When Dogs Unleashed first opened in 2006, dog daycare was a fairly new concept. Most people couldn’t get over the fact that there was a place where you dropped off your dogs for a day, or even a need for such a thing. Most daycares operated on the notion that all dogs got along all the time like some kind of dogtopia. It seemed simple enough: get a space. Put a bunch of dogs in it and, BAM! You’ve got dog daycare. They quickly learned there was more to it than that.
Dogs Unleashed was a little different thanks to experience gained from working it dog rescue. The owners had been, for many years, the evaluation home for foster dogs straight out of the shelter. There is a science to introducing strange dogs to one another safely but they didn’t know it then. They did it purely by instinct (which not everyone has.)
While Dogs Unleashed separated by size and play style, the rest of the facility pretty much resembled all of the others: multiple play rooms, one big yard, one kennel full of 60 dogs, one feed room with shelves spilling over and lots and lots of sticky notes. This is still the case with even the largest of most corporate dog daycares today.
Dogs Unleashed had a system that worked, but only when the owner was there to employ her instinct. The only problem was she couldn’t employ enough people with the same instincts as her. As the business grew, so did the problem of staff training and turnover and owner dependence. So she called on Van Vleet Innovation.
The first thing we did was to become an employee of Dogs Unleashed to experience their job firsthand from their perspective. Next, we observed, over many, many cups of coffee, the comings of clients and the groupings of dogs into play groups and the playings of dogs and the home goings of tired, happy, but very tired dogs. Patterns began to emerge leading the extrapolation of ideas. It looked as though there was indeed a science behind the instinct the owner used to form play groups that was both predictable and replicable.
But before the science could be proven, there was the issue of flow. Our motion study proved a lack of flow throughout the facility causing bottle necks, at gates and in aisles, irregular amounts of play and potty time. It caused too much stress among too many dogs in too little a space. Not to mention too much stress among too few employees to handle the load. But most of all it created too much need of high level thinking to constantly prioritize as the situations changed, creating too much owner dependence.
That’s when we busted out the blank sheet of paper. We posed the questions: “If you could start over, knowing what you know now, what would Dogs Unleashed be like? If money were no object, if you could bulldoze the buildings, and if there was plenty of land, how would it look? How would it operate? What would you do away with? What would you keep? What would be the ultimate dog daycare?” The answers were: One that looked great, that was easy to keep clean. One that flowed and was easy to train employees in. One that employees were proud to work in. One that clients loved to come to and dogs had fun without stress. That is what was Dogs Unleashed was meant to be!
What we wound up with on paper was something like a school. It was laid out like a school, there was reception like a school, halls like a school and every class had their own room with their own teacher and every grade had their own playground, just like at a school.
While Dogs Unleashed is an off-leash (hence the name Unleashed) they are not a “cage free” facility. The reason being, you simply cannot have 60+ different dog personalities all together at feeding or nap time without incident. There are overeaters and under-eaters. Slow eaters and wolfers. There is resource guarding and food aggression. There are sleepy and cranky old dogs and young pups who will play FOREEEEEVER to annoy them. And so, for meal time and nap time there has to be a private space for each and every dog to go. This is a need we observed to come from deep within the dogs genetic code. Dogs are den animals. In the wild, they would run and play in packs. But dogs are also sensitive, they suffer from sensory overload. To manage this, it is their instinct to dig a quiet hole in the ground which limits sensory input, keeps them safe and cool/warm on five sides while allowing them a view of the world on the sixth.
Going conceptually away from a school for kids and back to dogs, what started to take shape was a group of micro-dog kennels. Once the incoming dogs were scientifically sorted into compatible play groups they would meet their friends on the playground before going in from recess. They would play in a private room of only their friends and never have to even see any incompatible dogs. At naptime they would all get their own spacious, private room. Each micro-boarding kennel (that word has to go) would have its own feed room in close proximity to the dogs, its own grooming area, bath tub and its own laundry.
It was a beautiful vision. But, the reality was; there wasn’t unlimited space or unlimited budget and it just didn’t make sense to bulldoze everything they had built over the last 10 years. And so began the R.O.I., the Reality of Innovation. How could we still functionally achieve that vision within the confines of their current structure on a finite budget and still remain open for business? Answer: a little like road construction.
We brought in our architect who can see through walls to formulate a plan on how to get the most bang for our buck. Every wall you build costs money. Tearing down walls is cheaper. It became like one of those puzzle games where you have to move the least amount of match sticks to make the most amount of space. But in working it like a puzzle, we found a cost effective way to create all of the rooms we needed within the existing structure to accommodate all of the segregated play groups there would be.
Outside space was also finite and so one play yard for each room became out of the question. But back to the school concept the idea of different grades sharing the playground while the other was in “class” came out organically and the concept of two rooms to one yard came about and solved our outdoor space. The fact that different groups could still see each other and endure stress was eliminated with a plan to replace the fences with a special design that was attractive for the clients, eliminated visual or physical contact between segregated dog groups, but still allowed employees to watch over each other’s group in case the other needed assistance.
Doors were added to all of the rooms giving them access to their corresponding outside yards. More aisles were made out of unused space and more gates were added to accommodate flow.
Private laundry and grooming areas for each room was a luxury that had to be conceded at this juncture but keeping private den space (Yes! That sounds much better than kennel!) was deemed core to the new order of business. But how could we on such limited space. We needed the open space for play, we needed the private space for naps and meals. We needed a feed room close by but we couldn’t have food in the room. How? How can we have both?
At Van Vleet Innovation we say, “If it’s in the way, we move it. If we need space, we make space. And, if it doesn’t exist, we invent it!” What resulted was our Murphy Dens (patent pending). The Murphy Den allows for maximum space for un-leashed play and then reuses that space for private space at naptime and meal times. Once no longer needed, the dens fold out of the way creating space again for play.
These dens were prototyped first out of carboard and then plywood. Next a production prototype was CNC machined out of hypoallergenic HDPE plastic and put into test. Bugs were worked out and we cranked enough brand new murphy dens to replace all of the old and unpopular wire kennels of the past.
Automatically retractable locker cabinets were designed, built and installed by Van Vleet Innovation to allow the dogs individual food, medications and belongings to be stored right with their assigned Murphy Den. They move up and out of the way where the dogs can’t reach them for unleashed play and down at feeding time. The top surface of the den serves as a meal prep table and everything the employee needs to feed and medicate the dogs is right there available at easy arms reach, even the care instructions.
Those sticky notes and dry erase boards of the centrally located feed room had to go. All of the copying and recopying and transcriptions errors not to mention the squinting and reading wrong lines and the stacking and carrying of bowls from room to room and the mixups and the wrong foods fed and the wrong medications given and diarrhea from the mix-ups was an even greater problem.
Every dog at Dogs Unleashed has a profile in the computer complete with feeding and special care instruction. That information is saved in the database. Now when a dog checks in and is assigned a den, their name and special care instructions and everything their caregivers need to know at a glance is sent directly to a special e-ink tag at their den, eliminating confusion and communication errors. Allowing caregivers the ability to quickly read and feed all of the dogs in their group like clockwork.
And speaking of clocks, and since a majority of our employment pool is recently out of school whose system is of recent habit, more school-like innovations happened organically to properly manage time and improve flow. School bells were installed with special intonations to signal different tasks. Incidentally, the Pavlovian dogs learn the bells quickly and help to train new staff members. This was entirely by design. Intercoms were also added to allow play care attendants to always be in contact with reception, shift leads or managers while never having to neglect their constant supervision of the dogs.
Other efficiency measures were also put in place. Carts were added in all areas with all supplies necessary to clean and care for the facility. Cleaning task were broken down by the half-hour allowing maximum dog supervision and to keep attendant active and alert. Dirty laundry and dishes are left on the cart for support personnel to wisk away one their way to centrally located facilities.
Clear training programs were set in place for dog handling, facility operations and cleaning. Clear opportunities for advancement were outlined to employees with a clear path for progression in responsibility and pay. More employees are able to learn how to safely create play groups and introduce strange dogs without owner dependence than ever before.
Mind you, none of this happened overnight. A thoughtful plan was made and rolled out in carefully thought out phases. All while remaining open for business and without affecting capacity. Dogs Unleashed is nearly in its final phase of development at its original location.
Van Vleet Innovation continues to work with Dogs Unleashed. We are currently developing a software that uses algorithms patterned after the instincts of the Dogs Unleashed founder and proven in employee training. When it’s all finished, Dogs Unleashed will be the gold standard by which all dog daycare will be measured. Dogs Unleashed will be THE dog daycare of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Together, we reimagined pet health and wellbeing.