In Connection to Animals
Pet Product News’ 2017-2018 Holistic Approach Retailer of the Year offers holistic remedies and supplies in a warm, knowledgeable environment.
Pattie Boden, owner of Animal Connection
In 2001, a seven-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever named Ernie received a diagnosis that strikes fear into the hearts of pet owners everywhere: cancer. Upon receiving the news, and unwilling to accept the possible outcome, Ernie’s companion and owner, Pattie Boden, sprang into action, searching for an alternative treatment to traditional chemotherapy. The investigation led Boden, who is now the owner of Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., to a local holistic veterinarian.
“It was suggested we try something more groundbreaking, like feeding raw food and using Chinese herbs,” Boden says. “I said, ‘Great, let’s go for it.’”
During this time, Boden, a former advertising agency owner and avid equestrian, was introduced to the holistic lifestyle through her study of animal communication.
“I was having problems with one horse in particular, so I started working with an animal communicator to resolve those issues, and through her, I started to learn about more holistic methods,” Boden says. “She taught animal communication as well, so I went through beginning to advanced classes and became pretty proficient.”
In 2001, raw foods had not yet entered the landscape of pet retail mainstream offerings, but as Ernie’s tumors began to recede on this diet, Boden felt a strong desire to spread the word and help others. Further, an outlet to introduce holistic nutrition to her community would meld Boden’s marketing expertise with an ever-expanding knowledge of holistic solutions for pets.
Boden took the leap.
“I found a consortium of people that were also interested in raw food, and we’d have 500 pounds of food delivered every other week,” she says. “I was the drop-off point with two freezers in my garage, and that’s how it all started.”
In 2003, Boden hung the Animal Connection shingle on a bona-fide retail space, where Ernie served as a welcoming store presence until his death at age 16.
In decorating the 2,600-square-foot site, Boden was attracted to the ambience of the country stores her grandfather once operated in North Carolina.
“Instead of the traditional racks and peg boards, I wanted a ‘country in the city’ feel,” she says.
To create an aura of harmony, Boden sought the advice of a feng shui consultant.
“There are different colors that can be used for calming or abundance; for instance, golden yellow makes people think, ‘Wow, it’s really nice in here, I think I’ll stay and shop longer,’” she says. “Furniture should have a nice, welcoming flow—you don’t want to greet people with sharp edges.”
Reiki symbols, chosen for positive energy and abundance, were painted on the walls of the store and then covered with the same hue.
“I didn’t want to do a ‘retail-schmetail’ feel, and put a lot of planning into placement and look,” she says. “To this day, I often walk in the front door and stand there to look at it as a customer would.”
Mind, Body, Spirit
Two-legged and four-legged customers alike benefit from Animal Connection’s “mind, body, spirit” approach to nutrition and overall well-being.
“We spend a lot of time talking to the customer about what’s going on with [their pet’s] diet, or skin, coat or ear health, but we also discuss emotional issues that may be occurring with the pet,” she says.
Boden added that dietary issues in dogs or cats can result from stress or a change in the family environment. In these circumstances, herbs or flower essences might be utilized in support of nutritional changes.
“We look at how the dog feels emotionally, and sometimes we end up working with the owners to assist them in figuring out how to help their animal,” Boden says. “This includes training or behavior issues; it all goes together—mind, body, spirit.”
Further, as Boden believes that as little manipulation as possible in the food category will promote animal health, five freezers of raw selections are featured in the store, as well as dehydrated and freeze-dried foods. Dry and canned foods fitting the Animal Connection philosophy are also in the mix.
“We stock product at differing price points, but we try to recommend foods with the highest-quality protein that customers are able to afford,” Boden says. “We ask about their schedule and budget and try to find a food that fits their lifestyle.”
In addition, Boden has studied Chinese Five Element theory with Wendy Volhard.
“Basically, the idea is that we eat different fruits and vegetables at varying times of the year in support of different organs of the body,” Boden says. “This theory works so well that I can almost select raw foods and items for the store based on the upcoming season.”
In the effort to enhance a reputation as the “go-to” animal health experts, education is considered crucial, and both Boden and Animal Connection staff members partake in classes offered by industry leaders, such as Dr. Karen Becker or Rodney Habib, as well as studying on their own.
“We read a lot,” she says. “We have an extensive library of holistic health books.”
Boden says she looks for a self-starter in an employee, but equally important is that staff members are good listeners, problem solvers and willing to go the extra mile to help customers find the right product.
“I want people who are engaging and willing to walk with the customer to the product, put their hands on it and explain why a certain choice is important to consider,” she says. “How else do you stand out?”
Nutritional counseling is offered to pet owners by appointment or “on the fly” at any time.
Besides healthful, USA-sourced foods, an array of homeopathic essential oils, probiotics and supplements are also in the mix.
“We have products that are highly endorsed by holistic veterinarians and that we have used personally as well,” she says. “I am very selective.”
A wide selection of pet supplies, including leashes and collars, apparel, chews, toys and bedding, is also available.
When Boden adds a product to the store’s inventory, a crucial consideration is the ability to call and speak directly with the manufacturer should questions arise.
“We’ve really tried to set the standard that we are the guys who do the research and have the knowledge,” she says. “If we don’t know, we will consult holistic veterinarians, or an animal communicator, or someone capable of making up a homeopathic remedy, just for them. That’s what Animal Connection is all about—our connections.”
The horse community in Charlottesville is vibrant, and equine supplies, along with books, DVDs and gift items, are in the offerings.
“All horse people have dogs, so I try to carry a few equestrian items,” she says. “I am specifically interested in natural horsemanship, follow Buck Brannaman closely and offer some of his materials.”
Behavior counseling is another hallmark of the Animal Connection experience, particularly when animals and their people are facing difficulties. When it comes to animal communication, Boden says the connection can be immediate.
“Sometimes, when the animal walks in the door, they are giving me information,” she says. “I might have to turn it off and not tune in at that point.”
In these cases, Boden might ask for a list of questions and a photo of the pet and spend a quiet evening connecting, later discussing what she’s learned with the pet owner. Emphasizing that she is not a pet psychic but, rather, a communicator, Boden said this ability often allows her to discern the root of a problem.
“If the dog has something emotional going on, maybe he’s not getting along with a litter mate, that’s something that is usually easy to pick up on,” she says. “I am not diagnosing; instead, I am picking up on information an animal might give me, such as ‘When I eat this food, I feel heat in my stomach,’ and it’s pretty simple to say, ‘Maybe we’ll change the protein,’ and we can go from there.”
For the first three years of business, grooming was not amongst the Animal Connection offerings; however, as Boden listened to stories from pet owners having to leave their dogs at a grooming facility for an entire day or of an animal developing a fear of the grooming process, she made the decision to employ a more unique approach.
Dogs are groomed one at a time and hand-dried in a quiet, soothing space.
“We are able to take our time, giving dogs a reason to want to come back,” Boden says. “It’s not your typical grooming salon.”
Calming essential oils are used, and four-legged clients needing a little extra reassurance relax into Boden’s Reiki or Tellington TTouch sessions. Boden might find herself working with the pet owner as well.
“Sometimes the owner will come to me and say they know their dog is going to be afraid of the grooming process,” she says. “In this case, they’ve just told their dog to be afraid, so I might help them shift their energy; it’s surprising how well that works.”
Charlottesville is a rich, diverse community. The Animal Connection tagline, “Bark Local,” is a euphemism that encompasses all residents and pet lovers, including students and professors from the local university, people from the rural farming community, equestrian enthusiasts, and transplants from areas such as Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.
“It’s a real mix of people,” Boden says. “‘Bark Local’ means standing up for change.”
That posture includes support of local rescue and adoption agencies, and Animal Connection’s central fete in that regard is the Dog Fest Howl-O-Ween, held every October. The annual happening features a pet costume contest, photo booth, raffles, games, vendors, healthful treats, pet adoptions and goody bags for furry revelers. New for 2017, human attendees quaffed Big Dog Blond Ale, brewed specifically for the party in collaboration with Three Notch’d Craft Kitchen and Brewery.
“For every pint sold, the brewery donated a dollar, which was divided between rescue groups,” Boden says. “Previously, we held Dog Fest at the local dog park, but it has grown so much we decided to hold it at a park near our downtown area, IX Art Park, which is kind of a local treasure.”
Local rescue organizations on hand for the festivities were joined by other pet-related businesses, including trainers, veterinarians, artists, and boarding and day care groups.
“We provide a really nice venue to meet and greet groups and vendors that people may not have heard about before,” Boden says.
In an effort to stock the pantries of local rescues, the yearly Christmas in July endeavor collaborates with manufacturers to donate food to these entities. In 2017, 4,500 pounds of nutrition was delivered.
Further afield, concerned customers donated funds and goods for 2017 hurricane victims, with Animal Connection matching those contributions.
When it comes time to mingle and romp, the canine crowd converges on the local dog park for Yappy Hour.
“We hold it on a Sunday afternoon, several times a year, and invite local veterinarians, dog trainers and manufacturers,” she says.
Refreshments are provided, and the four-legged set might nosh on an assortment of toothsome treat samples or frolic while toy testing, courtesy of manufacturers.
Barking the Word Out
An active Facebook page shares health tips and keeps customers apprised of goings on. In addition, the Animal Connection website features a blog, penned by Boden, covering a wide array of topics.
Engaging, instructional videos running the gamut of pet-lover interests are also available on the website and social media.
For Boden, it’s all about Barking Local.
“I’m kind of everywhere in Charlottesville,” she says. “I am very social.”
Knowledge, Expertise and Warmth
When Jerry Miller began searching for a pet supply store that would provide nutritious foods and treats for his three German shepherds, Leo, Maximus and Lucy, he tuned in to the Charlottesville grapevine for referrals.“I was looking for knowledge and expertise,” Miller says. “I love my wolf pack dearly and want to extend their life as long as possible.”
In answer to his queries, one name kept surfacing—Pattie Boden and her shop, Animal Connection. Miller decided to see for himself with a visit to the store.
“I just walked in,” he says. “Pattie immediately greeted me with a smile and warmth.”
That meeting lasted close to an hour.
“She made the whole visit about me and my dogs, not about the store or selling products,” he says. “I knew immediately that this business, this all-natural store, would sustain my dogs’ lives as long as possible.”
That approach is echoed by Animal Connection staff members.
“The team legitimately remembers me and my dogs, plus they have the expertise to alleviate issues with food,” Miller says.
“After a trip to Animal Connection, I am not just leaving with products, but with knowledge and education that can be leveraged moving forward to keep my pets happy, healthy and living longer,” he adds.
It's a Retail Life
What is Animal Connection best known for?
Pattie Boden: We are known for our focus on the whole pet lifestyle, as well as our knowledge and unique product line.
The greatest challenge for independent retailers today?
Boden: The internet and the lack of minimum advertised pricing (MAP) standards throughout the industry. We are all begging for MAP, then we have manufacturers wanting a pat on the back for taking their pricing off the online retailers but opening their own page to sell product.
For the pet industry overall?
Boden: A lack of USA-made toys. This might be my biggest challenge when I attend trade shows. My customers ask, “What kind of toys did you find that are USA made?” I’d love to see more good-quality, USA-made toys.
What trends are you watching now?
Boden: I’m learning how to be a millennial. I realize the need to understand how this demographic is shopping. As an old school advertising agency type, I think on paper and I’m all about the brand. Millennials, not so much. They are interested in an online experience that will draw them to the in-store, retail experience.
For the future?
Boden: We will be adding 800 square feet of space, which will include a self-serve dog wash. We are considering building an in-house kitchen for baked goods that will also serve as a test and teaching kitchen. We sell plenty of raw food, but we have people interested in preparing home-cooked products. If we can teach them how to do that correctly, I’m all for it. That’s how we build loyalty.
Animal Connection At a Glance
Location: 1701 Allied Street, Suite E, Charlottesville, VA 22903
Owner: Pattie Boden
Employees: 3 full time, 2 part time
Years in business: 16
Square feet: 2,600
Products and services: Holistic dog and cat food, nutritional consultations, supplements, essential oils, herbal remedies, premium grooming services, animal communication, Reiki, Tellington TTouch, eco-friendly, USA-made toys and supplies