Homemade dog treats get tails wagging

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Amid the tall waves of tents shielding ripe summer fruits and vegetables from the blaring sun and crowds of market shoppers sampling baked goods and picking up fresh local produce stands a tiny white tent that attracts a different sort of customers — four-legged ones.

Every Saturday, Jan-Marie Swanson sets up shop at the Barton Creek Farmers Market to sell homemade dog treats.

Swanson started making dog treats seven years ago when her own dogs showed lackluster interest in the store-bought treats she brought home. At the time, Swanson just wanted to make something special for her four-legged friends. But one day, while Swanson and a friend were walking their cocker spaniels, they thought, why not turn Swanson’s homemade dog treats into a business?

At the beginning, the two thought of opening up a bakery that served baked goods for people and their pets. But the idea quickly plummeted when they realized that people rarely want to eat food that has been prepared at a place that also makes dog treats.

The alternative was Happy Tails Cafe, an online dog bakery that sells homemade, organic dog biscuits and birthday cakes. Swanson said the two planned on opening an actual dog bakery, but after her business partner moved away, Swanson had to alter her plans.

Over the past four years, Swanson has revamped her dog-treat recipes and started Happy Tails Play & Go!, a pet-sitting and dog-walking business.

“I just love dogs, and I’ve always wanted to do something with dogs,” Swanson said.

Ever since she was a child, Swanson has never been without a dog. Her current companion, Sophie — a black and white cocker spaniel whom she calls “baby” — is the taste-tester and spokespuppy for Happy Tails Cafe.

Baking three mornings a week, Swanson devotes each day to one flavor. She initially got her recipes from the Internet but tweaked them to make the treats preservatives-free. All the basic ingredients are organic, she said, like the flour found in all of the treats and the peanut butter in Peanut Mutters. From the bacon in Barkin Bacon to the cheese in Cheddar Chomps, all of the ingredients are also real and chemical-free. Swanson uses natural flavors without relying on artificial flavorings, sugar or salt. She also uses ingredients that are beneficial to dogs’ health and hygiene. The parsley in Cheddar Chomps helps relieve bad dog breath, and the garlic in Barkin Bacon provides a good source of antioxidants.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” Swanson said. “It was especially difficult to make the treats without using preservatives and not having them spoil.”

Since all of the ingredients Swanson uses are also staples of food for human consumption, oftentimes customers at the farmers market pop the snacks in their mouths, mistakenly thinking they are samples of human snacks.

“It won’t hurt them, but it’s funny when I tell them they’re dog treats, they freak out,” Swanson said, laughing. “I actually eat the Cheddar Chomps when there’s no carbs in the house.”

The most popular treat by far is the pig-shaped Barkin Bacon, made of nitrate-free bacon, eggs, garlic and organic whole-wheat flour.

Besides offering homemade dog biscuits, Swanson also makes dog birthday cakes upon request. The cakes come in three flavors — chicken garlic, apple and banana — and are iced with a cream-cheese frosting and sprinkled with carob chips, which are essentially dog-friendly, cocoa-free chocolate chips.

In addition to offering baked goods, Swanson sells her own hand-crafted canine-grooming products including shampoo, paw and nose butter balm, and bug spray. Swanson got the base of the shampoo from a company in Vermont and experimented with hand-blending until she got a scent she liked.

All of the shampoos and conditioners are organic, using essential oils like jojoba, coconut and olive oil to make the dogs’ coats soft and clean. None of Swanson’s products contain perfume, dyes or sulfates, which are harmful to dogs because they can dry out skin.

“It’s just pure, basic soap,” she said. For dogs with sensitive, itchy skin, Swanson recommends Almond Bark. The organic aloe vera and oatmeal in its solution calms the itching. As for problems with fleas, Swanson recommends Puppermint, whose lavender and spearmint helps ward off bugs.

Swanson said she would eventually like to have a dog bakery with a doggie daycare attached, but because of the economy, her dream is on the back burner.