Groomer, Poodle Turn Coats and Heads

Nobody primps their poodle quite like Sandy Hartness.

From a six-time People's Choice champion to her multiple appearances on the cover of Groomer to Groomer magazine to her award-winning Cock-a-Poodle-Doo creation, Hartness is firmly entrenched as the country's "top dog" in creative grooming.

"I know other people that would say that, but I'm more humble," the 36-year-old Hartness said about the accolades that have come her way. "I think there are some people out there that are better than me. I'd love to get into a competition with them all."

Creative grooming is the anything-goes, no-holds-barred practice of cutting, dyeing, twisting and sculpting dogs' coats, transforming your pet from an ordinary canine into colorful, extravagant representation of, well, just about anything.

Hartness, who works as a traditional pet groomer in Yucca Valley, Calif., only practices this more artistic form in competitions, and on her own standard poodle, Cindy, and occasionally on dogs belonging to her friends or family.

She specializes in turning her beloved Cindy into other creatures, real or imagined.

"I've done a dragon twice," Hartness said. "The second one came out fantastic. The rooster I thought was fun, and then my camel was a simple groom, but I was really happy with that one, too."

For lovers of creative grooming, "creative" is certainly the operative word. In addition to animal designs, which sometimes include feathers, habitats and attached companions, Hartness and her fellow creative groomers have also presented "Pirates of the Caribbean" depictions and "Space Odyssey" montages in dog competitions across the country.

The elaborate grooming style practiced by Hartness is by all accounts still a novel idea in America, but Hartness said there are plenty of dog owners with an untapped love for prettying up their dogs.

Hartness does concede that creative grooming is not everyone's cup of tea, especially those who believe it's demeaning to animals.

"I get every comment from 'Wow that's so neat, how do you do that?' to 'Oh that poor dog, it's so cruel' so I get it all, she said.

But Hartness said her dog loves being her muse.

"Oh, Cindy loves it," she said of her pet pup. "She loves the attention. When she's colored or decorated, she's so much more lively and outgoing. She'll run up to people like, 'Look at me, look at me. … Her whole personality changes. She loves to be different."

Hartness says her own skills in creative grooming come from her love for dogs and her passion for art.

"The creative part of it -- the drawing, the sculpting, the coloring -- is such a part of who I am, because I love art so much, but the most enjoyable part of the whole thing is working with the dog," she said.

Hartness, who has been an art lover as long as she can remember, said the process of transforming the dog from "slate to great" is a mix of observation, ingenuity and very little preparation.

"I get all my ideas from life," she said. "Outdoors or in, I'll be watching TV, and all of a sudden an idea will hit me and I'll be like, 'Damn,' and go grab my sketchbook and start drawing."

The real fun starts when the sketchbook disappears.

"Once you have your idea on paper, you just look at your dog and do what feels best. People think I'm crazy, because I'll just grab the scissors and start whacking away; I'll just go at it. I don't do a lot of planning," Hartness said. "I might pull the coat, rubber band the coat, and look at in a little more detail, but once I have an idea I just kind of widen it out on my dog and start cutting."

Hartness believes the idea of cutting the coat poses somewhat of a psychological barrier in creative grooming, one that has prevented the innovative style from taking firm root among dog owners in America, and part of the negative reaction she often gets.

"I think a lot of people are afraid of dyeing their dog or just whacking into that coat. But it doesn't hurt the dog at all. I don't have any human children -- my dog is my child. I would never do anything to hurt my dog."

According to Hartness, the dyeing of the dog is the most difficult part of creative grooming because of the need for a "crisp yet blended" separation of colors. But she said the most important quality a groomer can possess is the ability to improvise.

"My camel, I got that while I was onstage. I had shaved down this Persian cat to serve as the hump on her back, but onstage it just didn't feel right. I was like, "It's not gonna work, it's not gonna work." So all of a sudden I just started scooping up all the hairs I had scissored off, adding some hair spray, some glue, mashed it all together, added more hair, more spray, more glue, and I just threw it on her back," she said with a laugh.

"I mean, it's important to know your subject, but there's been a few times where I've walked onstage with a white dog. I had a few basic lines, but that's it. I won first place with those dogs, and I did everything onstage. So a lot of times things won't work, but you have to be able to improvise."

Hartness said her greatest hope is that people will realize the joys of creative grooming and take up her passion alongside her.

"We're trying to get more and more people interested all the time," she said. "I think there's a few of us that have a deep passion for it, and other people just think it's fun. But I don't think there's that many of us at all."