Jamie Barber’s dogs, Indy and Carter, were high on her list of wedding invites, but she had a dilemma.
"I have two dogs, one of which has some behavioural concerns," says the certified dog trainer and owner of Winnipeg’s Candor Canine Co. "And you don’t want to put a friend or family member on dog duty, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m sure somebody out there offers this service.’"
To her surprise, search results for "dog wedding date" came up empty. An entrepreneur with several dog-adjacent businesses — including a shop that sells second-hand pet gear and a canine-centric podcast — Barber decided to take matters into her own hands. Enter Bark, a first-of-its-kind wedding service designed to give couples and their dearly beloved pets peace of mind.
"I wanted to give pet owners a way to have their dog there as part of the big day, but also in a way that focuses on the dog’s emotional well-being," Barber, 27, says. "Because it can be pretty scary for dogs — it’s a lot of people, it’s loud, there’s so much going on."
Bark’s base package starts at $250 and includes two private walks prior to the ceremony to get the dog used to their date, transportation to and from the venue, photo-posing assistance and a post-ceremony decompression walk. Clients can also add on a second human to care for multiple dogs, canine wedding wear to match their decor, an overnight stay at an associated boarding facility and an engagement shoot package. Companions are available for out-of-town weddings at an extra cost.
The business seems to have struck a chord locally. Weeks after launching, Bark is already booked solid until 2022.
"I’m blown away by how much response there has been," Barber says, adding that the warm reception is likely part of a bigger trend. "There’s definitely been a big increase in the amount of things we do with our dogs, like bringing them to patios and taking them on trips with us… there’s been a bit of a shift when it comes to having your dogs at those big special events."
Like many engaged folks, Barber’s own wedding was postponed this summer owing to the pandemic, "Actually, we were supposed to get married last weekend," she says with a laugh.
The pause in wedding planning and dog-training sessions has created opportunities to expand her business beyond Candor Canine, which she started in 2017.
Barber has always loved animals. Becoming a veterinarian seemed like an obvious path, but after a stint working as a vet assistant she realized the "hard parts" of the job weren’t for her. She discovered a passion for dog behaviour while teaching obedience classes at the Winnipeg Humane Society and threw herself into dog training after adopting Carter — an American bulldog mix with a bad case of fear-based aggression.
Her experiences at home with Carter and Indy — a Shetland sheepdog with a tendency for herding anything and anyone — inspired her to work with other other anxious, reactive and generally quirky pups. Separation anxiety has also become a hot topic amid the pandemic.
Candor Canine specializes in fear-free training, where treats and positive reinforcement are used instead of punishment.
"I don’t use any sort of punitive techniques with my dogs or my clients dogs," she says. "Rather than… waiting for them to make the wrong choice and correcting it, we show them what choice we would like them to make and then we reinforce those behaviours."
The pandemic put a halt to in-home and group training sessions and Barber used her newfound free time to expand her empire. Beyond Bark, she now runs Doggone Thrifted, an online consignment store for gently used pet gear and vintage home goods, and is co-host of I Let The Dogs Out, a podcast about dog training, behaviour and care (though they’ve released the occasional episode about cats).
The sky seems to be the limit for Barber’s business ideas, but dogs are what keeps her grounded.
"My soul is fuelled by canine behaviour and working with dogs who are having a hard time," she says. "My main focus will always be on that."
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.