Doggos, puppers, floofers, woofers, sheppies, long bois, corgos — if you recognize any or all of these terms, you might be a dog lover. If you don’t or are stricken with fits of eye-rolling when someone uses the term “fur baby,” you may want to turn the page to some of Lagniappe’s other fabulous content.
Mobile and Baldwin counties have gone to the dogs.
As has been the case with many trends, Alabama was a late bloomer for some of the various services that cater to dogs and their owners, but over the past two decades, several businesses that thrive on “man’s best friends” and the humans who love and pamper them have found success on both sides of Mobile Bay.
Canines have shared a special connection with mankind since the earliest human settlements, and while owners always loved their domesticated companions, dogs haven’t always gotten birthday cakes … or sweaters … or handmade treats … or their own beds … or acupuncture.
Some of those services have been around for a while, but have become less niche as society’s perception of dogs has shifted from that of utility animals to beloved companions. Kathy Copeland, the owner of Copeland’s Pet Motel and Grooming, has been in the business for decades and said she’s seen firsthand how people’s relationships with their pets have evolved to be more personal over the years.
“Pets aren’t what they used to be. Our grandparents kept their dogs outside. Of course, they still loved them, but pets are so much more a part of our lives today,” Copeland said. “We see a lot of young couples who don’t have babies of their own yet, and they treat their pets like they are their babies.”
The greater emphasis on pets isn’t just a local phenomenon, either.
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) releases a biennial report on pet ownership and pet spending across a number of demographics, and their 2018 data indicates millennials and Generation Zers are happily spending more time and money on pets. And of those pet owners, 80 percent own dogs.
According to APPA, Americans spent $72.5 billion on their pets that same year — a 4.4. percent increase from 2017 that included big leaps in expenses for food, veterinary care and other pet services. That’s more than Americans have spent on their pets previously, and APPA predicts that growth will continue.
Danette Richards, director of small business development for the Mobile Areas Chamber of Commerce, said the growth and success of businesses catering to pets is typically a good indicator of a healthy human economy, too. She said these services can also help attract people and even businesses to Mobile, as it continues to develop the types of offerings pet owners might have been used to in larger cities.
“When our economy is growing, people have more discretionary income and they’re treating their dogs better, and that’s what is driving the growth in the pet and pet services industry. That’s especially true for these local folks because they’re committed to this area and know what the community needs,” Richards said. “This is also a community of businesses that can [and has] collaborated to cross-market each other’s products. These are companies that aren’t necessarily competitors, they’re collaborators.”
My Happy Dog 123
Back in early 2012, Viviane Hentschel started to get worried when her dog, Truman, couldn’t seem to stop itching and licking incessantly. She believed the culprit might be some type of allergy, and after doing some research online, she started to suspect his food might be the culprit.
“Back then, there were some high-quality dog foods available, but not a lot, and there weren’t any dog treats whatsoever,” Hentschel told Lagniappe. “So, I continued to look into it, and that’s when we decided to start baking our own dog treats for the first time.”
It did the trick, and by the end of that year, she and her husband, Jason Duke, were selling their homemade treats at local farmers markets. But, after wading deep into the local dog community, they started hearing from other pet owners about their “furry family members’ ailments.”
Issues with gluten and grains like rice, wheat and other mainstays in traditional dog treats were problematic for a lot of dogs with dietary restrictions. So by 2014, they tweaked all of their recipes to be completely grain-free, which is really when My Happy Dog 123 started to take off as a serious business.
From the lamb and spinach treats shaped like little sheep to the crunchy, cinnamon-sweet potato chips, all of My Happy Dog 123’s products are still handmade with human-grade ingredients clearly listed on each bag. That quality and transparency have resonated with pet owners in Mobile and beyond.
Since 2015, when the products were picked up by Whole Foods, several varieties of their treats have been available in stores across Alabama as well as others in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. Right now, all of the treats are still handmade in Hentschel’s home in Midtown, though they may look to expand.
Aside from feeding hungry doggos, Hentschel also wants to continue to educate owners about what they’re feeding their pets. For years, she said, big companies have taken advantage of consumers’ lack of information, but she also believes that’s changing as people continue to learn more about their pets’ food.
“As people have become more and more conscious of their own health, they’re also questioning what ingredients are being used in their dogs’ food,” she said. “It seems like people are becoming way more conscious of that and many are willing to spend more money on higher quality products.”
Dog Days Barkery
With homemade dog food, consumers know what they’re giving their pets, but Carra Smith, the owner of Dog Days Barkery on Old Shell Road, said some of the things the dogs aren’t getting can be just as important — things like genetically modified organisms, hormones or low-quality animal byproducts.
Dogs Days also uses all human-grade ingredients, which explains why it’s easy to work up an appetite over the smell of the treats being baked in-store on any given day. Smith said that’s intentional, too.
“We want people to think, ‘Oh … I like strawberry shortcake … maybe my dog will too,’” Smith said. “You could eat anything we bake. It’s just not going to be as sweet and it’s going to be crunchier. So, it won’t have the soft texture of a cookie from Pollman’s or something like that. But it smells really good.”
With the help of her parents, Smith opened Dog Days in 2016 after moving back from Kentucky, where she’d spent two years as head baker at a similar dog bakery. You can find her there most days with at least one of her four dogs, and customers are encouraged to bring their furry companions when they visit, too.
In addition to its freshly baked treats and the host of other high-quality foods and products it carries from third-party retailers, Dog Days has also made a name for its specialty cakes — something that has quickly become popular with owners who send them to doggie daycare on their pup’s birthday.
“We once baked around seven or eight cakes in one weekend. We work with a bunch of really wonderful trainers that recommend us,” Smith said. “Everyone wants to celebrate their dog’s special day, and if they don’t want to get a cake, there’s ice cream, cookies, party hats … we’ve got something for everybody.”
Copeland’s Pet Motel and Grooming
While new trends in food have made up the biggest impact on the uptick in pet spending, services for watching, training, boarding and grooming dogs have been a sizable chunk of the market for years. But the demand for those businesses has also grown as more owners expand what they’re willing to pay for.
Today there are phone-based applications to help owners find verified dog walkers and dog sitters — services that range from popping in to check on dogs to spending the full day with them in an owner’s house. There’s even a dog podcast and a TV station that creates regular content specifically for dogs.
All of these digital-based services have been created to help owners deal with the guilt of inevitably leaving their dogs alone, which can be difficult for the animals, but also difficult for the owners. However, this is also an area of the pet market where brick-and-mortar businesses have continued to thrive as well.
Copeland’s Pet Motel and Grooming will celebrate its 75th year in business in 2020, and it is continuing to help dog owners in Mobile feel more comfortable about leaving town without their furry friends.
Located on Halls Mill Road, Copeland’s opened in 1945 as a small kennel for show dogs. Today they board all kinds of animals, but the changes the business has seen under second-generation owner Kathy Copeland over the past 25 years have really mirrored the shifting trends among pet owners.
When she took out a substantial loan to expand the operation and build a set of “luxury suites” for pets back in 1995, Copeland said some people told her she was crazy. Today there are dozens of those suites throughout the 3.5-acre property that can — and often do — host hundreds of pets during peak seasons.
The website says some of the suites “you’ll have to see to believe,” and that might be an understatement. While there are some fairly standard kennels, Copeland’s also offers a series of suites that are each styled as a unique, mini hotel room complete with a bed, a chair and a flat-screen TV for pets to watch.
The ultimate suites — popular among the most “highly pampered pets” — offer a spacious room in a climate-controlled building with sliding door access to a personal courtyard. All the top-tier suites also offer access to a live web stream so owners can check in on their “babies” remotely while they’re away.
The boarding packages also include outdoor playtime with staff members, who also periodically pop in the kennels to play with and “love” the guests. Copeland said all these services were all part of the vision she had 25 years ago of a boarding experience catering to the wants and needs of pets and their owners.
“It’s a perpetual work in progress. We never thought we’d settle for anything less than what’s best for the pets,” Copeland said. “We always keep their best interest in mind — not what’s convenient for us as staff or to the business. The only thing we’re considering is what is good for the babies.”
Walks and Wags
In addition to long-term boarding, several businesses have also started offering daycare services for working dog owners who don’t want to leave their pups unattended at home five days a week. The local market for these services has grown significantly, with most offering a wide variety of services under one roof: boarding, daycare, grooming, training and dog socialization.
Some of the daycares in the local community include Camp Bow Wow, Lola Bell’s, Port City Pups and the Dog Ranch Resort in Daphne. But one of the first local businesses operating in this area got its start, at least in part, due to Hurricane Katrina. Walks and Wags, on Azalea Road, first opened in 2005 after the devastating hurricane brought owners Cindie and Larry Carter from New Orleans to Mobile.
After “losing everything,” Carter said she and her husband built a new life on their love for dogs.
“We obtained an [Small Business Administration] loan with the help of the Women’s Business Center [of South Alabama] and used the loan to purchase our first equipment,” Carter said. “Dog daycare has barely been around for 20 years, if that long, so it was a new industry. There were no tools or business plans to follow.”
A day at Walks and Wags isn’t just a bunch of dogs running around in a grassy area, although there is some of that and dogs love it. The activities and daily schedule are structured based on research into what helps dogs develop socially and mentally. The website bills it as “purposeful play.”
The “human pack leaders” play with and supervise the dogs during the morning hours before they go in for lunch and naptime in a climate-controlled room with relaxing music. After a second play session in the afternoon, each dog is washed and has its nails trimmed before they’re picked up in the evening.
The same trainers also work with dogs during the obedience training and puppy academy courses Walks and Wags offers, which they establish a relationship and trust. Carter often tells owners they’ll pick up their pets happy, clean and tired — ready to curl up and relax at home.
The daycare really plays into the “dogs being part of the family” concept as well. For holidays like Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, staff sends home crafts — usually a painted card with a sweet message signed with a paw print.
But for as much as it works with dogs, Walks and Wags also works with owners to help guide them through training and caring for a dog. Carter said education is a key part of her business’s operating philosophy for dogs and dog parents as much as she and her staff.
“Walks and Wags is constantly in an endless pursuit to educate, learn and improve our industry. The science and data on what’s best for your dog is constantly changing, and taking care of any animal is a HUGE responsibility,” she said. “We measure our success by monitoring learning in our staff and dogs. The value of continuing education and professional standards are not to be taken lightly.”
Dirty Hairy Dog Wash
For the pets that aren’t getting washed and trimmed at their daycares, there’s a number of standalone groomers on both sides of Mobile Bay. Businesses like Adorable Dos offer a wide range of grooming services, but one business in Daphne has made a splash by offering a self-service dog wash.
Like Carra Smith at the dog bakery, Kelly Messenger, owner of Dirty Hairy Dog Wash, brought the idea for her business with her from a bigger city. Like many new to the concept, it took her a few years before she finally tried the self-service dog washes back when she lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“I know it might sound crazy; you’re paying to wash your own dog, but everyone says it’s worth it. It’s still amazing to me that once people try it they’re just over the moon,” Messenger said. “You’re not getting your bathtub dirty or clogging up your drain with hair and you’re not bent over on the floor. There’s also tethers to keep the dog in place and the washing stations are large and they’re raised.”
The washing stations at Dirty Hairy Dog Wash are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and for $16 are equipped with everything needed to wash a pooch including shampoo, tear-free face wash, brushes, ear wipes, towels, a groomer-quality, forced-air dryer and an apron for the owner. When customers are done, they simply pay and walk out the door — no cleanup required.
Messenger said she’s seen a range of customers — stay at home moms washing their dogs while running daily errands, older couples who have trouble bending over to use a home bathtub, a lot of large-breed dog owners and even returning hunters who don’t want to bring a dirty dog into their house.
“Some people bring in their whole family,” she said. “It’s a bonding thing with the dog — something to do with the kids, and you’re getting a chore done at the same time.”
In the year 2000, veterinarian Dr. Mark Colicchio finally put action behind an idea he’d had for a while: What if he brought his services to the pets, instead of the other way around? After putting together a business plan, his veterinary house calls service, vet2you.com, launched that same year.
At the time, he was the first licensed mobile veterinarian in the state of Alabama. It was a slow start, but he quickly found a base of clients in Mobile and Baldwin counties eager to avoid some of the things their dogs didn’t enjoy about trips to the vet — strange people, strange smells and bad memories.
“I did my business plan primarily around pet owners who are homebound or those with multiple dogs and cats. It can be such a load for them to take five animals to the vet’s office at one time,” Colicchio said. “They can also avoid dealing with the other animals at a brick-and-mortar practice and the potential transmission of any kind of infectious disease that can pass from one animal to another.”
Speaking to Lagniappe, Colicchio said coming to the animals in an environment they’re familiar with is ultimately much less stressful for them and can make them more relaxed during examinations and procedures. It also tends to help owners as well — many of whom find dragging a dog to the vet stressful.
Utilizing a truck he had specially built for his practice, Colicchio said he can perform many of the same procedures available in any vet’s office, including examinations, vaccinations, microchipping, neutering, X-rays and other services. There are some limitations, though, as he doesn’t do emergency calls or perform more involved procedures that take over an hour or require pets to stay hospitalized overnight.
EverLoved: Veterinary home hospice, acupuncture and euthanasia
While Dr. Colicchio and other Mobile vets offer in-home, end-of-life care, Dr. Lydia Sullivan built her whole business around pets’ last days with their families — whether she’s staving off the end with physical rehabilitations and acupuncture or making those final days more comfortable for pets and their owners.
While acupuncture for pets may seem like something out of a movie, it’s been a growing trend nationally and Sullivan said it’s worked wonders in some of her patients struggling with mobility from arthritis and inflammation and those complications that prevent them from taking traditional pain medicine.
Sullivan did say acupuncture isn’t a cure-all, and in most cases, it’s used as an “adjunctive therapy” in addition to — not instead of — traditional pain medications and antibiotics for pets. In some cases, though, she’s seen it make a big difference in pets that have lost some of their mobility as they’ve aged.
“Acupuncture for a lot of people is a last-ditch effort, so I see a lot of cases where it’s [either] get the dog walking again or we euthanize,” she said. “I’ve had dogs that started in hospice care but then, after acupuncture, I was able to take them off hospice because they were up jumping around, running and playing.”
Most of Sullivan’s practice, though, is providing in-home euthanasia services. Instead of taking a sick pet to the vet in his final hours, families can call Sullivan, who will administer those services in the house the pet and its family are more comfortable in.
With a two-step process of sedatives and pain relievers, owners get to spend the last moments of their pets lives with them — not in pain, just happy as they drift off to sleep with their family at their side. If desired, Sullivan will also assist with cremation services so grieving owners don’t have to deal with those logistics.
But whether she’s helping the families work through the difficult decision putting a pet to sleep or being there for them as it happens, Sullivan said the vast majority of that side her practice is focused on the humans more than the dog. She said her visits are “very personal” and often emotional for her as well.
But despite routinely being there for what is no doubt an “incredibly difficult time” for her human clients, Sullivan said part of what she does is also “beautiful” because she gets to see the best part in people.
“Of course there is a lot of sorrow and tears, but that is stemming from this profound, beautiful love that they have for their animals,” she said. “I have gone to homes that were almost mansions and I have gone to let go of a baby in a trailer, and it doesn’t matter the status, gender, age or race — all of them have the same capacity to form this deep, beautiful connection with their animals. And in some way, it’s an absolutely wonderful experience to get to see that good within people across all lines.”
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