Simply put – carding is the process of removing undercoat hairs from a dog’s coat.
Most often we’ll use a Carding Knife (not actually a knife) or an Undercoat Rake to help us remove undercoat much quicker.
Handstripping dogs, on the other hand, is where we remove guardcoat along with undercoat to encourage more guard coats to take it’s place.
It’s easy to confuse the two, especially since the process is quite similar.
Two Coats – Undercoat and Topcoat
Dog’s have two layers of fur. An Undercoat that’s soft and warm, and an outer coat that is more textured and wiry. We call the outer coat the Jacket, Top Coat, or Guard Coat.
The guard coat does just that – it creates a natural barrier that protects your dog. Their coat produces oils that repel water, and the textured layer protects from abrasions while running through brush.
When we’re carding we are addressing the undercoat.
But now you might be asking, why would we want to remove such a thing?
Why do we card / Rake?
To Make Handstripping Easier & Encourage Texture
Wire coated dog breeds are groomed using a specific technique called Handstripping.
Handstripping is the process of manually removing hairs with our hands or with tools.
It’s totally painless, and helps maintain proper coat texture and color.
In order to make handstripping a smooth and easy process; groomers will remove some of the undercoat first using carding techniques.
Furthermore, each individual hair follicle will contain dozens of undercoat hairs for every guard coat hair.
As we remove undercoat we encourage more guard coat to take it’s place.
The goal is to encourage a healthy thick and textured coat called a Jacket. While also shaping the coat into our desired style.
To tame shedding double coated breeds
Double coated dogs are a little different however.
Picture a Husky, Malamute, German Shepherd, and Labrador Retriever… what do they all have in common?
They shed like it’s going out of style.
Most of that shedding is from the undercoat. Especially when spring rolls around!
Using an undercoat rake we can massively reduce shedding (for a time). We can also use a technique called Line Brushing that I explain in this video.
You Have a Sporting Dog Breed
Some dog breeds, such as English Cocker Spaniels or Irish Setters, are carded to properly maintain their beautiful coats.
While these are double coated breeds, they also have a silky texture that benefits from having their undercoat manually carded rather than scissored or clipped.
Handstripping and Carding Tools
Carding knifes look a bit like an icing spatula with dull ridges on one side.
Groomers will grip loose hairs between the ridge and their thumb and pull in one smooth transition. Essentially a carding knife just makes gripping hairs easier.
In the old days groomers would use butter knives to help grip hair. These days we have much more efficient tools.
Bladed Undercoat Rake
Rakes are a series of curved dull blades that comb deep into the coat which quickly and effectively remove undercoat.
While easier to use, they do tend to cut coat hairs which is the opposite of what we want to achieve.
Most groomers and show dog owners tend to avoid undercoat rakes.
The Golden Rule of Handstripping / Carding
The golden rule of stripping or carding is we never want to cut the hairs, only pull them.
There is a hot debate on whether undercoat rakes cut coat hairs or not.
A skilled groomer with a carding knife is one of the tried and true methods of ensuring the groom is immaculate. Also, it allows for finer detailed work when it comes to the face and legs.
For some pet owners I recommend an undercoat rake because it’s quick and easy.
For groomers, show dog owners, or owners wanting to learn how to groom from home, I recommend learning how to card properly.
Carding is a Technique
Just because we’re using a carding knife does not actually means we are “carding”.
Carding is a technique that can be assisted with tools.
But use those tools incorrectly and we may be removing too much outer coat. We’re no longer carding but stripping.
So what do we use them properly?
How To Card The Jacket
With an undercoat rake it’s easy – just run the rake down the length of your dog’s coat (always with the growth, not against).
Ensure you’re not digging or scratching the skin. Apply firm but gentle pressure.
Using a Carding Knife:
- Always make sure your carding knife is dull.
- Gently but firmly hold your dog’s skin with your off hand.
- Hold your knife in your correct hand – wrap your fingers are the base on the handle and hold loosely. This prevents you from applying too much pressure. Never hold the knife in the palm of your hand.
- Lay the knife flat against the dog’s coat.
- Angle the knife slightly at 10 to 15 degrees.
- Use a combing motion, gently comb the knife with the growth.
- Go over the same spot no more than twice to avoid irritating the skin.
- Remove excess undercoat from the blade and continue down the coat.
When it comes to the face, beard, legs, or ears (we call these the Furnishings) on wire haired dogs we use handstripping techniques.
If you want to learn more about tackling these advanced techniques then definitely check out my Handstripping Masterclass.
When To Stop
If your dog is yelping, crying, or you notice redness on the skin, bumps, bleeding, or swelling; stop immediately.
These are not normal reactions. Carding should be a painless process, and dogs exhibiting these reactions means something is wrong.
Be aware that dogs have been previously clipped might not be able to get carded due to hormonal or coat changes.
Always listen and watch carefully as you are grooming to ensure your dog is comfortable.
Dull Your Knives!
Remember the golden rule of carding or stripping your dogs coat: we never want to cut hairs.
If your carding knife or rake is too sharp we’ll be cutting hairs instead of pulling them.
I always recommend pre-dulling your blades before use.
The best method I found is purchasing a small carpet sample from your local carpet shop, and fill the carpet fibers with finely ground chalk.
Now saw your knife into the chalk and carpet. Several minutes later your knife should be ready for pulling.
Be mindful not to dent or bend the teeth on your blade!
How to tell if your knife is still too sharp
Manually remove a few hairs from your dog’s coat.
Stretch the hairs over the blade of your carding knife and pull tightly. If the blade easily cuts through the hairs – your blade still needs to be dulled.
Learn More About Handstripping
Carding is just one small step when it comes to fully grooming a wire coated breed.
If you would like to see more examples and learn all my techniques from 10 years of experience, I recommend you check out my Handstripping Masterclass.
It’s 5 hours and 30 videos where we go deep into handstripping. I’ll cover the best tools, keeping your dog comfortable, handling different breeds, along with beginner and advanced techniques.