When Kim Forrest attends dog shows, she is there not just for her two wirehaired pointing griffons. She is also doing research for her day job as a portfolio manager and equity analyst.Forrest, who works for the Pittsburgh-based Fort Pitt Capital Group, believes participation in dog shows is as middle class as it gets and as such is a great economic gauge.

"This is the very definition of disposable income."

Forrest is not alone in using an offbeat indicator. Several analysts and investors look at unusual data, hoping it will help them spot economic trends sooner or understand them better than those who rely on conventional fare.

"Many market strategists cling to the Fed minutes and other standard information," says Nick Colas, chief market strategist at the ConvergEx Group in New York. "If I want to be competitive I need something different."

Colas tracks gun permit background checks, food stamps and frequency of Google searches. Others analyze TV commercials for wedding packages, shopping mall traffic or garbage volumes. They all say unconventional indicators are especially useful at a time like this when standard data keep sending mixed signals.

For example, in the past few weeks, jobless claims hit a 15-year low, but gross domestic product data showed a marked slowdown in U.S. growth.

And what do the quirky data show?

Essentially a still somewhat tenuous U.S. recovery nearly six years after the end of the Great Recession.

Colas for example, notes that gun permit background checks have been rising, which he considers a good sign. He acknowledges there could be many factors affecting firearm sales, but reckons the willingness to spend hundreds of dollars on guns does work as a measure of spending power.

On the other hand, food stamp usage Colas also monitors has held steady, while the frequency of Google searches of the term "food stamp" has been on the rise.