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"Nobody likes a smelly dog," I said to my husband Patrick. We were discussing Nellie, our terrier, and the fact that the last time we left her with my friend Bernice, Bernice gave her a bath. Patrick was a little embarrassed, but he had to admit that Bernice probably had good reason. Plus, Nellie's been scratching and biting a lot more than usual of late. By conversation's end, we had resolved to start in with regular baths -- twice a month. Before Patrick could start grumbling about the messy tub and dog hair in the drain, I called South Bark Dog Wash in South Park (619-232-7387; www.southbark.com ) and spoke with owner Donna Walker. "South Bark is a gathering place for dog and cat lovers," she began, noting that no reservations were required. "I'm listing cats because we are equal opportunity. We have a retail shop with really cool products, and we have a self-serve dog spa. The bulk of the dog wash is filled with canines, of course, but we do get cats in here."

Upon entering South Bark, where the decor is as whimsical as the name, I'm asked if I am shopping or bathing. "If you're bathing, you're sent back to one of the assistants -- a trained dog handler -- who will guide you through the process. They'll ask what types of shampoos and conditioners you'd like to use, if there are any skin conditions, find out if the dog is aggressive or not social, and if you have any special needs."

Once you've got all that sorted out, "we send you outside to do a little brushing. We believe you should loosen up the hair with a bit of brushing. We have many different kinds of brushes; which one you use depends on the kind of hair the dog has. A shedder is a metal-looped brush with short ridges on one end and longer ridges on the other side. You can open them and shed the fur or keep them in the rounded position. A rake brush works on the undercoat of the dog to remove hair. The pin brush generally takes hair off the topcoat. And there's a styling brush with tiny tines for styling," but that gets used after the bath.

Then it's back inside for the tubbing. "My business partner Lisa Vella and I came up with what we call the 'Island Tub' pattern," explained Walker. "The tubs are in the middle of the spa, in the pattern of a capital H. Most dog washes have the tubs against the wall. Our tubs are raised up on platforms -- one side is higher, one lower. That is so people of taller or shorter stature who have dogs of taller or shorter stature can have a more ergonomic washing experience. The tubs are human-size tubs; they can hold a 300-pound animal. Around the middle of the H are two grooming tables. We have metal separation barriers, made by artists, between the tubs. This gives the dogs and their people privacy: you can still kind of see through them, but the dog can't jump through. It allows my staff to walk around and see if anyone needs anything."

When it's time to get your dog into the tub, "the tub stairs pull out, and the staff secures the dog in the tub for the client. We use a groomer's noose -- it's an adjustable noose with a rubber line that ends in a suction cup. The cup can be moved around the tub. In the beginning, we'll secure the dog, but after a while, most dogs start to love the bath so much that we end up not having to use them."

Step one of the bathing experience at South Bark is the house special: the blueberry facial. "We developed the facial because people would come in and wash their dogs but not the dogs' faces," said Walker. "The dog would have a beautiful body, but a dirty or sticky face. We developed a product, and now we sell it across the United States. It's tearless, and it's aromatherapeutic, brightening, and cleansing. We mist the face, massage, and then remove with heated wash cloths."

The dog's owner steps up for the actual washing, and starts by soaking the dog with a hand-held sprayer. "I can modulate the temperature of the bath, depending on how warm or cold it is outside," said Walker. "Dogs can feel heat more sensitively than we can, so you don't want it too hot or too cold." When it comes to shampooing, "there are many techniques. We believe in diluting the shampoo, but still giving the client at least one whole bottle's worth. You'd think it was a lot, but it really isn't, and the diluted shampoo really gets into the skin and the coat."

South Bark's basic shampoos -- Eucalyptus Shine and Lavender Mint -- are meant to be lathered in and rinsed off. But if a client wants a specialty shampoo -- say, a color enhancer ( $2 ) for bringing out a coat's reds, browns, or whites, or a medicated shampoo ( $4 ) for treating dry skin -- then those need to be left in for three to five minutes. Conditioners, like brushes, vary by hair type. "Our basic wash package includes a spray-on conditioner. However, if a dog has sensitive skin, we have a gentle hypoallergenic, Ultra Silk [ $1.50 ]. We also offer a medium-grade conditioner called Plum [ $1.50 ], and a heavy-duty conditioner, Apple Oats, with a shine in it [ $1.50] ."

Hair type and sensitivity also govern drying choices. "Towels for towel drying are included in the basic package. We also have a fluffer dryer [ $2 ] -- a forced air unit, kind of like a blow dryer. It's used for blowing out loose hair and for styling. It's good for dogs with thick, dense hair." Dogs with long and silky hair are better off with towels or in the cage dryer ( $3 ). "The dog sits in it; it's like a Jacuzzi of air going around the dog. Our staff is highly educated; they'll look at each animal and help you decide what your dog needs."

The basic dog-wash package costs $12 and includes the basic shampoo, washcloths, brushes, apron, towels, grooming table use, blueberry facial, and grooming spray. First time clients may choose a complimentary conditioner upgrade.

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