Panting For A Good Scrubbing

Self-service dog wash lets owners turn stinky pooches into perfumed pets

Maryland Journal

April 04, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - There's no nice way to put this: Charlie stinks.

Why shouldn't he? No one can remember the last time he had a bath. It's not that he doesn't need one. It's because he is too fat to be hoisted into the tub in the Toms family's Jefferson home.

So the time has come for this chestnut brown mutt of seven human years - a "Heinz 57" as the Tomses call him - with the eyes of a Labrador and the broad shoulders of a Rottweiler. Mom Brenda, a receptionist, and her daughter Clela, a Brunswick High School senior with purple toenails and a wrist full of sparkly bracelets, have loaded Charlie into the family van - somehow - and driven him to a nondescript strip mall of tanning salons and liquor stores where the do-it-yourself Dawg Wash opened three months ago.

Now he is lying on the floor of his personal stall, refusing to budge. "It's the hot dogs," Clela says matter-of-factly. It seems the Tomses use frankfurters to lure Charlie into the house from outside - and the snacks have done little for his doggie figure but weigh it down.

Mom grabs onto one side, Clela the other. Still Charlie will not get into the tub, even this beautiful stainless steel tub with its high-powered shower head and its always-95-degree water.

"Do you have any hot dogs?" Brenda Toms asks Anshul Gupta, the owner of the Dawg Wash.

He doesn't. But he joins the scrum, and getting the dog into the bath becomes a three-person operation. No luck. Finally, Gupta manages a sneak attack. Using his own weight as leverage, he single-handedly gets Charlie up in the air, into the tub and into a restraint with such skill that no one seems to know exactly how he has accomplished this feat.

"Our hero!" the women cheer.

Gupta is 29. He lived a vagabond's life in the biotech industry, moving from job to higher-paying job after his graduation from the University of Maine. But it wasn't for him. He dropped out of the business world and into a master's degree in environmental biology at Hood College. He needed money, but he didn't want to work too hard. His roommate from the University of Maine had opened a self-service dog wash a year ago in Portland, Maine, with some success, so Gupta thought he would try something similar here.

He works more hours than he planned - his place is open five days a week, typically eight hours a day - but it's easy to see he loves to talk with the customers and their two-legged friends. The humans share dog tales and swap tips and Gupta often learns a few things.

"The pet industry is a huge industry," he says. "There's a lot of services out there, and self-service is really catching on."

Gupta was lucky to find a landlord who would take him. Just as in apartment hunting, animals are often frowned upon at businesses. His friends and family helped him spruce up the place - from the bright-blue paint embellished with drawings of waves and soap bubbles to the partitions erected to separate the five private bathing stalls. A professional updated the plumbing. Even with fancy hair traps, successive dog baths could otherwise mean serious clogs.

Well before Kathy Nickey hits the threshold, it's clear she will get a workout today. Her two chocolate Labs are dragging her through the parking lot, their leashes quickly tangled as each dances around the other in delight. Also in tow is son Stephen, who at age 8 really came along for the promise of a McDonald's lunch afterward.

"Not trained," she explains simply as she guides 1-year-old Isabella and 8-year-old Noah into the stall for a cleaning.

Bathing the dogs at home in Middletown is a mess. The floor gets covered with hair. The drain, too. Her bathroom is upstairs, which often means a wet dog on the loose shaking droplets all over the furniture. It's too hard to reach down and get in a good scrubbing. Besides, this place charges only $14 a dog - a bargain, especially when the groomer charges by the pound. (Bella is 65 pounds and Noah, coming off a double knee surgery, is bearing down on 100.)

Bella navigates the ramp into the tub with ease and sits, tongue out, truly enjoying her fate. Oatmeal shampoo, included in the fee, is applied, followed by the silk creme conditioner. (One shampoo Gupta sells is all-natural and biodegradable - "You could basically drink it." Or not.) Kathy Nickey has long ago shed her red hoodie for a blue waterproof apron. A raincoat might be a better option. As Bella is soaked, so is her caretaker.

Stephen does as much helping as a third-grader can. He sprays some water, and more ends up on the wall than the dog. He pulls out the hair dryer - which he thinks looks much more like a leaf blower, and he isn't wrong - and ends up giving his mother a facial with the spray he blows off Bella. Noah waits his turn less than patiently, chasing his tail before finally giving up and splaying himself on the floor.

"The best part is: I don't have to clean up," Kathy Nickey says.

A sign in each stall gives cleaning suggestions and snippets of advice to the washers. "Cologne is available at the counter during checkout," it reads in part.

In the Tomses' stall, the washing has taken more than 15 minutes, apparently enough time to get years of stink off poor Charlie. But we all know about Charlie and his odor issues, so they're not done with him yet. "He gets perfume, too?" Clela asks in disbelief. "I love this place." Like a discriminating customer at the makeup counter, Clela rejects a few of the fragrances - the Tommy Holedigger (no lie), the honeysuckle.

She settles on a peach scent and applies it just as Gupta suggests: sprayed on the shoulders, just below the neck.

As Charlie bounds out of the Dawg Wash, Clela holds tight to the leash. On to the next Charlie problem.

"So are we ever going to get him back in the van again?" she wonders.

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