WHEN Carl Shepherdson opened a pet boutique selling healthy popcorn, gluten-free biscuits and herbal tea for dogs in Stockton, his friends thought he was the one who was barking. Several months down the line, it has proved such a success; he’s opened a new shop and even had orders from abroad.
Demand for peanut butter Pupcakes and healthy helpings of Waghetti Bolognese has never been greater and the shop has become a mecca for health-conscious mutts across the region.
Specialising in nutritious food and treats as well as accessories, Wags & Whiskers stocks everything from personalised collars and K9 Cologne to Oatmeal Paw Butter to soothe and relieve cracked paws. There is a fashion range for all weather featuring Alpine knit jumpers, cooling coats, “city” coats and fur-trimmed parkas. And for those with mobility problems or have had enough of walking, there is the ultimate pet stroller.
Carl, 25, came up with the idea after struggling to find healthy treats for his Yorkshire terrier, Maggie, who has become a firm fixture in the shop. “I struggled to get nice things so I always bought online and felt there was a gap in the market,” he says.
He hired a unit in Stockton Enterprise Arcade which offers entrepreneurs a chance to trial new ventures and within seven months he had moved out and opened a shop near The Arc on Dovecot Street.
Nearly all the food at Wags & Whiskers is organic and all the treats are grain and gluten-free, made with human grade ingredients. “There is no rubbish in them and a lot of the products such as the cakes and brownies are hand-made in the UK,” he says.
“Everyone said it wouldn’t work in Stockton, but it’s done really well because there is nothing else like it in the area.”
Carl has had customers from Sunderland, Newcastle and Darlington and says people are now starting to question what has actually gone into their pet’s food, particularly since the Channel 5 documentary The Truth About Your Dog’s Food aired earlier this year. “I’ve noticed a big difference in what people are buying since that show, a lot of people have started thinking about what they are feeding their pets,” he says. “Some people come in because their dogs are fussy or have bowel problems or bad skin and obviously a lot of that is down to what the owners are feeding them. Often, it’s not because they don’t care about their dogs, it’s because they don’t know what goes into the food.”
The shop stocks a variety of brands from Billy & Margot Honey and Banana dog biscuits to Alpha & Ruby’s Peanut Butter Pupcakes. Fellow dog lover and founder of Alpha & Ruby, Fatima Maktari, came up with the idea of the Pupcakes and Waghetti Bolognese after trying to find healthier alternatives for her own black Labrador, Alpha. With a background in food science and Masters in Chemistry from Oxford, she began to research the nutritional needs of dogs and started experimenting by making organic dog biscuits in her kitchen. Two years ago, she quit her high-flying job in finance and launched her own company selling gourmet dog food. Fatima also believes there has been a shift in attitudes, but still feels there is a long way to go.
Wags & Whiskers also sells healthy treats such as dairy-free ice cream (which Carl has tasted) made from pure raw fruit and vegetable puree, aloe vera juice and flaxseed oil. Another big-seller is Dog Popcorn (airpopped, low in fat and seasoned with Atlantic seaweed).
Along with dental mints to prevent any whiff of dog breath, the shop stocks a premium range of herbal teas to aid digestion and give dogs a healthy shiny coat. The teas by UK brand Woof & Brew also does a blend called Ha-Pee Lawns designed to reduce the problem of burn patches left when dogs relieve themselves on the lawn.
“That’s very popular,” says Carl.
While the average spend is 30 to 40, plenty of owners are happy to splash out with one customer spending 240 in one visit. The most expensive accessory is the pet stroller (199) which proved a lifeline for one elderly lady who needed transport to get her cat to the vet.
“They are actually designed for dogs with mobility problems and are a real talking point,” says Carl.
Another talking point is the CCTV pet monitor which allows owners to communicate with their dog while they’re out at work or shopping. It works via an app on a mobile phone and enables owners to see their dog and talk to it and make sure it’s not chewing the carpet. Carl says it’s perfect for dogs with anxiety problems.
Although the shop sells shampoo, sprays and scratching posts for cats, Carl has no plans to branch out further and has enough on his plate managing all the dogs that come in. Customers are actively encouraged to bring in their pets and the shop had more than 80 dog visitors in the first week of opening – most of whom have their photo taken and appear on the shop’s Facebook site.
“I’ve had dogs helping themselves to toys in the basket and then their owners having to buy them because the dog has picked something out. There is a lot of barking, but no fights,” he says.
Among the regulars is a Dachshund called Elvis, who has become something of a local Stockton celebrity since his photo appeared on Facebook. “The owners keep getting stopped in the street with people shouting, There’s Elvis!,” says Carl.
Wags & Whiskers, 26 Dovecot Street, Stockton For further info, visit wagsandwhiskerspetboutique.co.uk or facebook.com/ wagsandwhiskerspetboutique