Why Are Poodle Haircuts So Weird?

How their coifs once helped them hunt.

Sheared for the mane event

At this year’s 128th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which kicked off yesterday, 2,500 dogs of 162 breeds and varieties are competing for the coveted “Best in Show” prize. Among the strangest-looking contestants are the oddly shorn toy, miniature, and standard poodles. Why is it that poodles sport those outlandish haircuts?

The genesis of the poodle hairdo is much disputed. Likenesses of animals resembling poodles—small creatures with hair akin to a lion’s mane—have been found on Roman tombs, Greek and Roman coins, and monuments dating back to A.D. 30. But most observers trace the poodle’s unique haircut to late 16th- and early 17th-century Central Europe (particularly in the region that’s now Germany) where poodles were bred for use as water retrievers. (The word “poodle” is derived from the German pudel, short for pudelhund, which means “water dog.” Pudeln in German means “splash,” and is also the root of the English word “puddle.”)

Cynologists agree that poodles in that era had these unusual clips out of occupational necessity: An unshorn poodle’s thick coat could weigh it down in the water. With the bottom half of its body shaved, the animal was more buoyant and could swim more freely. The long mane and hair around the chest were left intact to keep the poodle’s vital organs warm in the cold water, and owners also kept the hair around the joints to protect them from cold and injury and to help prevent rheumatism. Shaving the hair around the face left the poodle’s mouth and eyes free so it could fulfill its retrieving responsibilities, and tying the hair on a poodle’s head into a “top knot” also kept hair out of its eyes. Owners eventually tied these knots with brightly colored ribbons to help them identify their dogs from afar.

Poodles’ haircuts evolved into some of the more ornate and elaborate incarnations we see today when the animals gained popularity in France, particularly in the 18th century under the reign of Louis XVI. Poodles, especially the smaller varieties, were popular with the nobility, who would mold the little dogs’ hair into extravagant styles, sometimes mimicking the ornate pompadours that French men and women wore themselves at the time.

These days, poodles competing at Westminster must sport one of two coat patterns, the Continental or the English Saddle. (The primary difference is that the Continental leaves the poodles’ hindquarters embarrassingly exposed.) These clips are believed to show off the poodle’s “squareness,” one of the many characteristics that they are judged on in the show ring. In a properly square poodle, the area from the breastbone to the rump measures approximately the same distance as the height from shoulders to ground.

Prepping a show poodle takes considerable time. About two days before an important competition, poodles usually undergo a “rough cut” grooming that shapes the hair into an outline of the show style. The morning of the event, a poodle’s coat is carefully blow-dried, and the pompoms, mane, and decorative bracelets are scissored and styled. Top handlers will work with only the finest scissors; the best are generally produced in Japan and can cost upward of $600.

Poodles have enjoyed a good amount of success at Westminster: Since  “Best in Show” was first awarded in 1907, four standards, three miniatures, and two toy poodles have won the prize, most recently with the surprise win of Ch. Surrey Spice Girl  in 2002. This year’s competition had 37 perfectly pruned poodles competing: 17 standards, 13 miniatures, and seven toys. Only one of them, standard poodle Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto On Fifth, who won first place last night in the “Non-Sporting Group,” will advance to tonight’s “Best in Show” competition.