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Local businesses have found the next big consumer: She's got four legs, a tail, a floppy tongue and a taste for luxury. Luxury dog products are growing in popularity, and it doesn't end with a fancy collar

Coco Martin Del Campo may be one of the most spoiled three-year-olds you’ll ever meet. The little brunette spends her days dressed in designer duds carefully picked out every morning by her doting mother, who takes her shopping for new outfits two or three times a month. She gets as many treats as her heart desires, has her nails done every couple of weeks and sleeps curled up in bed with her parents every night.

Coco is a dog. And wherever her “mother,” 28-year-old Saskia Martin Del Campo, goes, you can be sure the teacup Chihuahua is never far behind. In fact, more than likely she’s tucked away in a designer bag slung over Martin Del Campo’s shoulder or at the end of a rhinestone-encrusted leash.

“Everything she has kind of accents what I have,” explains Martin Del Campo, a bubbly blonde real estate agent with Dexter Associates Realty, who has popped into Barking Babies, a Yaletown designer doggy-wear boutique. Coco perches in her arms, decked out in a black Juicy Couture tracksuit. “We sometimes dress accordingly. Today we didn’t because we were in a big rush and I’ve been working and she was lounging. So she’s in her loungewear and I’m in my workwear. But yeah, sometimes we both go out in our little black tracksuits.”

The dog eyes Martin Del Campo’s interviewer with suspicion, lips twitching to reveal a tiny but perfectly formed set of pointy teeth. The sound of a high-pitched growl fills the room.

“She’s very protective,” Martin Del Campo explains apologetically.

If there was any question that dogs are now first-class citizens, Trouble puts any doubts to rest. In August 2007, the white Maltese became the richest bitch in the world when her owner, “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley, passed away and bequeathed a $12-million inheritance to her devoted canine companion. (Money can’t buy happiness, though, even if you’re a dog; Trouble is now reported to be suffering death threats and living in hiding, under a new identity, with a 24-hour guard.)

And in April of last year, outrage grew across the globe when certain pet foods, including those manufactured by Ontario-based Menu Foods Income Fund, were found to contain wheat gluten from China tainted with melamine. The column inches dedicated to the deaths of beloved pets as a result of the toxic food far outweighed those documenting the subsequent execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, the head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration, on corruption charges. [pagebreak]

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Real estate agent Saskia Martin Del
Campo doesn't leave the house
without her teacup chihuahua Coco.

A Dog's Life in Vancouver

Of all the places to live if you’re a dog, you can’t do much better these days than Vancouver Trouble’s fortified mansion excluded). In 2006 DogFriendly.com listed it as the most dog-friendly city in North America. (In 2007 we slipped down a peg and relinquished the top spot to Boston, Massachusetts.) According to the website’s write-up, “The city has many outdoor restaurants and cafés and quite a few of the stores allow you to shop inside with your dog… Vancouver boasts seven off-leash dog beaches and over 20 off-leash dog parks giving your dog ample opportunity to run.”

Judging by the explosion in the last couple of years of high-end boutiques, spas and services for the canine companion, the local business sector has taken notice. While the value of the Canadian pet industry is difficult to pinpoint, an indication of its potential size can be gleaned from American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc., which estimates $40.8 million was spent in the U.S. pet industry last year. The most recent numbers available from Statistics Canada on household spending indicate that the median pet expense per household in B.C. increased from $425 per year in 1997 to $560 per year in 2005 – well above the national 2005 median of $460.

Where five years ago your typical Vancouver mutt would make do with dried kibble and Milk-Bones, regular walks to the park and a weekly brushing, today’s pooches arguably live better than some of their owners. They can feast on wheat-free peanut-butter truffles made by Vancouver’s K9 Biscuit Company and birthday cakes from Kitsilano’s Three Dog Bakery, sit at a booth and get served a restaurant-style meal at Doggy Style Deli on Denman Street, and boost their heart rates on indoor treadmills before indulging in personalized reiki treatments at Oak Street’s Mestisos Pet Spa – all the while sporting the latest must-have fashions of the day from shops such as Ker­risdale’s Fetch or Yaletown’s Barking Babies.

Embracing Pet Fashion

No matter how extravagant the goods or services on offer, it seems as though there are customers out there willing to let their money go to the dogs. Nancy Howatson, owner of Barking Babies, can attest to that. Howatson, 36, opened her boutique three years ago in a tiny, 300-square-foot space on Davie Street. She and her husband, Mike, had recently returned from working abroad in Tokyo, where she had embraced the Japanese passion for pet fashion. Upon her return to Vancouver, she continued dressing her now-15-year-old Jack Russell terrier Quintin in designer duds and was overwhelmed by the attention he got.

“When I moved back [to Vancouver], people were stopping me on the street saying, ‘Where did you buy that? Where did you get that coat? Where did you get that sweater?’ It was constant,” Howatson, an expressive and youthful brunette, recalls in conversation at her shop. As she chats, Quintin, sporting a cotton hoodie by Pink Polka Dog, lolls happily nearby in a plush dog bed while his two-year-old Yorkie “sister,” Tallulah, scuttles through the store in a denim miniskirt and pink tank top.

When Mike, a creative director at Blast Radius, spotted a space for rent next to his office, Howatson decided to try her hand at running a shop specializing in Japanese pet fashion. “I negotiated really great terms with the landlord,” she remembers. “I told him, ‘I’m interested in three years, but I need a way out because I don’t know whether Vancouver’s ready to dress dogs.’” The city was more than ready. Having tapped into a clientele eager to spend thousands of dollars on their furry companions, Howatson was able to move her business to a space triple the size on Homer Street within two years of opening.

From $40 T-shirts to $300 embroidered down-filled jackets and $1,000 dog-carrier bags, the shelves of Barking Babies reek of opulence. The boutique’s colour scheme is a hip combination of orange and white, bright pet-themed art hangs just so on the walls, and the stock – clothes, leashes, toys, treats and beds – is displayed in a chic, minimalist style. A $600 Swarovski-crystal-studded “Diamond Dogs” collar sitting inside a glass case by the cash register does little to temper the aura of canine-inspired excess.

The combination of bling and bones has been enough to attract A-list celebs such as Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba and Selma Blair, along with the upscale Yaletown crowd. Howatson’s typical clients, she says, are “people like me: they don’t have kids, they have their dogs. My two dogs are my babies.” She won’t reveal her revenues but says they’ve increased about 40 per cent in three years. [pagebreak]

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Barking Babies mascot Quintin sports an urban
look in designer denim.

Demographic of Dog-Lovers

Why the sudden obsession with all things dog? Like so many economic trends, much of the answer lies in demographics. Take an aging population of empty nesters, factor in a generation of young people waiting longer to have kids, add a booming economy, and what you get is a market full of cash-happy childless households (many living in condos where space is limited) looking to fill a void with a small, furry companion.

“I think one of the biggest things we’re seeing right now is just the acceptance to spending more [on pets],” observes Connie Wilson, editor-in-chief of local publishing success story, Modern Dog magazine. “The definition of the traditional family has changed. People live differently today. There aren’t the same tight family circles that there used to be, like, during the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. It’s all changing: divorces, long-distance relationships, childless couples… Dogs fill a void in our modern society and, you know, whether they’re treated as a companion or a replacement for a human child, our canine friends make our lives happier and more ­fulfilled.”

Wilson launched her quarterly in 2002 with a single-issue print run of 15,000 and no budget. “I created a mock-up of the magazine. I thought I would go to press with it, provided I could get enough ad revenue to pay the print bill… We sold enough ads without the magazine even coming out – which told you something then,” recalls Wilson. “I think that for most people, selling ads and getting ads into a magazine that didn’t even exist would be next to impossible. But we did.”

Originally intended as a local mag, Modern Dog got a national distributor for its second issue and entered the U.S. market with its third. Its recent winter issue, with cover girl Paula Abdul, had a print run of 61,000, and the spring 2008 issue is antici­pated to go bigger. Billed as “the lifestyle magazine for urban dogs and their companions,” Modern Dog features gift guides (what do you get the dog who has everything? A “Pup-Casso” paint kit for dogs), fashion spreads, regular columnists such as UBC dog psychologist Stanley Coren and horoscopes (example: “You’re stir-crazy for new experiences, so get out there, Taurus! Flirt at the dog park, sniff out new friends… You never know what magically, bewitchingly gross smell is just around the corner”).

“Sometimes you go, ‘Well, why is it necessary to have a diamond necklace on a dog?’” muses Wilson. “It’s probably for the same reason someone would want a Mercedes-Benz versus a Volkswagen… You wouldn’t think twice of somebody spoiling their human child that way. Dogs are part of the family now. You see people taking a holiday with their dogs. You see hotels accommodating that with their pet amenity programs.” [pagebreak]

Living Large: Hotels for Dogs

A new hotel on Terminal Avenue has taken that trend to its obvious conclusion: the Rex Dog Hotel & Spa is, you guessed it, an upscale inn for dogs. Situated near the Home Depot on Terminal Avenue in a 10,000-square-foot converted warehouse, the rich-dog’s kennel charges $60 a night (add $8 for a private suite), with discounts for longer stays. That might be a bargain for a human, but with most dog-boarding facilities charging $40 a night or less, this place is definitely for the upper-middle-class pooch.

“We have people that can’t really afford it but love their dog and just want to have a safe place, so they make it work,” explains owner Barrie Balshaw, who opened the dog hotel in December 2006 with his wife, Karen, after years of running a doggy daycare business. A former rock drummer, Balshaw comes across as a laid-back, no-stress kind of guy. “Then we have people that have lots of money, and again they just want a nice, comfortable home atmosphere for their dog that’s not got a kennel atmosphere.”

"Dogs are part of the family now. You see people taking a holiday with their dogs. You see hotels accommodating that with their pet amenity programs.”
Rex Dog Hotel & Spa
760 Terminal Avenue Vancouver, BC 604.696.5166

Whether the dogs appreciate the sophisticated interior designed by SmartDesign Group’s Jon Sunderland – whose portfolio includes Coal Harbour’s upscale Lift Bar and Grill – is debatable. Past the reclaimed wood flooring and pendulum lighting of the entranceway lie concrete-floored rooms filled with tunnels and sculpted platforms, and a “spa” boasting a large raised tub and grooming station. Outside, a computerized water park shoots geysers through the air.

Upstairs, plush pillows and dog beds surround flat-screen satellite TVs and DVD players. At nighttime the dogs each choose a pillow and settle in to watch a movie with a staff member, who hauls out a cot. (That is, unless the pooch is staying in a “single suite,” in which case it gets a small room with glass walls.)

“The movie is mainly for the staff but also to give dogs a feeling of being at home in their living room,” explains Balshaw, who prefers not to reveal any business figures but says he’s welcomed “thousands” of dogs. On a recent long weekend, the Rex Hotel was almost at its full capacity of 60; there were 45 guests, including Sean Connery, a hyperactive young collie who raced around the water park like a two-year-old on a sugar high, yelping excitedly.

Like any hotel, Rex offers a “mini-bar” menu: extra food and treats “for owners who want their dog to have something special.” Guests are also welcomed with a bag of wheat-free biscuits. Although packaged with the Rex Dog Hotel and Spa logo, the treats are actually produced by the K9 Biscuit Company, a Vancouver business run by former landscaper Michael Howell and his partner Doug Freeman. [pagebreak]

Canine Culinary Treats

Started in 1999 as a home-based business after Howell’s black lab started experiencing severe food allergies, K9 Biscuit Company moved into its own premises near Granville Island within six months. When the gourmet food shop Lesley Stowe decided to start stocking the cookies, Howell says, he knew he had tapped into a trend.

“That confirmed there was a market for good, healthy treats,” he says. In 2004 K9’s treats were added to the Emmy gift baskets, and in recent years the business, which sells via its website and through retailers, began to add more luxury items to its products, including seasonal foil-wrapped peanut-butter truffles presented in a fancy box that could easily be mistaken for human delectables.

Last year the company added personalized labels to its website, allowing customers to order treats with their dog’s mug on the packaging, which Howell says has proved to be a hit with customers.

Ikea, Burberry, Old Navy, Von Dutch, Gucci and hair-care company John Paul Mitchell Systems have added pet lines to their products. Juicy Couture has recently introduced "Pawfum."

Much of K9’s business, he says, is private label for clients that range from doggy boutiques such as Barking Babies to upscale grocers such as Urban Fare and hotels including the Sheraton and the Westin Grand. Howell won’t disclose revenues but says the company has an online customer list of 2,000 and estimates that in 2007 “approximately 20 tonnes of dog treats went out our door.”

Another local company that’s going the private-label route is RC Pet Products Ltd., which recently signed a licensing deal with Columbia Sportswear Co. Started 13 years ago by Susan Perry as a small division of sportswear company RC Products Ltd., the collars, leashes and pet raingear are now the mainstay of the company.

“RC Pet surpassed RC Sport two years ago in terms of sales volume,” says Perry, who recently stepped down from the company after moving to Bellingham. Meeting with Columbia to discuss the licensing deal, she recalls, the outdoor-gear company couldn’t believe her price margins.

“When they asked what our coats retail at and we told them, they were blown away, because they can’t retail human coats for the same as what we’re getting for our dog coats in a lot of cases. They’re looking at it going, ‘You know what? We have a hard time selling a fleece coat for $30, and you’re selling a fleece dog coat for $50? It doesn’t make sense!’”

Licensing deals with pet products are being seen across the board, notes Perry. “You’ve got Roots, you’ve got John Deere, you’ve got Eddie Bauer – you name it, everyone has licensees doing their name on pet products.” IKEA, Burberry, Old Navy, Von Dutch, Gucci and even hair-care company John Paul Mitchell Systems have added pet lines to their products. Juicy Couture, one of the first designer labels to jump on the trend, has recently introduced its own line of grooming products that includes “Pawfum” and nail (or should that be claw?) polish.

Nancy Howatson hasn’t brought the nail polish into Barking Babies yet, but if Saskia Martin Del Campo has any pull, she will. “You have to get it in!” she begs Howatson as Coco pleads along silently. After ogling some of the new items in stock, Martin Del Campo takes a moment to stroke the tiny animal in her arms. “She is totally my baby. I wouldn’t change anything about her,” she says, smiling tenderly. She pauses to reflect a moment, then qualifies her statement. “But a little bit longer fur would be amazing. Then I could put little bows in her hair.”