Merritt Milam knew what she wanted to do with her life long before most teens fill out a college application. Founder and head trainer of Homewood-based Wags ‘n Whiskers, a comprehensive training and pet care facility, Merritt has an undeniable passion for man’s best friend. She first started studying dog training at age 17. From there, she became an ABC Certified Dog Trainer and earned subsequent certifications that allowed her to become an expert on how to best care for and train our beloved furry friends. Her enthusiasm for pet care is undeniable, and it’s one of the reasons why so many locals trust her and her team of trainers. We sat down with Merritt to talk about how she came to love animals and why it’s important to treat our furry family members with the utmost care, ensuring their tales are always wagging with joy. Meet Merritt Milam, today’s FACE of Birmingham!
When and why did you open Wags ‘n Whiskers?
We opened in December of 2014. To make a long story short, we decided to open because one of my dogs — I love her, but she’s kind of insane (her name was Bo). We were trying to board her, and I looked around, but there was really nowhere she could go for daycare because she didn’t do well in large groups of dogs. So, I wanted to open a place where the ratio was smaller, one trainer for every five dogs. It’s just safer, and it allows us to take in dogs that maybe couldn’t have been taken in at other daycares. Not to say that fights don’t happen, they’re still dogs, but we have more people on staff trained to see the cues of what to watch for, so they can stop anything before it happens.
Tell us about the services you offer.
We’re everything but the vet. We do a lot of training, we have classes at night, and we help tame some of the crazy dogs (the ones that I love!). So simply put, we do training — and there are lots of different classes with that. We even have classes for those who want to teach their dogs to be therapy dogs. I also do one-on-one training, grooming, regular daycare, boarding, and then we have a pet taxi — so we can take your pet to the vet so you don’t have to.
What’s the best part of your job?
Just knowing the dogs. When Jill Becker and I first opened Wags, we started getting to know our dogs’ personalities — and then when we started getting more and more dogs in, it was just crazy to see the personalities come out. We began to know who was going to go pout about having a nail trim! It’s just crazy to see how human they can be. They’re smart animals. I can tell you all of the dogs’ names, but I might blank on the parents’ names! I’ll see them walking their dogs outside of Wags, and I’ll say, ‘Oh there’s Lucy!’ but I won’t know who the mom is. The best part is the pets, I’d have to say.
What’s something most people don’t know about animal training?
It takes a lot of work. Anyone can say they’re a trainer, but if you really are seeking out higher education and keeping up with what’s going on — it’s not just a love of animals. There’s a lot more to it than that. There are not a lot of positive-reinforcement models out there. You need to be able to know how to train the dogs without being negative, and that takes skill, time and practice. You want them to do the right thing, because they’re working for you, in a sense, and they’re having fun. And honestly, that method works better than any other one.
What’s the best part about owning a business in Birmingham?
We have the best parents. Especially in our specific location, in Homewood. Our parents, they’re just amazing. And we call them parents, not clients. That’s a rule here. They’re like a parent dropping their child off at daycare, and that’s how they’re going to be treated at Wags.
Describe your perfect night out. What would you do, where would you go, who would you see?
My wife and I love Tavern on 1st. We had our stock-the-bar party there before we got married, and it’s always just been one of our favorite places. I also love sushi. There’s a place called Okinawa Sushi & Hibachi Steak House in Homewood off Lakeshore. Not many people know about it. But the owner, Linda, is the sweetest person. (Linda actually isn’t her real name — but I can’t pronounce her real name, so that’s what we call her!) She’s a sweetheart. So we’d probably get dinner there and then end the night at Tavern on 1st.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t not do it. I started dog training when I was 17, and people would doubt my ability as a trainer because I was so young. But just because I was young didn’t mean that I wasn’t studying and getting the certifications. And when I opened Wags when I was 24, there were a lot of doubters … But don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Go for it. Don’t not do it.
If you could get coffee with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
My first instinct is to say Temple Grandin. She is kind of the guru of animal training. As far as a lot of the theories behind positive training — she’s very influential. She’s shared a lot of things that have helped her. She’s actually autistic, so she has an interesting take on a lot of things. She has a lot of insight on how to help animals who struggle with anxiety. Instead of medication, she’s developed ways to help your pets cope with anxiety. Her approach is very interesting.
Karen Pryor is another one. She’s a big-time trainer and advocate of positive reinforcement.
What’s your all-time favorite book?
The Art of Racing the Rain — It’s so sad, but it’s so sweet. It’s written from a dog’s perspective. The dog is kind of watching over his race car-driver owner through his struggle. The dog’s name is actually Enzo — that’s why our Enzo is named Enzo. You will absolutely cry if you read it. I read it in one flight!
What are three things you can’t live without?
My animals. All of them. And we have a lot! They’re hysterical and all so sweet and weird in their own ways. We have three dogs, four cats, a gecko and some fish. The fish I could honestly do without — but everyone else has to stay. The dogs, oldest to youngest, are Milo, Enzo and Gus. The cats are Sheldon, Bell and Wiley (they’re actually sisters), and Dennis is our newest. And then the gecko is Desmo. It sounds a lot crazier than it actually is. They’re all pretty well behaved — usually. The second thing I couldn’t live without is Wags, of course. And the third is whatever stress reliever is helping me at the time.
Thank you for sharing your passion and path with us, Merritt! To learn more about Wags ‘n Whiskers, visit wagshomewood.com.
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