New pet resort plans side business: Lowering the cost of training service dogs

Published February 14 2018

TAMPA — Richard Starks has a gift for working with dogs.

Through decades of ups and downs, he’s managed to hang onto it.

He knew it at 12 when he dropped out of school to escape his foster kid background and become a dog trainer. He worked with famous canines on Beethoven and Turner and Hooch and made money training police and military dogs.

But a car accident requiring 14 surgeries left doctors convinced he’d never walk again and four years later, he lost the woman he loved — a dog trainer — to another collision. A nasty divorce later, he said, landed him full custody of his 11-year-old daugher.

"Growing up with the family I did, I was never exposed to proper social interaction," Starks said. "I don’t have any of those issues with dogs. I understand them, they understand me. It’s easy."

His latest venture is helping people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder by making service dogs more accessible through his new business, South Tampa Pet Resort at 1116 W. Fig Street.

He and his team designed the 22,000-square-foot location in 2007 for then-owners Mike Hardy and Jack Hamilton and ran it for time as Lucky Dog. Once it started making money, they moved on.

Later, the business experienced its own ups and downs and Starks bought back it back in January.

One of his first moves was establishing a rule that no dogs are allowed outside in the summer from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Two dogs had died there in July of heat exhaustion.

After leaving Lucky Dog, Starks volunteered training service dogs for veterans at a Jacksonville nonprofit called K9s For Warriors.

That’s where Starks became friends with Eugene Monroe, a retired NFL player who believes that service dogs can eliminate the need for opioid painkillers normally prescribed to athletes suffering from injury-related PTSD.

Starks is now training Monroe’s eight-month-old miniature Australian shepherd as a service dog, to help Monroe with issues like anxiety in public.

"Veterans are not the only ones who suffer from PTSD," said Monroe, who played for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens. "Whether it’s an athlete, an abused child or anyone else who’s gone through a trauma, Rick has the ability to train nearly any dog for the job."

Emmanuel Bernadin, 30, is a Navy veteran with PTSD who credits Starks with finding and training the dog, Bronze, who saved his life.

"The last thing I ever could believe would be able to help me transition through one of the toughest times of my life would be a dog," he said. "Richard knew how to do that. He’s an amazing guy."

Bernadin went from isolating himself in his apartment to giving a Ted Talk about veterans’ treatment and raising $300,000 for service dog initiatives, then landing a job at defense company Lockheed Martin at an annual salary of $70,000.

Now, he’s giving that up to move to Tampa and work for Starks, making $11 an hour identifying candidates from across the country who have an interest in becoming service dog trainers.

Starks wants to bring volunteers to Tampa for a six-month training program. Those volunteers will go back to their own communities and train new trainers, lowering the overall cost of a dog. To lower costs more, dogs will come from rescuie centers.

Starks said a service dog currently costs about $14,000, too much for many to afford.

It’s a cause that Starks’ original Lucky Dog staff believes in, so a decade later they’ve all come back to work with him.

"We can turn this place around together," said Carrie Broyles, Starks’ general manager, who left a dog grooming management position.

Starks said South Tampa Pet Resort will serve as a place to bring dogs for boarding or just a day of fun, where they can play in the runs or swim in the diving pool he’s planning.

"I’ve made all the money I need, now I want to help people," he said. "My goal is to take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful."

Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her at @LibBaldwin