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Meet the creative dog groomer who’s turned her cavapoo into Big Bird

Dexter has been a unicorn and Chinese Foo lion – but he also gets to play in the woods

Caroline Abbott

Posted 3 months ago

Dexter the cavapoo with his front end as Sesame Street's Big Bird and his rear end as Snuffleupagus (Image: Joanna Elson)

by Caroline Abbott

If you think “Asian fusion” doggy haircuts are wacky, it’s likely you’ve never had your eyes opened to the competitive world of “creative dog grooming” in which canines are transformed into living works of art, from unicorns to Sesame Street characters.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying the skill, effort and patience involved – and most importantly, it does no harm to the dogs.

In South Devon, you might see a brightly-coloured animal walking down the street towards you and you’d be forgiven for wondering if you’re hallucinating. But it’s probably just Dexter the cavapoo, whose owner, Joanna Elson, competes in dog grooming competitions which happen all over the country.

“Dexter is a real dog who goes out for walks in the woods and on the beach, and gets muddy and wet in the sea,” said Jo, who lives in Paignton.

Dexter and Jo as matching unicorns (Image: Joanna Elson)

Jo has been a dog groomer for more than 20 years. For the last seven years, she’s been teaching the City and Guilds qualification at South Devon College, which led her to start taking part in competitions.

“I found my love for colour in these competitions as many had a creative groomer class,” said Jo. “We started small and just put chalk into his tail at first but I was hooked.

“Our first creative competition was in a novice creative class in 2019 in Swanley, Kent, at the English Groomers Challenge. Before we went to the competition, my groomer friend Michelle and I airbrushed some colours onto Dexter. These will last a few weeks if not bathed. We entered the competition and two hours later he was a unicorn dog. For the judging, we set a nice backdrop to take pictures and I also wore a unicorn horn and our hair matched, although I used human hair dye. We came second.

Jo with Dexter as a Chinese Foo lion (Image: Joanna Elson)

“I decided to go for a more detailed look for the next class as we were now going to have to enter in the experienced class. Dexter became a Chinese Foo lion, using Opawz semi-permanent dye which is specifically designed for a dog’s skin and coat with food grade pigments – a vegan product.

“I spent several hours creating the base layer of dye, usually in two-hour sittings so Dexter didn’t get bored. We arrived at the competition in Coventry called the Grooming Show 2020. Once in the competition, I created our Foo lion design with Opawz chalk red and yellow spots. Michelle painted the picture for me from a tattoo photo, so everyone knew what Dexter was going to be.

“The most recent design we have done was for an online competition and Dexter was Sesame Street’s Big Bird – and Snuffleupagus on his rear. We didn’t win anything in this competition but I will keep learning and keep practising safe use of dyes on my dog and giving information on how the process is used on a dog.”

Dexter in his natural state (Image: Joanna Elson)

Growing Dexter’s coat starts at least 12 weeks before a competition. He has a bath every week to prevent knotting as his coat gets longer.

Jo said: “It’s a long process but one this dog is very used to. It’s not for a bouncy dog or one not used to being groomed. He will go to sleep while the dye sits – normally for 30 minutes.”

Jo has had Dexter since he was 12 weeks old. He’s now nine years old and fully accustomed to the dog grooming environment. He has attended many competitions and been the demo dog for several seminars.

“I do not do this on other dogs and our salon does not offer it to customers,” said Jo. “This is purely a personal hobby which many customers find amusing and they love seeing Dexter when he’s in for a bath.

“When we’re out for walks, many people ask how he’s this colour and why. Normally just the answer, ‘He’s a competition dog and we do it for shows. All the dye is completely safe for dogs,’ is enough. Most people take his photo or follow him on Instagram at @Dexterthedevoncavapoo.

“No-one has said to my face they think it’s cruel, but many of my creative groomer friends have had this said to them. It’s easy to research coloured dogs and see the process used. Nothing is forced on my pet who is an active part of my family. He doesn’t know he’s coloured but when out, strangers smile at him and speak, when they probably wouldn’t if he was white. He’s very happy to interact and show off.

“It’s not for all dogs. It needs to be a special dog to sit around being pampered and this is a taught behaviour from a very young age.”

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