For the love of dog: Doting pet parents spend and spoil as dog-friendly industry booms
by Brooke Carbo
bcarbo@annistonstar.com
May 26, 2013 | 8253 views |  0 comments | 102 102 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lucas, a 4-year-old pit bull-terrier mix and Molly, a 1-year-old golden Lab mix, visit the Beneful Dream Dog Park in Alabaster several times a week with their pet dads, Rami Omaish of Alabaster and Frankie Alfano of Pelham. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
Lucas, a 4-year-old pit bull-terrier mix and Molly, a 1-year-old golden Lab mix, visit the Beneful Dream Dog Park in Alabaster several times a week with their pet dads, Rami Omaish of Alabaster and Frankie Alfano of Pelham. Photo: Brooke Carbo/The Anniston Star
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"Disneyland for dogs.”

That’s what the owners affectionately call it. And after more than three years of planning, building, expanding and perfecting, Cahaba Beach Dog Park seems to live up to the nickname.

The state’s first members-only dog park opened its doors Monday, but its reputation preceded it, said facility director Abigail Witthauer.

“Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said of the months leading up to the opening. “It’s been overwhelming to tell you the truth.”

It’s easy to see what’s got pet parents so excited. The three-acre off-leash park boasts splash pads and streams to keep dogs cool, ramps and tunnels to keep them active, nearly a mile of wooded hiking trails and an oversized gazebo that can be rented out for doggie birthday parties. Overlooking the meticulously landscaped grounds, a gated pavilion gives pet parents a place to gather for a snack or game of bocci ball. And below sits an amphitheater where Witthauer says members may soon hear live music on the weekends.

The private entrance to this pup paradise requires a client access code. Before joining, all dogs must pass a temperament evaluation with Witthauer, who happens to be the only certified professional dog trainer in the Birmingham area.

Birmingham’s newest dog park is arguably the most extravagant off-leash hangout in Alabama, a title it likely took from the Beneful Dream Dog Park which opened a few miles south on I-65 in Alabaster less than a year ago. The $500,000 expanse of specially treated turf with awning-covered picnic areas and an obstacle course splash zone was commissioned after a resident won the grand prize in a national competition sponsored by Beneful Dog Food.

The City of Oxford is now in the final days of voting in a similar competition sponsored by PetSafe. If successful, Oxford will have the first off-leash dog park in Calhoun County — but likely not the last.

Price of pet parenthood

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released a new report on consumer spending that tracked U.S. pet expenditures from 2007-2011. The findings have raised eyebrows, even among some pet owners. But a growing culture of pet parents seems to be saying, “So tell us something we don’t know.”

According to the report, even as the recession took its toll on industries across the gamut, pet-related expenditures stayed consistent. In 2011, Americans spent more than $61 billion on their pets — more than was spent on alcohol, landline phones or men’s clothing. That averages out to a little more than $500 per household. The households spending the most were couples without children.

Four-legged family

Ask Nichole Bentley and, if anything, those numbers seem low. Bentley and her fiancé, Glenn Lackey, who works for Homeland Security at McClellan, live in a home in Bynum with 5-year-old Lacie and her adopted brother, Sammie, who’s 4.

Bentley describes Lacie as queen bee of the house and said she’s shared the couple’s bed since day one.

“That was a given,” Bentley said, even for Lackey.

When they adopted Sammie last year, from an elderly woman who could no longer care for him, Bentley said there was no other choice than to let him snuggle in for the night with the rest of the family. When he turned out to be more hot-natured than the rest of them, it didn’t change a thing. How could it?

“They’re like our children,” she explained. “We’re Mommy and Daddy” — the proud pet parents of two longhaired dachshunds.

From the moment the couple took Lacie home, Bentley seemed to naturally fall into the role of Mommy.

“I bought all the books and did all the research,” she recalls. “I spent two months just researching the exact right food for her,” settling on Blue Buffalo’s holistic line of dog food.

Bentley estimates they spend around $100 a month on dog-related expenses, which recently has come to include “the coolest thing I just saw on Facebook” — Bark Box, a monthly subscription that delivers a surprise assortment of treats, toys and other doggie swag to the homes of well-loved pups.

Thanks to his arcade skills, Lackey, or “master of the crane” as Bentley called him, helps keep the household’s pet spending down somewhat. They couldn’t afford to keep their two chewing machines in plush toys without his steady stream of crane machine prizes, she said.

But the dogs still receive regular grooming at PetSmart in Oxford for “the nails and bath, the whole shebang,” Bentley said. And she frequently finds herself purchasing their snack of choice, antler chew treats, “because that one is new so they both want that one.”

She used to give them rawhide bones until the day Lacie got a piece lodged in her throat and had to be rushed to AMC’s emergency care. Hysterical, but on a mission that she couldn’t fail, Bentley had never felt more like a parent than in that moment.

“I have never driven down 202 so fast in my life,” she said. “I probably went 90 mph the whole way.”

***

Lacie and Sammie’s pet parents are far from alone. In fact, there may even be a name for doting dog people such as them: Generation Dog.

Coined by Catherine Bres, owner of the Homewood pet boutique of the same name and the Rub-A-Dub-Dog Bath House and Spa, members of Generation Dog “are all those who love dogs and really treat them like family,” Bres said.

Bres moved to Alabama in 2005 and spent the next few months trying to find what it was she was truly passionate about it.

“I just kept coming back to my dogs,” she said, recalling how she described her perfect job as one where she could bring her dogs with her. So in 2007, she opened the Generation Dog boutique, and the pet spa followed soon after.

“I just thought about what I wanted as an overprotective pet parent,” she said. “The focus is on what’s best for the dog. Pet parents really responded to that.”

Even as the recession took its toll on her high-end boutique sales, the grooming business has “continued to grow each year,” she said.

The upscale shopping district where Bres’ businesses are located is extremely welcoming of the Gen Dog culture, she says, but a lot of that has come since the opening of the area’s first dog park, Green Springs Dog Park in Homewood.

“Once we got that first dog park, that’s when things really took off,” she recalls.

Today she counts half a dozen pet-friendly restaurants within walking distance of her store, one of which serves as the local of the annual Generation Dog Halloween party and pet costume contest.

Pet-friendly in Calhoun County

Sara Hare, the owner of Piper’s Playhouse Doggie Daycare in Anniston, hopes a dog park might have a similar effect on Calhoun County.

When Hare and her husband moved to the area, the Illinois native didn’t have to ask what the biggest need of Calhoun pet parents — it was immediately apparent to her and her five rescued mutts, she said. “What we missed most was having a doggie daycare.”

So Hare opened one. Piper’s Playhouse, named after her oldest baby, an 8-year-old Jack Russell, offers supervised full-day and half-day daycare, boarding and grooming services.

Most of Piper’s clients are boarders, Hare says, but since the business opened two years ago, she’s seen interest in the daycare steadily rise. The daycare currently averages 19 dogs a day, including eight to 10 regulars who take advantage of the package deals she offers on the website.

“It’s starting to catch on,” she said, adding that grooming, too, is steadily growing. “People are starting to understand their dogs’ grooming needs.”

And of course, there’s a dizzying array of pet products and toys, everything from the latest in indestructible chew toys to the John Paul fur-care product line to Angel Eyes, a safe remedy for the dark spots that plague white-haired dogs.

In six months, Hare says the business is scheduled to move from its current Arrow Road location to a new facility on Noble Street, about a block and a half from Zinn Park. It’s a spot Hare believes would make a perfect place for an Anniston dog park. She said she’s already spoken to Mayor Vaughn Stewart and he’s supportive of the prospect.

***

Anniston will have to hurry if it wants to be the county’s first dog park, though. In the last month, a group of area pet parents led by Teresa Russell, whose 9-month-old black Lab mix Max is a Piper’s regular, have made massive strides in securing Oxford a dog park.

After approaching the Oxford City Council with the idea, Russell was asked to look into “the good, the bad and the ugly” of dog parks, she said. “Except there’s not any bad and ugly. Just good.”

She reported back on the health benefits to both humans and their canine companions and on the economic boost to local businesses — especially from the many pet-friendly travelers seeking pet-friendly rest stops and destinations.

That’s certainly been the case in Alabaster this past year, says Tim Hamm, the city’s parks director.

“We get calls quite a bit from people traveling, people from quite a ways away too,” he says, of inquiries about the dog park, which sits just a few miles off I-65. It’s also not unusual to see visitors from Birmingham and Montgomery drive in for the day, he added. “If the weather is nice it stays full.”

Russell says the council fully supports a dog park in Oxford. But she’s done her research, and she envisions more than just a fenced-in patch of land with poop-bag dispensers.

“I know the needs of the animal community,” she said, describing the ideal park as a social hub for like-minded pet parents with walking trails, an agility course — “the whole nine yards.” The long-time animal shelter volunteer is also pushing for an on-site facility where rescue groups can host adoption days. “They are really strapped for a way to show off these animals.”

Of course, all that takes money, so Russell has gone a step further, signing Oxford up for PetSafe’s Bark for Your Park competition, a contest similar to the one that funded the Beneful Dream Dog Park in Alabaster’s Veterans Park.

***

The timing of the Beneful competition couldn’t have been more perfect for Frankie Alfano of Pelham. A golden Lab mix by the name of Molly came into his life right around the same time the park was opening in Alabaster.

Alfano rescued Molly and her brother, left to fend for themselves after their mother was hit by car, from the side of the road. He said he had no intention of keeping the orphaned pup, but Molly had other ideas and it didn’t take long for her to charm her new pet dad.

Now a little more than a year old, Molly and Alfano are a regular sight at the Dream Dog Park.

“She has so much energy to expend,” said Alfano. Two to three times a week, he meets fellow pet dads Rami Omaish and 4-year-old Lucas, and Leslie Harrison with 2-year-old Buddy, a Lab-chow mix his wife rescued from the Humane Society as gift for Harrison’s 72nd birthday. The dads spend an hour or so trading dog tales and watching Molly, Lucas, Buddy and their fellow park playmates chase, wrestle, fetch, chew, sniff and explore the dog-friendly wonderland — usually with a little nudge from Molly’s energetic joy and sweet disposition, the same traits that first won over her dad.

“Despite everything she’s been through, she really just wants to please,” Alfano said. “She just loves.”

Assistant Features Editor Brooke Carbo: 256-235-3581. On Twitter @star_features.

Bark for an Oxford Dog Dish

The City of Oxford is in the running to win Bark for Your Park 2013, sponsored by PetSafe. One grand-prize winner will win $100,000 and four runners-up will win $25,000 towards the construction of a dog park.

According to Teresa Russell, who entered Oxford in the Bark for Your Park competition, as of Wednesday, the city was ranked 17 out of 863 cities in round one of the competition. To move to round two round and compete for one of the five awards, Oxford must be in the top 15 when voting ends 4 p.m. Friday. Finalist cities will be announced June 5 and voting for round two will run through July 21. Winners will be announced July 31.

You can bark for an Oxford dog park by voting twice a day, once at www.petsafe.net and once on their Facebook page.

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