Patterned poodles get rock star treatment at Houston dog show

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Cindy Oliver looks at the snow-white fur of her 6-year-old Standard Poodle, Paisley, and sees a blank canvas.

With splashes of colorful dyes and intricately trimmed hair patterns, Oliver can evoke a time, a place, a memory.

On Sunday, at the Houston World Series of Dog Shows, she transformed Paisley into a nostalgic remembrance of the 1980s, with homages to Alf, E.T., the Smurfs and Strawberry Shortcake woven into her coat.

“To me, you’ve got to be artist to do normal grooming, but this takes some more skills and talent to do this, really thinking outside the box” said Oliver, 39, who traveled from southeastern Tennessee for the show.

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The work of Oliver and her peers has become an annual attention-getter at the Houston dog shows, which wrapped up Sunday for the 40th time. Once lagging in interest, creative grooming is back on the rise as photos of eye-catching designs proliferate online, a couple of well-placed reality television shows inspire artists and a pride of loquacious poodles plays along.

At NRG Park, hundreds of patrons snapped photos and gawked at the elaborate designs, each of which bore a theme. Six groomers entered this year’s competition, vying for a top prize of $1,500.Oliver’s precision and attention to detail astonished patron Jessica McKenny, 35, of Spring.

“I feel like I’m reliving my childhood,” said McKenny, 35, of Spring. “It’s like having all the shows and cartoons I grew up with – but on a dog.”

One crowd favorite, 14-month-old Remington, showed off an Arctic motif, with his front half shaped like a polar bear and his back half a hybrid of penguin and whale. His owner, Leslie Waldrep, traveled with her family from northern Alabama for the event, lugging along 20 pairs of shears, 10 airbrush paints and too many stray accessories to count.

“Poodles have wonderful hair, they’re big clowns, they love the attention and they’re very intelligent,” said Waldrep, 35. “They want to work with you. They get satisfaction from working to a common goal.”

The dedicated groomers spend each year perfecting one pattern per pup – the base dye has to be shorn off to start a new design – and showing it at contests.

But it’s the dogs who become the stars, surrounded by dozens of onlookers, many snapping smartphone photos, a few shouting at them.

“I like to joke that it’s like a U2 press conference or something,” said Todd Shelly, the grooming event’s organizer.

Not that creative grooming comes without detractors. Check out any Facebook post with a done-up dog, and there are bound to be commenters barking. The dyes are harmful, they say. The dogs must be miserable. The owners are cruel.

Au contraire, poodle owners say. The colors are non-toxic and safe, no different than those used to mask a show dog’s stray gray. Many poodles naturally love the attention from a groomer. And owners are well aware that it takes a certain canine camaraderie for creative grooming to work.

“You can’t just throw any dog up there to do creative,” Oliver said. “She has to have patience, and I have to have patience with her.”

After a run of popularity in the 1980s, creative grooming went out to pasture for a bit, Shelly said. Today, it’s still a small-knit group, with about 15 die-hards traveling the country for major events and locals popping up at in-town shows.

But Shelly said he’s seen the public’s interest rebound at events like Houston’s dog shows, and more-traditional groomers are acknowledging the benefits.

“I understand that there are people who want the breed to be shown in a more proper way,” Shelly said. “We’ve never had any kind of negativity at all here. It’s quite the opposite. We always have tons of people around, and the dogs are kind of like rock stars.”

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