When Courtney Henderson was 6, her pets far outweighed her.

But her dad, who bred them, didn’t hesitate to let her walk six Great Danes down the road at once. Even then, she knew how to handle them.

Courtney’s dad warned her never to get down in a dog’s face because, he said, “They’re going to bite you one day.”

They never did.

“I just love them,” she said. “I’ve always had a natural affinity for dogs.”

It only made sense that Henderson work with the creatures she loved—first, as a mobile groomer working dog shows for over seven years in Indianapolis.

For two years she worked at an Indianapolis veterinary clinic, where the vet taught her everything he knew about skin conditions. She even got a discount for assisting with her cat’s brain surgery.

“I grew up on a small farm,” Henderson explained. “So I have a strong stomach. I don’t get squeamish about much.”

But one thing really got to her.

While working for another local groomer, she said, “It always made me sad to see dogs caged while they were waiting. It made me so depressed that I didn’t want to go to work anymore.”

It became her dream to have dogs roaming free and happy in her own grooming salon.

Cage-free grooming is a recent trend, driven by tearful owners who feel the same way about seeing their pets confined to cages.

But going cage-free has its dangers. It takes careful scheduling to ensure animals’ safety and always requires some form of containment, while nevertheless avoiding the cages that raise the hackles of owners.

So, Henderson and partner Jason Potts spent two years planning and polling dog owners. In response, they opened Punta Gorda Pet Spa on Feb. 16.

Its motto is “Where your dog can be a dog!” but the menu of services lists hairdos that will also tickle owners’ fancy.

“My 11-year-old daughter, Grace Potts, helped me put together all the services on the menu — The Clean, The Stylish, The Bold and The Messy,” Henderson said.

Services are priced according to the dog’s weight and complexity of styling, and all prices, ranging from $30 to $85 per pet, are posted on the Pet Spa’s website and its walls. Gentle walk-in nail trims are $6 to $14, also based on weight.

“We’re constantly aware of our schedule,” said Henderson. “This gives every dog plenty of time to explore, adjust, snuggle and bond with us, play and get individualized attention, without being rushed or having to wait in a cage.

“We have bins of toys for them, which I wash and put back for the next dogs. We have little bells on the door so bell-trained dogs can ask to go potty. We want to make sure it’s like home.”

Bath time starts with sudsing each pup in the owner’s choice of soothing, body-temperature house shampoos. A full-body massage during lathering helps relax them.

“Then we shammy-dry the dog to remove as much water as we can before ‘intermission.’ During intermission the dog gets a chance to remove water the way a dog knows best — while playing and running around.”

They even lay a towel down for “face rubbers.”

Once the dog is getting tired out, it’s fully power-dried before grooming and final touches (nail trims, pad shaving, ear cleaning). Henderson is especially careful to dry pads, armpits and the inside of difficult-to-reach ears, adding powder to help prevent skin and ear infections.

The biggest complaint they heard while polling owners? How long dogs were left in their previous groomers’ cages before being touched.

“We schedule carefully to keep your dog only as long as we have to. We understand that your dog’s favorite place is at home in your arms,” Henderson said.

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