WEST FARGO -- Dogs and cats don't always emerge from Jessica Johnson's Garage of Beauty as mere dogs and cats.
Some will emerge as society matrons, complete with sparkling jewels, painted nails, perfume and a Westminster-worthy coif. Some will look like dinosaurs, with a row of stegosaurus-worthy plates running straight down their backs. A few might possess a Joe Dirt-worthy charm, complete with a luxuriously flowing mullet. Others will become kawaii K-Pop stars, with fuchsia hair, panda ears, huge eyes, hairbows and legs trimmed to look like bellbottoms.
Anything is possible at Johnson's home-based grooming business, Adventure with JJ, where the experienced groomer works hard to meet pet owners' requests.
It must work. The West Fargo groomer has 62 five-star reviews on Google. Pet owners talk of Johnson's professionalism, friendly nature and willingness to take on any client - even the most temperamental ones. One review mentions her ability to groom a bull dog so bullheaded that other groomers refused him as a return client. Several spoke of her ability to work with high-strung or anxious dogs.
"They do behave, just not always for their owners," Johnson says. "It's all how you portray yourself. I've done a lot of aggressive dogs and they're just fine. I've worked with dogs over the years where you couldn't touch them and now they love me, so that's pretty rewarding."
And Johnson doesn't just specialize in felines and canines; she also has beautified bunnies, gussied up guinea pigs and given mani-pedis to reptiles. Her most exotic assignment so far? Clipping the nails on a baby fox.
"It scratched the crap out of me," she recalls. "But it was so, so cute."
Her wide variety of clients, along with the unpredictable situations they can create, are one reason she's included "adventure" in her business name. It's also a nod to the bling she's happy to incorporate into makeovers, whether that's feathers in their hair, sparkly polish on their nails or a dyed heart shaved into someone's coat.
"It's always something fun," she says. "And with the dyeing and the hair color and the gems, I would say it's always an adventure."
Pet grooming a family affair
Johnson credits her success to ample experience, including previous jobs at dog-boarding facilities. "It's always good to have that in your background," she says. "Because when you go into it, it's not what you think: playing with puppy dogs. There's a high turnover. It's dirty. I've gotten bit more times than I can count."
She's also learned that sometimes a dog's build is a lot smaller than his bite. "I've had my thumb fractured by a Chihuahua," she says. "It literally bit through my thumb. My nail was destroyed. That was the worst one I got."
But regardless of the challenges, dog-grooming seems to run in her family's blood.
Johnson took up the brush and clipper by following in the footsteps of her identical twin sister, Jenna Jackson, who owns Sit Stay Spa in West Fargo.
Johnson started out in 2008 at Petco, which is where she first started grooming cats. Many people shy away from grooming felines, because their bites are notoriously infectious and often result in a trip to the ER, Johnson says. But once you learn how to hold them and read their signals, they can be bathed, brushed and clipped.
"You do better than you think," she says. "I will call in help."
Johnson sometimes gets assistance from another groomer she trained, as he has a vet tech background and is certified in humane, low-stress cat restraint.
After leaving the big-box store last summer, Johnson set up her own home-based business within weeks. "I wasted no time because I knew my clients would be needing me," she says.
So far, her business is a one-woman show, located in a small black tent inside her two-car garage. Some older or more anxious dogs, as well as most cats, seem to prefer this quieter home setting to a large-scale grooming operation, she says.
But even with this cozier environment, Adventure with JJ is hopping, with owners coming and going to drop off dogs for back-to-back appointments. Two of Johnson's own dogs sometimes charge through the garage to make sure they aren't missing out on anything fun. Another one of her dogs, an amiable Jack Russell named Boo, is a constant presence, acting as official greeter and morale officer for nervous or first-time clients.
When Johnson gets especially busy, she recruits friends who also want to learn more about grooming. One of those is Raymie Valleen, who shows up to help with pre-grooming tasks like bathing a Japanese-Chin mix named Patti.
Valleen used to bring her cat, who is part-Maine Coon, to Johnson for grooming; they even gave him an elaborate "dino cut" once. Not too surprisingly, the feline has decided his stegosaurus-impersonating days are over and will no longer cooperate. Even so, she's impressed by Johnson's skill.
"She's really personable," Valleen says. "She'll sit and talk and talk to the puppies. She'll ask what you want versus how she wants to do it. She's very smart and knowledgeable about all the different dog breeds and what you can and can't do to make sure you aren't going to have any issues with puppies or kitties afterward."
Wearing her heart on her sleeve
Although Johnson does all kinds of grooming, she has a soft spot for poodles. Two of her own dogs have poodle in their bloodlines, including a 16-year-old Eskipoo named Poco and a one-eyed Aussie-doodle named Dexter.
One of her regulars, Shannon Larson, says she's the "best poodle groomer around the FM area."
When Larson first started bringing Ozzy, a standard poodle, to Johnson, he was just 6 months old. Larson wasn't sure what to ask for, so she told the groomer to surprise her. Johnson did, and has continued to do so ever since. "She's very creative. She's just very good at what she does," Larson says.
Ozzy has grown into such a handsome boy that he attracts his own little fan club whenever his latest "look" is posted on social media. "We get lots of compliments," Larson says. "The biggest takeaway is when people comment on him, I always give Jessica credit. It's all her."
Johnson has also prepared a standard poodle for show by giving it a posh Continental cut. She's captured that dog in an elaborate tattooed sleeve on her right arm, which also incorporates the iridescent peacock purples, jades and blues found in her beloved Kissaki grooming scissors.
Johnson offers a full menu of other services, ranging from $10 for an ear-cleaning or nail polish to $150 for a full-service haircut on an extra-large dog (that includes a nail file, ear-cleaning, teeth-brushing, "blueberry facial," luxury shampoo and conditioning and a "custom cut - if you want to get fancy.") She charges $60 for a bunny grooming and $90 for a cat bath and grooming.
In addition, she lists some specialized services, like a charcoal mud bath conditioner to soothe dry, itchy skin, $35 to apply rubber nail caps so kitties don't scratch up furniture and $20 if your pet(or his owner) has a mid-life crisis and wants to color his locks chartreuse.
Another big part of Johnson's business is education. She likes to help out owners by sharing links to products they might find helpful or information on topics like training, nail care or nutrition. She also offers a half-hour grooming crash course to owners for $30, as well as a one-hour session on basic obedience training for $60.
"People like the teaching," she says. "They'll say, 'Oh, no one's ever told me that before.'"
That component, along with Johnson's experience, exacting eye and personable nature, seem to have all helped this adventure succeed. "You've gotta make people feel like family, basically," she says.