Two-year-old golden retriever Colby died from heat stroke at a Virginia Petco when his owner dropped him off for grooming. The employee taking care of him left for the day, forgetting that the dog was still in a kennel dryer. Scott and Elsa Wyskocil’s 17-year-old poodle, Curly, was essentially baked to death by a dryer in a California C&C Pet Food for Less shop, his body temperature reaching 109 degrees. And six-year-old Lhasa apso Sadie died as a result of being professionally dried after a grooming session in California. She suffered internal burns, bleeding, and an elevated body temperature of 107.
All of these dogs were not dried by hand-held devices but placed into professional dryer “cages,” or “boxes,” with a heating element — heated coils, warm forced air, or both in order to speed the process.
To be sure, the number of dogs who have died at professional grooming establishments is small. But their loss is, of course, incalculable to their owners. After entrusting their pet to others for simple grooming maintenance, owners returned to find their dogs in critical condition or already dead.
To stem the tide of perfectly healthy dogs dying as a result of being dried in dryers that have done the job too well, New York has passed a law that will ban heated “cage” or “box” dryers and tighten groomers’ standards. Massachusetts is considering following New York’s lead, seeking greater overall accountability and professional training for grooming establishments, with employees expected to earn a license after passing an exam and employers bound to institute disciplinary actions or loss of licensure for those not in compliance. California is also undergoing legislative soul-searching. And New Jersey resident Rosemary Marchetto has been trying to get passed a nationwide law, “Bijou’s Bill,” to ban cage dryers and enforce stricter standards on groomers. Her efforts are spurred by the loss of her dog, Bijou, during a grooming visit.
“The primary risk of putting dogs in heated enclosures designed to dry fur likely stems from how easy it may be either to misuse such a device or overestimate the amount of drying time required,” explains Rob Halpin, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Society for Protection Against Cruelty to Animals, or MSPCA.
There’s the busy-ness factor, too. Groomers don’t tend to stand over a dryer while a dog spends time in there after her bath. They attend to other dogs or responsibilities in the name of efficiency. In retriever Colby’s case, his groomer rushed off to attend a graduation party, allegedly without making sure that another groomer would take over. In a public statement, Petco said it’s clear the company’s “animal care protocols were not followed when it came to Colby.”
Besides the factor of human error, equipment isn’t infallible. Toggles on the machine can be bumped, resulting in a raised temperature. In addition, the temperature gauge may not be working properly or producing uneven or greater heat than it is set for. Or the timer may fail and the settings may not work as they should, in addition to the possibility of the groomer simply not setting the controls appropriately. The end result can range from suffering to injury and, as the cases above illustrate, death. Despite that reality, most owners leaving their pet off for grooming do not even know about the harm that could come to their pets from cage dryers.
It’s understandable that groomers appreciate cage and box dryers — they can dry even the thickest of coats and provide hands-free time that can be used to work on other animals during drying. But even without scenarios of leaving a dog drying for too long or at the wrong temperature, it simply may be too much for small dogs, and particularly so for brachycephalic dogs, such as pugs, whose pushed-in faces reduce their ability to breath — a serious handicap in this scenario.
How you can reduce risk
Not all dog owners can handle bathing their own dogs. Even some small dogs are hard to get — and keep — in the tub or sink. They put up quite a fuss. Or perhaps the owner has a condition such as arthritis or back problems that would make keeping a dog still and bathing her at the same time difficult, if not impossible.
Responsible dog owners who are not going to wash their own pets can reduce the risk of drying harm by requesting a behind-the-scenes look at the back area in a professional grooming establishment where their pet will be tended to. If they see a cage heater, they might seriously want to consider taking their dog elsewhere.
Another cue to find a different groomer: if the person in charge does not want you looking in the back room. That’s a major red flag. A groomer to whom you entrust your dog should not be defensive. She should be cooperative and inherently understand your desire to see where your dog is going to be when you’re not there to watch over her.
Going it alone at home
Another option, if you have the physical wherewithal and can stay calm about wet floors, dirty towels and bathtubs, water shaken off fur and onto furniture several feet away, water shaken off fur and onto you, and carpets rolled over to remove more water still, is to take grooming to your own bathroom. It’s a messy proposition, yes, but you’re watching out for your dog’s safety every second of the time. It’s also free. And there are measures you can take to (partially) alleviate the hassle, including having super-absorbent towels on hand to get as much water off your dog as possible. It’s also a good idea to make sure to bring into the bathroom your dog’s collar and leash so that you can march her straight from the bath to the back door for a walk that will reward her and help dry her off all at once at the same time that it will save your furnishings.
You can also take your dog to a do-it-yourself facility. They are becoming more and more popular. Ramps lead to step-in tubs — especially good if it’s a St. Bernard you would otherwise have to coax into the tub at home. The tubs are also raised, making the washing easy on your back. And it’s easier on the wallet than grooming establishments that do the work for you. Additionally, do-it-yourself places tend to provide all you’ll need to get your dog squeaky clean. You don’t have to bring the shampoo and conditioner, which typically are provided in easy-to-use dispensers, as are commercial dryers that can speed up the drying process, but safely. They’re not cages or boxes but, rather, more like small canister vacuums with hoses. You’re there taking care of your dog the whole time.
Either at home or at a do-it-yourself facility outside the home, you can also be the one to comfort your dog while you’re putting her through something she might not enjoy. Why leave something so unpleasant — and potentially traumatic — to a stranger?
Perhaps the best part of bathing your dog yourself: her initial shaking off after the bath, if unhindered, can shed up to 70 percent of the water on her. Followed by a good toweling with perhaps two or three towels rather than just one, and then a good walk, she should get plenty dry without your needing to expose her to artificial heat.
The only issue with air-drying your dog on the street after a bath is the need to keep in mind that you can’t let her off leash. There’s too good a chance she will get dirty again rolling her wet body around on the ground to speed the drying process.
Of course, you also have to consider extremes in temperature. Any extreme weather, especially the cold, will not be good for your dog to walk through. At such times, to save your furniture from becoming one large toweling tool for your pet, you may want to keep her in the bathroom and use a blow dryer, preferably one made for dogs and keeping in mind that your dog may not be happy about this at first — it is certainly a rush of sensation and noisy for your dog’s sensitive ears.
“For the uninitiated dog, exposure to any loud blower can be terrifying and potentially dangerous,” says Virginia Sinnott, DVM, DACVECC, who works with the MSPCA. “If you want to use a dryer on your dog or take them to a groomer who uses a dryer responsibly, introduce the sound to them first from far away, rewarding calmness with a treat and withdrawing the dryer if they act frightened. Then slowly, over several days, bring the dryer closer until they remain calm. Always give a treat and praise for being calm.” The reward reinforces the desired behavior, and the dog learns no harm will come.
“Once they are not afraid of the dryer next to them,” Dr. Sinnott advises, “begin to blow it towards them, at first ruffling their fur with an indirect blast for a couple of seconds, rewarding calmness with a treat and withdrawing the dryer completely if they become scared. Once they are used to a full blast and seem unbothered by it, a full grooming session can occur that includes the dryer. However, be ready to withdraw the dryer if the dog becomes frightened after the first bath. Remember, the bath itself can be a bit stressful and therefore can compound the stress from the dryer.” Dr. Sinnott recommends that even when your dog is no longer frightened of the dryer, never get so comfortable that you decide to keep her tethered and prop a dryer so that it blows on her while you’re out of the room.