The photographs you see here, captured by Skyler Dahan, are odes to pleasure, camp, and unabashed kitsch—and to attentive, careful preening, which is its own kind of love. They’re also fraught with ethical questions inherent to their subject matter, largely concerning the (im)balance of power between domestic pets and those who purchase and home them—particularly relevant now, amid a reported dog ownership boom. Do dogs, even breeds for whom regular maintenance is a great comfort, genuinely like being groomed to this level? Is their affability and patience merely a performance of their “duty,” an attempt to please their masters, even at their own discomfort? It’s hard to know what’s authentic versus learned—and dogs can’t exactly tell us, which is part of the problem. The creative groomers we spoke to love their pets, and are certain they enjoy the process, a chance for extensive bonding. They plump up pillows on grooming beds, offer little massages, and ensure there’s time for pee breaks. They perceive their dogs as active collaborators.
“I came into this with a neutral approach, and tried not to think about [the ethics of dog grooming],” says Dahan. “It was when I was at the expo that I started feeling sympathy for the dogs, due to their stark obedience and poised posture. I’m pretty sure they don’t understand what is going on—that this is entirely for the owner’s excitement. But ultimately, being an observer in this space I could see that the owners really showed affection and love for their dogs.”