Dog ’Dos

Dog ’Dos

S even years ago, Frank LaSasso says he received a sign from God. He had worked as a car salesman for 25 years before a traumatic motorcycle accident made the long hours and high stress unbearable. In the midst of his prayers for a change, he tried to make a grooming appointment for one of his dogs, Natalie Merchant, but nobody had an open sink.

“The light came on,” LaSasso says. “I went home and told my wife, ‘Listen, I’m gonna be a dog groomer. I think it’s a sign from God.’ She says, ‘What?’ We’re talking about a guy that makes six figures here, and is in a suit and tie every day of the week.”

That same guy went to dog grooming school, bought a van with a sink and started a new business: the Dog Wizard Mobile Grooming Salon. Seven years later, he’s telling this story from a new brick and mortar headquarters on the Boston Post Road, dubbed “Home of the Dog Wizard.”

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LaSasso opened the storefront last May with his business partner and childhood friend Annmarie Ballaro. Despite her experience with human hairdressing, Ballaro sticks to the books while LaSasso does the bulk of the grooming, helped by four part-time groomers who rotate through.

LaSasso’s two dogs are named after famous songstresses: Sarah McLachlan (pictured above) and the aforementioned Natalie Merchant. He’s a loyal fan of the human Merchant, attending so many concerts that the singer became aware of him and his pup. That’s proved by a letter Merchant sent him, which he keeps in a frame at home.

Despite having a famous friend, Natalie the dog isn’t above helping LaSasso demonstrate the grooming process. First, his canine clients are taken through the basics: cleaning of the ears, nails and paw pads. Then it’s into a sudsy dog bath, followed by a blow-drying and a haircut.

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That sequence doesn’t sound like many dogs’ idea of a great time, but LaSasso and Ballaro say their repeat customers get used to it, and even come to enjoy a sprucing. “Dogs are like people,” LaSasso says. “They’re all different.” And, after seven years in the business, he’s a scholar of pup variety. LaSasso knows that Wheaten Terriers and Cocker Spaniels tend to be stubborn and opinionated, and that he’s most likely to be nipped at by Chihuahuas and their opposite in size, German Shepherds.

The dogs that LaSasso and Ballaro say often benefit most from grooming are rescue dogs, or dogs who have survived neglect. “The minute you start getting their coat off, they feel the relief,” LaSasso says. Ballaro remembers one pooch in particular. “Her ears were matted to her neck—she couldn’t move them,” Ballaro says. “And at first she was scared and nervous, but once they cut her free from her neck, she was like a whole new dog. She was the happiest thing. She loved us for that.”

Of course, fur balls born with silver spoons in their snouts can also appreciate a new look. LaSasso has photos on his phone of a regal standard poodle named Molly, who was competing at a recent grooming show. Her magnificent coat must have been white before it was dyed a powdery pink and purple that Marie Antoinette would have coveted. Home of the Dog Wizard accommodates some similarly stylish requests, Ballaro says. Its groomers have dip dyed dogs blue for football games, and used special gel for an edgy client whose preferred look is a mohawk.

Thinking back to his career before he became the dog wizard, LaSasso says that now, unlike then, he’s happy every day. He loves his furry clients and says it tears him apart when a dog he’s groomed for years dies. “My wife asks, ‘How do you get so attached?’” To which he replies, “How do you not get attached?”

In that sense, LaSasso hopes that his own diva dogs, Natalie and Sarah, outlive him. “I’ve had a good life,” he says. “I should drop dead in the next five years and I’ll be clear, because honestly I don’t think I could handle it. I don’t.”

At Home of the Dog Wizard, LaSasso and Bellaro say they aim to offer a singular customer experience. “We’ll give a good groom for a good price,” LaSasso says. “But more than that, we’ll love your dog as much as you do.”

Possibly even more.

Home of the Dog Wizard
288 Boston Post Rd, Orange (map)
Wed-Sat 9:30am-4pm (walk-ins welcome), Sun-Tues (by appointment)
(203) 553-9131
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Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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