Meet the Dog Treat Lady

From The Southern Illinoisan, April 18, 2010

With names like Cody’s Jerky Cake, Pupperoni Pizza and Snickerpoodles, Earlene Shelley’s latest cookbook has gone to the dogs. Literally.

Known throughout the area as the “dog treat lady”, Shelley has been a staple at Carbondale’s farmer’s market for the past four years where she’s sold homemade Fido favorites with funny names. Now she’s published a collection of recipes for her popular treats.

“Earl’s Pearls Doggie Drooling Treats” offers more than 75 snacks for dogs of all sizes and appetites, drawing on more than 20 years of canine culinary adventures.

“I’ve always liked to cook and I’ve always had dogs, so I thought that I’d start baking for them,” she explained. “My dogs liked them so I started giving them as Christmas gifts.”

Shelley said that she never dreamed of her treat making as more than a hobby. That is, until a pair of circumstances gave her an idea.

“Five years ago I had to get a new furnace and I needed some extra money, but wasn’t sure where it was going to come from. About that time my daughter and I were in Indianapolis and we saw a dog bakery. A light went on for me. I knew what I was going to do.”

She began baking and bagging treats to sell on Saturday mornings, despite doubts from others at the market.

“Some people told me I wasn’t going to make it,” Shelley recalls. “I thought I’d at least give it a try and see how it went. A lot of the other vendors shook their heads at me.”

The initial goal Shelley set was to sell $50 worth of dog treats. She left her first farmer’s market with $75 in sales. She said business has grown ever since. And what about the naysayers?

“Now they can’t believe it,” she says. “I think a lot of them are in shock.”

The treats have proven to be popular with both dogs and their owners. She said she has 35 customers that stop by her booth every weekend and she even mails treats to pet owners in New York and Alaska. Many customers, such as Trina Eaton of Murphysboro, first bought treats as a novelty.

“My husband and I just happened to notice her at the farmer’s market,” Eaton said. “We love our dogs so we bought some treats. When we got home, the dogs loved them.”

Eaton, who owns two dogs, said one prefers the peanut butter treats while the other is fond of the pizza flavored goodies.

Cobden’s Donna Wendt bought treats for her dogs on Shelley’s very first weekend at the market. She’s been a regular customer ever since.

“When I come home from the farmer’s market, the dogs know the package and they know the sound it makes. They know exactly where I’ve been and what I have,” she said.

Shelley said that she makes everything from mini-muffins to birthday cakes for dogs. All of the products are made from foods found in practically any home pantry, but some ingredients are a no-no.

“All of my stuff is made with people food,” Shelley explained. “Many times I take human recipes and make them appropriate for dogs. There aren’t any preservatives added, and I leave out the raisins, white sugar and chocolate—those could all be lethal for dogs.”

She said that some of the recipes in the cookbook are ones that she’s discovered, while others are her own creations. She tests new products with her own dogs and those of friends.

“I’ll often give people a sample and ask them to let me know what their dog thinks. Sometimes if it doesn’t sound good to me, some of the dogs don’t like them either.”

Wendt says she’s even tried a few of the treats herself.

“They smell so good, sometimes you just have to try them,” she said. “The peanut butter ones are yummy.”

Shelley said since the treats are made with human food, they’re perfectly safe, but sometimes not quite as good as regular table food.

“Since there’s no white sugar in some of them, you don’t get the same level of sweetness,” she added.

The cookbook has been in the works for several years, but it took convincing by some customers for Shelley to actually share her recipes.

“I was worried about losing my dog treat customers, but they all told me they’d love a cookbook.”

Eaton has bought four of the books, which include pictures of some of Shelley’s dog-customers. Wendt said the book will only build Shelley’s business.

“I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “I know it won’t affect her sales of the treats. There are a lot of people who just don’t bake. Besides, going to the farmers market and seeing her and buying treats is one of the great summer experiences in southern Illinois.”

The cookbooks are $11 each and are available from Shelley each Saturday at the farmer’s market, as well as Carbondale’s Apple Tree, Neighborhood Co-op Grocery and Dayshift.

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