To The Max

Our canine correspondent sniffs out the pet services market in Knoxville

My person, whatshisname—Mike, I think it is—he's middling smart, at least as far as people go. But sometimes I think he should know better. Like today, for instance; he's standing in the middle of

PetSafe

Park

off

Lovell Road

, expecting me to run around in circles like some dippy

Chihuahua

, jumping over a bunch of sticks and hoops that some irresponsible human must have left out in the yard by accident last night. From there, he wants me to scamper pell-mell across the way and climb atop some disquietingly tall, ramp-like wooden contraption, yipping and panting and generally making a spectacle of myself.

 

 

My person, whatshisname—Mike, I think it is—he's middling smart, at least as far as people go. But sometimes I think he should know better. Like today, for instance; he's standing in the middle of PetSafe Park off Lovell Road, expecting me to run around in circles like some dippy Chihuahua, jumping over a bunch of sticks and hoops that some irresponsible human must have left out in the yard by accident last night. From there, he wants me to scamper pell-mell across the way and climb atop some disquietingly tall, ramp-like wooden contraption, yipping and panting and generally making a spectacle of myself.

Mike has a name for all that stuff in the PetSafe yard—he calls it an "obstacle course," whatever that means. I call it "cat poop," but I don't have the heart to tell him that. Standing there with those big people eyes and those stiff little ears, he looks too precious for me to spoil all his fun.

Otherwise, though, this park isn't too bad. It's big, with a nice creek and lots of grass and other green growing things. And there are plenty of things to sniff at, both organic and manmade; bear in mind that sniffables are a must-have, if one wishes to maintain a proper dog park.

The other dogs on the lawn seem nice enough, but they're not the brightest bunch. There's a big, dopey German Shepherd poking around the obstacle course. His owner actually coaxes him into running through it, reconfirming my long-held suspicion that Shepherds are dumb.

Then there's the cute little Poodle walking the far side of the yard. Her human—a lady with some very poodle-like white-blonde hair—is begging her to try the obstacle course. Finally, after the whining gets to be too much, the poodle stops, crouches at the starting line, and takes a poop. It's a nice one, too, high marks for both volume and consistency. Much more impressive than anything on that stupid obstacle course.

Then on the way home from the park, whatshisname and I visit a big store called PetSmart in that huge, sprawly Turkey Creek shopping district nearby. He says I need a seatbelt harness so I can ride safely in his car. I'm inclined to disagree. He gets his way, of course, but he's at least considerate enough to buy the slightly pricier padded version of the harness, so as not to chafe my tender tummy.

(PetSmart allows us to bring our humans along with us when we shop there, and I'm relieved to see that several others had the same idea on this busy Saturday afternoon. I would have been mortally embarrassed if I had been the only dog there with a person in tow.)

Along with my new straitjack—er, that is, I mean, my new seatbelt harness —whatshisname also picks up a whole case of expensive canned dog food. It's different from my normal brand—it's called Science Diet, or some other silly thing. He says Science Diet only sells at specialty stores like PetSmart, owing to the fact that it's perched on the cutting edge of doggy nutrition.

I like this PetSmart place, even though I wouldn't endorse a lot of the stuff they carry here (The section with all those stupid cat products is utterly tedious. What a waste of perfectly good shelf space.) We four-legged types have too long been deprived of adequate shopping opportunities; so it's nice to see that we're finally getting our due. Niche marketing: it's not just for people anymore.

 

Pets didn't always have it so easy. (Most of us hate the word "pet," BTW. Progressive-minded pups are partial to the more politically correct "adjunct species" nowadays. For clarity's sake, I'll stick to "pet.") I know how it used to be, because an old Collie friend of mine—and I mean really, really old, probably pushing 15—told me stories about the Dark Ages. A few years ago, he said, pets and their owners didn't have access to amenities like luxury spas and super-sized specialty shops. Kennel accommodations were cold, cramped and austere; pet goodies came in industrial-sized boxes, not fancy individual wrappers. And people purchased most all their pet essentials in the same stinky, overcrowded little pet shops. 

But times have changed. Studies now show that more than 80 percent of U.S. households have some kind of pet. And today's pet owners are more inclined to seek out creature comforts (if you'll pardon the expression) than they were just 15 or 20 years ago. "People today spend in the billions each year on pet products and services, and the industry is still growing," says Richard Mann, one of the head humans at PetSafe Village, the pet resort connected with PetSafe Park off Lovell Road. "They're taking more precautions with their pets, getting better nutrition and health care. Pets are more a part of the family now than they were in the past."

Mann ought to know. The PetSafe Corporation, based in Knoxville, is a world leader in manufacturing electronic pet gadgets. PetSafe Village, and the adjacent PetSafe Park are their first attempts at entering the kennel and pet service markets.

"If you were to be all-inclusive, and build the premier pet spa and resort facility, what would you include? That was our mindset, the question we asked going in when we put together PetSafe Village," says Mann.

I have a few quibbles with some of the finer points of PetSafe procedure, but mostly, I think they got it right. PetSafe provides all the standard boarding, training, grooming, and daycare services to both dogs and cats, but their version of it includes a little more luxury and a lot more TLC. In many ways, they're sort of like a kennel, a beauty salon, and a doggy daycamp, all rolled into one.

Mann takes us on a guided tour through the cat boarding facilities— or catteries, as he calls them—and shows us the Kitty Condos, single and multi-bedroom living units that allow the little fuzzballs a good deal more than the usual allotment of kennel roaming space. The units have some kind of high-tech air filtration systems, and their bathroom boxes are kept in a separate compartment from their living and sleeping quarters, so that special floor fans can dissipate the lingering litter fumes. I've got to give them a paw: PetSmart is without a doubt the cleanest-smelling kennel I've ever sniffed.

"We have fewer units in the cattery than on the dog side," says Mann. "Cats are a little more independent. They can stay by themselves for a long weekend, whereas if you leave Fido all alone, you might not have a couch when you come back home."

I don't know whether or not Richard has a couch, but if he does, I'd like to poop on it right about now.

The dogs at PetSafe stay in 8' by 6' "luxury suites," complete with wall murals, web cams and phone lines. The phone and Internet hook-ups allow the boarders to check up on their people while they're away. (Keep in mind that unsupervised humans can stir up an awful lot of trouble, when they're off the leash with a little too much time on their hands.)

On the way through the kennels, we meet a few of the current boarders, and I quiz them on the sly. (If he ever wants to be considered a full-fledged investigative journalist, Mike really should learn to speak Dog.) There's Oliver, a Welsh Corgi who's very friendly, but a little on the shy side; there's Bailey, a quiet little beagle—a wonderful species, BTW; and then there's Bailey's insufferable roommate, Eddie (they share the same people), a diminutive and insatiably yappy rat terrier. They all seem reasonably happy to be here at PetSmart, notwithstanding the fact that their people have abandoned them here for at least a week or two.

Their quarters are large, and most of the rooms are stocked with familiar stand-bys— toys, chewables, bones and favorite treats. Ah, the comforts of home.

I happen to notice a big yellow collie named Butler boarding in one of the luxury suites. Next to Butler in his room is a very large stuffed bunny, probably left by his people to keep him company. What a sissy.

 

For really sweet luxury kenneling, it's hard to beat Dream Katcher Lodge in Farragut. Founded by Drs. Richard and Millie Bass and their partner Betty Charlton, Dream Katcher opened in August of last year. (Millie Bass is a veterinarian, but I try not to hold that against her.)

"When we set up shop, we talked to kennels in other states, and they told us the luxury end of the business really put them over the top," explains Charlton, sitting in the lobby of Dream Katcher.

It's really nice here, what with all the pretty pictures hanging on the walls, the extra-soft chairs, and the music perpetually playing in the background. And the floors are spotless, so clean that I don't see how anyone could poop on them in good conscience.

"It's a fairly new sector we're targeting; young, childless professional people, as well as well-to-do empty nesters," Charlton says. "Their pets are, by extension, their children. And they don't want traditional boarding with a chain link fence."

At Dream Katcher, the cats stay in five-level cabinets, with individual air filtration systems to strain out allergens, diseases, and poop smells. The little kitten beds look comfy, and handmade, each of them covered with a homemade patchwork quilt. (Which is really too much. They're just cats, after all.)

But the doggy suites are what really impress; decorated with murals by local artist Susan Meachem, they're equipped with mission-style beds and homemade quilts, Internet cameras, and miniature color TVs. (Nothing eases the pain of separation quite like watching the daily soaps.)

The Dream Katcher employees are pretty indulgent of their four-legged guests. They often let the repeat visitors have the run of the place; there's a squeaky little Yorkie named Jackson scampering around the lobby when we first walk in, a Dream Katcher regular whose human drops him off here every two weeks. I'm not sure why, but I think it's got something to do with her job.

The part I liked best is the fact that all the Dream Katcher people are qualified to perform animal massage, each of them having attended a three-day seminar. The Dream Katchers are so proud of their hands-on approach to pet lodging, in fact, that they decided to call their kennel workers "Kuddlers." Which is pretty sappy, if you ask me. But the principle is a good one.

 

Knoxville is insane with pets," says Tracie Worley, owner of  Knoxville's Groom and Go mobile pet grooming service along with husband A.J. Their business, begun 25 years ago by Tracie's father Richard Doggett, is proof of just how much pet services have grown around home these last few years.

Knoxville has a few other mobile grooming services in town. But according to A.J., most of the competition has emerged only within the last two years.

Not that it's hurt their business any. Demand for mobile grooming services has grown so much, says A.J., that he and Tracie have added some 800 new clients in the last three years alone. Their total customer list is now up to 1,500, and their current wait for service is at least four weeks . That's more like six months, if you're running on dog time.

The Worleys explain that what they offer is full-service grooming—bathing, hand-drying, clipping, ear cleaning and anal gland service—with added measures of comfort, convenience, and highly personal service unavailable at in-house facilities. (Speaking of "highly personal," I have to admit that I'm not really sure what it is that Tracie and A.J. do to those anal glands. I only know I don't want to find out.)

Hauling around in a couple of old Dodge Ram RVs they refurbished themselves, the couple visit as many as six houses per day each—which, when everything runs smoothly, gives each of them enough time to groom nine dogs.

The grooming takes about an hour, and costs a minimum of 45 bones (Heh-heh. That's a little dog humor there.), but the Worleys' clients say it's worth the extra shekels to have their pets cleaned at home, rather than dropping them off at some stinky grooming shop, where they spend the day in a cage.

"It's a stress-free environment for the dogs," A.J. assures. It all sounds great, but I give whatshisname a mean look anyway, just to be sure he doesn't get any big ideas about the current state of my grooming. Bathing is for cats. And Shepherds.

Like most of the people who have entered the pet service boom, the Worleys seem really fond of their dogs. (They're pretty enthusiastic about their cats, too, but I suppose that can't be helped.)

In toto (more dog humor), they have five canines—Bailey, Scrappy, Maggie, Miss McGert and Little Dog—and the seven of them all sleep in the same bed, believe it or not. If I lived there, I think I'd tell one of the people to find another place to lie down.

They're earnest, genuine folks, these Worleys. And more importantly, they get it. They understand why it is that pet owners today are no longer inclined to treat their furry four-legged friends like second-class citizens. "We know why people get so uptight about how their dogs are groomed," says Tracie. "These aren't just their pets. These are their babies."

Well said, Tracie. Now stay away from my anal glands.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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