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Life's great since it went to the dogs

Kathy Barnish's neighbors are a little strange. Her neighbor across the street sells carpets outside his front door _ lots of carpets; on one side of her, another neighbor specializes in auto and truck parts, by the ton; on the other side, milk _ tankers of it.

They're all okay with her. They never complain no matter how much her six dogs bark; nor does she ever worry that a baseball from a youngster's bat is going to come crashing through her window.

It's safe, she says. Most of the first floor of her home is a burglar alarm.

It's a perfect neighborhood, she says.

No nosy neighbors, no loud parties.

"It's my own little piece of St. Petersburg," she says.

Ms. Barnish's neighborhood is an industrial area on 46th Ave. N. Her neighbors are manufacturers and wholesale warehouses.

Ms. Barnish came here in 1986 from Keene, N.H., a few miles from Winchester, she specifies for non-New Englanders, stared at the palm trees for a couple of months, then went to the dogs. She has been in the doghouse since.

Ms. Barnish lives and works at The Dog House pet motel, a place where pet owners can have their animals boarded. Her home is above the kennel.

"I have a built-in _ well, live-in _ burglar alarm system," she says. The kennel downstairs has air-conditioned room for 98 dogs to be boarded, and 40 cubicles are available for emergency, short-term guests in the event of, say, a hurricane evacuation. This year, a slow one Ms. Barnish says, 2,571 dogs have checked into the motel and stayed an average of two weeks. In a good year, about 5,000 guests register there, Ms. Barnish says.

"They let you know if anyone's in the area," she says.

Ms. Barnish, 26, says it's fortunate that she grew up near railroad tracks. "We're heavy sleepers around here. I sleep like a log."

As many as 30 feline guests can be accommodated also, but they are quiet, sleeping most of the time, Ms. Barnish says.

Ms. Barnish came to St. Petersburg acceding to persuasion from her sister, who had moved here earlier. The timing was good. After hopping off the plane and marveling for a while ("For two months, I couldn't stop looking at the palm trees. It's a different world from New England"), Ms. Barnish walked into The Dog House looking for a job.

"The owners hadn't advertised, but they were looking for a person who looked honest enough and trustworthy enough to run things the way they had for years," Ms. Barnish says. Now she runs the place as the owners move closer to full retirement.

She gets help from Susan Crane, the groomer, and Nikki Hipsher, who keeps the kennels clean. Her housemate, George Wienhold, and boyfriend, Ronald Copeland, also pitch in.

"I always grew up wanting to be in the animal field," Ms. Barnish says. "My mother wanted me to be a veterinarian, but I didn't want to be a veterinarian."

Her lifetime of love and respect for animals has put her in the right place for now.

She has what she calls dog sense, and out of necessity, she has learned to read dogs.

"You have to have dog sense to be in this job," she says. Dog sense is knowing how the animals think. Reading a dog is knowing, from observing body language or looking into his eyes, what an animal is going to do.

"I have to be able to know when I get in a run (the individual "rooms" in the kennel) if the dog is going to jump at me or snap at me," Barnish says.

She boards dogs of all breeds and temperaments, and each is fed, groomed and administered medicine when necessary. Each dog, in other words, has to be handled.

Barnish said she has been bitten once in four years of handling thousands of dogs. She said she doesn't stereotype dogs according to breed. In fact, she is irked by the negative publicity pit bullterriers have gotten recently. "I've never had any trouble out of them. I've had at least 10 pit bulls in the four years, and nine of them were sweethearts," she says.

She says most of the blame for dogs misbehaving can be traced to their owners. "People need to learn to reprimand their dogs," she says. "If your dog is doing something wrong in front of people, you have to correct them.

"It's just like with your child. If you don't correct your children once in a while, your child is just going to go wild," she says.

The analogy, comparing dogs with children, comes easy to Ms. Barnish. "I have no children, and my pets are like children," she said. Her pets include a cat, three German shepherds and three Pembroke Welsh corgis, short-legged, active dogs.

"Every dog that comes in here is a pampered pet. There are people who let their animals run their lives. Two dogs I had last year had been hand-fed liver every day. That's the only way they would eat.

"These pets are not pets, they're (their owners') children," Ms. Barnish says.

Such close ties make for difficult separations. "I've had people leave here teary-eyed after they dropped their pets off," Ms. Barnish says. The difficulty multiplies when the separation is permanent.

"The hardest part of this job is to worry about someone's animal passing away and having to explain it to them when they get back," Ms. Barnish says.

She says people who "feel it's time for their dogs to go to doggie heaven," but are emotionally unable to take them to the vet themselves, sometimes bring the animals to her. She takes the pets to the vet next door, where they can be euthanized.

Ms. Barnish says she is happy running the pet motel, but she knows her dog days are numbered.

"I don't look at this as a lifetime career. What I would like would be in the art field. I've always drawn," Ms. Barnish says.

But for now?

"It's fun living in an industrial area," Ms. Barnish says.

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