APR 2001

Watching the Dogs Go Round,
Watching the Dogs Go Round

Christine Lovdahl washes Luther & Ginger

The smell assaulted her from 50 yards. She was walking along a quiet country road, when it came to her from a low ridge in a fallow farmer’s field. She’d never known anything quite like it before, but the facts were unmistakable—animal, large, dead. She quickly glanced to see if anyone would notice her absence, then shot across the spiny grass and mud to the source of the fetid odor. Ah, a rotting deer carcass. Without another thought, she pressed her face into the gelatinous flesh, then fell onto her side, rolled on her back, and kicked her four legs into the air in a joyous dance. It took only moments for her human companions to insist she return, but by then, Belle’s glossy, spotted black-and-white coat was infused with the gooey tissue and putrid stench. She pranced back to the road, celebratory and proud, and eager to share her discovery. Yet, for some reason, they weren’t pleased.

Seven baths later, she was pronounced huggable again and allowed to come home. But it might never have been possible without the Dog-o-Mat.

Located at 1443 Jorn Court (off Packard, behind the Big Ten party store), the Dog-o-Mat is a dream-come-true for people who love their dogs, but prefer them clean. Like a laundromat, the Dog-o-Mat is a do-it-yourself service, with tall bathtubs (tiled with a paw-print motif) to fit any size dog. They provide the water, shampoo, towels, and a plastic apron, and you provide the labor. The staff clean up after you, so you can leave all the mud and hair (and occasional deer pulp) behind as you waltz out with your sparkling canine babies.

But unlike the laundromat, where the chore makes people somber and withdrawn, the Dog-o-Mat makes bathing your dog a pleasurable diversion. On busy Saturdays, you and your dog(s) may have to wait for one of the three tubs, but you can sit outside on a bench and swap stories with other dog lovers, like young Claire Beaulieu who says washing Bailey at the Dog-o-Mat with her dad is fun, "except when she shakes." Or you can wait indoors and make baby-talk at the wet hangdog faces looking patiently over the sides of the tubs.

Christine Lovdahl has been coming to the Dog-o-Mat for the last six months with Luther (a black lab) and Ginger (a yellow lab). She says she enjoys chatting with other dog people. "We do a lot of talking about how there’s no off-leash park in Ann Arbor," she says. No doubt they do a lot of complaining about it, as all of us dog walkers do, while we let our dogs illegally cavort in the city parks. (Well, I should say "most dog walkers," since City Council members claim to have their own dogs, even though they won’t approve a park to be designated as off-leash permissible.)

On a recent visit to the Dog-o-Mat, Christine coos some "good-dogs" at Luther while she wets him down with the spray hose. The water is kept at a constant lukewarm temperature, and the long hose makes it easy to reach all around his large body. Luther is lightly restrained from getting out of the tub or sitting down by a loop that hangs from a bar overhead and wraps around his neck. In the next tub over, the loop is adjusted to reach a short, stocky corgi-mix named Daisy May. Meanwhile, in the drying room, Sadie stands on a platform while her pack of three humans brush and dry her long black hair with an industrial size blow-dryer. Ginger, now clean and eating a turkey-patty treat, wanders among the other customers.

"I also like that coming here means the dog hair doesn’t clog up my tub at home," Christine tells me. Belle and I originally found the Dog-o-Mat for just that reason. Shedding was a new experience for me. Belle came to live with me in the winter, and while I was beginning to see that hiding both black and white hairs on my furniture and rugs was impossible, no matter what color scheme I chose, it wasn’t until spring that I realized the extent of the impact. Suddenly, her hair was everywhere—all over my bedsheets, sticking to the TV screen, in the cat’s food, in my mouth. Brushing her only did so much.

A fellow off-leasher at a local park (both of which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) told me about the Dog-o-Mat, where a good spring bath would help speed up the shedding process. I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten the hair problem under control, but Belle leaves a lot of it in the swirling soapy water.

While we usually use the standard shampoo, the Dog-o-Mat also offers an oatmeal moisturizer for winter dry skin, tea tree oil shampoo for summer-time rashes, and flea and tick baths. The special formulas cost a little extra, but a standard bath (30 minutes max) runs from $8.50 for a small dog to $14.50 for an extra large hound. You can even trim your dog’s nails while there, or get help from one of the staff for six bucks.

The Dog-o-Mat was started three years ago by Donna Daly who had seen similar businesses in California. The story goes that she was washing her own dogs one day at home and realized how helpful it would be to have a dog-o-mat in Ann Arbor. It’s one of only about 50 such businesses in the country. In recent months, a new owner, Carolyn Kinsler, has taken over, after becoming frustrated with her graduate school research in architectural history. "I enjoy meeting people with dogs and discussing dog issues," Carolyn explains. "People have similar feelings about their dogs, and I like to hear their stories." Carolyn’s canine companion, Dexter, a nine-year-old golden retriever, comes to work with her everyday, and she always takes a break in the afternoon to get him out for a walk.

I can’t remember if it was her or one of her competent employees (all hard-working young women) who greeted Belle on that fateful day after the farmer’s field incident. We’d heard that they regularly provide de-skunking treatments to unfortunate dogs who’ve stuck their noses where they don’t belong. ("It’s a client favorite, but we’re not really thrilled about it," admits Carolyn.) So we thought maybe they could offer some heavy-duty help with the eau de dead deer.

"Don’t you guys have special shampoo for dogs that have been skunked?" my husband asked, leading in a now repentant hound who had already been washed four times with a garden hose in the back yard.

"We sure do," said the woman behind the counter. But as she turned her back to us to gather our supplies, she suddenly got a whiff—and shuddered. We slunk almost as low as our melancholy mutt. "That’s not skunk!" she scolded, as she reached for the bottle of "Ultimate Dirty Dog" shampoo. We donned our aprons and got to work.


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