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“Dog whisperer” Rita Figg and her champion Afghans Tiki and Moses. 

From the Driftwood Pet Care kennel she has operated with her husband for four decades, Figg has cared for hundreds of cats and dogs. She has four dogs of her own but still finds time to volunteer at the Greater Venice Florida Dog Club, a group she helped create. The club teaches humans how to raise well-mannered pups and American Kennel Club show dogs. It also sponsors a major American Kennel Club dog show every year with a St. Petersburg club.

“I’ve always loved dogs,” says Figg, 66. “They are my four-legged children.”

The Driftwood kennel is nestled down a winding, gravel driveway off what used to be a rural Laurel Road, in a converted house that’s surrounded by about five acres. It has facilities for about 60 dogs, including indoor-outdoor dog runs, dog suites, and accommodations for about 18 cats. There’s also a pet cemetery where many of the animals Figg cared for are now laid to rest, including several of her own.

“They deserve a nice resting place,” she says.

Figg, with long strawberry blond hair and a warm smile, sits behind a cluttered desk in her office, barefoot, wearing a black T-shirt with a snowman, and jean shorts. “We try to make this a homey place,” she says. “Our goal from the beginning was to have a place where the animals could have fun in a safe and loving environment.”

Figg grew up in a one-dog family in rural Pekin, Illinois. Her husband spent part of his childhood in Florida, and the couple decided to move here in the 1970s. In the house they bought, the previous owner had installed a big dog room. The Figgs put it to use by taking care of friends’ pets and eventually started the kennel.

Around the same time, a group of dog lovers approached the Figgs about starting a dog club. The club started out as a group for purebred dogs and their owners to train for shows. Since then, it’s grown to include activities for all dogs, including puppy training, obedience and agility training and now show competition for mixed-breed dogs.

There’s hardly a dog amenity or festival in the community that doesn’t have the Figgs’ prints on it. She helped with county plans to build the Woodmere Dog Park. The dog club bought Kevlar bullet-proof jackets for Sarasota County canine unit dogs. It donates to many health-related pet organizations and sometimes provides scholarships for University of Florida veterinary students from Sarasota County.
Figg is known as a dog whisperer—someone who can tune into a dog and change its behavior. “A lot of it is teaching people how to speak dog,” she says. “If more dogs were better trained, we wouldn’t have as many humane societies. People get fed up with behavior and don’t know what to do about it.”

“Dogs adore her,” says club member Lois Lizza. Lizza says that her Havanese dog used to have major anxiety until Figg worked with her. “Sparkle was a basket case,” Lizza says. “Rita gave that dog so much confidence; that’s not an easy thing to do.” Sparkle now participates in dog shows.

Figg loves all breeds but has a special affinity for Afghans, a breed known for intelligence and temperament. She’s certified to judge 15 breeds in AKC competitions and has written for dog magazines.

“I just love all things dog,” she says. “There’s nothing else I want to do.”

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