By Laura Layden Naples Daily News, Fla.
More businesses are "going to the dogs" in Southwest Florida.
There's a growing number of mom-and-pop businesses chasing after dog-owner dollars.
Dogs are getting exercise at doggy day cares and indoor gyms, getting gourmet dinners from boutique pet stores, getting in-home sitters when their parents are away and getting the royal treatment from groomers, including mobile ones who greet them at the door. But that's not all.
Other entrepreneurs in town offer everything from doggy modeling classes to doggy birthday parties. More for the pet owners, there are poop picker-uppers to clean up the yard.
In the U.S., owners spent an estimated $58.5 billion on their pets in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association.
The growth in niche pet businesses locally follows a national trend, spurred by a "pet parenting" attitude. More owners are treating their pets like children these days -- and it especially shows in the Naples area, where there are more wealthy residents with money to spend on their furry friends ... err kids.
"There's everything and anything for dog owners, every service possible. If you can imagine it and it exists for dogs, Naples has it," said Heather Jorge, owner of Fido's Gym.
She opened the gym, the area's first indoor dog park, a little over 18 months ago in East Naples, where pet owners can play and spend time with their pets, without the dirt.
She often organizes special events at the gym. One of the most recent, a paw painting "pawty," had dogs creating their own "Pawcassos" for their proud parents to take home.
Jorge created a meeting group for local pet business owners, and she's collected at least 60 business cards.
In Collier County alone, there are 94 permitted animal-related businesses, organizations and breeders. The county has added 18 new businesses and 11 new breeders since 2013, according to its Domestic Animal Services Department. Here's a look at a few of the newer businesses in town:
One of the newest businesses is Paws to Play Naples, a doggy day care and boarding business, off U.S. 41 in East Naples, near Rattlesnake Hammock Road. It's the dream of Tracy Edmondson, an Army veteran who volunteered to fly helicopters in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.
Dogs that come for boarding will go into day care, so they can play all day, instead of sitting in cages.
"They will always be supervised," Edmondson said of her visiting animals. "Leaving them alone is like leaving a kindergarten class without a teacher. It could get rowdy."
When she has boarders, she'll stay overnight to keep watch over the pets.
Her fenced-in day care, painted in bright, cheery colors, offers separate play areas for small dogs and big dogs, with beds they can rest on when they get pooped out. There's a backyard with K-9-friendly grass, and dogs who stay overnight are put in roomy "suites," as large as 8'x4' with orthopedic cots. Baths are also offered -- on request.
Other doggy day cares in town, she said, are very busy, so she knows there's a demand for more, especially in her neighborhood where there are no others nearby.
Her husband, Peter Bolton, a pilot, has helped get the business off the ground. "I'm 100 percent behind it," he said. "In fact, if I didn't already have a full-time job, I would have done it first."
Molly Havig and Stephanie Zaiser, the owners of the new healthy pet food market, Wholesome Hound, gave up their desk jobs and big city life to do something they loved.
Their boutique pet store opened in January in downtown Naples off Ninth Street North across from Sunshine Ace Hardware, selling food, treats and gear, from toys and beds to car seats and life jackets. They sell products for dogs and cats.
Havig and Zaiser met at Lake Park Elementary in Naples, and went to Gulfview Middle and Naples High together.
After graduating from law school and working as an attorney for 15 years, mostly in Atlanta, Havig gave up her law career and "retired" to Naples, where she could get back to the beach. Zaiser, tired of her job as a communications director for a nonprofit in Boston, felt the same way.
"I was not enjoying what I was doing at all," she said.
It took about seven months to get the store open. They designed it themselves, getting ideas from other boutique pet stores they've visited in bigger cities, and their own exhaustive research.
The store -- open seven days a week -- has a look all its own, from its blue floor to its custom shelves made by local craftsmen. One of the most popular hangouts -- for dogs and people -- is a snack bar overflowing with treats, some homemade. "I've tasted probably half our treats," Zaiser admits.
Last year, Ericka Basile got the itch to open a pet business, and never looked back.
Her business, Planet Tails, opened in December. The 4,700 square foot boutique at the Galleria Shoppes at Vanderbilt in North Naples sells practical and quirky pet products, including food and treats. One of its most popular products is the "Tickle Pickle," a fabric toy with catnip in it, handmade in Vermont.
Planet Tails also offers doggy day care and boarding for cats and dogs -- and it has one of the nation's first permanent "cat cafes," a lounge where adoptable cats roam and feline lovers can play with them (and maybe even decide to take them home).
"People are traveling from all over the state just to come and see the cat café," Basile said. "We're adopting out a lot of cats for Domestic Animal Services."
Last week, Planet Tails won a Retail Excellence Award at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando. Basile is upbeat about the pet industry, now that the local economy has turned around.
"People are a litte less worried about losing their homes and they are wanting to splurge on their pets, which they probably haven't been able to do for the last couple of years," she said.
She likes to see other "petpreneurs' in town getting creative too.
Pernille Albrechtsen, a Naples designer and eventmaker, has offered doggy birthday parties for about two years, through her company P-Nani. On March 8, she hosted a puppy "shower" for a new furry arrival to the Hedgepath family in Naples. Australian Labradoodle, Izzy, or "Queen Isabella of Naples," got the royal treatment at a fancy luncheon. The decorations were black and white, to match her fur, with lots of paw prints, splashes of pink and plenty of dazzle. About 20 people and about a dozen dogs came out for the party. The dogs got their own buffet, with organic treats and food set out in bowls on place mats. (There were even goody bags for the doggies to take home.)
Albrechtsen started offering doggy parties about two years ago, and she's done about a half a dozen of them since then. The cost usually runs between $300 and $700.
"My little pup Yuppy turned 4 and since she was, and still is, very loved by all my friends, I thought it would be fun to celebrate her together with all her wonderful friends -- two- and four-legged," she said. "It really just started as a joke, but turned out to be one of the most fun parties we ever had. Everybody just loved it."
Another one-of-a-kind business in town, Train Pawsitive, offers actor, modeling and performance classes for dogs, even creating a resume for them. Owner Michele Ryan, a former backup dancer for the likes of Whitney Houston and Usher, got her animal science degree after retiring as a performer, then became certified as a dog trainer.
Two Golden Retrievers she's worked with will star in an Anheuser-Busch print campaign launching this summer. The dogs had a photo shoot on the beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January.