Michelle Kownacki, Paws Pet Boutique

Who she is: Owner of a pet-friendly boutique is one of the best spots in Annapolis for cat and dog lovers to find reasonably priced, high-quality specialty items.

What she does: Kownacki’s motto is “Make a tail wag today.”

Why she does it: Kownacki notes that her ultimate goal is to improve the lives of as many people and animals as possible through her store and website, so in addition to offering her four-legged friends a pet behind the ears, free treat, and fresh bowl of water, Kownacki prides herself on being a small company that makes a big difference.

You’ll Woof for Paws Pet Boutique

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Truly Amazing Women

Photo by Charlie Archambault

A passion for animals and a desire to make a difference in the community inspired Michelle Kownacki to open the doors to Paws pet boutique, Inc. on historic State Circle in Annapolis in 1999.

In August 2011, for instance, the shop raised more than $20,000 for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, thanks to Ben’s Dog-Friendly Cruise for Compassion.

“We raised $10,800 from our sale of cruise tickets, the Silent Auction and a raffle, then added $10,000 more thanks to a generous matching gift from The Squires Group, an IT staffing company in Annapolis,” Kownacki shares, noting that other local businesses also contributed their time and talents to the fundraiser, including Red Leash Pet Photography. Donors included Whole Foods, and Southwest Airlines.

Kownacki’s motto: “Make a tail wag today.” And she doesn’t focus on making just her animal friends happy.

“A gentleman came into the store a few years ago, and he was as nervous as can be. He told me he wanted to propose to his girlfriend in a memorable way, and really wanted to include their Retriever in the surprise,” she explains.

“So we decided to make him a beautiful navy dog collar inscribed with the words, “Will you marry me?” He thought that was fabulous, so we worked with Star Monogram on Maryland Avenue, because they do a wonderful job. He came back after he proposed with great news. She said yes the moment she saw the collar. I just love that story!”

Banking on Barks

Of course, pets are big business in the United States. According to the 2011-2012 American Pet Products Association, 62 percent of US households own a pet, which equates to 72.9 millions homes.

Dogs are the most popular pet to own (46.3 million in the US), followed by cats (38.9 million).

Owners take pride in their pets, spending an estimated $50.8 billion on visits to the vet, food, and boarding. Food treats and toys are also important to pet owners, who spend an average of $150 / year per pet on those items.

High-tech products are increasingly popular, the APPA found. Some of the big purchases include computerized identification tags, digital aquarium kits, automatic doors and feeders, enhanced reptile-terrarium-lighting systems and touch-activated toys to help pet-owners take care of companion animals with ease and precision.

And why not? In addition to being a part of the family, a study at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that pets are good for you. In fact, people with hypertension who adopted a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than did those who did not own a pet.

Studies conducted at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition in the United Kingdom showed that the impact of a stressful situation is lesser on pet owners, especially males, than on those who do not own a pet.

Other research suggest that pets help to ease depression and loneliness, and promote an interest in life. Additionally, when seniors face adversity or trauma, affection from pets takes on great meaning, according to studies that suggest their bonding behavior can foster a sense of security.

How did Kownacki turn a passion into a successful pet shop that features “Canines and Cocktails” on summer Friday nights, doggie ice-cream socials, and canine fashion shows?

We recently sat down with the pet lover to learn more.

Inkandescent Networking: What did you do before you founded Paws Pet Boutique, and what gave you the idea to do it?

Michelle Kownacki: Animals have always added spirit to my life, but my dog Jonah and cat B.J. were the inspiration behind Paws pet boutique. I wanted to create a place where people could celebrate the relationship with their dogs and cats, while giving back to the community. We enjoy offering distinctive goods that you don’t find everywhere. We feature things that are special—just like your pet.

Inkandescent Networking: Was it rough going in the beginning, or did the shop take off immediately?

Michelle Kownacki: Our first location was smaller than our current spot on State Circle, so I was able to run it myself for a while to get it started. Just like all start-up businesses, you have to put time, effort, and in this case a lot of heart, into making a go of it. Paws pet boutique just celebrated its 12th anniversary and we’re still here, so we must be doing something right.

Inkandescent Networking: What are the most popular products among your customers? And what is your favorite?

Michelle Kownacki: Many dogs and people enjoy the experience of the store visit as much as all the unique products they find. Picking out a fresh collar, special treats, or a new toy for play makes many a visit memorable.

A new collection of animal-inspired, pure silver jewelry, made locally by designer Tracy Menz, is my personal favorite. We have a “Meet and Greet” with her this Sunday from 11 to 3 PM as part of our 12 Days of Specials from November 1-12, as part of our 12th Anniversary celebration. Do stop by for that!

I also love changing my “kids‘” collars, harnesses, and leashes often, so I’m lucky to work in an environment where I have a great selection and easy access.

Our red-crab dog toys made from recycled plastic bottles in the US are a favorite among all my dogs, as are our sweet potato treats. My cat Ali adores taking afternoon cat naps in her upholstery fabric nest-bed.

Inkandescent Networking: Your own pets must love being in the store. Do you have any good stories of them making new friends—pet and human?

Michelle Kownacki: All of our Jack Russells get excited in the morning to put their harnesses on and head into town to go to work. Most of the day they enjoy hanging out in my office listening to jazz music in their beds surrounded by toys, but Ben makes frequent store appearances.

He was rescued by Animal Legal Defense Fund, so he is shy initially but warms up with some pets and treats from guests. Customers regularly take photos of him, as he wiggles into their hearts with his silly smile, calm demeanor, and gentle soulful eyes.

We often bring Ben into the storefront when we have a visiting dog who is nervous or just rescued. He seems to share a sense of peace with them and lets them know it’s okay to relax and have some fun in our store.

Inkandescent Networking: You raise a lot of money for charity. What motivates you to do that? Tell us about your next fundraiser.

Michelle Kownacki: I have always felt it is important to give back and made this philosophy part of our core business mission. It would be wonderful if everyone selected an opportunity area they were passionate about and worked to improve it so that the world would be a better place.

Our “Happy Tails Hours” have evolved into “Canines and Cocktails for a Cause” monthly events that feature different charities. We like to create dog-friendly events that give back and give people an opportunity to have fun with their dog in a social setting. We have hosted five “Ben’s Cruise for Compassion” fundraisers, which involve live music, auction prizes, food, dogs, and a night on the water in Annapolis.

And our 5th Ben’s Cruise this year raised more than $10,800 for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which included a Silent Auction and Southwest Airlines Raffle. It warms your heart when people come together to support innocent animals. Looking into the eyes of my dogs and cat motivates me to help more. Check out upcoming events on our website,