Double Coated Dogs– To Groom or not to Groom?

When we see our furry friends scorching in the sun, our first instinct is to do whatever it takes to make them more comfortable. A cool bowl of water, a nice patch of shade, bringing them to sit in front of the A/C, or maybe even a haircut. We know how uncomfortable the heat is–imagine if you had to suffer that wearing a fur coat! Summertime is when you’re going to see stylish, beautified pups sporting their new hairdos walking down the street, cool as can be and enjoying life.

Or are they?

Grooming has always been a necessary part of keeping dogs. Trimming the nails helps keep a dog’s legs properly aligned, bathing them after being skunked or after they’ve rolled in a dead ‘something’ is a critical necessity, and giving them haircuts to clean up their carriage or face is going to provide a host of benefits. However, not all dogs were made to need this latter kind of grooming.

When we think of show-dogs, we think of pretty, prim, and statuesque purebreds sporting the neatest haircuts; Maltese with their beautiful white coats flowing like silk, Airedales with their beards and eyebrows neatly trimmed into a perfect rectangle, Poodles with their manes perfectly coiffed and styled. Other breeds like Huskies, German Shepherds, Samoyeds, Collies–those ones never really have haircuts. Absolutely they have been brushed and bathed and look the top of their game, but you’ll never see a shaved Husky competing for the ribbon–for good reason!

Coat Type

Due to thousands of years of selective breeding there are around 10 types of dog coats–however these 10 types can be roughly categorized into “undetermined length” and “predetermined length”. Essentially, ‘dogs whose hair will not stop growing’ and ‘dogs whose hair will stop growing at a certain point and will not get longer’. All of the dogs who have “undetermined length” are single-coated, and every double coated dog falls under the “predetermined length” category. There is some overlap in that many single-coated dogs can be “predetermined length”, but what this means at the end of the day is that the dogs of “undetermined length”–like Maltese, Shih Tzus, Havanese, Bichons, Poodles–will never have to worry about losing coat quality during a routine haircut, and that they will need haircuts to prevent carrying around excessive amounts of hair that will mat easier as it lengthens.

On the other hand it means that dogs with a coat of “predetermined length” will not need routine haircuts to keep their look–it’s only going to grow so long anyways! Single coated dogs of “predetermined length” are dogs like Basset Hounds, Boston Terriers, Jack Russells, Bully breeds, most Chihuahuas, and Bulldogs, while the double coated dogs are dogs like Labs, Huskies, Collies, Samoyeds, Cairn Terriers, Australian Cattle Dogs, German Shepherds, and many more.

The Undercoat

The above breeds–and many, many more–are what we call ‘double coated’. The term is thrown around pretty loosely but what it means is that the coat has two kinds of hairs: the undercoat, which lays closest to the skin, and the guard hair which forms the surface of the coat. The fur of the undercoat is very fine but dense, and the individual hairs are short and crimped–this means that the dense packing of the undercoat traps air easily, providing excellent insulation. Just like the insulation in your house, the insulation that the undercoat provides protects against heat AND cold–essentially it helps maintain the regular body temperature of the dog by buffering the skin from the outside temperature.

Meanwhile, the guard hairs are longer and coarse, typically straight, and are designed to shed water as well as protect from the sunlight. The guard hairs only grow to a certain length, which is why you don’t see long-haired Labrador Retrievers!

Undercoats don’t just appear in Northern breeds like Huskies, Malamutes, and Samoyeds; they occur across a variety of breeds for a variety of reasons. Collies, Cattle Dogs, Shepherds, Corgis, Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands, Retrievers, some Spaniels, many Hounds, Mini Schnauzers, Wheaton Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Westies, and Pomeranians (to name a few) all sport a double coat. The primary function of the double coat is to protect the skin–from the weather, the forest, the underbrush, the water, from everything. For dogs that have it, it is a crucial part of their anatomy and a key line of defence; why would we want to cut it off?

But the SHEDDING…

For many people, their issue with the double coated dogs is shedding. Even a breed like labs with short coats can pack a lot of loose hair. The undercoat is shed in the summer and grows back in the winter to protect from the cold; because the coat sheds in the summer, there’s really no need to shave one of these breeds–nature is already doing half the work for you! Even if you shave the dog down to the skin, whatever grows back will still shed.

Dogs are different than humans in that their hair is thinner, and each follicle contains between 5-22 hairs–Humans only have 1 or 2! This makes the fur so much more dense than ours, and means that at any point in time a dog will have hairs that are young, mature, and old. The coat is constantly being renewed, and that’s why even though shedding will occur heaviest in the spring/summer, your pups will still shed all year long. Unfortunately that’s just the price we have to pay for taming and housing wild beasts!

Not only does the undercoat suffer when you shave a double coated dog; Remember how guard hairs in double coated dogs only grow to a certain length? In single coated breeds like those mentioned earlier (both undetermined and predetermined length coats), shaved fur will grow back fully. In double coated dogs, the guard hairs are not guaranteed to grow back properly if they are cut. In many double coated dogs that have been shaved, when the fur grows back the undercoat is tacky and coarse, and the guard hairs are sparse. The undercoat is the first to grow back and these soft furs, with no longer hair to guard them, get fuzzy and sticky and mat very easily. Shaving has reduced the quality of the coat and its ability to insulate and guard from the elements.

What To Do Instead

The best approach to keeping your double coated dogs cool in the summer is to brush/rake often and well, make sure they have lots of access to water and shade, and keep exercising to the cooler times of the day at early morning and twilight. When you shave the undercoat, what you are doing is removing the part of the layer that traps cool air–leaving the skin open to the hot air from the outside. Now in the summer, the skin is susceptible to sunburn because there are no longer any guard hairs to filter harmful UV rays.

In the end, shaving a double coated dog does nothing but harm them–they will get hotter easier, their skin will be more susceptible to UV rays that can cause sunburn and increase the risk of cancers, their shedding will not be stopped, allergies will not be abated (as the dander on the skin itself is what causes pet allergies), and you run the risk of permanently damaging their coat–meaning years of hard upkeep, matting, and even more work than before!

If your dog is hot during the summer, please do your research on what kind of coat they have before considering shaving them, and look up other options!

Handy Tips

Here are a few general tips from our grooming expert, Tamara:

  • For terriers, hand strip the coat. This involves manually pulling the dead guard hairs and undercoat off the body. By grooming the coat in this way, you are speeding up the natural shedding process, all while making room for new guard hairs to grow in the created spaces. In turn the wire haired breeds will get better air circulation – keeping them cooler and reducing the spread of allergens from the growth of more guard hairs.
  • Use a rubber curry brush wet and/or dry (rubber grabs all the dead loose hair nicely!)
  • Use a cream rinse.These products are great to rinse allergens from a dogs coat, along with loose hair. It won’t strip the dogs coat and skin from essential oils as it’s conditioner based (but lighter than regular conditioner).
  • Request your groomer to ‘tunnel the tummy’. This technique allows you to keep your dogs breed or contour cut, while allowing more airflow against the tummy to keep an overall cooler pooch. The middle of the tummy is shaved down, almost to the skin, while the skirt or contouring is left behind to give the illusion of a full breed cut, without the heat! After all, sun doesn’t touch the belly, but a cold tile floor will.
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