At some point east of Interstate 75, the dogs will know they are close.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for most of the past year, Jim LaClair has been shuttling dozens of dogs in his specially outfitted Chevy 15-passenger van across the county to his newly purchased ranch in Myakka City.
These suburban dogs know the routine, and as they get closer to the open fields of Myakka for an afternoon of romping in an orange and oak tree grove with dozens of their friends – that’s when the excited barking begins.
“As I’m headed out Fruitville Road, sooner or later one is going to start to bark,” LaClair said. “They are all fired up, ready to have a great time.”
The pandemic has been a roller coaster ride for the pet-care industry and for local animal-care workers like LaClair.
Doggy daycares and boarding kennels became nearly obsolete overnight last March, as countless people began working from home and canceling vacations. Dog walkers lost gigs, with owners home to walk their own canines. And trainers couldn’t hold classes or visit homes, with health officials still not sure that COVID-19 couldn’t spread from human to dog to human.
“People were thinking, ‘What if Fluffy brings the virus back on its fur, or maybe the dog will get COVID and give it to me that way,” LaClair said.
While those dead months in the spring and summer of 2020 were devastating to many pet-focused businesses, the entrepreneurs and dog-whisperers like LaClair who powered through it may be in the prime position to grow their brand.
Pet ownership is on the rise, and niche dog care providers are increasingly in demand.
The Humane Society of Sarasota is aiming to increase adoptions by roughly 50% in the coming years, from 1,600 in 2019 to 2,400 by 2023. As of early June, the HSSC had already placed 786 animals in homes and was on track to surpass 2019’s figure.
LaClair’s service, like many in his field, is aimed at the pet owner who believes that their dog should live life to the fullest.
The dogs under his watch not only get to go for a ride, they get to spend all afternoon running, sniffing, play-fighting and exploring with dozens of other dogs. LaClair develops a list of behavior goals for each dog with the owner, and he spends time working with each dog one-on-one throughout the day.
For the $50 daily rate, the owner gets their dog back tuckered out, socialized and with a training session under their collar.
“They are going to camp with an experienced trainer who has been doing this for 22 years,” LaClair said. “We have people make a list of what they want Fluffy to do. The young dogs need the exercise and training. They are the ones that really benefit from it.”
And once a week, instead of going to the ranch in Myakka, LaClair drives his pack out to the beach. He loads the dogs up, roughly 10 at a time, onto a 17-foot open fisherman’s boat, and the group sets out for a sandbar roughly 100 yards off shore.
He’s been doing the beach trips since 2004 and water dogs in particular, like golden retrievers and Labs, are right at home frolicking in the shallows of the Gulf.
LaClair has been driving dogs all over Sarasota County for nearly two decades, but COVID-19 forced the former Hollywood assistant director to find new romping grounds for his clients.
LaClair launched his business – “Jim LaClair’s Dog-Friendly Dog Training” – as he segued out of a career in the movie business where he worked on acclaimed films like “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Boys Don’t Cry.”
He had apprenticed for a dog trainer in California for a year and earned his dog training credentials, then returned to his hometown of Sarasota. After launching his home pick-up dog training business here in 2004, he took his daily pack to the 17th Street Paw Park for roughly 16 years.
But in March of 2020 the city shut down all parks for months due to fears of the virus.
Room to roam
A dog trainer with nearly 40 dogs to work with and nowhere to take them is in a tough spot. He borrowed a friend’s land for a while, but that wasn’t a long-term solution, so in January, LaCLair bought the ranch in Myakka City.
It took a month to clean up and fence the site to prepare for dogs, but now LaClair and his two assistants can drive their vans full of dogs directly onto the property, rather than having to escort them one-by-one from the van, the way they had to at the 17th street dog park.
LaClair hasn’t settled on a name for the ranch yet, trying out a new name each month, with the criteria being that LaClair can say it with all the dramatic flair of a Telemundo soap opera star.
This month, it is “El Rancho de las Mariposas Blancas” (Ranch of the White Butterfly). Next month it will be “El Rancho de las Amantes Muertas” (Ranch of the dead lovers), apparently in honor of two teenagers killed near the site years ago, whom LaClair says still haunt the grounds.
‘Like the old Sarasota’
LaClair and other local pet-care operators like Mark Shambour of K9 Korral and Jason Beasley of Doggy Resort SRQ are competing against both ends of the dog care spectrum.
On one side, there are national chains like Camp Bow Wow or Pet Paradise. And on the other end, apps like Rover or Wag have opened the door for thousands of people working from home, retirees or teenagers to build their pet care businesses, without all the overhead of a brick-and-mortar location.
But LaClair, Shambour and Beasley say they have a product that neither the conglomerates, with their live-stream webcams and swimming pools, nor the stay-at-home moms who promise to snuggle your pup each hour on the hour can match: Decades of dog knowledge, and the trust of the community.
Shambour said the K9 Korral survived COVID-19, in part, because his customers donated roughly $14,000 through a Go-Fund-Me campaign during the height of the pandemic. For years, Shambour had gotten to know his clients by offering low-cost ($120) six-week training sessions. He said that time spent together helped establish deep loyalty, and this past year his customers came through.
“It’s kind of like the old Sarasota, where everybody knows everybody and it’s that hometown feeling,” Shambour said. “We aren’t a big conglomerate with multiple locations. We know who our customers are. It’s more of an old-town feeling.”
Beasley, the owner of Doggy Resort SRQ, a small boutique-style dog care facility on 17th Street, lives in a camper on the property.
“People like to know that I live here,” he said, because clients know if their dog needs someone in the middle of the night, he is just feet away.
Luxury dog care
What all three also know is that taking care of dogs is good business.
LaClair had thought about becoming a veterinarian more than 20 years ago when the arrival of his first child pushed him to leave show business and find something more stable. But he soon realized that the dog training and day care business could be more lucrative than becoming a veterinarian.
“It’s in my interest to give these dogs Ritz Carlton-like care,” he said.
Dog trainer Gregg Flowers, who also writes a weekly column for the Herald-Tribune, said he only experienced a brief downturn in demand during COVID-19, in part because he targets people who don’t let a pandemic stand in the way of their dog getting high-dollar attention.
Flowers launched his dog training business after a sky-diving accident in 2001 that left him with a broken femur, fractured pelvis and spinal damage. He said so many people have dogs in the Sarasota area now that a skilled provider who can find that untapped vein in the market shouldn’t have too much trouble finding clients.
“Find your niche, man,” he said. “Something about you that sets you apart.”
Flowers’ niche? A gift for understanding your dog’s personality. He is an in-home trainer who works with dogs and their owners for a flat rate of $90 per hour.
He doesn’t offer packages, he doesn’t charge for travel time, and his services come with a lifetime guarantee of follow-up phone conversations, as needed. And with his promise to train (most) owners and their dogs in just a handful of sessions, business has been plentiful.
“Everybody down here has a dog,” Flowers said. “Half of those people need help. Half of those people will reach out. And half of those people can afford somebody like me.”
For LaClair, that niche is picking people’s dogs up so that they don’t have to even worry about leaving home. And it’s making sure the pooch returns relaxed after a successful day of working toward their training goals. That’s tougher than it sounds, LaClair said,
“You can’t just start up this kind of business overnight,” LaClair said. “It takes years to develop. If you get a vet to refer you and someone comes back with complaints, guess what: You’ll never get referred again.”
Now, after nearly 20 years of working 60 to 70 hours a week with the dogs, LaClair said he is ready to “take his foot off the gas.” He’d like to spend more time at the ranch than driving dogs around town, and he’s scaled back from five or six days a week to just four.
“COVID helped me prioritize, take Thursdays off, sort of finesse how much I do, when I do it,” he said.
But he has plenty more ideas for the monthly renaming tradition of “El Rancho de las Mariposas Blancas,” so he isn’t ready to hang it up yet. And he knows that a hard-earned reputation is probably the greatest competitive advantage anyone in the dog-care industry can have.
Reiterating comments made by Flowers, Beasley and Shambour, LaClair said the number one marketing strategy for anyone hoping to break into the pet care business is public trust.
“You have to be connected (in the dog community),” he said. “People don’t want to just pull someone out of the phone book.”
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.