In a conference hall in central Pennsylvania, Milena Kon was turning a dog into a gazelle. And an elephant. And a lion. And a giraffe.

This evolution, during one of the nation’s top dog-grooming competitions, involved strategically dying poodle Soleil’s white fur to the hues of African animals, sculpting her hair into horns and tusks, airbrushing elephant toenails to her back legs and attaching googly eyes to her rear end.

This “creative grooming” contest was the crowning event of the nation’s largest dog-grooming trade show, Groom Expo. But the action was just as buzzy beyond the stage, in hundreds of booths selling polka-dot barrettes and bubblicious dog cologne and in dozens of seminars with titles including “Thinning Shears ... the Wow Factor!” Amid it all, thousands of groomers were buying specialized gear, networking and commiserating about long client waiting lists in a field that these days counts all dogs — not only poodles, the traditional canine topiaries — as canvases worthy of transformation.

All had some part in a $6.5 billion pet services industry that has doubled over the past decade, fueled by the rapid rise of what marketers call the “humanization” of pets. For dogs, that has meant a migration not only from the backyard into the house, but also into the bed and the car, where they’re often treated as nicely — and expected to smell as nicely — as the rest of the family.

Groomers have responded. When the expo started here 30 years ago, 350 showed up. This year, nearly 5,600 came.

“The biggest factor of all is that so many people consider their dogs to be children,” said Todd Shelly, president of Barkleigh Productions, which holds several dog-related trade shows and publishes Groomer to Groomer magazine, which would feature the creative contest’s winner on its cover. Mercedes-Benz and other prominent companies increasingly are advertising in the publication, he said, because they’ve come to view groomers as “influencers,” people who have the ears of a dog-loving nation.

And while there’s much overlap between the grooming world and the show dog world, Shelly said, more and more groomers are devoted to what is arguably the vanguard in American dogdom — the rescue dog.

“I had dogs growing up. I think we just hosed them off in the backyard,” said Corina Stammworthy, who not long ago was a biotechnology graduate student preparing for a career in research. Instead, she opened a self-service dog-bathing shop that later added grooming, and now she employs 14 people.

Her customers represent a wide socioeconomic range, she said, and their pets are anything from mutts that come in weekly to show dogs. “We’re finding more and more the line’s being blurred,” she said.


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