A dog-training academy on 40 acres on Lake Buffum in Polk County isn’t just a place for canines to find their purpose, and passion. The business owner, too, wags the day.
John Kuendig graduated with a zoology degree from an Ivy League university. He later trained dolphins, sea lions, birds and monkeys for a decade in aquariums and wildlife parks in Hawaii, South Florida and North Carolina.
He’s taught a turtle to roll over. He’s coaxed cats to do tricks. He coached “displaced exotics” recovering from trauma.
'People have no idea how smart their dogs are.' John Kuendig, John K9
The thing he almost never thought he’d be doing? Running John K9 — one of the biggest dog–training and kennel facilities in Polk County. And he has plans to get even bigger.
Kuendig’s life plan was always to dovetail his love of animals into his own business, initially thinking one day he would run “my own zoo.”
The zoo took a backseat to school and experience: First the University of Pennsylvania, then an MBA from Florida International University, then a job at Miami Seaquarium. It was during this apprenticeship in training everything from birds to primates that Kuendig gained an appreciation — and fascination — for the most common, yet quixotic, interspecies bond of all: men and dogs.
He studied canine husbandry and in doing so, it struck him: “I was never going to own a zoo. This was an opportunity to own my own business.”
Kuendig, 35, a Port Orange native, returned to Central Florida in 2015 and opened John K9 on a 40-acre Lake Buffum ranch designed, he says, as “a great dog compound — a happy place.”
What began with “a house and a Jeep” and a leap of faith has evolved into a boarding kennel and six fields where John K9 has trained more than 700 dogs. It employs four full-time live-in trainers and four interns versed in behavioral modification programs that range from single-hour lessons to three-week "obedience camps."
The business is growing, too. In November, John K9 established a Lakeland storefront where people can attend seminars and drop off dogs for daily lessons or more intensive instruction at the ranch. He’s hiring more trainers. And by 2020, Kuendig plans to open another location in Tampa, he says, to “train our army of trainers.”
Two keys to starting the business, and, now growing it, was to create a plan and showcase a product to exemplify its services, he says. John K9 has one-, three-, 10-year plans. He charts progress in weekly meetings with staff. “Our investors hold us accountable for everything,” he says.
One of two important lessons is to never stop learning. “Hold yourself accountable,” he says. “No one is going to give you anything. When you get complacent, business slows down. I’m humble. I don’t know everything there is to know.”
The other integral lesson: Don’t wait for the right time — or it will never come. “Honestly, the only thing that stopped us from growing was not doing it,” says Kuendig. “Build it and they will come.”
John K9’s star is Maker, a 3-year-old border collie, what Kuendig calls the “proof in the pudding. I take Maker wherever I go. I tell customers, ‘Look at my dog. I did this for him. I can do it for your dog.’”
A bit of a ringer, Maker was born on a North Carolina sheep farm and descended from a long line of working border collies. “I was scouting for the smartest dog,” he says. “He was the result of that search.”
Maker, he adds, “can do 100 tricks and 10 sports.” The star dog has been in Google Pixel, Cosequin and Wing House commercials and performs at Lakeland Magic basketball game halftimes.
Maker — like Kuendig — never stops learning. “I take him to seminars to learn more,” he says. “Dogs can always get better.”