Starting a Dog Daycare Business
Fifteen years ago I was a Human Resources Manager in a Fortune 100 company that had recently
been acquired by another Fortune 100 company. The shrinking inventory of high tech hardware
and service companies showed signs of more contraction; and I was tired of managing layoffs
for my employer. I wondered how I could earn a living while having fun.
I'd always loved dogs and I wanted to start my own business. After months of networking
with dog breeders, veterinarians, dog walkers, kennel owners, and dog groomers, I knew I had
found the right general category; but I also knew I didn't want to follow in the footsteps
of anyone I'd talked with. In every instance, their businesses involved experiences during which
dogs are generally unhappy. "No, no," I kept thinking. "I want the dogs to have fun with me."
One sweet summer night, I sat on my friend Lilly's porch in affluent Newton, MA., mulling
over the possibilities. "Too bad you can't make money just playing with peoples' dogs," she
mused. "I can!" I thought. "I'll take care of peoples' dogs during the day. Think of the busy,
well-to-do dog owners around here!" Tire their dogs out, so owners don't have to feel guilty
about being too exhausted to play with a pet who's been cooped up all day. Send them home to
be with their beloved people at night. Socialize them so owners can be proud of how well they
behave with other dogs and with new people.
So, a business where dogs are free to play in an interesting, safe environment, under
the supervision of experienced professionals. My dream come true. But there were obstacles.
Wrung out from years of serious commuting, I wanted to work close to home but not in my home,
the latter being a retreat where I relished the peace and quiet.
My departure from corporate life had left me with a severance package, so I bought a small
house in a business zone which I fitted up with attractive, dog friendly rooms that could be
cleaned and disinfected, top to bottom. I researched materials and equipment on the internet,
bought supplies, and sent out grand opening announcements.
Two days after sending the announcements, I had neighbors who already hated me. On opening
day, the Zoning Enforcement Officer came to tell me I couldn't do business in my new location,
though it was commercially zoned. I had met with him and other town officials before opening
and the consensus had been that nothing in the zoning laws excluded my business. So I requested
a hearing with the Zoning Board.
The night of the hearing I arrived to a throng of angry residents packing the hall outside
the hearing room. Standing room only. When I tried to brief the room on the measures I'd taken
for noise and nuisance control, I was shouted down. The Board told me to close up shop.
I hired a lawyer, appealed and won, a process which required a few thousand dollars not
provided for in my business plan. Nevertheless, I was on my way... to other valuable lessons.
I had not realized how badly behaved other peoples' dogs can be (one's own are angels, of course).
I guess I assumed everyone trained their dog enough so that he or she was easy to live with. Not so!
In my first couple of years, my charges stole my lunch, knocked me down, barked 'til
my ears rang, played keep away when I needed to get hold of them, and pooped indoors in spite
of hourly forays into a fenced yard. At the end of the day, after cleaning every room of the
house by myself, I went home numb with exhaustion. 70-hour weeks were routine. I remember those
years as a time of aches, pains, bills, bruises and bandaids.
In two years the dogs outgrew the den I'd created in 1998. So I leased a facility in
the same neighborhood and set out to grow the business. I bought lists of licensed dogs and
their owners from near-by town halls and ran a regular ad the local newspaper. I published
online ads and coupons. I was a guest speaker in Rotary Clubs and church groups. I had a "dogs
and kids together" gig that I schlepped to elementary schools. Still the business grew slowly,
while expenses skyrocketed with the new lease, additional employees and new equipment.
I'd added a grooming salon in the new building, but getting profitable was an uphill battle
as clientele got to know us. A year into the new building a recession hit. We went into debt to
pay the bills, thinking we'd dig out in a year or so. Things did improve by 2004 so we paid
down debt and expanded. For years we fought to grow back a financial "cushion", and we were
getting there when the wheels fell off the world's financial cart in 2008. Business declined
and we hung on, once again taking on debt.
Today, I can pay myself, my employees, and my bills. We break even or make a little money.
I wouldn't trade my situation for anything. I left a six figure salary for "getting-by" status,
but I've never looked back. If I were younger I would grow The Doggie Den to where I could
franchise it. Close to retirement age, I'm happy as things are. I'd do it all over again in
a New York minute.
Susan LaDue owns and manages a dog daycare, grooming and training business.
The Doggie Den, Inc.
She is also a freelance writer specializing in academic writing, business writing and the dog care industry.
Susan LaDue Writes.