Posted 3 months ago
Written by Jane McFarlane
Even if we weren't considered to be a nation of dog lovers before, the pandemic has left no one in any doubt that the British really do love their dogs.
Thousands of lockdown puppies have found their forever homes in the last 12 months and three young entrepreneurs from Staffordshire have seen their hard work pay off with the rise in dog ownership.
Sam Jervis runs her own grooming business from a shed in her back garden and is seeing around 30 dogs a week for anything from a bath and tidy up to a full groom, while Abbie Ward is a dog trainer who only started her business last June and already has a waiting list stretching through the summer. And Laura Chafer has gone from restaurant manager working all hours to having a successful dog walking and pet care business with more than 200 clients.
I worked 60 hours a week to get my business but it was worth it
Growing up, Sam Jervis's life was filled with animals, with her dad owning whippets and her elder brother having a fascination with all living things.
"We had all sorts – scorpions, piranhas, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, snakes..." she recalls. "I always wanted to be a veterinary nurse, so when I had to go on work experience from school, I chose to go to the local vets."
Although she was fascinated by the medical side of the business, Sam realised her loud and bubbly personality wasn't an exact fit with the calm and quiet atmosphere at the vets.
"I started working at a kennels then, and realised this was exactly the right place for me," she said. "It's loud, it's full of excited people going away on holiday or picking their dogs up and I loved it!"
Straight after school Sam studied health and social care at a local college, continuing her education at Stafford College with a Level 3 diploma in animal management, then a three year degree in animal behaviour at Chester University – all the while working full time as a carer. "I was working about 60 hours a week at the time but I've always been a grafter, always wanted to work hard," she said.
The weekend of her 21st birthday, Sam made a life-changing decision. It was time to set up on her own. Within months she had registered her business, invested £5,000 in kitting out her shed and Sam's Groom Room was born.
"I'd been grooming friends' and family's dogs for a while, just in the shed, but I decided to go ahead and do it properly," she said. "It was scary because I was having to rely on myself to bring in an income and I'd got a mortgage to pay, so I kept on working as a carer at first."
Just three years later, Sam has a full diary week in, week out, and has a firm and loyal client base.
"Over lockdown the business has just grown and grown," she said. "The most popular dog I see is, without a doubt, the cockapoo – or in fact anything crossed with a poodle.
"But my favourite breed to groom is a Scottie, a Westie or a Schnauzer. There's a real style to them and I love to do the skirt and the proper shape."
To date she has only been bitten the once too, by an eight-month-old Japanese Akita. "I think I got a bit too confident with him," she recalls. "He was being beautifully behaved and so I thought I would be fine doing his undercarriage but he didn't like it! I had to muzzle him to finish off but – touch wood! - that's the only time."
And contrary to what you might think, the big dogs are often easier to manage than the little ones.
"Some of the dogs I see are up to 45kgs," she said. "But they're often really docile and happy to do as I want whereas it's the little ones who are hard work, like the chihuahuas and the pomeranians!"
For anyone who has acquired a new four legged friend over lockdown, Sam has just one piece of advice.
"If your dog has a high maintenance coat, like the cockapoo, or anything with curly fur, get them groomed regularly," she said. "It's a lot more comfortable for the dog, it's easier to maintain and they'll be happier for it."
Sam has recently launched a scanning and microchipping service alongside her grooming business.
"As if I'm not busy enough!" she laughed.
For Abbie, dogs are an art form
If you had been following the artwork of teenage Abbie Ward, you would be able to pinpoint the moment her career path changed.
The aspiring photographer, who is now 24, was studying multi media at college when she started volunteering at her local kennels and something clicked inside.
"I loved it from day one," she said. "There were about 100 dogs there, many who couldn't be rehomed because they were aggressive or had behaviour problems, so they were all like our pets.
"I just loved the way they were all always so pleased to see us."
As her interest in dogs grew, her artwork became more and more canine-focused. She was offered a paid job at the kennels two days a week which grew to a full time role.
During her four years at the kennels she became increasingly interested in dog behaviour. "The kennels had a policy of never putting down a healthy dog even those who couldn't be rehomed, so we did a lot of work with them and it was so rewarding," she said.
She completed Level 3 and 4 in animal behaviour and an online qualification in dog training and set up her business, Ward's Obedience Training, in June last year.
"I started off with just a few clients and now I don't have enough time to fit people in!" she smiled.
Her work is all done outside in the open, around the streets and fields of Cheadle so that dogs are trained in 'real life' situations and she helps owners with everything from simple recall and walking to heel to intensive challenges for the working breeds.
"My favourite dog to train is the border collie," she said – although admits she's biased as her own dog, Bell, is a collie. "Every single one is different, more than any other breed.
"Mine is easy to train, a bit crazy but you can turn the crazy off very easily. Some are totally wired and crazy whereas another of my clients has a collie who is really hard to motivate."
Abbie likes a challenge so another of her favourites is the cocker spaniel, adding: "I like a bonkers dog! They are more fun and you can do more with them."
Lockdown has seen business explode for Abbie and she said: "To be honest, lockdown has done me a favour! I'm really busy, even with sticking to the guidelines for dog training.
"It seems like everyone has got a dog these days and I'm starting to see more unusual breeds come through, for example I've recently had a Dobermann for the first time, a shih tzu bichon cross, known as a zuchon, an Irish setter, and even a Clumber cross."
Before getting a dog, Abbie would always advise potential owners to do plenty of research.
"You need to know that dog will fit with your lifestyle," she said. "Think about your job, are you home enough to look after a dog? How big is your garden and is it big enough for the breed you are considering? Do you have children? It's all really important, as is considering the cost of keeping your dog, for example vets bills and grooming if your dog needs it."
She has also seen a boom in the number of cocker spaniels she trains, and says many people are attracted to the breed because they don't moult, without considering it is a working dog and therefore will be high maintenance.
"I do a lot of work with people who have chosen a dog without really knowing enough about the breed," she said. "It's a big decision and it's important to get it right."
From restaurant manager to a life with dogs
Laura Chafer jokes that her extended family all have four legs, spending her days surrounded by dogs of all breeds.
The 34-year-old has always been besotted by dogs, regularly making donations to animal charities, making dog beds to donate, and when her two German Shepherds passed away she missed them dreadfully.
"I was working as a restaurant manager so I was basically only at home for two days a week," she said. "I really missed my dogs and was volunteering as a dog walker in my spare time when I saw a post on Facebook asking for someone who could walk a dog a couple of days a week.
"I thought, ooh I could do that! I really liked the idea of having that contact with a dog at a time when I was working the sort of hours when I couldn't have one of my own."
She said she couldn't believe someone was willing to pay her to do something she loved doing anyway, and then a friend of a friend asked if she was a professional dog walker.
"I said, no not really, I just do it because I miss my dogs!" said Laura.
Within three months she had realised the potential for a business and had given up her job in the restaurant to set up All Shapes and Sizes in Cheadle, Staffordshire.
"I had to do all the health and safety training, get licensed, get public liability insurance – but four years down the line I'm absolutely booming," she said. "Everything in my house revolves around dogs. I've got a dog living room, a dog kitchen, I set up the garden with dog agility stuff, every dog I look after has a care plan and it has gone crazy."
Laura owns two dachshunds, Rolo and Buddy, but says she also has a real soft spot for Labradors.
"They're fantastic," she said. "But then every breed has something that I love about them. I've recently taken a real shine to cockapoos because they have a lot of character but they love their cuddles too."
Some of Laura's visiting dogs are like part of the family, being with her every day while their owners go to work while others visit occasionally, or for overnight stays or weekends.
"They just become part of the family," she said. "And because we don't just keep them at home, we load up the van, take a picnic and go on adventures, some of my clients will ring me and say their dog hasn't been for ages and would like a trip out!"
Amid all the fun and laughter, Laura credits the dogs with saving her mental health.
"In the past I've suffered with depression and with my mental health," she said. "And the dogs have saved me. I only have to look at them doing something idiotic or mischievous or naughty and that is just the best thing – it makes me laugh every time."