BY AMY MILSHTEIN
Pet parents feed the doggy economy.
BY AMY MILSHTEIN | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
On a drizzly Friday afternoon in Northwest Portland, the large-dog play area inside the Sniff Dog Hotel teems with excitement. Big breeds run, jump, bark and, yes, even go potty on the canine grass drainage system. Upstairs, smaller dogs play in similar spaces while boarding guests lounge in one of 89 rooms and suites, where they enjoy the West Hills view or watch a 24-hour feed of Dog TV. A salon/spa offers services like pedicures, bubble baths and massage, while a retail section stocks toys, collars and other products.
Visible through a bank of ceiling-high windows in Sniff’s spacious lobby/cafe overspill area, the big guys certainly seem happy. But is that a fair assumption? The idea that animals, specifically dogs, feel emotion took a big leap forward last October, when Emory University professor Gregory Berns wrote an op-ed in The New York Times explaining how he and his colleagues scanned dogs’ cerebral responses in an MRI. They found that the caudate, the part of the human brain that lights up when we experience happiness, also lights up in dogs when they smell familiar people or see their owners. These findings led Berns to posit that not only do canines feel emotions but that dogs are people too.
Granting dogs the rights of “personhood” — as Berns suggested — remains a volatile frontier. Meanwhile, pet parenthood continues to gain a firm footing in our psyche — and our wallets. From Blue Buffalo TV spots that push pet moms and dads to buy expensive food to the last Sunday in April, aka “Pet Parent’s Day,” brought to you by Veterinary Pet Insurance Company, pet parenthood means just owning and caring for your dog isn’t good enough. A pet parent buys the best for furry family members or suffers the shame of middle-class inadequacy.
Like human parenthood, pet parenthood costs big. The American Pet Products Association estimates that U.S. pet expenditures will total $58.51 billion this year, a number that has doubled since 2002. While the APPA doesn’t break down those figures by state, a recent Amazon.com survey ranks Portland fifth in the nation for “pampering their pets” by buying pet-related products and swag. In May Portland also topped NerdWallet.com’s list of best cities in which to own a dog. “Along with a walkable layout, the city has more dog parks per 100,000 residents than anywhere else,” the site explained.
Not just an American phenomenon, the world is in on the action too. Europe, Australia and, more recently, Mexico, China and India expect a rise in pet spending to the tune of $81 billion according to an article on About.com.
Those numbers have people in the dog business panting. “There’s a big opportunity to get rich,” says Katie Brower, 28, who owns Lucid Dog Training with partner Chris Wojda, 38. The former teacher from Wisconsin developed a training system that will eventually be available on the web. She believes this scalable platform will take off on a global level. “Think Kahn Academy,” she says, comparing Lucid Dog to the nonprofit that delivers education on demand through their website. The big difference, of course, is Lucid Dog will charge: “Anywhere from a few hundred to over $1,000, depending on the service,” says Wojda.
Global enterprises aside, most dog-based businesses in Oregon work, and succeed, on the micro level. Doggy daycare, for example, has experienced explosive growth. “When I first started LexiDog 12 years ago, there were three daycares in Portland. Now there are 70,” says Suzanne Hein.
Like others in the dog business, Hein saw a need and followed her heart. The former buyer and merchandiser for Fred Meyer was working 90 hours a week when she fell in love with a tiny puppy, her mini pinscher named Lexi. She took Lexi to an available doggy daycare but wasn’t happy with the situation. “I wanted more of a boutique feeling,” she says, “a place like my friends were taking their kids.”
The First Mother of Portland pet parenthood, Hein launched LexiDog Boutique & Social Club with 5,000 square feet on Southwest Macadam in Portland. Today that space is a 14,000-square-foot headquarters with three satellite locations in Lake Oswego, the Pearl District and her latest in Southeast. She employs 32 people between the four sites and offers daycare, boarding, grooming, swim therapy and birthday parties. Lexi, older, wider, but still tiny, is a constant companion.