Going back to the office leads to big business for North Bay pet trainers

When Kerri Finn lost her 16-year-old miniature pinscher Roman in September 2020, she made a promise to him that she’d learn to love again.

Two months later, she rescued a mini pinscher-chihuahua mix named Jimmy. Their bond grew as Finn, a senior project manager at Sephora, worked remotely from her San Francisco home during the pandemic.

It was reported 23 million American households adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a result of more people being able to stay home due to COVID-19. But in the back of Finn’s mind, she knew one day she would be asked to return to the office.

“I just wanted to be prepared,” she said on the phone, yelling: “Leave it,” as Jimmy barked at something outside. Hold on. I’ll give him a treat.”

Jimmy suddenly went quiet.

To prepare for the back to the office transition, Finn set up surveillance cameras and left the house for a few hours to see how Jimmy would do.

“It was a disaster,” she said.

Finn, 53, recalled how Jimmy started peeing in the house, jumping everywhere and panting as he paced.

She later learned from a pet trainer that Jimmy was suffering from separation anxiety, which is a stress response “that a dog exhibits when the person (or people) that the dog is bonded to is away from home,” PetMD.com reports.

Finn sought help and soon discovered she wasn’t alone.

North Bay doggy day care centers and training facilities, as well as independent trainers in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, had been busy.

“It took me a while to find a trainer,” Finn said.

In October, she found Marji Pearson Animal Healer, a 65-year-old Mill Valley woman who uses holistic healing methods, such as botanical oils, acupuncture and Reiki energy work, to calm and heal pets dealing with behavioral issues.

For each visit, Jimmy progressed through “zoopharmacognosy,” a behavior in which animals self-medicate by inhaling botanicals to reduce toxins. Dogs with issues demonstrate their need for training by showing symptoms of erratic behavior like incessantly barking, licking their paws and running around, Pearson indicated.

Jimmy has since calmed down considerably, Finn said.

“Marji has so much passion. We started with once a week in the beginning. With a rescue dog, you have to build up that trust. Now it’s once a month — maintenance,” she said.

The business of animal healing

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals,” Pearson said.

Armed with a master’s degree in psychology, Pearson comes across like “a dog whisperer,” but she has worked for over six years with an assortment of animals. This includes cats, horses, donkeys, goats, turkeys and canines. Like other trainers and centers, she’s busier than ever.

The relationship starts with a free half-hour counsel. Then two sessions, adding up to five hours, that cost $650. Pearson claims her business has doubled this year compared to 2019 (with 2020 as a down year she called “nonexistent”). The prospects continue to grow. She averages about 30 calls a month from pet owners needing help.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people got rescue animals who already had issues anyway. All they knew 24/7 was their family, no visitors,” she said.

But what happens when pet owners return to the office?

“It is hard. The great concern is the pet is used to them being there all day,” said Cynthia Rinehart, owner of Pets R Family 2 in Napa.

In Sonoma County, Camilla Gray-Nelson’s Dairydell Canine “dude ranch” for dogs has also witnessed a huge uptick in interest from pet owners needing behavioral training for their furry companions.

“What we’re seeing is first in the number of dogs introduced into families. A flood of people got puppies. On top of that, they’re going to people who may know nothing about dogs and just want a friend and companion,” Gray-Nelson said.

Having celebrated 30 years in business last year, her 42-acre ranch on Adobe Road in Petaluma hosts dogs, cats, chickens and horses with training, boarding, feeding, exercising and owner tutoring programs.

Like Pearson, she’s also noticed many dogs enter the ranch with a lack of socialization skills, especially when their owners change their work schedules.

“They may have missed out early on socializing, not seeing new people. And if they’re sheltering dogs, so they’re already behind the eight ball anyway, having abandonment issues,” she said.

At the ranch, hourly private sessions with a trainer run $150 to $250, depending on the issue. Group classes cost $250 for seven sessions. The top-of-the-heap program, called “Dream Dog Complete,” is priced at $1,850 per week for all services, including boarding.

“This is for people who just want the comprehensive training done and have no time (to do it),” she said.

The ranch, which annually makes about $1 million in revenue relative to dog training, averages more than 35 inquiries a day.

“It’s like a perfect storm of so much business and not enough staff. I’ve thought that I may have to turn people down,” she said, adding there’s a waiting list.

According to a Globe Newswire report released in May, the US dog training services market is expected to reach over $820 million by 2026, an anticipated 6% growth in five years.

For those pet owners who have the opportunity to get the training help they seek, the ASPCA recommends they don’t wait too long.

“Pets that did not mind being left alone before the pandemic may be left confused and lonely once our regular work routines and activities (begin) again. It’s not uncommon for any major change of routine to be stressful for our pets, much less one as drastic as the transition from having their owners around all the time to having long periods alone,” said Alexandra Garza, an ASPCA spokesperson.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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