ST. PETER-BASED DOG KENNEL OWNERS RUN TO KEEP UP WITH BUSINESS.
Photo by Kris Kathmann
It’s 5 a.m.
Pam and Roger Barnlund are up and ready for the first walk of the day. They wake the dogs—today there are only 12, but there could be up to 30—and start out with one on each of their arms. It takes an hour to give all of them a brisk morning romp.
By the end of the day, the Barnlunds will have logged another four or five hours of walking with their dogs—two of their own, the rest boarders of Heartlund Kennels, their almost ten-year-old business dedicated to the tender loving care of area canines.
And although all that exercise is of course good for the dogs, it’s been of great benefit to the Barnlunds as well.
“Our blood pressures have gone down and we’ve lost weight,” Roger Barnlund reports. “For a while there, we were a little worried—we couldn’t eat enough to keep up.”
Tending the kennel is tough work. Every day starts early and doesn’t end until well after dinnertime when the dogs get their final walk of the day. In between there are feedings, careful cleanings of the individual kennels and routine grounds maintenance. There are phone calls to answer and paperwork to complete. And always, there are pooches to pet, which the Barnlunds make a point of doing several times a day. “If you don’t have time to scratch the dogs behind the ears every now and then,” Roger says, “then you’re in the wrong business.”
The Barnlunds are in the right business. “Pam and Roger are very caring,” says Bob Jackson, who has been bringing B.J., a shih tzu/poodle mix, to Heartlund Kennels since it opened in 1996. “They’re totally serious about their business and do the best job they possibly can. I think B.J. gets better treatment there than he does at home.”
Like many clients, the Jackson call the Barnlunds as soon as they have started making vacation plans. “As soon as we know what we’re doing, we call out there and talk to Pam,”
Jackson says. “We wouldn’t take B.J. any other place. I really think it’s by far the best kennel around.”
Heartlund Kennels began as a part-time project for Pam Barnlund, a former hair stylist. After 25 years in the salon, she started having reactions to the chemicals in the colors and perms she handled every day. She needed a change, so she asked her husband to help her find something new to do.
“Basically, we both just threw it up in the air,” Roger says. “We both love pets, and especially dogs, and we thought that a kennel was a need in the area.”
It helped that they had an empty barn, originally built for the horses they hoped to someday have on their 10-acre property. Roger recruited a friend to help him put the runs together while Pam started reading books and touring other kennels. She knew from experience what she didn’t want, and started creating a vision of what she did. “I knew that we could keep it cleaner, happier and quieter the way I wanted to do it,” she says. “Walking them individually was a huge part of that.”
So was personal attention. Pam’s intention was to get to know every dog coming to the kennel and giving each one the specialized care necessary. Special diets? No problem. “Some have kibble, some have cottage cheese, some have chicken parts,” she says. “Whatever I have to mix up, I’ll do it.” She also gives medicine (B.J., who is diabetic, gets regular insulin shots) and brushes their hair before their owners come to pick them up.
Heartlund Kennels opened in May 1996. The Barnlunds had done only minimal advertising—a notice in Home Magazine and posters in local businesses. “At that time, we were happy to have two or three dogs out there,” Pam remembers. She was still working part-time, and Roger full-time. But then word started getting out about their service.
As each new client told a friend or two about Heartlund, business picked up. Within two years, Pam had to quit her day job and devote herself entirely to the kennel. Roger helped by walking dogs in the mornings and evenings and taking care of the grounds as he could, but he continued to work full-time at Roadway in Mankato until retiring in 2003.
Five years after opening Heartlund Kennels, the Barnlunds had to double the original 15 runs to accommodate their growing clientele. Five years later, they’re preparing for another expansion that will both upgrade their existing runs and increase the total by seven. They’ll also add space to store their stocks of Solid Gold dog food products, which they distribute around the region.
Their success is directly related to the time and energy they put into their business. Pam often crashes by 9 p.m. after spending all day on her feet with the dogs, leaving Roger to answer the calls that come in at 10 p.m. or later. And in the ten years since they opened the kennel, they haven’t closed it once to take a vacation. The last time they traveled together—a weekend trip to Illinois for a wedding—Pam spent most of her time on the phone to her daughters, who were running the kennel.
“It’s taken a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication,” Pam says. “You have to start out not needing any income from this for about five years. And it did take about five years before we felt like we were getting anything, monetarily, from it. But now it’s profitable. It’s doing well.”
So far this year, the Barnlunds have hosted dogs from 527 families, some for just a few days and some for a matter of months. Pam knows each of them by name and can recall by memory exactly how each animal prefers to be treated. That’s especially important for their repeat customers—which is almost all of them.
“There are very few dogs we see only once,” Pam says. “And by the time we see them twice, we know the dog well. We know its personality, what it likes and doesn’t like. So we can pay personal attention to it.”
“Pam knows everybody,” Roger adds. “She knows all of the dogs’ names, what they eat and when they take their medications. That’s a huge task.”
So is keeping all of those dogs quiet. Roger admits that when they first started the kennel, he was sure the dogs would “raise the roof” of their little red barn. But then they figured out the secret to keeping the canines calm: climate control. The barn is equipped with both air conditioning and forced-air heat, so the dogs are never too hot or cold. “You have to keep them super comfortable,” Roger reports. “And it helps to have a pocketful of treats, and to scratch them behind the ears every once in a while.”
It also helps to minimize the distractions during the day. That’s why the Barnlunds have set up a strict schedule for dropping off and picking up. Families can come to the kennel only between 7 and 7:30 a.m. and between 5 and 6 p.m. on weekdays (unlike many other kennels, they are also available on weekends, from 5 to 5:30 p.m.). “It needs to stay quiet,” Roger says. “You can’t have people coming and going all day long.”
Their clients appreciate that attention to detail. Many come from long distances (some from the Twin Cities, others from northern Iowa, and one all the way from Des Moines) because they’ve come to expect top-notch service at the kennel. Most make reservations months in advance, and some even call the kennel before they book a flight. “People call to make sure they can get their dog in before they set up their flight,” Roger laughs. “They make reservations with us before they arrange their vacations.” Bob Jackson even called from the hospital in the midst of a medical emergency, asking them to pick up B.J. and make sure he got his medication. Of course the Barnlunds obliged.
“I’m glad we got in when we did,” says Jackson, who remembers first dropping B.J. off at Heartlund Kennels as a “little furball” of a puppy. “We got our foot in the door early, and I’m glad we did. We won’t take B.J. anywhere else.”
Such loyalty means the world to the Barnlunds. And they are just as fiercely loyal in return. “We love what we’re doing,” Pam says. “They’re actually not so much our dogs as they are our kids. We really think of them like that.”
DOGS GONE BY
Pam and Roger Barnlund come by their affection for dogs naturally. Both were raised on farms— Pam in Madelia and Roger in Donovan, Illinois—and both had dogs of their own growing up.
Roger, in fact, raised coonhounds while he was in high school and spent a great deal of time competing with them. He and his dogs traveled from Texas to North Dakota going to competitions. Free Talking Sam, one of his coonhounds, even took the “champion of the night” title at a North Dakota State Hunt. “That was a lot of fun,” he remembers.
But the fun of all-night dog hunts lost its allure as he got older and started a family. “Those competitions take a lot of nights,” he admits. “That’s not so good once you have a family. So I had to stop.”
That doesn’t mean that he gave up dogs, however. He and Pam, who were married in 1989, got their first dog when they moved out to their rural property, “just a big alfalfa field,” 13 years ago. “We’ve had up to three dogs at a time,” Pam reports. “Right now we have two.”
Ika is a six-year-old German Shepherd who stays out in the kennel with the other dogs. Pixie, a one-year-old Maltese who actually belongs to their 13-year-old daughter Hannah, stays in the house, blissfully unaware of the attention being doled out in the kennel.
“Ika gets jealous,” Pam says. “She wants to go out on every walk. She carries on when we leave her. In fact, she’s the naughtiest of them all out there. But I guess that’s what you expect.”
Several years ago, Roger and Pam Barnlund toured a kennel in New Mexico while there visiting family. The owner was a distributor for Solid Gold dog food, a line of all-natural products especially effective for dogs with allergies. And by the time the Barnlunds left, they were sold. “It’s just such a good dog food,” Roger says. “There are no preservatives and no animal fats, and it’s made with whole grains.”
Solid Gold Health Products for Pets, designed to promote holistic health to animals, was introduced in the United States in 1974. It is made from select ingredients from around the world, including amaranth (which comes from Central America), millet, barley and brown rice. Because it’s all-natural, it is especially effective for pets with allergies or recurrent infections.
The Barnlunds keep a bag of every variety open at the kennel and offer it to every client who brings a dog in (they’re also more than willing to feed their boarders whatever food they prefer). “We have so many clients who are on Solid Gold,” Roger says. “And it’s good to know that we’re feeding them something good for them.”
They’re feeding animals across southern Minnesota and Iowa as well. Currently, they supply at least 25 retailers, including Pet Expo and Me and My Master in Mankato as well as locations in Nicollet, Albert Lea, Montevideo and Redwood Falls.
“Distributing the dog food has turned into the part-time job that the kennel used to be,” says Roger, who spends part of each day making sales calls and delivering dog food. “And it’s something that we feel good about.”
THE ROAD TO RETIREMENT
Roger Barnlund starting working for Roadway Express in Chicago in 1970. Six years later he was transferred up to Minneapolis, and a few years later he moved again—this time to Mankato, where he met Pam on a blind date set up by a friend. “It was a good introduction,” he says with a smile.
As an operations manager, Barnlund was often working from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., and going in on weekends too. On top of that, he was getting up at 5 a.m. to walk dogs at the kennel, and then heading out again after he got home. As business began to grow, it came time to make a change.
“About two summers ago, we realized that we either needed to hire some help or I needed to quit my job,” Barnlund says. “So I finally had to just say, ’I quit.’”
That wasn’t an easy decision for Barnlund, who had devoted 33 years of his life to a company he had grown to love and respect. But just as he was considering the decision, Roadway was sold to Yellow, which decided to consolidate its operations. He could go to either Rochester or Minneapolis—and for one week, he went to Rochester.
“It didn’t take long to realize that it was killing me,” he admits. “That drive was horrible, when I was already so tired. I knew I had to retire.”
It helped that he wasn’t retiring from Roadway, per se. “I had been so dedicated to that company for so long,” he says. “I really enjoyed my job. I might still be there if they hadn’t moved me.”
Now he works fulltime (and then some) at the kennel with his wife, Pam. She likes to remind him that he’s grown just as fond of this business as his previous employer. “You love our business now,” she says.
“No,” he jokes back, “I just enjoy working with you.”
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