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Trail Blazers

These 10 business owners are forging new paths in the pet industry.

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You impress us. On a daily basis. Your creativity and generosity know no bounds. In fact, many of you are leaders in your respective fields, innovating and then sharing your wins with other pet business owners and managers so they too can succeed. Ten such professionals are profiled here. Some are pioneers. Others have taken an existing product or service and given it a new spin, helping to move their part of the pet industry forward. We hope they inspire you to do the same. That is, if you aren’t already.

DOG PARK INNOVATORS

Dave Hensley & Leib Dodell | Bar K, Kansas City, MO

Most public dog parks are problematic. They never have enough shade or seating. Fights break out between unsupervised pups. Rules prohibit food and small children, rightly so for safety reasons, but it makes a family trip to the park difficult for some. And not all dogs have the vaccinations they need.

Leib Dodell and Dave Hensley decided to create a place for pets and their people that has none of these issues — and that offers so much more. They opened Bar K in August 2018.

“Like a lot of entrepreneurs, we started out wanting to solve a problem for ourselves,” Dodell says. He enjoys going out with his Australian Shepherd Benji and Shepherd mix Bear, as does Hensley with his Goldendoodle, Bishop. “Public dog parks are challenging and limited in the experience they provide.”

Bar K spans two acres on the south bank of the Missouri River, adjacent to downtown Kansas City and partially under the expansive Heart of America Bridge.

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“It was this big undeveloped property, kind of a dump, but we could see it had potential to be something special.”

The business partners made it exactly that. Off-leash space totals 68,400 square feet (about 20 percent larger than a football field), with separate areas for dogs big and small, and puppies, to run and play. A jungle gym, four-sided climbing wall and splash pool are among the amenities. Dogtenders, trained in behavioral cues, watch over the action.

“Our trained staff can spot escalating warning signs, and then redirect dogs with a ball or take them to another part of the park.”

A separate 3,000-square-foot Petfinder Park hosts adoption events and training classes.

Inside the 5,000-square-foot restaurant and bar — built from 17 repurposed shipping containers — humans can order from a healthy casual menu while their pups play outside. Those who want to dine with their leashed dogs can do so on the outdoor deck or upstairs patio, and even order a meal for them from a special menu. Beer, wine and cocktails are served inside and outside.

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Kids are welcome throughout the property, with different rules applying to on- and off-leash areas. Pet parents can stop by the Groom-Groom Room, a grooming salon with self-bathing station, before they leave.

Admission to Bar K is by day pass, $10 per dog and $5 per additional dog, and by annual membership, $225 per dog and $25 per additional dog. Membership recently surpassed 1,500 members, and Dodell says, “1,000 people can come through on a busy weekend.” All pets must be vaccinated or provide recent titer test results.

 

FITNESS TRAINER FOR PUPS & THEIR PEOPLE

Sue Hepner | Cool Dog Gear, Langhorne & North Wales, PA

Dogs make the best workout partners. They’re always up for exercise, whether it be a walk or run or game of fetch.* Too bad pups can’t go to the gym with their people.

They can in Pennsylvania, thanks to Sue Hepner, co-owner of Cool Dog Gear stores. She created and offers private Work Out Doggie Style classes at both locations, six days a week.

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Her own enthusiasm for fitness inspired the program. “I would go to the gym, and my dog would be like, ‘What about me?’”

Hepner, also an avid dragon boat racer, put together the core routine with her team’s coach, retired physical education teacher Jan Cairone. Instructors modify as needed for different doggie ages and physical abilities.

“The youngest pup we have is 4½ months. The oldest is 15 years. The seniors, for example, don’t do as much jumping,” she says, adding that growing puppies also skip certain exercises.

Each class begins with dog and pet parent — or parents — doing three minutes of laps around the gym, located at the back of each store. “They can walk or run, however they usually get around the block.”

Participants then start moving through a series of stations. Pups weave through poles, balance their front paws on an oversized ball and do nosework by finding hidden treats. Hepner even has skateboards for advanced students. In between, they walk or run laps again. Humans guide their dogs, but also have exercises of their own to do such as reps with resistance bands and kettlebells.

Class always ends with 10 minutes of fetch to pull out the pup’s last bit of energy. “Then they’re done, physically and mentally.”

Each class costs $20, with each store holding 100-plus a month. Hepner does not have to advertise the program, as photos she shares nightly on social media get tagged, liked and shared, and lead to new participants. Its popularity even has manufacturers providing toys and treats used in class because doing so results in sales boosts.

Next up for Hepner: She plans to franchise Work Out Doggie Style to other pet businesses.

FIVE-PAW CHEF

Beth Staley | Happy Dog Barkery, Downers Grove, IL

In 2011, pet baker Beth Staley introduced a new Thanksgiving special: turkey stew for dogs.

“We ended up selling 250 over just a couple of days. It took us by surprise,” she says.

Stews are now a bestseller at her Happy Dog Barkery, with more than 1,800 sold in January of this year alone. Staley makes three recipes at a time from an ever-growing menu, now at 25. Popular offerings include Heart of Hearts (chicken, zucchini, chicken liver and heart, carrot and pea) and Pork n Beans (pork, sweet potato, garbanzo bean, molasses, bacon and tomato sauce).

“It’s not a complete diet, more of a food topper or to entice dogs who aren’t eating well.”

Staley has always looked for ways to innovate as a pet baker and chef. In addition to custom cakes and other bakery items, she offers seasonal and cultural treats. Polish pet parents particularly appreciate her celebration of Pączki. The traditional day of eating special jelly-filled buns happens in March, and dogs get their own pączki filled with chicken, coconut, peanut butter or sweet potato. More than 1,300 sell over the three-day period they are available.

Bakery items, which include all of the above, make up 30 percent of overall sales, helping to spur “double-digit growth every single year,” Staley says.

HERBALIST TO THE PETS

Johnna Devereaux | Fetch RI, Richmond, RIL

Johnna Devereaux has been studying the healing properties of herbs for humans since she was 15 years old. After opening Fetch RI in 2014 and becoming a certified canine and feline nutritionist, it was only natural to begin incorporating herbs into her plans for pets.

“I’ve been blessed from my childhood with this passion, and now I’ve found a way to use it to help animals heal themselves and to increase my business,” Devereaux says. “I’m so grateful and appreciative.”

Now also a clinical pet nutritionist, she offers a variety of services and products for dogs and cats with health issues. In-depth nutritional assessments and recommendations involve consultation with the treating veterinarian, or Devereaux can simply look at recent test results and current medications. This costs $75 per hour, $35 per half-hour followup. She also dispenses advice and herbs outside of consultations for minor acute issues, such as suggesting marshmallow root for a dog with an intestinal tract inflamed by diarrhea.

Her go-to commercial herbal products are those from Animal Essentials. The company even creates custom extracts for the store. Devereaux also has an herb garden and apothecary at home.

“I’m sensitive to where herbs come from, whether or not there are heavy metals in the soil, so I grow my own. I make salves for wound care and paw protection, and hot spot remedies. I also formulate teas because I’m a huge advocate of adding water to a dog’s food, and it’s another way to deliver herbs.

“If we’ve interfered somehow and interrupted an animal’s system, I provide tools to help the body heal itself.”

PET SUSTAINABILITY PIONEERS

Julie Paez & Pennye Jones-Napier | The Big Bad Woof, Washington, DC

Pennye Jones-Napier and Julie Paez founded The Big Bad Woof in 2005. Since day one, they have helped to set the standard for sustainable pet stores in this country.

“We’ve always had a green business model, which encompasses everything from what we use for cleaning products to how our electricity is supplied,” Jones-Napier says. “This even flows into buying decisions, by looking at where a product is made, how it is packaged and how far it has to travel to get to our store.”

Among their sustainable achievements: The Big Bad Woof in Hyattsville, MD, was the first business to become a U.S. Benefit Corporation, in 2010. They closed that location in 2016 to reopen in Washington, DC, with D.C. Benefit Corp status.

The current store has 96 solar panels and two energy-efficient Big Ass Fans.

Staff reuses shipping materials and picks up styrofoam coolers and ice packs from area vet clinics to use for raw food delivery.

Bones and organ meats come from a local organic, non-GMO farm. Locally made Chippins treats use cricket as protein.

They joined the Mayor’s Office of the Clean City campaign. Free branded poop bags and holders are available at the store.

LEADER IN PET SERVICES SAFETY

Suzanne Locker | ABC Pet Resort & Spa, Willis, TX

In the early 2000s, doggie day care continued to grow in popularity. However, members of the American Boarding Kennels Association were not convinced it was without risk to the dogs.

As the service became more mainstream and seen as a viable play activity, the ABKA tasked member Suzanne Locker with updating existing accreditation standards to include day care best practices. The revised standards came out in 2006.

“We saw that we needed to be inclusive of all kinds of services,” Locker says. “We had an obligation to our staff, pets and pet parents to have safety procedures for overnight lodging as well as day care.”

During her time with the association, she also served on its board of directors and as president. Her pet resort continues to value safety certifications through the International Boarding & Pet Services Association, American Kennel Club and the Professional Animal Care Certification Council.

Locker also stresses their importance during her Pet Care Facility Management Boot Camp for those opening their first pet services facility.

PET WHOLE FOOD ADVOCATES

Marc Berube & Gregori Lukas | Lukas & Berube Healthy Pet Markets, Montclair, NJ

Gregori Lukas and Marc Berube want nothing more than for pets to eat fresh whole foods. The co-owners of Lukas & Berube’s Healthy Pet Markets believe so strongly in such a diet that they invited top integrative veterinarians and industry experts to speak about it and other topics at their first-ever Healthy Pet Summit.

Held in October 2018 at a venue near their store, the summit featured well-known practitioners Dr. Karen Becker, Dr. Melissa Shelton, Dr. Judy Morgan, Dr. Gerald Buchoff and Dr. Laurie Coger, plus Answers Pet Food Nutrition Science Director Billy Hoekman.

“Our goal in gathering this elite set of vets and experts was to open the minds of pet parents who might not know about nutrition and other modalities, and how they can be proactive about doing the best for their animals,” Lukas says. “We wanted to inspire and educate.”

The event sold out quickly and went over capacity to accommodate all 85 people who wanted to attend. They came from around the world and were more knowledgeable about pet nutrition than the original intended audience, being followers of the speakers on social media. Lukas was more than happy with the outcome.

“If we can make an impact in the pet food industry, support the ongoing growth of this small community, then others will learn that there are better options,” he says.

Tickets are already on sale for the 2019 Healthy Pet Summit, which will be a much larger event held Oct. 12 at Montclair State University. Lukas, a certified pet food nutrition specialist who serves as nutrition education director for the store and animal nutrition specialist alongside Buchoff at Holistic Pet Care, has other changes planned.

“We will say farewell to kibble in the store all together. To be the change, we have to be the difference.”

Pamela Mitchell is the Editor-in-Chief of PETS+. She works from her home office in Houston, TX, with Ty the Boston Terrier as her assistant.

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