It's the most beautiful salon I've ever seen. Everything sparkles in jewel tones, plush velvet curtains brush the floor, and gold-plated labradors guard the doors like sentries. One wall is covered with photographs of charming clients in fresh cuts, and there's a display filled with enormous trophies from the underground world of styling competitions. It's not the set of Shear Genius or even a cry-worthy makeover from America's Next Top Model; it's the set of Haute Dog, the dog grooming reality show on HBO Max.
Haute Dog follows a familiar reality competition format, and like Project Runway or Glow Up before it, the show is all about the aesthetic. First, three contestants face off in a "mystery breed" round, where they must give a clean, traditional cut to a dog of the judges' choosing. Anything from a goldendoodle to a shih tzu can come from behind the large mystery doors. Then, in the main challenge, groomers choose their own dogs and respond to a theme, like winter wonderland, fairy tales, or the wild west. We get slow-motion, wind-blown close ups of our top dogs, tongues out, looking proud of their new looks.
Our host, Matt Rogers, shimmers in a suit that transitions from purple to green depending on how the spotlight hits his body. Our judges, comedian Robin Thede (the haute expert) and celebrity groomer Jess Rona (the dog expert) wear bright, voluminous garments. Thede's in a gold lamé blouse with puff sleeves, accented with a black and silver polka dotted necktie. Rona's knife-pleated yellow gown gives her strong shoulders and a powerful presence. Rogers bestows a comically large sapphire and rose gold first-place ribbon to the episode's winner, Olga Zabelinskaya, who turned Scooter the maltese into Lady Gaga. Olga gets $10,000; the oblivious dogs get treats.
The groomers deliver stunning cuts even wilder than I could have imagined. One carves a gorilla's face into fur like they're tackling a topiary, another dyes her dog like a technicolor Lisa Frank leopard. More than one groomer describes themselves as an artist, and dogs their canvases.
For the uninitiated, Haute Dog appears to have invented an absurd art practice, but it turns out that it is only giving a larger platform for a sport with a worldwide following. Most of the competitors come from the dog grooming competition circuit. Two were former members of GroomUSA, essentially the Olympic squad for dog grooming. Angela Kump from Little Rock, Ark., has graced the cover of Groomer to Groomer magazine ten times. Ashley Ann from Montclair, N.J. was the first Black woman to graduate from an elite school in China, Yin Li Pet Grooming.
In only a few episodes, I became an expert at grooming trends and terminology. There are lion cuts, teddy bear trims, and lamb shaves. A round floof on a Poodle's head is known as a top knot. Rogers loves the phrase "rear angulation," which refers to the tapering of fur on the hind legs into a flattering shape that shortens the body and evens out the proportions.
Some dogs are unkind to groomers, like Roxy the bossy Pomeranian, but many treat their makeover as a blissful spa treatment. We get blueberry facials, glittering manicures, and even a Reiki massage. A number of show dog veterans barely register their stylist's gushing compliments; they're descendants of champions, they've literally been bred for grooming.
The very nature of competition dog grooming is pure camp, and Haute Dog leans into it. Pageantry is already embedded into the sport; groomers bedazzle butts, paint nails, and replace collars with floral crowns, all in the unglamorous convention centers where they normally compete. Haute Dog, on the other hand, only elevates the environment to match the beauty of grooming.
The judges make nonstop puns, Rogers can't resist a sexual innuendo, and our dogs get subtitled individual interviews in a warm lounge modeled after Rona's salon in Los Angeles. One joke that never gets old comes after the mini-competition, where Rogers offers the winning dog an incredible prize — a Paris vacation, a brand new kitchen, a jet-ski — or a dog treat. Of course, the dog always eats their treat before Rogers can finish his spiel.
If there's one complaint I can make about Haute Dog, it's that the grooming world shows favoritism towards poodles. If the show gets renewed for another season, I want to see bigger, harrier dogs, like Afghan hounds or Samoyeds. Might I be so bold and suggest that Haute Dog should cast my fluffy and unruly chow chow as one of their mystery dogs? Flora is waiting.