Her Own Canine Dominion

Ethel Taylor, a pet groomer in Washington, D.C., talks about overcoming her fear of dogs to start a business where she sees them every day.

Ethel Taylor  (Rebecca Clarke )

It’s often said that some pet owners love their animals like their own children. One study found that when humans and dogs look into each other’s eyes, both animals get a boost of oxytocin—the “bonding” hormone—which is the same process that creates the connection between parents and their babies. That (at least in part) explains why some owners invest in doggie tuxedos, pet perfumes, and even freshly painted nails for their pets.

However, not all animals enjoy being groomed, and some have issues that are beyond cosmetic, such as alopecia (hair loss). When pets are difficult to groom at home, many owners seek out professional help. Ethel Taylor is the owner of Doggie Washerette, a dog-grooming business in Washington, D.C.  For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers,I spoke with Taylor about her job, how she overcame her fear of dogs to start her business, and how the arrival of a major pet franchise in the neighborhood has changed her business. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What were you doing before you started your dog-washing business and how did you end up starting Doggie Washerette?

Ethel Taylor: I was a missionary, and I'm still a missionary but I was spending most of my time doing ministry [work] stateside as well as in West Africa and South America.

In 2010, I just had a vision that it was time to do something different. About eight years before that, my sister had taken me to a self-serve dog wash in Richmond, Virginia, where I'm from. I just held the idea in the back of my mind. At that point, I didn't know of anything here in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area that was like that. So 2010, I thought maybe it's my year to do something [different]. The [dog washing business] seemed to be pretty cool, and I began to research and pursue information about starting that kind of business. I started Doggie Washerette in my own neighborhood, five minutes from my house, mainly because I wanted to make an impact in my own community.

Green: Small-business owners often work a lot more than a typical 40-hour week. What is your schedule like?

Taylor: Well, it's definitely like a new baby: It requires all of your attention, and it affects you differently even when you're not here because you're in charge. The business moves as you move it, so you're always looking for new ways to get the word out. People need you; they just need to know you're there. I'm always looking for those opportunities, as well as opportunities to network with other business owners to stay encouraged, get new ideas, and to stay inspired.

Ethel Taylor, the owner of Doggie Washerette, grooms her dog Joy. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Green: What's an average day like for you?

Taylor: This year has been a little challenging for me in particular. My husband was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer about this time last year, and so the dynamics of my day really changed. Trying to run a business, keep up with his treatment and keep him encouraged, taking care of my home life, and international ministry, [has been a challenge]. With my husband having to take some steps back, I've been having to fill some of the responsibilities there as well, and then continue to maintain my business.

This year has been challenging with the business as well, because Petco, a major franchise, took the concept of the self-serve dog wash and undercut my prices by half and moved one of their locations within walking distance of my shop. It began to pull a lot of my business from the self-serve [portion of my services]. Also, some of the high-rise buildings in the urban areas near my shop are putting the dog washtubs in the basements of the buildings. One of my main [client] apartment complexes started that, so I had to be flexible and make the big decision to take away the self-serve option from my services. Now, I only offer full-service grooming. All in all, the changes have all gone well. My husband's health is improving significantly, thank God, and the business has sustained. I have a good employee now.

Green: Has the number of employees you have changed since streamlining your business?

Taylor: It's just the two of us, but we're doing the same amount of work as when I had three or four people. It hasn't really taken away from the service, but there is definitely is more for me to do. Having the full groom only, though, has cut down on my hours a little. Now I leave when the last dog is picked up, instead of advertising that I’ll stay open until 7 p.m. when the full groom work ended at about 3 p.m. Before, I had to stay around for four more hours, or pay someone for four more hours, even after all the dogs were done just in case one self-serve person came in.

Green: Since getting rid of the self-service dog wash, what kind of services do you provide at your shop?

Taylor: My business is not cookie-cutter. We're not an assembly line. I really focus on each individual dog’s needs, from temperament, to skin, to hair. I'm not just a groomer; I'm a therapeutic groomer, meaning I study the science of dog skin and hair. I have been very successful with solving skin and hair issues that some dogs have dealt with their whole lives such as coat challenges, extreme dryness, dander, and even yeast and bacterial infections. Even now, I'm studying to become a grooming aesthetician.

When the elderly dogs come in with hip dysplasia or arthritis, I’m able to deal with them. We're able to attend to their specific needs—whether it is the new puppy or whether it is the aggressive dog that really has behavioral issues—to provide an atmosphere where some of their fears are reduced. I let each dog have his or her own space. I'm not a trainer, and [when they’re with me] it’s not time to socialize, it's time to get groomed. I don't have to let them do the social thing, which is sniff each other and interact and see how they play together. For dogs, it's all about territory, so there's less anxiety when they don't feel intimidated [which can happen when] somebody's going to come into their space. I am proactive in educating the pet’s parent, if you will, because usually when people know better they make attempts to do better.

Green: There’s a running joke that some people love their dogs the way they love their kids. Have you seen that with your clients?

Taylor: I don't think that's just a joke. Believe me, everything we have for humans they have for dogs these days, including doggy die, nail polish, cologne, fake eyelashes. Unfortunately, I've seen from one extreme to the other. Sometimes people do cross the line, but I just say to each his own. I live by Genesis 1:28, we definitely have a responsibility to care for God's creatures to the best of our ability. Some are able to care a little bit more than others, and by care I mean regular grooming and vaccinations and even their living environments. I just think that in today's society, some people definitely prefer to have the dog instead of children, and that's their prerogative. My husband and I joke that our poodle Joy is the daughter we never had, because we had all boys.

Taylor: I grew up with dogs, and we had a family dog when I was really young. One of my brothers, who was in the military, would have to bring his dog when he came back stateside. In my adult life, I never had a dog. I was a single mother, so I was trying to feed my son and myself. I didn't really have time to try to feed a dog as well.

In 1994, I was a mail carrier and a dog had bitten me. For years, I was petrified of dogs. Literally, I wouldn't come into your house if you had a dog unless you locked them in the bathroom. It's a miracle that I'm in this industry, and as good at working with animals as I am. Two weeks before I actually had my grand opening, I was still afraid of dogs. I groom dogs now that nobody else in town would take, or who've been kicked out of other places because they were too aggressive or wouldn't handle the groom well. You've always got to pass through some of your fears to get to where you're really supposed to be.

Green: Do you think you’ll groom dogs until you retire?

Taylor: Well, I don't know about forever, but there has been so much to this endeavor as far as affecting people's lives positively. A gentleman had a dog before he got married, and his wife is extremely allergic. It got to a point where he was going to have to get rid of the dog for her sake—mainly because the dog was so aggressive, no one could groom him. The dog had undercoat, which is where most of the allergies come from. For someone to say, “Believe it or not, you saved my marriage,” that was a mouthful.  I think my most fulfilling situation has been to grow the hair back on a poodle that had some kind of seborrhea (dandruff). After being able to groom her with the clippers, she had a whole new strut.

Then, being able to help young people who are just trying to find their way by hiring them. Not with just a job and for some money, but with life skills and life experiences and mentoring. It's been more than just something to do, but helping them see what it takes to run your own business and the sacrifices that it entails.

Ethel Taylor, the owner of Doggie Washerette (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Green: Is your work tied to your personal identity?

Taylor: I think that it's tied in in a lot of ways. When it comes down to having your own business, you're always discovering yourself and pulling from places within yourself, even things you didn't think you had in you. When it comes to the rubber meeting the road, you have to perform. It’s a good feeling, because you see things moving and happening, you see things that were just a vision manifesting.

I think about the many days when I sat here with no customers in the beginning. I said, so many times to myself and even to God, “I invested all of my money and my energy to sit here and look out of the window? To sit here and not hear the phone ring for two or three days in a row?” Now, I have a four-drawer file cabinet that's packed with files of customers. Over 5,000 people have come through here in just a couple years. So, things like that, you sit back in your quiet time and say, "Wow, it really happened." I really did something with no marketing degree, with no business degree, just a couple semesters of college education, and a vision. It's just really fulfilling. I'm not making a whole heap of money yet, but the opportunity is definitely here.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a sport horse doctor, a python wrangler, and a cattle farmer.