Paw prints outpaced footsteps in the snowy approach to the Vermont Dog Club earlier this month.
Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” was softly playing as Scout, a 9-month old chocolate Lab, raced with resident pooch Cassie in hot pursuit.
Whitney Doremus, an Essex Jct. native who’s been teaching canines and their humans for over 20 years now, said since opening last November, the club has grown to about 65 members.
“Our dogs are our members,” she clarified.
Thus, for a monthly membership fee of $75, they receive perks like unlimited human companions and free reign of the facility, which includes an indoor retrieve room, a fenced-in outdoor area and a slew of training toys.
Some dog owners even use the facility as their personal gym, Doremus said: 15 minutes on the doggie treadmill, some balance ball routines and a quick fetch session help work off those holiday pounds. Afterward, pups can kick back in an entertainment nook with a television, couch and books.
Though canines have been a lifelong passion for Doremus, she started on the business side during a gig at PetSmart. After learning her register skills weren’t up to par, the store suggested she teach classes.
Two decades later, she has her own club. Her offerings span from puppy preschool to more advanced work: “Just everything that covers what it means to live with a pet dog,” she said. Classes are $150 and include a two-month membership.
Doremus said the classes are for everyone, believing a lot of miscommunication between dogs and their humans can be remedied with some teaching.
“Once you learn about how a dog thinks, it really changes your relationship with your dog. So we talk a lot about how dogs perceive the world and how they’re understanding you,” she said.
She’s even had some owners take the same classes repeatedly just to stay up on their training. Plus, humans make friends at the club, too, she said.
But classes also greatly benefit the members. Doremus pointed to studies that show dogs who play with their peers often live longer.
“Just imagine being very secluded from humans — if you only knew five or six, that’s it. That’s not enough,” she said. “So the more a dog can be around a lot of other dogs, the more social and confident they become. That’s a wonderful thing. Aggression is due to fear, and fear is due to lack of socialization, and not just to dogs, but to the whole world.”
Of course, Vermont Dog Club isn’t the only place to meet other canines locally. Doremus said she’s a big proponent of outdoor time and said places like the Essex dog park are great for this.
There’s one downside to dog parks, however: “You just never know who’s there,” she said.
Some owners don’t understand dog body language because they’ve never learned before. But the club has staff that facilitates safe interaction, and Doremus is working to cultivate different playgroups to match similar dogs, because just like humans, dogs don’t love every peer they meet, she said.
“If a dog is very fearful, we can hook them up with another dog that might help bring them out of their shell,” she said. She even tries to link dog owners who hit it off so they can set up further playdates.
“We’re calling it right now Match-dot-dog,” Doremus said, smiling.
As she spoke, Essex Jct. resident Jamie Thabault watched her dog, Scout, take in the club for the first time. They’d stopped in for the club’s Friday Tryday, where non-members can swing by for a $10 fee — a $5 savings from the regular drop-in rate.
Thabault said she and Scout are avid hikers and are often out and about.
“But a lot of times it’s just us,” she said. “So having a place that there’s a high possibility there will be another dog to play with is good for her.”
Scout is also still in training, so access to classes right down the road is helpful, she said.
Doremus hopes the club can be a one-stop-shop for Essex owners like Thabault looking to learn with their dogs.
That will require getting the word out. Doremus has already rolled out a number of events, like the Puppy Bowl preceding the Super Bowl earlier this month and the occasional movie night, to help engage the dog community. She even hopes to host some classes around Essex this summer, she said.
After looking ahead, Doremus took a moment to reflect on just what it is about dogs that makes her work so meaningful.
“It’s their honesty,” she said. “It’s who they are. They live in the moment, all the time.
“Look at them,” she continued and Scout and Cassie tumbled around, tails wagging. “They bring a smile to everyone’s face. We love having them as family members. Everybody does.”