While people across town head out to be with family for the holidays, Kellie Owens assures them: Their precious pets are in good hands.
Since starting Homeward Bound In-Home Pet Care Services last fall, Owens has built a clientele of some 400 local households who call on her and her staff of six “pet nannies” to check in on their dogs as often as four times a day.
It’s a niche Owens spotted after working at a local veterinary office and kennel, realizing that even the best kept kennel didn’t provide the kind of care and interaction she’d want for her own beloved dogs.
Her service has since expanded from a one-woman enterprise, and now also includes professional groomer Angie Russell, with a mobile-grooming unit in the works.
Clients range from people taking trips of a week or more, to pet owners who can’t get home at lunchtime to let their dogs out. People calling on her to let their dogs out while they were tailgating in the Grove accounted for as many as 80 visits a day on Ole Miss home football game days this year.
In addition to pet care, Owens’ staff also takes care of things like bringing in the mail, watering houseplants and generally checking on a house for people who are out of town.
Owens’ entry into the field of animal care came naturally, through her own love of animals and by working for the nonprofit Canine Assistants Inc. dog-service training organization in her hometown of Atlanta. She and her husband, Charles, an Oxford native, settled here in 2005.
The Oxford EAGLE visited with Owens, 40, at home with her two dogs: Wetzel, a 9-year-old golden retriever; and Layla, a 3-year-old Springer spaniel.
So what will your holidays be like?
“We’ll be busy, but that’s just kind of the nature of it. I don’t mind working a little bit, and everybody sort of feels that way. It’s worth it for all the other times we get to spend with the dogs, and I’m kind of nurturing as it is. I don’t mind doing a little bit, and if everybody does a little bit, then it gets done.”
How did your business get started?
“I was a general manager of a vet hospital here, and we opened a kennel — and I never brought my own dogs. It wasn’t because I don’t think the kennel environment is safe. I’m so picky, I know it was safe. There wasn’t anything more you could do. But you could just never get around the loud environment, the lack of human interaction, and the very limited ability to use the bathroom. I would drive my dogs all the way from Atlanta to be with my parents every time we traveled, and fly from Atlanta and drive back.
“And I’ve always cared for other people’s dogs over the years. People always seem to ask me — I’m serious — just so many friends would drop their dogs off, and we’re happy to take care of them. But I just figured, if someone like me was doing that, there were plenty of other people.”
How did you connect with people here?
“The pet parents I met here in town really seem to be the same kind of pet parent that I am, which is like, your dogs are everything and they’re family. It’s not like that everywhere, but this is a real pet-friendly town, to me. That’s kind of how I got the idea for it. I spent some time doing research on what type of services were here. I just mulled on it and went for it.
“And it’s been 14 months, and we have close to 400 clients. It’s been great, and I knew it would be like that. I think people thought I was crazy — ‘What, you’re going to have a pet-sitting service?’ ‘Yeah, there’s nothing like that here.’”
Tell me about the range of dogs you serve.
“Honestly, it’s a lot of little guys. A lot of leg-scramblers, I call them — Yorkies and Maltese, a lot of Westies. I actually have a good many clients that have Springer spaniels, which I love. A lot of labs, a lot of goldens.”
What’s the nannies’ relationship with them like?
“All of them love the nannies so much. It’s the coolest thing, because if you go in for the first time, the dog is a little like, ‘Who is this person and what are you doing in my house?’ But if you go in the second time, it’s like this recognition: ‘This person was here before and we played ball and they gave me treats and loved on me.’
“And I always believe, they think the person is here to see them. You know how psyched a dog gets when you come in, right? And then they figure out, ‘Oh, they’re here for the human.’ Because we’re talking, and the dog goes and lays down.
“That’s not what it’s like when the pet nanny comes, because it’s like, ‘They’re here for me! Woo-hoo! Party time!’ I’m not kidding. They’re like, ‘My friend is here!’ They want your undivided attention, so we give it to them.”
What about the families?
“We do a promotion every month that’s called ‘Pet Family of the Month.’ That’s been really fun, although I’m a little bit of a procrastinator when it comes to writing the articles. But it’s cool because we go into people’s houses every single day, but you don’t really know the person. So we sit down and chat with them and find out things. Like, for example, this month, the people are from Roswell, New Mexico, and they grew up right when all the UFO stuff was happening.
“But, you know, you just learn about a lot of sadness, too. Some of the articles, I had no idea what the people were going through. So it’s nice to have those conversations and get to know them a little more — especially because we’re in their home so much. Like finding out what their dogs mean to their healing process. It’s been kind of humbling in a way. You don’t realize what people are going through.”
What are some ways that pets become family?
“Well, we have a lot of retired folks, and that tends to be our client base — which I love, because I find those are the great pet owners. The people who have had kids and now have an empty nest, they love them. They dote on them. And sometimes they’re super-spoiled, which makes them naughty. But most of the time they’re just big bundles of love. That’s what they give and that’s what they get back.”