AUBURN — Margaret Betts tried repeatedly to brush out Wren’s thick, matted undercoat, to no avail. The 5-year-old border collie hated it and Betts realized she needed a professional’s help.

It turned out she needed Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa.

Groomer Darleen LaFontaine founded Pixie Willow’s — named after her family’s own dog — last year using a well-equipped, self-sufficient grooming trailer hauled behind a pickup truck to her clients’ homes. The idea: Provide a quiet, less-stressful space where dogs and cats could be groomed without having to set paw away from home.

A year after her first Pixie Willow’s call, Betts is a convert.

“It was a huge success,” she said.

Wren appeared dramatically less enthusiastic about the shaving process on a recent Thursday morning until treats appeared.

“You look like you’re 10 pounds lighter already,” LaFontaine cooed to half-shaved Wren as the dog crunched. “You’re a good girl, Wren. Good girl.”

LaFontaine, 54, began training as a groomer several years ago. She’d been a stay-at-home mom and a therapeutic horseback riding instructor, but her daughter was in high school and LaFontaine wanted a change from riding.

She’s always loved dogs and a groomer friend suggested she check out the career. There happened to be a grooming school in New Gloucester, not too far from her home in Gray.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll go out and see what they have to offer,” LaFontaine recalled. “I walked in and said, ‘OK, sign me up.'”

One year and 400 hours of training later, LaFontaine had her certificate. She worked for a while for someone else in a regular grooming salon, but she itched to be her own boss. At the same time, she didn’t like the setup at traditional salons, which, in her experience, usually didn’t maintain scheduled appointments and required animals to wait for hours in cages until it was their turn to be groomed.

“There’s all the extra noise and sometimes it stresses them out,” LaFontaine said. “A lot of dogs get so stressed. I don’t like to leave them sitting in a cage wondering when their masters are going to come.”

A mobile unit seemed perfect. She could go to the animals rather than insisting they come to her.

LaFontaine and her husband, Jim, spent about $43,000 on the trailer, which features a stainless steel tub at one end, a grooming table in the middle and lots of custom touches, including painted cartoon pixies on the wall and accents in LaFontaine’s favorite pink.

The trailer is self-contained, with its own 50-gallon water system, electric generator, heat and air conditioning. LaFontaine started the business last spring. She runs it from April to October, breaking in the winter because the trailer’s water lines freeze too easily and it’s too difficult to haul the trailer around in snow and ice.

When she’s not on the road, LaFontaine grooms out of the Yarmouth Veterinary Center.

The mobile salon is typically a one-person operation, but LaFontaine’s husband — a professional truck driver — sometimes goes with her to help haul the trailer around troublesome driveways and to help soothe skittish animals.

“He’s my bather, brusher and dog whisperer,” LaFontaine said.

She’s groomed cats and dogs in the Pixie Willow’s trailer. The smallest animal was a Chihuahua, the largest a Newfoundland.

She’s never been bitten, though a Rottweiler once came close.

“I felt the teeth go whoosh,” she said.

LaFontaine has only turned away one animal — a rescue dog who was overwhelmingly afraid of water and became upset in the bathtub.

“I had a hard time retraining (the dog) just so it wasn’t choking itself,” her husband said. “The animal must have had a bad experience somewhere along the line.”

Although based in Gray, LaFontaine has taken her mobile grooming studio as far north as Lewiston-Auburn, as far south as Cape Elizabeth and as out of the way as an island in Freeport. She charges a house call fee, which can make her more expensive than traditional groomers, but she believes the convenience and reduced anxiety makes the extra cost worth it for clients.

Betts agreed.

She started her search for a groomer for Wren last year, but she didn’t like the ones she saw. She was afraid a traditional salon would prove too stressful for Wren, who would be surrounded for hours by other barking dogs, strange humans and the noise of dryers. When a friend suggested Pixie Willow’s, she dropped her search and called.

Wren has been shaved twice now by LaFontaine. During her latest appointment, she didn’t seem to love it, but she didn’t seem upset, either.

When Wren was done — shaved, bathed and clipped — she got a summer-themed bandana around her neck and several treats.

“Wrenny! Look at you. Do you feel better?” Betts said when she saw her.

Wren didn’t answer. But when LaFontaine’s husband held out his hand, she gave him a high-five.

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Darleen LaFontaine, owner of Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa, grooms Wren, a border collie owned by Margaret Betts of Auburn, inside LaFontaine’s mobile pet spa. LaFontaine’s husband, Jim, holds Wren at right.

Margaret Betts walks her dog, Wren, into the Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa at her home in Auburn. Darleen and Jim LaFontaine of Gray bring their mobile business to customers’ homes to groom their pets.

Pet grooming tools are neatly tucked away inside the Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa.

Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa owners, Jim and Darleen LaFontaine, dry Wren following a bath inside the mobile pet-grooming business.

Pixie Willow’s Mobile Pet Spa owner Darleen LaFontaine picks out a shampoo as a freshly shaved Wren waits for her bath.


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