Meeko, a Shih Tzu, trembles as she focuses her huge brown eyes on Angela Webb. But the dog's not barking or trying to get away, and that's encouraging.
Webb is spending an hour as the pet's mobile-spa stylist and has seen the dog steadily improve over the past six years, better tolerating the regular grooming sessions that the breed's long, silky hair requires.
And as a rescue dog, Meeko is a special case.
Meeko's owner, Lisa McKnew, who has followed Webb through job changes over the years, now brings her pet to Webb's months-old mobile grooming salon in the driveway of the groomer's Columbia home, instead of the other way around. The 7-year-old pooch gets very territorial, McKnew says, when the van comes to her home in Odenton, just south of Fort Meade.
"Angela's the best," McKnew says when she returns to pick up her pet. "I'd come from Pennsylvania to see her if I had to."
Angelic Paws Pet Spa, which Webb started just weeks after she and fiance Rob Stanley became engaged and bought their home in June, is equipped to come to customers, with everything aboard.
The converted Ford E-350 Econoline van has a stainless-steel-lined tub with hand-held shower, an electric styling table with adjustable height, a high-velocity dryer and a central vacuum, among other equipment.
Electricity, air conditioning and heating are provided by a generator installed in the van, which costs over $65,000 new and gets about 13 miles per gallon, Webb says.
There are two 50-gallon water tanks for bathing pets — mostly dogs, and some cats as well. Some groomers have even cared for rabbits, guinea pigs and birds, she says, though that's rare.
And, as in any human salon, there are lots of services and products to pamper pets, like "pawdicures" and brightening shampoos.
After giving Meeko a bath, Webb begins blow-drying the dog's fur.
"She's one of the more difficult dogs I have," Webb says as the dog paces and seems anxious.
"But it's believed she was abused by her first owner," she says as she aims the nozzle at the dog's right ear. "When we started, I'd barely touch her and she'd get aggressive. It takes her a long time to trust people."
Webb, 27, had been a pet groomer at big-box stores since age 18 but knew since she was 4 that she'd find a job working with animals.
"My best friend and I decided we wanted to be vets," she recalled of growing up in Catonsville. "But I figured out when I got older that I can't stand the sight of blood." That was the end of her veterinary dream.
She started out as a pet-store cashier at 15 but could see the grooming stations from her register and informed her boss she'd "rather be doing that." She was allowed to start out as a dog washer and work her way up. She had further training after graduating from Catonsville High School.
When Webb decided to follow a friend's example and strike out on her own in the mobile grooming industry, the friend happened to decide to sell her van and purchase a larger model.
Kim Halligan, who worked with Webb years ago, has operated Sit Stay Style Mobile Pet Grooming out of Westminster for three years. Earlier this year, she purchased her new Pet Stylist Elite van, which is twice the size of the Pet Pro model she sold to Webb.
"Angela's super excited about it, but like all of us when we were first starting out, she's nervous about making it work," said Halligan, 26, who has built a base of 250 customers.
"The people who are our clients book us religiously every five to six weeks and would never think of doing otherwise," she says, even though grooming prices start at $75. "If you just experience it once, it sends the whole thing home."
John Stockman, national sales manager for Wag'n Tails, the Indiana-based company that converted both women's mobile grooming vans, says business has remained strong, even in the sluggish economy.
"There's been a steady increase over the last couple decades in the humanization of pets," says Stockman, whose company has served 1,800 clients. "Pet owners will sacrifice a lot of other things before they'll let Fluffy be affected."
Also, baby boomers are aging, he says, "and now their pets are their children, and they have more discretionary income to spend than previous generations."
Since most van operators are at full capacity when their client rosters hit 150 pets, about a quarter-million pets are being served by independent owners who've purchased Wag'n Tails vans, Stockman estimates. And that number doesn't include other companies in the conversion business.
Convenience drives the trend further, since there are many two-income families who don't have time to get their pets to a groomer, Stockman says. "We're giving them a precious gift: We're giving them their time back."
Webb says it's not uncommon for a grooming appointment at a pet store to last four hours, since multiple pets are being worked on at the same time and in one room. With a mobile groomer, it's a one-on-one situation and takes about an hour.
Owners don't have to put their pets in a carrier and drive to and from the groomer, worry about animals interacting at different stations or allow their pets to be crated until their return, she says.
"Ideally, I will be grooming five dogs a day, five days a week," Webb says. Wag'n Tails estimates that it takes three to six months to reach that number of clients, she adds.
"Mostly, word-of-mouth referrals are how the business spreads," she says, though she recently was called by a butler in Woodstock who had seen her ad on Craigslist. He made an appointment for a West Highland terrier on behalf of his employers.
While Webb can handle dogs weighing up to 180 pounds, grooming is physical work and can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, she says.
"It takes a toll on your body," she says. "You get tired."
But she loves animals and is excited about the benefits of being self-employed while offering clients a blend of premium services and convenience.
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Stanley says he's watched Webb build relationships with customers, who then refer their friends to her.
"It's hard at first, but like every business, it takes time to build that trust," says Stanley, who helps by cleaning the van and working on advertising strategies. "I think it's the perfect business for her to be in."
As Webb finishes Meeko's styling, she adds frilly pink bows to her ears.
"You're such a good girl. Are you ready?" she asks the dog in a high-pitched, playful voice.
Shortly after McKnew retrieves her pet, Webb gets a call from a prospective client in Ellicott City and makes an appointment to visit his Labrador retriever at 1 p.m. the same day.
"Kim gave me all the confidence in the world," she says, pleased to add another customer. "Maybe in a couple of years, I'll need to hire help."