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.

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