Rachel Nieder gave her black lab a bath at home once. "But just once," she said. "There was a lot of water, a lot of fur and a lot of hurt feelings."

So now the Columbia Heights resident takes her dog, Beauty, to the Ollu self-service dog wash in Minneapolis. Both seem happy with the change. Nieder doesn't have to kneel next to her bathtub or worry about Beauty's fur clogging the drain.

And when the bath is over, Beauty can shake to her heart's content -- the shop provides Nieder with a rubber apron and an attendant squeegees the floor.

If the words "self-service dog wash" prompt a double take, you're not alone, said Jodel Fesenmaier, Ollu's owner. When she opened the shop three years ago, she spent half her time trying to explain to customers why there was a need for such a place.

"But once they try it, they're hooked," she said.

Similar businesses have sprung up all over the Twin Cities and have made inroads into some national chains, including Petco, as part of the $3.5 billion that Americans spend each year on their pets. Do-it-yourself shops have spread outside the metro area, too, with locations in Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and Brainerd.

"You can actually have fun washing your dog," promised Keith Miller, owner of Bubbly Paws in St. Louis Park. In fact, many dog owners are surprised at how docile their pets become when their owners aren't worried about the logistics of bathing.

"The dog is more relaxed because you're more relaxed," he said.

The self-service shops also have professional groomers on hand to help with the tasks that make some owners nervous, such as clipping nails. They'll help you pick out the right shampoo, too. But for the most part, it's just common sense, said Kristiana Clough, owner of Country Critters in St. Francis.

"If you can give a kid a bath, you can give a dog a bath," she said.

The do-it-yourself business

The notion of a self-service dog wash didn't originate with Fesenmaier. The businesses are extremely popular in Southern California, and when she was living in San Diego she used them often to clean her dogs. When Fesenmaier moved back to Minnesota, she couldn't find a DIY wash. "So I drew up a business plan for Ollu." (The name is a nod to her dogs, Oliver and Lulu.)

The shops have found a niche with condominium owners, who often lack laundry rooms in which to spray down their pets. The service also is popular among people who own large dogs. (Ramps help get the big dogs into the waist-high tubs.)

The businesses also draw seasonal customers. Among them are Jennifer and Corey Johnson from Brooklyn Park, who recently brought their black lab, Harley, into Ollu for a bath.

"Normally we just hose him down when he gets dirty," Corey Johnson said. "But when it gets cold out, we can't wash him in the yard anymore."

Plus, there's the hair, Jennifer Johnson added, which tends to amass in alarming quantities.

"He'll leave a couple of pounds of hair behind," she said. "We don't want that in the bathtub."

Still a need for groomers

Some customers alternate between using professional groomers and the DIY approach. A bath can be "a cheap way to get out of a few groomings," Miller said.

But most groomers don't have an issue with the self-service baths, Clough said. Dogs that need regular cuts, such as poodles, are still going to use a grooming service.

"I think most groomers are indifferent" about the trend, she said. "It caters to a different group of people."

Prices at the self-service washes start at about $15, depending on the size of the dog and the number of extra services, such as nail clipping. The fee includes shampoo, towels, toothbrushes and electric dryers for the dogs, plus waterproof aprons for the owners. The tubs are sanitized between washes.

Some owners have found a social component that's missing from an at-home bath. About once every six weeks, friends Annie Salmen and Kasia Chamiec wash their dogs at the same time. They stand at adjacent tubs: Salmen, of St. Paul, tends to Buddy, a beagle-spaniel mix, while Chamiec, from Minneapolis, washes her beagle-chow, Peanut.

"It's sort of a girls' night out," Salmen said. To which Chamiec added: "When we get done, we go have a glass of wine to celebrate our victory."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392