It would be safe to call Stephanie Willis a veteran pet groomer, having worked in the field for 25 years and in a variety of roles.
She started out learning the art of bathing and grooming dogs and cats at a salon in Columbia, S.C., where her family once lived. But the Columbus native also operated her own shop, Classy Kritter Cuts, locally for 12 years before becoming a manager at Petco, working there eight years.
Most recently, the Harris County resident has been practicing her trade at Dramatic Paws Pet Spa & Boutique in the Weracoba-Lakebottom area of Columbus, a business operated by Kristi Parrish near the old St. Elmo School. It's a colorful atmosphere, with products for purchase and classical music playing in the area where animals stay wait to be groomed and then picked up by their owners.
The website Salary.com lists the median annual pay for an animal groomer and bather in the U.S. at $31,867.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Willis, 45, recently to her job.
This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity, with an expanded version available at www.ledger-enquirer.com.
What's your schedule like?
I'm usually off on Wednesdays and Sundays, and I usually work 7:30 to 2:30. I leave by 2:30 so I can go pick my son Austin up from school.
How did you get into this occupation?
I just told my dad that I wanted to learn how to groom pets. He told me I was crazy, and he took me to the grossest, nastiest grooming shops he could find everywhere, because he travels with his work. ... I was actually in Columbia, S.C., at the time and there was a place called Kathy's Pooch Parlor there and she did apprentices. She kept it nice and clean. It sparkled and it was awesome, and she taught me how to groom.
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
I went to school to do programming for a little while. But I once sat down and did this whole programming thing, and the computer crashed and I lost every bit of it. I was like, I can't do this. This is not working for me.
But I just love animals. I have a way with them. I even do a lot of the bad dogs that nobody else can do.
What's your day-to-day life like on the job?
Usually, I do around six to eight dogs a day, it just depends. I don't like to do more than 10. After 25 years, I've had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands and I've got tennis elbow. I've also got pins and plates in my back from back surgery.
The physical challenge is the worst part of it?
Yes. To me, the physical challenge is probably the hardest thing.
How long does it take to bathe and groom a dog?
I can do a small dog in about an hour, if not 45 minutes, because I've been doing it for so long. We'll give them a hair cut, cut their toe nails, clean out the ears, bathe, brush and we blow dry them most of the way and put them in a dryer with fans on them to get them the rest of the way dry.
How long for a larger dog?
It really depends on the kind of hair it has and if it likes the blow dryer or not. If it gets shaved, you can do it in an hour. A little longer if it's got long hair and you have to let it dry longer. Then it can take three hours. But we usually tell everybody the turnaround is four to five hours ... We do have an express service and it's $20 extra.
What are the most popular pooches that you folks work with?
Poodles, schnauzers, shih tzus, yorkies, malteses, pekingese. We do a lot of German shepherds. We do a lot of labs and shave them down. People have gotten to where they don't want the hair flying around in the house.
How about pit bulls?
Yeah. I would rather cut a pit bulls toe nails than a chihuahuas any day, because they're so much nicer. With chihuahuas, cutting their toe nails, cujo can come out. (laughs)
How do you calm them down?
One of us will usually hold them and the other one will cut the toe nails. We're holding them and petting them and talking to them at the same time.
Have you had some that are hard to control, and what do you do?
Send them home ... I think I've had to do that three or four times in 25 years. Usually, you'll tell (the owner) to take them to the vet and that they need to be sedated if they need to be groomed and they're that bad. They're just stressing themselves out so bad that it's not worth it.
How often have you gotten bitten or nipped?
We get nipped here and there, but a bad bite not that often. I've had a few really bad cat bites.
Describe the passion you have for this job?
I just love the animals, and I like to see the difference. When they come in they look terrible, and they go home looking pretty. It's just the difference between when they come in and they leave; you feel like you're helping them.
What are the qualities needed for a good groomer?
You've got to have an amazing love for animals, or you wouldn't make it. There's no way. You couldn't tolerate it, because the animal senses that stuff. And it's a real physical job. We're like up and down and blow drying and moving around constantly, and brushing and combing, doing the clippers up and down. But it's fun. I love it.
What's the typical route to learning and getting a grooming job?
Usually, doing an apprenticeship like I did, or there are couple of schools. And now with technology so different, they say you can learn online. But I think it has to be hands on. Petco does apprenticeships through the salon, and I taught three or four people when I was there. But in that case, you have to sign an agreement to work with them two years.
Is pet grooming competitive? There's plenty of shops out there?
There's a lot, but there's not a lot of good ones. My thing is the cleanliness. As far as being clean, everything is super clean in here.
Do you ever get tired of the dogs barking?
I can tune it out. I guess I've done it so long, I don't even hear it. Unless it's real yappy, every once in a while I'll be like, oh my goodness, is that dog going to quit barking? But for the most part, I just block it out.
Are there busy seasons or times for you?
It's crazy, but the 1st and the 15th of each month, that week when everybody gets paid, that's usually when we're busy steadily. And then at Christmas, Thanksgiving, the holidays are really busy. And in the summertime, especially in June, people want their pets shaved down before it gets hot.
Your ultimate reward for doing this?
I know they're all happy when they go home. Even my own dogs, I can tell when I've brought them in to groom them. They're so much happier when they get home. They just feel good. It's the same thing like when anyone gets their hair done, it just makes you feel better. It makes you feel prettier and makes you feel clean. And they just prance out of here.