Gone to the Dogs
When the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa closed its floundering pet-friendly "hotel," The Dog House in 2010, there were howls of protest from dedicated clients. Several banded together to save it, but as often happens, the best-laid plans don't always pan out. Nevertheless, Liz Ascione refused to lie down and instead decided to take it over herself, purchasing what has now been rechristened as Dog Dreams Inn, a cage free, 24-hour resort-caliber dog-care facility.
I'd been a client of The Dog House at the Resort and was very impressed by the core philosophy behind the operation. The key was the cage-free atmosphere that promoted the natural pack mentality bred into dogs. I was leery at first, but after seeing how my two dogs–a Newfoundland and a Ladradoodle-responded to the experience, I was hooked. When they closed, it was heartbreaking. Standard kennels are fine at what they do, but I just loved the idea that my dogs could socialize in an anxiety free environment, knowing that their nights wouldn't be spent in a crate.
I, along with other regular clients, were notified by the Resort when the decision to close was made. Several of us discussed going in together as investors. In the end that didn't work out and initially, I was pretty upset. But after receiving some rather astute insight from my husband, I realized that perhaps it was a godsend, that what I had really wanted was to do it by myself.
Considering that my professional background for the last 20 years has been in the environmental business-specifically, environmental and hazardous waste-it would appear that a leap into canine care would be a stretch. However, I've always been a dog lover and had actually started a specialty pet products business-Pet Dreams USA-a few years ago, as a side business. By 2010, I was ready for a change and had decided to take a break from my day job, giving myself a year to see if I could succeed in the doggie world. It's funny how things seem to flow when you get where you're supposed to be. After making that decision in March of 2010, six months later, the opportunity to open Dog Dreams Inn fell into my lap.
Dogging the Dream
I took possession of the business on November 1, 2010 and it's been pretty smooth sailing. I retained all seven staff members and set about creating a new future for the business model. The Resort had catered mostly to their guests, and while retaining that aspect, I wanted to be open to the community at large.
Other than needing new signs, the facility, was pretty much ready to go. The real work now is marketing and management. I've been fortunate to have one of the best business advisors in my own home – my husband, Eddie Ascione. He and his brother Mike own American Waste and watching them create a phenomenally successful business was an amazing learning experience. I'm so fortunate to have someone to bounce ideas off of who can think around things in ways I may not.
Marketing is new to me and I have to thank Michigan Works and Meg Havenga of the SBTDC for showing me the ropes. Meg's taught me the power of a good website and access to social media. They've also gathered data and statistics to help me target my market and brand my business. Grand Traverse Resort has been wonderful in their support, as well. We're featured on their website and we've retained their internet connection to allow in-room billing for guests who use the Dog Dream Inn.
Dog Dream Inn is just that, a dream of a place for a dog to stay when its owners are away. The indoor area has many different rooms to appeal to all canine fancies. Older dogs can relax in the sunroom and pups can play with tons of toys. Meals are served by appointment in privacy and naptime is on soft beds attended by one of their human pack leaders. For TV-loving dogs, there are flat screens galore tuned to animal shows and two licensed pet masseuses on staff to care for tender joints. Above all, cleanliness is our passion and the staff work hard to keep things germ free.
There's over 1000 sq. ft outside where the dogs can run and burn off energy-and there's a lot of energy. In fact, that's one of the key points of the Inn-catering to a dog's energy. Dogs are very social animals and they want and need to belong to a pack. We embrace that philosophy from the beginning, before the dog even arrives. The owners of our prospective guests are asked to do an interview with our staff to determine the character and needs of the dog. All our dogs must be spayed or neutered and be up-to-date on all the shots. We offer free trials so people can see how their pet will react before the separation date arrives.
At check-in, the dog is slowly introduced to the rest of the pack. We match a new dog's energy with that of another-let them sniff and get a sense of the new guest. Amazingly, the process usually takes less than 15 minutes. Because we're open 24-hours a day, owners can drop off and pick up at a time that's convenient for them. We can accomdate 20 dogs at a time and we offer two flat rates: a daytime rate of $25.00 for up to twelve hours and a 24-hour rate of $35.00 for extended stays. Owners are responsible for their dog's food, but we don't allow outside articles-everything should smell the same to discourage competition and territorialism between the dogs-to keep the good energy flowing.
New dog tricks
As with any new business, I've got a ton of ideas. I'd love to have more outdoor space, I want to include water therapy, holistic treatments, rescue services and dog training. I'd love to find ways to incorporate my charitable work with GirlTECH, Zonta and Women's Resource Center into either Dog Dreams Inn or Pet Dreams USA, whether through product production or direct involvement. Dogs have so much they can teach us about acceptance, trust and loyalty. If I can give back just a portion of what they've given me, it truly will be a doggy dream come true.