Area businesses that cater to persnickety pet owners are thriving
AYER - They look delectable.
Mini chocolate cupcakes. Cinnamon rolls. Peanut butter cups.
But the baked goods sitting on the counter of the Pooch Barkery in downtown Ayer aren't meant for the human palate.
If you bite into those yogurt-covered, sprinkled pretzels, you'll taste garlic and chicken. The donuts - cheddar and bacon. And those tortes? They're turkey-flavored.
Yuck. To you, maybe.
The bakery with the playful name is just one recent addition in a flourishing market catering to doting pet owners. And the goodies offered here might distract even Pavlov's famously salivating canines.
"When the dogs come in here and have treats, it's special," said pink-apron-clad shop owner Mary Kelly, who spends hours in front of an oven, baking the "sweets."
"It's not every day they get to have a doggie donut."
The Ayer shop joins the Polka Dog Bakery in Boston, Paws & Whiskers in Provincetown (which offers "poochie sushi"), Best Friends Bakery in Gloucester, (which supplies treats up and down the North Shore), Uptown Dog in Falmouth, and a smattering of others. And the boutiques are certainly apropos, given the recent rash of pet food contamination scares - leading to some dead pets and lawsuits - that have prompted more owners to turn to local sources of chow.
Despite the down economy, the overall pet market is fruitful: According to a national survey of pet owners conducted by the American Pet Products Association, moms and dads of spoiled dogs and cats spent $41.2 billion on food, vet care, and various pet supplies and services in 2007. That's expected to increase to an estimated $43.4 billion this year.
Among the indulgences available: faux mink coats for chilly outings, feathered French daybeds, and doggy dancing lessons.
Five-year-old Jack Russell terrier Daisy, for her part, is provided with facials and pedicures; she also roots in a toy box brimming with squeaky delights and plush chewies and enjoys weekends away at Sebago Lake in Maine.
"I don't have any kids - she's my baby," said owner Laura Jean Silva, of Ayer, as Daisy, dressed as a skunk with a white stripe tracing her back as part of a recent parade through downtown Ayer, darted back and forth on a pink leash.
"My husband says I spoil her more than him," she added, laughing.
Cruiser, a black toy poodle, also gets equal treatment in his family: He takes in his human nieces' and nephews' soccer and baseball games and spends plenty of quality time with his homo sapiens grandmother. He has his own car seat, too, and frequently sprawls out on Mom's bed.
"He's just so loving, so adorable," said Diane Fillebrown, of Ayer, hugging the tiny 2-year-old dog to her chest as they faced difficult decisions at the Pooch Barkery. "He offers unconditional love without any attitude - and kisses on demand."
The pair frequents the shop once a week; Cruiser's treats of choice are Grr-Nola bars. And on his birthday, on Sept. 6, he partook of a human tradition: He gobbled a 5-inch cake made of honey, oat, and applesauce and iced with yogurt frosting.
Many others trail their canines - and tote the smaller ones - into the pastry shop, which smells strongly of vanilla. Dogs gaze into the cases, noses sniffing, and drool. There are no cats in sight - even though the shop's website mentions a "Kitty Corner" where one might buy "Lu Lu's Fish & Chips."
Displayed within the cases are a wide array of goods: strawberry and hydrant-shaped cookies, peanut butter snowballs (the number one seller), rawhide chips that resemble Doritos, bone-shaped and tiered cakes, and dog lollipops.
There's also a buffet table tantalizing with biscuits in flavors like blueberry, steak, and carob chocolate chip. Then there's doggy wine of chicken and beef broth, playfully branded Barkundy and Pinot Leasheo.
The bakery offers unique activities, too, such as "yappy hour" every Friday featuring jazz music and schmoozing - usually in the way of curious sniffs.
Most "pastries," meanwhile, are made from rolled oats, puffed rice, carob, organic peanut butter, honey, yogurt, chicken broth, and Parmesan cheese.
And, fittingly, they're baked with care, just like human confections.
"Sometimes I bake 14 hours a day," said 36-year-old Kelly, seated in her shop, festooned with helium pug balloons, bubble-gum-pink walls, and a bone-shaped "Barkery" sign.
Given that, sometimes owners can't tell the difference. Kelly tastes them all; she often likes to nibble on "rice frisky treats." Often, customers will admit to doing the same.
Several years ago, Kelly started out baking bone-shaped dog biscuits for her own pooches; intrigued neighbors began inquiring. Eventually, the enterprise expanded to farmers' markets and a website. Today, the mother of two is the proud owner of a Lhasa apso named Amelia Grace, who is lavishly doted on.
She's hardly unique. Heidi Leger of Ayer, for one, treats her yellow Labrador, Lucy, "like a princess." She sleeps in a crib and often snubs dog food unless it's mixed with meat.
"She lives a good life, that dog," Leger said as she scooped out turkey and sweet potato bones at the shop's buffet table.
Then there's Gilbert, a 2-year-old dachshund. He goes to doggy day care, sleeps in a queen-sized bed. And "whatever I eat, he's gotta have some" said his owner, Mike Coulter of Ayer. That often means steak, pizza crusts, hamburgers, and carrots.
The pampered pooch recently sported a lobster costume in Ayer's doggy parade.
"You have to treat him like a child," said Gilbert's other affectionate parent, Ginger Cummings, describing the auburn-furred canine, tugging at a leash, as friendly and well behaved with kids. "You have to show them they're loved."
She leaned down, gave the dog a loving pat. "We wouldn't trade him for anything."
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.