Finn is 5.
He’s a hardy 96 pounds and has strawberry blonde hair, specked with white.
He’s a handsome sort, with brown saucers for eyes that serve as an entryway to a soul free of stringency. He’s so relaxed, in fact, he gives the impression remaining vertical is a chore.
His brother, Teddy, is 2.
He’s a little more portly in the face, and, if the mood hits, can dial up the mischief on a dime.
They both love to be outside, play catch and run circles around their sister, Lina, an 8-year-old firecracker who nips at their sinewy legs.
And it’s in these moments Patti Loepke is invariably happiest.
A 59-year-old mother of two grown children, Patti’s maternal streak is now nourished by these three canines.
“Look at them,” she says, while the pooches play in the profuse garden of her Willmar home. “How can you not smile?”
Her joy is indicative of the modern pet owner. There was a time when a pet was seemingly considered little more than a companion. But for many people, their animals have become innate members of the family.
In Patti’s case, she attributes it to a single factor: her dogs love her unconditionally.
“I feel a very deep connection with them,” she says. “They make me happy. And I think most people would say that about their dogs. Or why would you have them?”
Pampered and housed
Across town, a stone’s throw from Kandiyohi, Marie Lingl is up to her ears in work.
She is the owner of Fancy Coats, a pet grooming and boarding business. And business is booming.
“It never stops,” says Marie, a petite woman with thin-rimmed glasses, a bob of grey hair and a playful banter. She seems far younger than her 74 years. Perhaps it’s because she spends her days doing a job she loves.
She uses a delicate touch to trim the fuzzy white hair from the muzzle of Sadie, a Bichon Frise, in a backroom that doubles as a doggie salon. A smile is never far from her face.
Across the corridor is a sprawling glass oasis. It’s fitted with a massive bay window through which natural light bleeds onto a curving jungle gym of plastic piping and rope. It’s where boarded felines bask in the sun and play in those odd little ways only a cat can. The room even has an armchair. It’s occupied.
“Oh, yeah … we pamper ’em,” Marie says with a chuckle.
She says pet owners travel upward of 60 miles to groom or board their pets at Fancy Coats. Her staff -- today four are on duty -- complete between eight and a dozen grooms a day, six days a week. Nearly all those grooms are for repeat clients.
“These animals are part of people’s family,” she says. “We want them nice and clean and groomed for their owners. We want the pets and the owners to feel good.”
Back at Patti’s
It’s time for a treat, and Finn and Teddy know the gig.
They sit like statues at Patti’s feet, their only movements the subtle gliding of their thick tails back and forth across the wooden deck. Lina’s turn will come. Her yipping -- a trait of her Pomeranian personality -- got the better of her for a moment. So, for now, she’s in the house patrolling the kitchen with a hint of that little-doggie-that-could swagger to her step.
As with many golden retrievers, the boys exude magnetism.
It’s a trait Patti adores.
She’s a nurse by trade but has a passion for photography.
Many of her images feature Finn’s and Teddy’s likeness. She presents some of her photos as keepsakes and on thank-you cards. A number of the latter are displayed on the walls at Fancy Coats, where the boys have been groomed and boarded numerous times.
As Patti bends down to give the boys their rewards, her voice morphs into some garbled jargon that sends their tails into fifth gear. They don’t overly indulge in treats, Patti assures. But today, she “just can’t resist.”
“They’re so stinkin’ cute,” she says.
Diet is everything
Dr. Steven Rumsey has seen innumerable changes in animal care since he graduated in 1977 from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. From surgeries to fix ailments that once could have lead to euthanasia, to medications to remedy a myriad of conditions, to the money owners are willing to spend to keep their pets alive, Rumsey says the similarities between treating people and animals are countless.
But few things, he says, have been as integral to an animal’s health and longevity than changes in the food market.
In recent years, more companies have marketed foods free of dyes, corn, wheat gluten and other ingredients that can have the same adverse effects on an animal’s digestive system as that of a human.
“It pretty much begins with diet,” Rumsey says during an interview at South 71 Veterinary Clinic, a business he owns just south of Willmar. “The diet can make a major difference in the length of an animal’s life in the same way it can a person’s. We could be talking years. As an example of the impact of bad food … and I don’t know the exact percentage … but somewhere between 10 and 15 (percent) of all ear infections in dogs can be attributed to the food they digest. So diet is a big thing.”
The food tends to be more expensive -- sometimes double or triple the price of mass-marketed fare -- but pet owners rarely flinch.
“They want to keep their pets healthy,” he says.
Adds Patti: “No grains enter my dogs’ diets.”
A dog’s life
Patti believes dogs possess an unspoken bond.
She sees it when the boys venture to the lake for a swim or “play dates” with other canines at the dog park that opened on Willmar’s southwest side last August.
“In many ways … they are like children,” she says. “For the most part, they just want that interaction.”
And while she admits her dogs are pampered, there are also rules in the home.
The boys sleep downstairs, never in or on the family beds.
And they consume little to no scraps.
But beyond that, it’s a prince’s life.
There’s a moment on this day when Patti bends down to hug Finn.
His tongue shoots from his mouth as if spring-loaded and runs across the length of her flush cheek. Back and forth it goes, as Patti pulls him closer and melts into him.
Teddy spots this from a distance and bounds toward master and sibling, tongue flailing. He slides right into Patti’s embrace, no stranger to the routine.