Western Mass. Is Fertile Ground for Dog Businesses
Joanne Nunes, a therapist at Fitter Critters, helps Crash, an English springer spaniel who injured a leg last year, regain strength in the pool.
Twenty years ago, Beth Ostrowski-Parks’ career went to the dogs.
“I was in property management, and I hated it,” she said. “I hated everything about it.”
Around the same time, she and her husband, Wayne, had become involved in rescuing greyhounds. “That was my entry into the dog world. I had heard a lot of sad stories and did a lot of rescues. We went up to Hinsdale and took dogs out of the track who were ready to go.”
Her first greyhound was an obedient, extremely easygoing dog, but the second was the polar opposite. “She was in tough shape and full of traumas. We had to do some searching to figure out how to solve some of those problems. I knew nothing about dogs; I wasn’t one of those people who had been involved with dogs their whole life.”
The experience of training that dog, paired with her dissatisfaction with her job, led Ostrowski-Parks to start thinking about starting her own dog-training business. So she became certified at a training school in Connecticut, and she and Wayne started their enterprise in a 1,000-square-foot storefront in Easthampton, all the while looking for something more permanent.
“We looked for a property where we could build a small — a small — building to have a few classes a week,” she said, jokingly emphasizing that word because her current site, which features 5,000 square feet of training floor and additional space for grooming and day camp, is anything but. Today, the business — known as It’s PAWSible! — sits on a formerly undeveloped five-acre plot in Westhampton; they also built a home next door, where they board clients’ dogs overnight.
A few years before Ostrowski-Parks got the itch to change careers, Debbie Guntly and a friend were looking for an indoor area to train their own dogs. They came across a much bigger space than they needed, in a large industrial building in Chicopee, and decided to forge a business venture.
Beth Ostrowski-Parks has seen steady growth in her training, grooming, boarding, and especially day-camp services.
“We figured we could offer classes to pay the rent, and have a nice indoor facility to train,” she said. “What started as a place to train our own dogs ended up as a training center. In the beginning, it was beginner obedience and confirmation.”
Later, the business she called Exercise Finished was the first in the area to offer classes in puppy training, followed by forays into breed handling, agility, and, most recently, the scent-and-search activity known colloquially as nose work.
“It hasn’t grown as much as I would have liked,” Guntly said of the business, “but when we started, we were the only game in town. So many training centers have opened up since then — but we’ve held our share of the market.”
In fact, she said, demand for training services has grown in near-direct proportion to the number of enterprises cropping up across the region. “We wouldn’t be able to serve such a demand ourselves.”
Monica Percival has also seen interest surge in dog training — in her case, training for the sport known as agility, in which dogs navigate a timed obstacle course. During a sabbatical from her job in 1988, she signed her puppy up for a class in the then-obscure activity. Soon, she was competing in weekend trials and training other dogs on the side.
In 1995, that turned into a business called Clean Run Productions. At first, the business had a single revenue stream: a weekly newsletter — Xeroxed and hand-stapled — for agility enthusiasts. The initial subscription base totaled 30. “But we slowly built it into a magazine,” she said, serving well over 10,000 subscribers.
Soon after launching Clean Run magazine, Percival started producing books and DVDs, as well as a small-scale operation selling dog toys and other products at competitions. “We used to fit it all in a car, in little boxes. Then we got a little trailer. And when it didn’t fit anymore, we got a bigger trailer.”
In effect, she said, “we went from a wagon to a 20,000-square-foot warehouse” on Industrial Drive in South Hadley.
Percival is far from the only dog enthusiast to trod new business ground in Western Mass., however. In 1999, Jody Chiquoine launched the first canine rehabilitation facility in Massachusetts, and one of only a handful across the U.S.
Then a family nurse practitioner who had built a varied, 13-year career in various rehab settings in Greater Springfield, she, like Ostrowski-Parks, was actively looking for a career change.
“I wanted to step away from the healthcare system and see if there was something else I could do with the second half of my life,” Chiquoine said. “And I started spending more and more time with my dogs. I’ve had dogs all my life, and I’ve always been interested in the health aspects of dogs … I guess I really wanted to do something with dogs.”
One day, she had a brainstorm — “I told my husband, ‘I want to put an addition on our house, and put in a swimming pool and gym, and do rehab for dogs.’ It was a completely original idea for me.”
The growth of that endeavor, called Fitter Critters and based in Lee — and the success of the other business owners who spoke with BusinessWest — speak to a growing canine culture in the region over the past two decades, one that has brought with it some real opportunities for dog lovers willing to take a chance and turn their passion into a career.
Course of Action
Much of that culture centers around the sport of agility, which was born in England in the 1970s and gained a small foothold in America about 30 years ago, leading to the development of several governing bodies and an explosion in competitive events in all skill levels.
In agility, a handler guides a dog through a series of jumps, tunnels, tire jumps, weave poles, and ‘contact’ obstacles like a seesaw, dog walk, and A-frame. The sport’s rise certainly vindicated Percival’s decision to launch Clean Run magazine.
Still, “what caused the biggest leap in growth of this company was when we started to publish outside the magazine — DVDs and books that supported dog agility,” said Pam Green, the company’s accountant, noting that the late ’90s represented the sport’s most significant surge of interest. “People were reading any information they could get their hands on about the sport, then the magazine began to advertise products we were carrying in the store.”
Percival said agility clubs were popping up, but few people knew how to lead classes, and many clubs started relying on the magazine for lesson plans. “We started getting people in different parts of the country communicating with each other.”
That initial growth continues today. “We used to go to trials once a month. Now you can go to multiple trials on the same weekend in the same area,” she said, adding that the availability of open land in Western Mass. — as well as many rentable horse barns and indoor soccer facilities — has made the region especially fertile ground for the sport.
Aided by a robust Internet arm, Clean Run’s retail business has grown consistently each year — not surprisingly, as the average competitive agility handler enters between 12 and 18 events per year and spends more than $4,000 annually on their hobby. “Initially the magazine drove the business, and then we started to identify products that people couldn’t get easily elsewhere,” Percival said, “So now, really, the retail business drives everything.”
Green added that “most people come to this warehouse based on word of mouth, and of course, we have a great support system with all the pet-related companies in the area. In that respect, this has been a good location, because there are a lot of us around here.”
It’s PAWSible! is certainly one of those, and Ostrowski-Parks calls Clean Run her “idol,” noting that the two companies’ websites are hosted by the same company.
Before building the Westhampton facility, she and her husband traveled across the Northeast looking at different dog-training centers, adopting ideas such as her rubber flooring laid over tamped gravel. “I knew I wanted to have agility, but I didn’t know anything about it,” she said, so she eventually hired trainers.
“The agility, actually, is such a small part of this business. If I didn’t do agility with my dogs, I probably wouldn’t even have it anymore because it’s not a money maker — at least not here,” she said, noting that she teaches the classes herself these days. “Our main focus is the pet owner bringing their dogs for the day for our day camp; that’s well over 50% of our business. It feeds everything — the grooming, the boarding at our house, it feeds so many things.”
She said that business model has bred success beyond her expectations. “Every year, we’ve increased our income. Part of it is because I take it and put it right back into the business. We just did a computer upgrade for $2,000, and made an $85,000 purchase of a grooming van for our mobile grooming service. You have to keep spending money.”
She also credits a reputation for customer service and how she treats the staff — “I’ve got several people who have been here for five years or more” — as well as strict rules about which dogs are allowed at the day camp.
“For me, it’s safety first — we have packs of dogs playing, but we’ve never had a bad incident in 14 years. I think it’s pretty amazing. It’s all selection — no aggression, no problem behaviors.”
As a rehab professional, Chiquoine deals with different kinds of dog problems. She said the seed for Fitter Critters was actually planted five years before she decided to go into business.
“I had a Newfoundland who fractured her humerus. I remember the vet saying, after it was pinned, ‘take her home and give her good, supportive care.’ I said, ‘what supportive care?’” she recalled. “If you’re a rehab client, they tell you what to do. I thought, there should be therapists for dogs.”
Clean Run has grown in less than 20 years from a garage operation to a sprawling, multi-faceted business in South Hadley.
Intent on providing some kind of post-surgical therapy, she took her dog swimming and worked out some exercises based on her experience with people. The dog had a good outcome, and the idea was born.
Chiquoine visited a number of human rehabilitation facilities and envisioned through a dog’s eyes what her gym would need. Later, she found a canine rehab class in Concord, N.H. “I thought, ‘oh my God — there’s someone else on the planet who has thought about this.’ So I went to the class.” Later, she was certified, through programs based in Tennessee and Florida, as a certified canine rehabilitation therapist.
Fitter Critters helps dogs with medical conditions of all types, from hip, knee, and other joint issues to surgery recovery and early muscle development. In addition to the indoor therapeutic pool, which uses different levels of current for resistance, she installed a water treadmill three years ago, which is especially effective for dogs that fear being completely immersed. Clients are also given home exercises, like stretching and massage, to continue their dogs’ progress during the week.
“Our claim to fame — why people come here — is that we use water a lot differently than most places,” she said. “We use all the physical properties of water to affect the therapy of dogs. The dogs are not just swimming around the pool. We use the pool like other people use the gym. If we think doing circles will improve a limb, we’ll work on circles. We work on neurologically impaired dogs that can’t stand; we’ll do standing exercises in the pool, because they can do things easier in the pool than they can on land, which speeds recovery. It’s not like we get dogs in the water and just let them swim for awhile.”
Like the other company owners who spoke with BusinessWest, Chiquoine said people in Western Mass. do seem to be more dog-focused than they used to be, but she also credited a regional openness, at least in the Berkshires, to complementary therapies.
“As more and more people see the benefit of physical therapy for themselves, especially people who have had water therapy, they figure, ‘why wouldn’t you do this for your dog?’
“When we started, it was a very, very novel concept. Veterinarians would say, ‘why do they need rehab? We’ve done surgery like this for years.’ Well, it’s not like dogs won’t heal, but with therapy, there are fewer complications, less risk of injury,” she continued, noting that, when she began, data was largely anecdotal, but since then, plenty of research has backed up the value of canine rehabilitation. “Today, we have at least as many vets telling people to call us as people who find us by word of mouth.”
Building a Bond
Guntly said she also enjoys seeing dogs improve — in her case, improve their manners and sporting acumen. “I like seeing their relationships with their owners, especially when someone might be having a hard time, struggling, and then seeing them turn around and have a positive relationship with their dog.”
She cited one student — among many similar stories — who came to Exercise Finished to teach her Labrador retriever basic manners, then started playing around with agility just for fun. “The dog started doing well, and now she’s competing in agility and having a blast doing it.
“Dog sports, especially agility, are growing by leaps and bounds; you see it on TV and hear about it more,” she continued, adding that it’s not just agility growing in popularity, but also training of all types. “It seems like more people are getting involved just for the basic beginning obedience. Years ago, they didn’t think about going to places for training.”
Ostrowski-Parks agreed. “The world has changed; this region has changed,” she said. “It’s very dog-friendly.”
For a business owner, that breeds competition, but she’s survived so far. “I’ve seen three or four places in this area come and go. When at first somebody opens, you feel that gnawing in your stomach. But our reputation is stellar.
“Honestly,” she added, “it’s because Wayne and I are workaholics. We’re driven. We’re very proud when we look around here and think about how this place was just grass before. It’s pretty cool.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org