Sarasota-Manatee pet care businesses ‘bark’ back post-pandemic

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With treats in hand, dog trainer Jim LaClair has the undivided attention of a group of dogs at his property in Myakka City.

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.

Three days a week, LaClair shuttles dozens of dogs to his property for a couple hours of socialization, exercise and training.

“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.

Heidi Grundy, one of Jim LaClair's assistants, makes sure dogs get plenty of water in the shade of a large oak tree on the Myakka City property.

Pack party

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.

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