A fter work on a Wednesday, I snapped a leash on Wiensy, my chubby little long-haired dachshund. We were off to the groomer, an experience we both typically dread, though this time we simply padded out the front door and into a big white vehicle: The Dogfather Mobile Grooming van.
We pet owners are down with convenience. Dogfather owner Matt Harwood understood this six years ago when he bought a kitted-out van and started driving around the New Haven area grooming dogs right outside their homes.
“It’s sort of like how Stop and Shop now delivers groceries. It’s all about making it easy,” said Harwood, who built the company from the ground up. Now, The Dogfather boasts a fleet of four vans with one more on the way this summer, and grooms both dogs and cats. Harwood’s a hilariously unlikely candidate for the business. “Seven years ago, I was deathly afraid of dogs,” he admits. He still sports a scar on his lip from a run-in with a neighborhood dog when he was a youngster. Seven years ago, thanks to an old girlfriend, he was reintroduced to the wonderful world of dogs. “Around the same time, I got sick of dealing with people,” said Harwood, who owned a couple of pizza joints at the time. “So I switched to animals.”
Each of Harwood’s five employees is an experienced groomer, having received at least 200 hours of training at a certified animal care institute. They’re well-versed in basic holds—there’s a proper way to hold a dog when clipping his or her nails, for instance—and first aid for both people and pooches in the rare case something goes wrong.
Lisa Murphy, an expertly trained groomer, awaited our arrival at the truck. She was patient and gentle with Wiens, a notoriously crabby customer. Placing Wiens on the grooming table, Murphy attached a leash to her collar, talking the shivering little one through the process of nail clipping, washing and trimming while answering questions.
“This is what’s great about mobile,” said Murphy, who spent years working in grooming shops and says she won’t go back. “The focus is all on one dog at a time, from start to finish. You’re not going to bathe them and stick them in crates to dry. It’s one client at at time,” she said, soothing a wriggling dachshund. “So it’s more personal.”
The Dogfather doesn’t use crates, and after a couple visits, Murphy said, the dogs are just fine with their van grooming sessions. And it’s not just because of the amenities (AC, hot water, heat, professional strength dryers and vaccuums, and a big stainless steel sink with a shower attachment). “They get used to us, they end up thinking of us as friends, and they know they’re not being taken away from home, so I think that helps them stay calm.” She’s developed relationships with the owners and their pets—now they recognize her and are excited when the truck rolls up outside their house. It seems customers love the routine, the familiarity with the individual groomers, and the ease: many have monthly or even weekly sessions scheduled.
On average, they pay $10 to $20 more for the convenience of having pets groomed right outside their doors—though the prices are often comparable to what you’ll find with shopfront groomers. Depending on coat condition, temperament and type of haircut, dog grooming prices range from $60 to $130.
Services compare to what you’ll find at a storefront groomer, too: nail clipping, ear cleaning, bathing and blow-drying, trimming, de-shedding treatments and tooth-brushing. The groomers are also trained to do a quick dental check for plaque and gum disease, and can either suggest a vet appointment for serious cases, or do a deep teeth cleaning in the truck for the milder cases. They call it preventive maintenance.
Cats are welcome, too, and Lisa is an expert. “They’re a little more sensitive—their skin is thinner, so you have to be well-trained and careful. And you know, they can either be pretty chill or completely nuts. So you’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Harwood works with individual clients to meet their needs. All service dogs are done for a $50 flat fee. They also work with senior citizens and the disabled to make the service more convenient for them. And they never drug dogs or groom a dog they can tell has been drugged. “We’re against it,” Murphy agrees. “That can be really dangerous.”
The sprays, shampoos and conditioners are natural and subtle-smelling: Harwood uses a brand called Nature’s Specialty. Wiensy still smells a bit like a spicy peach. And while she’ll never love getting a bath, she was happy enough with her Dogfather groom to give Murphy a couple of licks, and then shake it off.
117 Washington Ave, North Haven (map)
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Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.