't resist that lovely muzzle and so I sketched him quickly. He's on the left in the sketch, displaying the Bedlington Clip. I had a chance to pat him afterwards, and words can't describe how soft his coat was. Like touching air.
I sketched two groomers patiently waiting their turn, as the judges began to go from table to table, making their decisions.
I had expected lots of browns for the day, and had juggled my paintbox accordingly.
"I dug out a few extra browns before I left this morning," I said to Annie. "I figured I'd need them for painting dogs."
"I hope you didn't get rid of your brights," she said. "You're going to need them in the afternoon - it's the Creative Styling event."
Just as Annie predicted, I was soon furiously mixing the brightest purple I could, a blend of opera pink and cobalt turquoise. The intense colour I ended up with wasn't yet as bright as the purple of the friendly little poodle who was sitting on a table near me.
Next to him was a lady with an adorable chihuahua, who clearly adored her mistress, giving her little licks on the nose and face whenever she could.
"The other day," she said in broad Dublinese to the girl grooming the purple poodle, "the kids said to the husband,"Mammy can't find her glue!" and he says, "There's Pritt in the drawer in the kitchen," and the kids shout, "No! Her dog glue!""
The clock started - again, two hours for this class - and the competition began. The chihuahua was clipped very closely, the purple poodle had purple feathers stuck to his head, a white standard poodle was sprayed in a visual cacophony of clashing colours and another poodle was turning jade green.
This was the Extreme Creative class. As well as the poodle and the chihuahua were a standard poodle, a Yorkie or two and a couple of other curly-coated dogs of whose breed I would not be sure. The chihuahua had a spider's web drawn on her back in marker, which was glued and glittered. A huge spider sat on the web and a tiny witches hat was perched on her head. The white standard poodle was clipped like so much topiary into...a bus, some ghouls and a marshmallow man. The theme was the movie Ghostbusters. The jade green poodle had pink feathers tied to its tail, and had been given a lime green tummy transected with black lines, to represent the scales of a dragon. He had a hot pink mohican and purple wings...and lime green fake claws on his toes. Annie wasn't happy with the way one of the dogs looked, but not on grounds of taste.
"That dog is stressed," she said, and explained how she had made that judgment: the dog was panting and pacing. On the other hand, it was incredible how much the dogs put up with, and their big hearts and willingness to please struck me anew. But Annie puts the happiness of dogs above everything, and isn't afraid to share her feelings. For the most part - to my untrained eye - the dogs looked pretty happy.
In the Salon Creative class were a few sophisticated clips, among them a Yorkie and a couple of other soft things which I again couldn't identify. One was clipped especially to be viewed from a prone position.
"He spends all day by the fire with his elderly owner," the groomer told me, "so I did a clip which was to be seen when the dog is lying down."
How clever. Then there was my favourite dog of the whole show, that black cloud of poodle, Sky, who was now being transformed into a spiral, starting at the tail. How clever was the groomer, starting with an already-coiffed dog and turning it into something even fancier.
A tall and slim groomer had groomed her tiny Yorkshire terrier with a Parisian theme, complete with French plait, tricolor feathers, bows and pale pink crown. On her side was stuck a little hairclip which read "Paris" in gold letters. For the judging, the groomer dressed as a Parisian (each groomer had the option of dressing up to further get into the spirit of the dog they had just groomed). This one was in a beret and was channelling Paris from head to toe. Asked why she had chosen the theme, the groomer had a simple answer.
"I just love Paris," she said.
At last it was time for the results. Many of the dogs who had caught my eye made it onto the podium, so to speak: Sky the spiral poodle, the soft fellow with the Bedlington clip, Ike, the Scottish terrier, and lots of others...
Listening to the chairperson and the judges, I marvelled at this new world I've just discovered. I really like it (apart from all the smokers, of which there seem to be a disproportionate amount. Keep it outside, people!). I like the unapologetic pleasure in the sensual and the beautiful. Pleasure in the beautiful dogs, pleasure in the skill of making them look that way and pleasure in the joyful human-dog relationship. I know people who would say it's all silly - my husband among them - but that's the very dictionary definition of "killjoy".
When I'm a little old lady I'm going to have a poodle which I groom into cloud shapes. Wait...what's wrong with being a little middle-aged lady with a poodle?
Every artist needs her muse.