Shaving Northern Dogs
By: Gary Wynn Kelly
Copyright, May, 2005, and revised September, 2018.
Northern dogs are renowned for their lovely fur coats. The most ardent fan of the northern breeds sometimes dreams of a dog that would shed less, or require less frequent grooming. When the spring shed comes, it can take time and patience to keep up with the task of grooming these dogs, especially when the dog may not always choose to cooperate.
When people come to us and ask how often these northern dogs shed, I often answer them, For "6 months in the spring, and 6 months in the fall." While shedding varies from dog to dog, there are many northern dogs that seem as though they never stop shedding.
Some groomers and some veterinarians suggest that it is okay to clip or shave the coat back during the summer months, or even all year round. This article is written to refute such claims, and inform the owners of these breeds as to the reasons why.
I have met people who claim that their dog is happier shaved, and that their vet told them it is healthier, too, as the dog will not get so hot. This is perhaps a misunderstanding, or a generalization from some other breed that is not a northern breed.
The northern breeds have a double coat. This double coat consists of an undercoat, that is soft and short. The outer coat is made up of longer guard hair. This outer coat has a sleek sheen, when healthy, and water dropped on this coat will most often run off, never penetrating to the undercoat.
The coat combination offers excellent thermal protection for the dog from extremes of cold *and heat*. Northern dogs, like desert peoples, are better off fully dressed than nude. Shaving away the outer coat exposes the undercoat, which cannot adequately protect the skin from the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. This can lead to severe sunburn. I have seen this in two dogs, and it took months for one dog to recover.
People have told me that this is not a problem for their dog, as it is not outdoors very often, as it stays indoors, or is in the shade out of doors. I suspect that such owners are often unaware of just how long the dog is in sunlight, or that ultraviolet radiation can be present on cloudy days, too, and still damage the skin of the dog. A dog's skin has no natural tanning capability to protect it from the sun. The remaining undercoat may just be thick enough to protect the owner from knowing that they have just put their dog's health at risk.
This is only one of the four reasons one should not shave down a northern dog. A second reason is even more evident when one understands the evolution of the guard hair that protects the inner coat.
The guard hair is well named, as it guards the undercoat, and protects the skin. The guard hair is thicker, longer and often more coarse. It lies along the top of the coat and because it does lie flat, it forms a layer of hair over the undercoat. Dirt, waste products, leaves, food and other debris generally slide right off this outer coat. If the coat gets muddy, one can often just wait until the mud dries and then brush the dog. The result is most often a clean coat. It is almost as though the outer coat has a non-stick finish like good cookware. We sometimes say that it was northern dogs who first invented Teflon.
When this outer coat is shaved away, there is no protection for the undercoat. Worse, the undercoat is often damaged by being shaved, too. The result is that the remaining undercoat is like a magnet, attracting leaves, grass clippings, dirt, small sticks, bugs and other detritus. If the shaved dog goes outside for even a short time, it can come back into the house with an entire load of organic and other materials from the outdoors.
I had one dog at the end of 2003, that had such a severely shaved coat that as of 2005, it had not fully recovered from the damage that shaving did. The dog still lacked a full outer coat of guard hair, and the dog required grooming *each* time it went outside before it could come back indoors. At first, the grooming took 30-45 minutes each time this happened. That decreased, but the dog lacked the full protection of the outer guard hair for much longer.
That outer coat stands guard against all the loose organic material and all the dirt that can get into a dog's coat. It helps to protect the dog from allergies, that can be triggered by having the organic materials of the outdoors come into contact directly with the skin. It can also reduce the need for bathing, which if done too often, can trigger major skin problems that are expensive and difficult to resolve.
The oils of the skin are important to both the skin and the coat. Those oils coat the hair of the coat and afford protection from moisture and damaging materials in the environment. The oils coat the hair and provide the hair with the ability to shed water like the feathers on a duck. It keeps water outside of the coat and away from the skin. This helps to warm the dog in damp weather. Mud and other organic
materials also are repelled as much by the oiled fur as by the guard hair itself. This keeps the inner coat clean, dry and free of potential infection, or the danger of forming a nesting place for insects. This is the third reason to ensure the integrity of a northern dog's coat.
The oil protects the skin and keeps the skin healthy. The skin needs the oil to stay moist and pliable. Dry skin can result in itch problems, scratching and dandruff. This may then require medicated baths, special lotions, or additional medicines to restore the proper skin oil balance.
The dog has a coat for excellent reasons. We wear clothes for good reasons, too. Even in cultures and at times when people could make the choice to be nude, they often found it wise to wear clothing -- not for modesty, but for protection to the skin. Exposed skin is easily scratched, torn, or subject to abrasion from trees, rocks, or other surfaces. The dog has a coat to protect it from abrasion, scratches, splinters, or being torn on sharp objects. This is the fourth reason to help your dog maintain a healthy coat -- mechanical protection.
The entire composition of the coat, from undercoat, guard hair and skin-oil balance is a specialized system that has evolved over tens of thousands of years. Man can only harm it by interfering with what naturally evolved to protect the dog. One of the most insidious threats to the dog's health is from bacterial infections. If the coat is compromised by shaving or trimming, it can result in moisture and organic material being built up on the skin. This combination can harbor bacteria and result in severe skin problems that can threaten the dog's survival Dogs scratch when they itch and that scratching can often result in damage to the skin, bleeding and the possibility of worsening an infection. An expensive course of antibiotics may be required to stop the infection.
We attempt to educate as many groomers and adopting families, as well as other dog owners, to *NEVER* shave the coat of a northern breed dog. It is gambling with the health of the dog for a minor convenience of an owner.
Grooming can be fun. There are several excellent reasons why an owner should groom the dog each week, at least once.
1. It is a time for an owner to examine the dog thoroughly. This provides an opportunity to find any strange lumps, sores, sensitive areas, or unusual appearing areas on the dog. Your dog cannot speak up to call your attention to a change in its health status, so owners must accept that responsibility. Finding medical problems at an early stage can save the dog's life -- literally and result in far lower medical costs.
2. It is an excellent time to enjoy the dog. Dogs often love the handling and praise they get while being groomed. I have had dogs that started out being difficult about being groomed, who ended up loving the experience. Sometimes it took time to bring this about, but it was always worth it.
3. It is a time for helping to train and accustom the dog to being handled. Grooming affords an owner the opportunity to teach the dog to stand still and accept being handled in places even when it would prefer to not do so. One can teach the dog to let the tail be handled, feet, chin, ears, or around the neck and collars. This can help the dog by preparing it for vet examinations and even handling by children who might visit. This may prevent a potential incident later that would embarrass the owner, or worse, threaten the well-being of the dog, or the health of a child.
If owners will consider the benefits of weekly grooming and handling, and the liabilities of shaving, we are convinced that wisdom will prevail. Every owner will value a healthy and happy dog, that is socialized to being handled and is mellow even when taken to a veterinarian. The family veterinarian always appreciates a well socialized and mellow dog.
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