By Jeff Tribe
Kelli Rettie’s “win” comes with a client message indicating they’ve found something of her passion for dogs through one of her animals.
“I love that,” said the Oxford County-based breeder and high-end boarding operator, whose own journey with Australian Shepherds has been healing as well as instructive. “I’ve been able to provide my clients with something of what I get out of my dogs.”
A rich dairy tradition stretching back to foundational Holstein breeders James and Alex Rettie (Rettie Brothers) emerged three generations later with Kelli. Her grandfather, Murray, was not a livestock person. However, he was great with dogs remembers Rettie, saying dogs listened to and followed him. “He was a pack leader.”
Kelli’s cash-cropping father, John, likes animals says Rettie’s partner, Jesse VanNoord, “but he’s a ‘wrench’ — a tractor guy,” he explained. Rettie liked hanging around her dad on the farm but quickly realized machinery was not her forte.
“If it has fuel and oil and doesn’t start - I’m out,” laughs Rettie. She did, however, find comfortable space inside a nearby dairy barn at the age of 17. Fourteen years later, she occupies a managerial human resources role in a second-generation, 500-plus cow milking operation featuring seven full-time employees and four to five part-time staffers. Rettie is also responsible for calf feeding, nurturing and “doctoring”.
What has developed into a time-consuming side-hustle began with the purchase of her first “Aussie” Red at the age of 21, a therapeutic addition intended to help Rettie deal with the sudden loss of her brother. Another Australian Shepherd named Bow followed and Addison arrived two years later and is still a member of a growing crew.
Rettie bred Addison two years after that, and although the decision was fraught with emotional baggage, she sold the puppies. “I cried and cried and cried,” she recalls, “and kept one.” That was Ruby.
Ruby remains her “best friend” to this day and apart from the angst of sending what amounts to canine family members down the road, Rettie had discovered a new passion leading to the birth of K&L Aussies (@kandlaussies, also on Facebook and Instagram).
“It was a lot more work than I anticipated, but I really enjoyed doing it.”
No one involved in dairy farming has spare time to burn, but Rettie embraced the new challenge dog breeding and care demanded. Several years and three generations of endeavour have reinforced her dairy-based respect for the crucial importance of research and care in genetics selection.
“You really need to watch your genetics,” Rettie says. “You need to watch your health and temperament to make sure you are providing healthy, quality pups.”
She also made the time and energy-consuming decision to focus on a balanced, raw-fed diet, her first building block to optimal health. “We are very passionate about this,” says Rettie. “I want healthy dogs so I start with nutrition.”
Her feed bill is “absurd”, and it’s certainly not the easy choice compared to prepared dog food options, says VanNoord. “And it would be one-eighth of the time.”
All pups are vaccinated, however Rettie emphasizes a natural approach to care. Animals are tested for antibody presence to indicate when boosters are required, rather than simply following a blanket schedule. She also incorporates a holistic approach to, for example, flea and tick preventative measures. “It’s the same as humans - what you put in your body is what you’re going to get.”
Dogs are housed within a heated board-and-batten structure, enjoying supervised individual or group exercise areas in appropriate weather. Rettie says she has been fortunate to have litters generally ranging between eight and 12 pups, “but that can vary.”
Puppies are raised “in home”, a term meaning intimate, personalized care. Essentially, it means in the house.
An eight-week-old Aussie pup without training sells for $2,500, says Rettie, emphasizing the wide disparity between gross and net income. Feeding raw food is expensive. Housing and animal-based inputs are also significant, with stud fees running between $2,000 to $2,500, and many studs — she prefers to own her own — costing between $5,000 and $10,000.
Rettie has expanded her pack to include Aussiedoodles, a cross between Australian Shepherds and Poodles which is valued for low-shedding characteristic. She also breeds mini Aussies, also known as Miniature American Shepherds. The latter additions are admit-tedly not appreciated in some quarters, a “purebreds are the best” mentality VanNoord says is shared among some breeders of show horses, cattle and dogs.
Rettie is “really picky” about her clients, beginning the process with a questionnaire, followed up with meetings. She prefers face-to-face meetings but COVID-19 protocols have driven these into the virtual realm. Aussies were bred to be working dogs and require mental stimulation, says Rettie. In all honesty, these energetic dogs are simply not for everyone. She remains in close contact with a majority of her clients and is always available should questions or an issue arise. In worst-case situations, she will always take a dog back which is a far superior option than having one of her dogs end up in a shelter.
“I don’t care the reason and there is no judgement,” she says.
Catfish Creek K9 Boarding (@catfishcreekk9 and also on Facebook and Instagram) is an additional side business to the side hustle, a limited-capacity facility offering an elevated experience for a maximum of five four-legged clients, either for boarding or doggy daycare.
“To make it more of a vacation each dog gets more individual care and more individual time,” Rettie explained. “We treat the dogs like one of ours.”
Three packages are available beginning with the Basic Pawty, on up through Happy Doggo to Kings and Queens, whose participants enjoy complimentary spa days and reside in the house.
Pickups and drop-offs are available for the Basic Pawty which features individualized 20-foot-by-20 foot housing, a minimum one hour daily of individual walking per dog, 30 minutes of individual activity such as ball fetching or agility, and minimum three hours of outside group play in a large, fenced, grassed area for friendly, socialized dogs. “If they play nice, they get a lot longer.”
Optional add-ons include a spa treatment (bath, brushing, tidying and cleaning), a full groom, or extra individual time, walking or playing. “I want the dogs to have a fun time, to want to come.”
The overall operation involves Rettie, VanNoord and family friend McKayla Gee, whose commitment extends well beyond that of an employee. “I personally get paid about $1.50 an hour,” Rettie laughed. “She does not,” indicating Gee, or she wouldn’t be here.
“Do I make money — of course! I wouldn’t be doing this for free. But there are a lot of hidden costs people don’t understand … especially time.” Not having enough hours in a day is the biggest challenge Rettie and VanNoord face as a result of the associated canine business ventures.
“Unfortunately, he’s on the back burner,” she says, nodding physically at VanNoord and metaphorically at the importance of self care. “I have no personal time. All my dogs are fed and exercised and healthy and happy, but I can’t remember the last time I put makeup on. We’re having to learn how to have a healthier balance of personal time and hobbies and work.”
But while Rettie’s Aussies undeniably take, they have also given her much more in return. “They’ve helped me, I guess,” she says, in conclusion. “There’s nobody happier to see you than a dog, you could be gone for two minutes and they’re ecstatic to see you once again. They never judge and there is unconditional love.” ◊