Dana Begins is a bus driver. Each weekday morning and afternoon, he guides his purple school bus around Chittenden County, picking up and dropping off his charges. He's not employed by a school district or a transportation company; Begins works for Gulliver's Doggie Daycare in Williston. His passengers are pooches.
Most people who pay $15 a day to let their dogs play at the facility drop the mutts off themselves. But for an extra $5 a day, Begins will happily transport them. On a recent Thursday morning, his route takes him to downtown Burlington, South Burlington and Williston as he picks up Toto, a terrier, Miel, a medium-sized, amber-colored dog, Emma the Airedale, and a frisky golden retriever called Cooper.
Cooper's owner, Bill Mast, is waiting with him at the foot of the driveway when Begins pulls up. "Have fun," Mast instructs the dog as the Golden bounds into the bus.
Not all owners accompany their pets to the bus stop - Begins often knocks on the door to fetch the dogs himself. But he says first-time customers frequently make a scene. "They'll greet you outside with the camera," he says. "It's like the first day of school."
And the similarities to school don't end there. Step inside the Gulliver's lobby and you'll see a wall of brightly painted cubbies labeled with names like Helen, Holly, Hunter, Lily and Louie. It looks like something you'd see in a human daycare or elementary school, except that each cubby holds a collar or leash, or perhaps some special shampoo.
Front-desk clerk Azra Hussann points out a box of Milk Bones one owner brought last week in honor of her dog's birthday. "Everybody that day got a little bone," Hussann recalls with a smile.
Gulliver's isn't the only local business that caters to people who treat their pets like children. As the growing niche industry dedicated to this pampering suggests, Vermonters don't mind spending lavishly on their critters.
Good grooming isn't just for poodles - so say the stylists at J&J Doggie Styles in Colchester. The salon accepts dogs of all sizes and breeds; they work with cats, too, as well as bunnies and ferrets. Rates are based on how much time the stylist spends with an animal. A bath, trim and nail clip for a well-maintained dog might run $40 to $45.
Owner Joanne Farrell took over the business when the previous owner retired in 2004. The shop is expanding; a new, customized space opens this week. "It's made for dog grooming," Farrell raves. "All the windows are a little bit lower so they can look out."
It's important to Farrell and the other stylists that their canine customers have a positive experience. That's why they allow the dogs to roam free in the grooming area. On a recent Wednesday morning, no fewer than 11 dogs share a 16-by-16-square-foot space with Farrell and two of her groomers. The crowd includes three large Bernese mountain dogs, a golden retriever, four medium-sized dogs, a cairn terrier and two tiny white Malteses. One of them, Mr. Jaxx, wears a colorfully striped fleece sweater.
In addition to giving baths, haircuts and nail trims, the stylists at J&J also massage animals during the bathing process, and they do Reiki. "It's very light energy work," says Farrell. "It's a laying on of hands and a transference of energy. We're just helping to channel positive energy in the pets while they're here."
J&J also sells a variety of pet products. "Pet fashion is something we take very seriously," Farrell declares.
The retail space features $20 fleece-lined dog coats, hand-knit by Joanne Kalisz, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Vermont. In addition to the coats, she makes silk-screened doggie T-shirts featuring fire hydrants and sayings such as "Bad to the Bone" and "Lil' Humper." Kalisz named her company Happy Fantastic, after her dog, an African bark-less basenji.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kalisz began making dog clothes because she was dissatisfied with the options. "They're very beautiful dogs," she says of basenjis, "but you put them in a goofy shirt, and it's like, 'You need something more haute couture.'"
J&J also carries chic retro dog and cat collars from If It Wags in Essex Junction. Designer Sonya Ryan sews each of her products by hand, and sells them at boutiques across the country, as well as through her website and wholesale catalogue.
Customers can choose from the "Swank," "Sweet Tiki," "Mod" and "Gidget" collections, or purchase collar-leash-and-harness packages, such as the "Espresso Lime Set." Cat collars retail for $8, the sturdier dog collars for $19, and leashes for $27.
That's cheap compared with the dog and cat collars from Milton's Bark and Sparkle. Expect to pay between $80 and $180 for one of designer Laurie Vien Swarovski's crystal creations, available at several high-end pet boutiques - including stores in Germany and Japan. Discriminating owners can also find bracelets to match the "Diva" or "Galaxy" collars.
Is Fido tiring of his dry kibble? Amy Haskell of Show Me the Biscuit! in Milton has something meatier. A fridge in the corner of her basement boutique holds a variety of human-grade "raw diet" products, including bags of uncooked chicken necks. A 5-pound frozen log of meat from chicken wings, backs and innards sells for $8.49. Just defrost and serve.
Some of Haskell's wares come from Waitsfield-based Vermont Raw, which uses organic ingredients whenever possible, and she buys meat from Misty Knoll and other Vermont farms.
"So, basically, our dogs eat better than we do," admits Haskell, who owns four Keeshonds. "We're spending all this money on them, and we get frozen pizza."
And for dessert? Burlington-based PupCat Bakery sells all sorts of all-natural goodies. Baker Milia Bell makes canine confections and cat snacks, including the pup-ular "Peanut Mutter Cups" for $2.25, and $3 jars of "Tuna Sushi." Her treats are available at locally owned Pet Food Warehouse.
Bell also specializes in "celebration cakes," available only on her website, or by special order. Choose from banana-peanut butter, apple spice and decadent carob. For that extra touch, she will write a message on top in the sugarless frosting. "Usually they just want their names," she says, "or 'Happy birthday.'"
A 10-inch, heart-shaped cake runs $25, and Bell says she also makes custom sheet cakes for parties at the dog park. Humans can eat them, too, though since there's no sugar, they're "not super tasty," she says. "The banana-peanut butter is pretty good, I think."
Don't want to leave your dogs home alone? Send 'em to daycare. Gulliver's is just one of several options in the area. For $20, The Dog Zone in Winooski will take your dog for the day. That is, if your four-legged friend is accepted. Owner Jackie Miller is "very selective," she says. Clients must complete an interview process before she lets their pets roam free with the rest of the pack.
Once they're in, they get to go collarless. "They're completely naked," notes Miller. They can also enjoy the Dog Zone's "spa services," which include nail clips and light grooming. Most importantly, dogs get to romp and frolic in rooms filled with jungle gyms.
Owners who want to watch this fun can click on the web cam at the Dog Zone website and watch online. Apparently this is a popular pastime. "I have people who don't have dogs here that watch them play," Miller boasts. Apparently privacy isn't an issue.
If you'd rather have your pooch get a breath of fresh air, hire Pet Care Professional Marika Kopecky, who also works as a stylist at J & J Doggie Styles. For $20, she'll take your pet on an off-leash hike, so you don't have to.
Is it too much trouble to take your pet to the vet? Some pet doctors make house calls. If you live in or near Chittenden County, Dr. Susan McMillan of Vet to Pet will bring her fully stocked van to your home. She charges a $40 exam fee, in addition to whatever care she provides, but, hey, it's convenient.
Becky Roberts, McMillan's partner and assistant, says Vet to Pet offers all the standard services for dogs, cats and "pocket pets" such as rabbits and ferrets. The mobile clinic also offers at-home euthanasia.
To supplement these services, McMillan and Roberts are setting up a stationary clinic on North Champlain Street in Burlington's Old North End, which will have walk-in hours.
And vets aren't the only ones who provide pet health care. Some chiropractors see animal patients, too. Dr. Lee Wiebe at Performance Chiropractic in Essex Junction works on both dogs and cats. "I see dogs for a variety of things," she says, "most often lameness and neurological problems." When do you know your pet needs chiropractic care? "Limping is a good sign," she suggests. "Any kind of pain behavior. A lot of times you see postural stuff, or constant scratching at a bone or joint."
An initial animal exam runs $80, and adjustments are $40 each. Wiebe rarely sees an animal just once, though many patients are all set after half a dozen visits.
Using an herbal supplement to soothe your pet is a cheaper option. For $15, you can buy a bottle of flower essences made by Kelley Robie of Milton-based Horsetail Herbs. Use the eyedropper in the cap to add a few drops to the water dish. Her concoctions include "attitude adjustment," "chew stop" and "starting over," which can calm pets traumatized by, say, a move or a death in the family.
Robie also offers her services as an "animal communicator," picking up on pets' inner feelings long-distance. For $45 per animal, she'll meet with human clients, who can give her a picture of their pet or simply describe them. Then Robie sits in a quiet room and tries to communicate with the pet's spirit. "I imagine a cord or light going from my heart to the animal's heart," she says.
Robie asks your pet questions: "What is your purpose here?" "Are you ready to transition yet?" How does it work? "I'll get feelings," she explains. "I'll get physical sensations, just a knowing of what's going on. Sometimes I'll hear voices."
Most of our pets don't live as long as we do, and saying goodbye can be heartbreaking. Dog photographer Brigitte Nadeau of La Puparazzi tries to lessen that pain. The Québec-born, professionally trained photographer started memorializing dogs after her own got sick a few years ago, and she realized she didn't have any good pictures of him.
Nadeau doesn't bring dogs to her studio; she photographs them at home, or in a park if an owner wants an action shot. "If I really want to get a great dog portrait, the dog has to feel calm and comfortable," she explains.
Clients pay $95 a session for a couple hours of Nadeau's time, plus travel costs if they're more than 150 miles from her home in Troy, Vermont. She spends the first hour talking with the owners and getting to know the dog - maybe throwing the tennis ball a few times - before settling down to shoot.
Clients get a CD with 75 to 100 digital images; most pay Nadeau to make prints, though the first two 5-by-7 images are free.
When the moment finally comes, Vermonters dealing with the death of a beloved pet can contact Island Memorial Pet Services in Isle La Motte. Their motto: "Loyalty Deserves Dignity." The family-owned crematorium will pick up your pet's remains and return the ashes in the urn of your choice, from the standard Vermont handcrafted pine model to the more elaborate "Ultimate" Laser Etched Photo Urn. Prices range from $96 to $197. That's in addition to the cost of the actual cremation, which starts at $79.
They handle 10 to 15 pets a week, everything from goldfish to potbellied pigs to horses, according to co-owner Stacey Roussea. "We just wanted to make it smooth," she says of this sensitive, transitional time. "Good closure is important."
J&J Doggie Styles Natural Pet Grooming
Route 7, Colchester
If It Wags
Bark and Sparkle
Show Me the Biscuit!
165 Route 7, Milton
Pet Food Warehouse
2500 Williston Rd.,
2455 Shelburne Rd., Shelburne
Gulliver's Doggie Daycare
59 Industrial Ave., Williston
1 Tigan St., Winooski
Pet Care Professional
Vet to Pet
4 Carmichael St., Suite 108, Essex Junction
134 Manley Rd., Milton
Island Memorial Pet Services
384 East Shore Rd., Isle LaMotte