Stephanie Zikmann is an award-winning holistic dog groomer, best-selling author and certified canine behaviourist. She’s also the mastermind behind The Holistic Grooming Academy - teaching other dog groomers how to implement a holistic and animal-centered approach to their grooming business.
We have a lot to learn from her teachings, expertise and insights, so we were honoured to interview and feature her in this month’s Doglyness Groomers spotlight
! She provides some incredible insights into holistic dog grooming, understanding canine behaviour and handling anxious and aggressive dogs. So, let's get into the interview!
Can you tell us a bit about your dog grooming journey and how you got started in the industry?
I stumbled on dog grooming one evening while talking with my husband about mental health. At that time, I had recently given birth to my second child and was experiencing significant post-natal depression while trying to run a successful entertainment company.
The unsociable hours working as a Disc-Jockey were causing me a lot of stress, and I was actively looking for something else that would play to my strengths. During our conversation, I was brushing Louis, one of my Tibetan Mastiffs (a ritual I looked forward to each night because it helped me relax) and passively mentioned that if I could brush dogs for a living, I would. The penny dropped at that moment, and I enrolled on a Level 3 OCN Course the following week!
Stephanie Zikmann of The Holistic Grooming Academy.
What inspired you to start The Holistic Grooming Academy?
I launched The Holistic Grooming Academy
during the lockdown in 2020 when dog groomers were unable to open their salons. It was a great opportunity to connect with other groomers and support them in an area that I spent years studying myself - canine behaviour and psychology.
After the success of my first book, ‘The Magic of Holistic Grooming
’, I realised that there were so many groomers actively searching for more information on how to better handle and communicate with dogs. So, I decided to devise a unique, online-based course that combined an advanced introduction to canine behaviour in the context of a professional grooming environment. It quickly evolved beyond that, and suddenly, I had coined an entire protocol in what I refer to as ‘holistic’ grooming.
My courses and mini-modules help professional groomers step away from the traditional methodology of grooming and open their hearts to a more adaptable and bespoke approach. This approach considers not only the physical demands of a dog’s coat but also his emotional, physiological and psychological needs too. Groomers learn how to safely handle and communicate with dogs in a way that instils confidence and increases cooperation in the grooming room. They are taught how to implement positive training and cooperative-based methods to make the grooming environment less stressful and more enjoyable for all.
While initially, it can sound a little “airy-fairy”, all of the methods I teach come from an updated scientific approach. I am blessed to have many of the world’s leading experts across the pet care sector in full support of my accreditation today.
What sets holistic dog grooming apart from traditional grooming practices? And how does it benefit the dog’s overall health and well-being?
I’ve never wanted to promote my courses as a niche approach because I think every modern groomer should be looking at employing this approach in their own practices. What I consider ‘holistic’ grooming to be is evolution based on science and a need to constantly learn, progress and expand on what we know and subsequently do today. Based on my teachings, groomers are given the tools and the know-how to confidently take a step back and assess the bigger picture when they have a dog in front of them before deciding how best to approach things.
I put less pressure on groomers trying to finish every groom within one hour, or do at least ten dogs a day, or achieve a flawless breed-standard trim because, to me, these are luxuries, the “cherry on top of the cake” which we can work towards. I try to encourage my students to put in place strong foundations in place first by working on the animal-human bond itself. When the groomer spends a little time getting to know and understand the needs of each dog as a whole they can then devise a bespoke care plan that sets the dog up for success from the get-go.
I then show groomers how to identify and respect how a dog is feeling during a grooming session, for example, stress. Not only does this have a significant consequence on his health but it’s also the reason why the grooming environment is at such a high risk of dog bites.
Acknowledging that everything is connected is crucial - we are not just “groomers”, and we are more responsible than the general public gives us credit for.
Through The Holistic Grooming Academy’s accreditation, we work hard to support professional dog groomers in continuing their professional development in areas that are often overlooked, and we show the world how invaluable we are when it comes to helping to preserve a dog’s health and wellbeing. Our mission is to help raise the bar of industry standards by doing our bit to support and educate groomers in updated theory.
How do you address the emotional needs of dogs while they are in your care?
The most common emotional need dogs struggle with within a grooming setting is safety. Interestingly, the grooming industry advocates for safety all the time and yet, the one thing it often fails to acknowledge is the emotional need to feel safe and how it influences the environment. When assessing a dog during grooming, the holistic dog groomer is constantly observing the dog they are working with. Using their knowledge in canine behaviour and body language cues, a groomer will be able to quickly identify early signs of fear, anxiety, pain and/or stress.
What’s more, they will constantly be monitoring the context while asking themselves, “does the dog feel safe?”. When a dog feels safe, they are not only more receptive to learning new skills, but they are also far more willing to cooperate too. When a dog doesn’t feel safe, we will see behaviours that are typically described as “naughty”, “stubborn”, “nasty”, “spiteful”, and/or “difficult”.
Groomers who take our accreditation learn the reasons why a dog behaves in certain ways and how to help relieve them of the underlying emotional need to prevent an escalation of stress and the risk of injury. While it’s not possible to eradicate all stress from the grooming environment, it is more than achievable to considerably reduce stress simply through a more dog-centred approach, and you can do that by simply thinking more like a dog!
The dogs I work with in my rehab clinic have all bitten groomers in the past - these are dogs who have been sedated at vets, had every physical restraint on them to try and get a full groom completed and never made any real progress. I always start every new encounter with an informal meet-and-treat session where I observe the dog in a relaxed setting, without expectation. I talk to the carer, and we discuss the behaviour modification plan. I will decide whether a muzzle is required (they seldom ever are), but other than that, every other physical restraint is removed from the equation.
With “safety is a feeling” in mind, when you remove physical restraints, the environment becomes less threatening to a dog that is fearful. I then introduce positive reinforcement - high-value treats, to help change the association with the grooming environment from negative to positive. It’s at this point, the positive training and cooperative methods begin and we start seeing really amazing results!
How do you educate dog owners about the importance of grooming for their dog's health and well-being?
I’ve been incredibly lucky that all of my clients share the same values as I do when it comes to holistic dog grooming. But there is no greater way to show value than to physically show your value. I actively encourage dog carers to attend sessions and watch me work, I also record my sessions and post them publicly for the world to see.
Stephanie educates dog groomers and owners on holistic practices.
There was a book that had said to "never show the world what goes on behind the curtain", but I remember thinking at the time what a waste of an opportunity to show value! When we open our doors to the public and purposefully showcase what we do, we not only demonstrate the harsh reality of day-to-day grooming demands but we also demonstrate how skilled we actually are - doing this is imperative if we ever want to charge what we are actually worth. What’s more, sometimes video footage can, upon later reflection, reveal significant behaviour cues that might signify pain which can then be followed up by a qualified Vet.
How important is it for dog groomers to implement positive training techniques and cooperative-based methods into their work?
Oh my gosh! It’s SO important - if there is anything a groomer should learn other than how to safely use tools and successfully observe canine behaviour, it’s cooperative care!
Positive training and cooperative care cater to a dog's sentiency and need to feel safe in their environment. From a physiological and biological point of view, if a dog feels threatened for a prolonged period of time, it can cause an array of chronic health conditions. If we consider how regularly an average dog requires grooming (whether professionally or at home), it becomes all the more obvious how significant our approach is to their overall quality of life.
The goal is to reduce as much stress as we can and do all that we can to help make grooming a more positive experience. For all sentient animals, the most fundamental needs of feeling safe in an environment are ‘consent’ and ‘choice’ - the moment we feel trapped or forced into something, survival mode kicks in, and the only thing we are thinking about is how to escape the perceived threat.
What advice do you have for aspiring dog groomers who want to provide holistic grooming services? Do you follow any trends in the grooming industry?
I try to stay clear of “trends” because many of them are more entertainment-based. Instead, I invest in my own education, and I constantly seek out information from reliable sources. I am a passionate student, and it’s important to me that I remain up-to-date with scientific research, especially within the sector I teach. I’m also incredibly lucky that I get to learn from some amazing pioneers across different animal care sectors, as part of my role within the Academy. We hold monthly webinars with out-sourced experts covering a broad range of topics that will help advance our knowledge and skillset. One of the most inspiring professionals I have supporting me and the academy is the incredible, Dr Marc Bekoff - for me, this is a dream come true!
How do you balance the needs of your business with your passion for helping dogs?
Haha, I barely sleep! Right now, I am a one-person band behind the scenes, and it can get incredibly hectic. But I am very strict with my time and boundaries, and with the demands of the academy, I can now only work with dogs in the clinic three times a week. The way I see it is, when I’m online teaching, I am able to help many more dogs all over the world by helping others learn more about what I do. The ultimate goal is to engrain my holistic grooming and behaviour diploma into mainstream grooming so that it is accessible to everyone and everyone will begin to incorporate it into their own businesses.
The goal is to reduce stress & make grooming a more positive experience
What kinds of grooming products are you currently using and how do you determine the quality?
I guess I have always entrusted quality of products to the manufacturers making them, however I do tend to make sure I research all organizations I invest in and if it feels right, then I’ll make a purchase. I stopped using fragrance on my dogs a long time ago - I never found one that didn’t give me a headache and I figured it must do the same to the dogs who are forced to wear it. Generally, I like to use products with very minimal ingredients to reduce the likelihood of an adverse reaction. For example, I do love an oat-based product for dogs prone to skin dryness and irritability, or a product with a hint of lemongrass in it for a natural anti-parasite if a dog frequents a lot of fields during their daily walks.
I enjoy assessing the bigger picture (a “whole-istic” view on the dog and their needs) and so I take into consideration their skin and coat needs, as well as any significant behavioural needs that may influence things like scent and product type, for example products with little fragrance for dogs especially sensitive to strong smells.
How do you think Doglyness has made a breakthrough in the industry compared to other pet care brands you've used? And what are your favourite products?
I think Doglyness does an exceptional job at raising awareness of worldly matters, particularly when it comes to global warming and the impact our synthetic world has on Earth and the animals that reside on it. It’s evident in all Doglyness branding and messaging, that you CARE for the world and all animals, and it’s this passion and love for all animal-kind that for me, sets you miles ahead in the pet care sector.
When it comes to the products, I particularly love the OATS calming range - I feel this is a good all-rounder product that accommodates to most dogs, and it also appeals to scent-sensitive dogs as well. The Doglyness conditioning spray is also a great product for in-between baths since it helps to lubricate the skin follicles during brush outs, which helps to protect the hair from snapping. The added moisture it provides to the dog’s skin, provides elasticity making brushing less intrusive and more enjoyable as well.
What's your experience with greenwashing in the pet-care industry?
I'm sure I would be surprised at just how often I’ve likely come across greenwashing, and I do suspect it to be a daily occurrence due to the lack of regulation of our precious industry.
That being said, I have always taken product descriptions (whether it’s shampoos or something else, such as pet food) with a pinch of salt. I am fully aware that manufacturers don’t have to disclose a complete list of ingredients on their products or even have to honour what their descriptions say, therefore it’s certainly very concerning. I think most people struggle to find a product that doesn’t say they are “organic”, “hypo-allergenic” and/or “all-natural” these days because it’s a good PR stunt, which can make it incredibly misleading and disheartening for people genuinely concerned about the planet and wanting to make a difference.
For me it’s all about trust. I have to trust in an organization and brand before I feel comfortable enough to invest in their products. I love that Doglyness are totally transparent, educate their customers and constantly keep the world updated with worldly matters. The Doglyness ethics and mission statement echoes my own organizations when it comes to making positive change to the world, and that helped with my decision to try your products massively.
Anything else you’d like to add that you think could benefit the Doglyness community?
I guess the last thing I would like to say is that when starting this journey back in 2020, I was so passionate and hungry to get my message out there that in haste, I stepped on a few unimpressed toes during those early days!
To clarify, The Holistic Grooming Academy represents a community that cheerleads and supports one another in their ongoing education, we teach our students to develop friendships with peers and let go of any competitiveness - our community is all about unity and inclusion, and we welcome anyone reading this to join us anytime.
You can find Stephanie online via her website - stephaniezikmann.com
, and make sure to give her a follow on Instagram @theholisticdoggroomer
. And make sure to check out The Holistic Grooming Academy
for access to certification courses, workshops and more valuable resources.