The ulti-mutt entrepreneur: how Jessica O’Neill is adapting her pet care businesses in the pandemic

The pandemic has changed the course of countless lives, including those of our animal friends. With lockdown measures and stay-at-home orders came the “pandemic pet” boom of 2020, when people seeking companionship cleared out animal shelters and filled up breeders’ wait lists.

Dogs in particular continue to be highly sought-after. This “paw-ssion” for pooches is something canine behavioural specialist Jessica O’Neill can relate to.

“It’s a lifestyle for me,” says O’Neill. “Having dogs as part of my daily life [makes] a lot of sense.”

O’Neill is one of Ottawa’s most outstanding entrepreneurs in the pet care industry. The winner of the Ottawa Board of Trade’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2018, O’Neill is the owner and operator of three businesses relating to dogs. The Pet Intel Behaviour Centre provides training services to dog owners and rescue organizations, the Canine Habitat boarding house focuses on housing and rehabilitating dogs with behavioural issues and JWalker Dog Products manufactures soft goods and training tools for dogs.

“When dogs come into our care that we feel need professional support, we’ve been able to reach out to Jessica,” says Tanya Beauchemin, a member of the board of directors for the Sit With Me dog rescue in Ottawa. She says the pandemic has dramatically increased the number of adoption applications they receive. “We used to get maybe five to 10 applications in a couple of hours for a dog. That’s now turned into 40 to 60.”

O’Neill’s training services have helped rescuers rehabilitate dogs with behavioural issues, and therefore increased their chances of being adopted. “She’s brought a lot of structure to the rescue,” says Beauchemin. “Our goal is to help dogs that may not otherwise have a chance out of the shelter, so in a lot of ways, our relationship kind of [helps] save lives.”

Despite now being one of the city’s go-to experts for canine care, O’Neill, a self-described natural entrepreneur, didn’t begin her professional career in the dog world.

“I started working in social services injury rehabilitation. I’ve worked with seniors, with children who have behavioral issues,” she says. O’Neill admits though that the difficulties of working in what can often be an emotionally draining profession gradually took a toll on her. “When you’re working with people who are suffering and struggling and misunderstood, [that’s] very heavy, and I took that home with me.”

Instead, taking her skills and knowledge from social work and transferring them to working with animals felt right, O’Neill explains. “When I started studying the behavior side [of dog care] all the parallels in my other work makes so much sense. I always joke that [social work and dog care] are basically the same thing, except dogs don’t lie and you can put them in cages.”

O’Neill then started to think about how her knowledge of behavioural sciences could both help other people and be monetized. One of her most successful endeavours is a product made locally in Ottawa.

O'Neill says her background in social work helped prepare her for a career as a canine behavioural specialist.

O'Neill says her background in social work helped prepare her for a career as a canine behavioural specialist. Photo credit: Photo supplied by Jessica O'Neill

“JWalker was like a beautiful accident,” she says. “I was frustrated with the handling tools that were available. [I wanted] something that was simple and that would eliminate some human error.” O’Neill then created and launched the JWalker Dog harness, currently the only side attachment no-pull dog harness available on the market.

O’Neill says being a jack-of-all-trades has helped her take charge of many facets of her businesses. “I’m doing the marketing, I’m doing video design, I’m doing accounting – I’m all over the map. It’s certainly not boring.”

Running three businesses is especially not boring during a pandemic, where the unpredictability of day-to-day life and a surge in clients seeking help to care for their new pooch pals has kept O’Neill busy.

“I feel like as an entrepreneur, everything’s changing all the time. You need to be able to jump the hurdles. You need to be able to get in and fill in the blanks,” she says.

Filling in the blanks sometimes means letting go and restructuring your business approach. O’Neill shares that with so many people now staying at home with their pets, the Canine Habitat boarding house is no longer feasible to maintain and will be closing at the end of April.

She’s also had to adapt her other businesses to the changing landscape. O’Neill plans to expand on the JWalker product line for example, adding more colours and eventually making the product available outside of Canada, but the pandemic forced some quick-thinking for the business owner.

“With JWalker we had to pivot. We had to make quick decisions to ensure the viability long term,” she says. That included changing production locations and distribution. “A lot of people have had a reduced income, so the cost of the Pet Intel program [also] needed to be considered. We also have limitations, because we can’t work with people one on one, so we started ramping up a virtual program.”

Still, O’Neill feels good about where her entrepreneurial journey has brought her, even in such unstable times. “I’m really proud of the fact that we’re still alive,” she says.

How the pandemic will continue to shape our lives in the months, or years, to come remains to be seen, but at least one thing is for certain: there will be a lot more pets needing a lot more care, and pet experts like O’Neill will be leading the charge.


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