In an age where taking pets to work is growing in popularity, Niagara-on-the-Lake business owners are joining the trend.
Dogs are greeting customers and adding a welcoming atmosphere, and cats are drawing attention and helping to humanize the work environment, say Virgil business owners.
Perhaps the most famous is Thomas, whose home was the Pet Valu Store for five years, until his health deteriorated from cancer. Having him humanely euthanized, as difficult as it was, seemed the best option, said store owner Carol Thibault. She was devastated by the loss of the popular feline, who had become a beloved member of the community. She is still grieving, she said, but she welcomed the opportunity to talk about Thomas, a very special cat, to The Local, and to explain what she sees as the value of business owners including pets in their establishments.
Thomas, she said, “was the soul of our business. I still miss him very much.”
When customers came into the store, “he would run up and greet them, welcome them. He made them feel good, feel important. He’d follow them around the store, waiting to be petted. Even most of the dog people loved him. Some of them told us he seemed more like a dog. He definitely had dog-like qualities.”
People often came in to the store just for a visit with Thomas, she said.
“He created that job for himself, made himself indispensable. It takes a certain kind of personality to do what he did. He had been a cat who went outside, but in his time with us, he showed no interest in going out.”
When Thibault decided to keep him at the store, part of her reasoning was based on FIV, a feline immune system disease Thomas had picked up during his time outdoors, in a scuffle with another cat. It’s contagious between felines, she said, so she didn’t feel she could have him adopted and possibly pass on the disease to another pet.
But he was pretty healthy for most of the five years he lived in the store, until he began slowly going downhill, showing signs of cancer. Then suddenly he declined very quickly, she said.
Looking back on his popularity, Thibault said, he was the perfect cat to have at the store — he was social, confident and loved attention.
Animals, she said, “are the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who we are, whether we’re rich or poor, to an animal, we’re all on the same level. That brings people together, gives them something in common. I see that in my store every day, with all my customers. We all love animals. And animals love back unconditionally.”
Pets make people feel better about themselves, she said. “They’re a stress-reliever. They bring our blood pressure down. We might be having a bad day, but we take a minute to pet an animal, and bad things are suddenly better. We forget what was bothering us — whatever it was isn’t important for those few minutes.”
At the moment, Thibault said, she’s not ready to replace Thomas — not that any pet could — but she believes the right animal will come along at the right time, one that is social and can take on the job of welcoming people. When that happens, she will embrace having another pet at the store.
“As long as it’s the right animal, there are so many benefits for staff and customers,” she said. “Bringing a pet into a business environment allows us to redirect our energy in such a positive way.”
Although Thomas found a permanent home at Pet Valu initially because of his disease, social skills and welcoming ways, other businesses have taken on cats as mousers, and then found their way into the hearts of business owners and the public.
Cinder is one of them.
She became part of the Benjamin Moore family about a year ago, when Creek Road Paints was in its former location across from the town hall, said Hannah Siemens, an interior decorator at the store.
They picked her out at the humane society, hoping she’d be a good mouser — there’s a treed area and ravine behind the building, and rodents were a problem. “She maybe caught one mouse the whole time we were there. She’s not a hunter,” said Siemens.
It turned out she prefers sleeping to catching mice, so fortunately, when the business recently moved to the building beside Bricks & Barley on the other side of Creek Road, mice were no longer a problem. She had enjoyed going out on adventures in the ravine, but snuggled quickly into her new home and routine, and isn’t terribly interested in going out.
At her current location, “she likes to sleep on the top of the chair,” said Siemens, pointing to Cinder stretched out along its back, where the sleek grey feline is often unnoticed by customers, unless they choose to sit. She’s a little stand-offish, like many cats, but will sit still for a short time and allow people to pet her.
“She’s part of the family now. We love having her here. Everybody knew Thomas at Pet Valu. People are getting to know Cinder.”
Next door to Pet Valu on Niagara Stone Road is Textures Hair Salon, which boasts a small sign in the window that usually reads “Charlie is in.”
When salon owner Jaime Chevalier is working, Charlie is almost always with her — his days off are her days off.
At three and a half years old, the French bull dog has been going to work five days a week with Chevalier since he was eight weeks old.
She chose him from a breeder knowing that was her intention. Christmas was approaching when she made the decision to bring another dog into her life — she had recently lost a faithful and loving Labrador retriever — and her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, a battle she fought and lost.
“I didn’t want it to be the Christmas of sadness, so instead it became the Christmas of Charlie. He is my constant companion. It’s just me and Charlie.”
Clients at the salon have come to expect his presence, and when he was a puppy, “everyone wanted him on their lap,” said Chevalier.
“Some of them still do. He knows which clients to go to.”
There are a few people who come to the salon who are not dog-lovers, she said, “and he just looks at them with his sad eyes. There have been a few clients who don’t particularly like dogs but who love him. But if someone doesn’t like him, he doesn’t bother them. He’ll just go to his bed if you tell him to. And he settles down really quickly.”
He’s not much of a barker, said Chevalier, unless someone walks by the salon on their way to Pet Valu with a dog. Then he gives a few brief barks and waits, on high alert, for the return of the dog, before settling down again.
He doesn’t require much exercise — he’s usually exhausted after a day at work, said Chevalier — and if he needs to go out, he’ll go to the door and let her know to take him to a little patch of grass behind the Virgil plaza.
“He’s pretty well-behaved, and I guess I bring him here because I can. If I’m going somewhere after work, I can usually take him with me.”
Sometimes people stop by just to see him, she said, often bringing a treat — which is why she has a sign in the door announcing when he’s in.
Patti Rempel, who greets Textures clients at the door, said there is “a different energy when he’s not here. He’s a small dog, but somehow he fills the space in a really positive way when he’s trotting about. I hear the change in clients’ voices when they see Charlie here.”
Chevalier’s Charlie isn’t the only one in Virgil — across the street, Tonie Mori has been taking her Charlie to work at Mori Gardens for the last 14 years, since he, too, was a puppy, “every day I’m here. That’s pretty much every day.”
Although there is lots of space for him to roam, Mori prefers to keep him close by, to ensure he doesn’t get out into the parking lot. He has a regular routine, she says — on arrival, he will bark for something to eat, although he’s already been fed at home. They go for a walk, he says hi to everyone at the garden centre, and then, tired from his morning exercise, he climbs into his basket for a nap.
“I’ve been at a lot of businesses that have pets. I think it’s a good idea. It mellows people, calms them down. And they make the businesses seem cozy, more homey. It makes for a relaxing atmosphere.”
Having Charlie at work is good for Mori as well. Keeping him close by means she doesn’t have to worry about him, or rush home to feed him or let him out.
“This is my second home,” she says of the garden centre. “Sometimes it feels like my first home. And it’s the same for Charlie.”
Regal Florist & Garden Centre has a cat and a dog on the premises, which allow for lots of nooks and crannies for each to cat-nap or watch the comings and goings of staff and customers.
Eight-year-old Keshaka, a German Shepherd, is a family pet who will lie in the front window by the door to the garden centre and “keep her eye on things,” says Jolanda Broekema, a retail associate at Regal. Keshaka treats the greenhouse as an extension of her home, especially when the Regal owners’ kids are present. “She’s protective of the family, like most dogs.”
Carly, the Regal cat, is also eight, and likes nothing better than to curl up in one of her many hiding spots to snooze. She follows people around and doesn’t mind being petted, but dislikes being picked up and will squirm to get away. She too came to the greenhouse as a mouser — cats are pretty common in that environment, where they seem to thrive with the warmth and a regular supply of vermin to catch.
Arlo is a temporary visitor at the moment. Staff member Brian Stanford is in the midst of training his puppy, a rescue dog. “He will be coming to work with his dad soon,” said Broekema.
She looks forward to the time when he will join Carly and Keshaka, believing pets add to the already-welcoming environment of the family-owned local garden centre. Each has a role to play — enjoying the attention of visitors and returning it, adding to the pleasurable experience of those who come to shop.
At Regal, they are often joined by other pets who are brought along for the shopping trip by their owners, who know their four-legged family members will be warmly welcomed.
“We love when pets come shopping at Regal,” said Broekema, who keeps a digital photo album of all who come to visit.
Steve Irwin, owner of a new bicycle tour company in Virgil, has recently brought Viva into his home and business. The young golden retriever started life on a horse farm, so the small storefront operation in Virgil has been an adjustment for her, but she and Irwin have become inseparable.
She boosts his morale, as only an adoring dog can do, and charms visitors to Vino Vello looking for bikes and a tour guide, as well as locals dropping by with a bike needing repair. Either way, they leave with spirits boosted by an encounter with Viva, said Irwin.
His front door is only a sidewalk-width away from busy Niagara Stone Road, and he lives in terror of her venturing into traffic, but he’s very careful and as confident as he can be about her safety. “She’s unusually bright, and when the door opens, she doesn’t get up and bolt. When she does go outside, she doesn’t go near the road.”
He also worries a little about her trusting nature. “She’s never been around a nasty human. She thinks all humans are wonderful. She is curious about them, and will wander a little ways down the street to say hello. I am a little worried her desire to bond with humans might take her further.”
Irwin said Viva is a doctor’s prescription for some of his emotional turmoil. He returned to NOTL about six years ago, after leaving in 1987 at the age of 25. A chemistry degree had taken him into the corporate world, and “it was never on my life list to come back,” he said, but a difficult divorce left him shell-shocked and looking for a new path through life. A post-traumatic stress diagnosis came with a recommendation from his doctor to get a dog. “Viva replaces an enormous amount of the emotional life I was missing,” he said.
His two teenaged boys, one in university and the other in high school, love to come to visit, and Viva is part of the attraction. “They never had a dog growing up. They think of her as their pet, and when they’re here, she is. She’s so good for all of us — I realize now I should have done this a long time ago. I haven’t had a pet in my life since I was 15 years old.”
In the small shop, crowded with bikes, nobody gets away without a little cuddle from Viva who rubs with pleasure against the legs of visitors. She’s still a bit uneasy around young children, said Irwin — she hasn’t had a lot of exposure to kids — but she understands about 200 words, and with him often repeating phrases that include “gentle” and “friendly,” she’s learning.
Her love of Irwin is evident, and just what he needs. Like other business owners with pets, during the long work days and when they’re over, he never needs to feel alone.