Social services for dogs

Dog day care is a relatively new business sector, and on Auckland’s North Shore,
Louise O’Sullivan’s DogHQ is setting the pace on service and standards. Glenn Baker caught up with the corporate high-flyer turned dedicated dog socialiser.

It was eerily quiet when I popped into DogHQ’s reception around lunchtime. Little did I know that around 60 pampered pooches were out the back socialising. Behind the window to my right, one obedient little dog was having its facial whiskers carefully groomed. So cute!
Business owner Louise O’Sullivan and her Rhodesian ridgeback Indie come to greet me – both appear to have boundless enthusiasm: Indie is keen to sniff a new stranger; and I quickly realise that Lousie is passionate about building a business with a well-earned reputation for standard of care.
It turns out that Louise has an extremely varied background – the ten years prior to starting DoqHQ were spent in corporate marketing management in the IT&T industry. She also has experience in sales, hardware and software support, publishing, customer service and coaching horse riding.
Later, in her office, I ask Louise what led her to open her own dog day care centre? The answer was the animal pretending to be asleep on the doggie bed in the corner.
Louise’s problem was fairly typical for a lot of people: she was living the life of a busy executive, but a “life-changing” puppy suddenly required a major chunk of her time and energy.
“I’m a problem solver and I had a problem,” recalls Louise. “The problem was Indie. At the time she was my eight-month old puppy, and although I put a lot of effort into entertaining her, it just wasn’t enough, and there was no social interaction with other dogs.
She went across the harbour bridge to check out a dog day care, realised there was nothing like it on the North Shore, and began to gnaw on the bone of an idea to open her own business – the goal was to help working dog owners who were in a similar position to her.
“I remember the exact moment when the idea [for a dog day care centre] came to me, and from then on the idea really chased me. I kept exploring it, writing plans and researching – I felt I had to pursue the idea until I arrived at a point where I was either doing it, or had decided not to. That process took up 18 months.”
With support from partner Peter, Louise sacrificed her corporate salary, borrowed against the house, personally prepared all the marketing material including the website, and launched DogHQ in Goldfield Street, Wairau Valley in late-2010. The launch was a little unusual in that they were open for just two weeks before closing again for the Christmas/New Year school holidays. The timing may not have been the best, but with the fit-out complete and rent being paid, Louise was determined to get things up and running as quickly as possible. It would be mid-January 2011 before things could really get under way.

No compromise
From day one Louise was determined there would be no compromise when it came to setting the standards for DogHQ. While some dog day care centres will accept pretty much any dog, Louise carefully assesses each animal to ensure that they can play safely in a group. Inevitably that means some dogs are turned away – which was hard to do in the early days when cashflow was tight and profits still some way down the track. “It was certainly a test of faith in our long-term plan. I was pretty staunch when we were getting the business established about operating appropriately and not making compromises for the sake of a short-term dollar.”
Louise admits that in her previous careers she has always been very customer focused and a strong customer advocate, and this has helped with her business. “It’s one of my core characteristics – plus you have to remember that I came into the business being my own target customer, and that certainly helped too.
“I made the decision that if we couldn’t make a profit doing this the right way – then we’d just have to close down and this would all have been a bad idea. It was a case of just being patient.”
Having said all that, Louise admits that there was some urgency to get the business to break-even point.

People, brand and socialisation
Running a dedicated dog day care is not without its unique challenges. There is significant responsibility of due care – just like child day care, it’s important to have the right staff doing the right thing all the time, says Louise. Being open for 12-and-a-half hours a day is a challenge too.
However, one factor that has worked in Louise’s favour is her strong experience in people management and recruitment. “My corporate background gave me strong experience in HR procedure and documentation – which is important in this field. HR can be a minefield if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
She also labels herself as a brand person; someone who can deliver on a vision. Before opening her business, Louise pictured in her mind exactly what her brand would stand for. “What you see today is exactly what I had in mind.”
Louise says it’s about meeting their own high expectations and those of customers – and winning the Excellence in Customer Engagement category at the Westpac Auckland North Business Awards last year is confirmation that they’ve set a respectable benchmark for the industry. This is especially important in an unregulated industry where not all the players are created equal she says, and in a business that relies heavily on word of mouth.
Today the business is running at about 70 percent capacity. It’s a business with great potential, as more people slowly begin to realise that ‘socialisation’ is vital for puppies. “If Indie could have come to DogHQ when she was a puppy, she wouldn’t have the social issues she has today – which I have to live with for the rest of her life,” says Louise, adding that many people are completely oblivious to the effect poor socialisation has on puppies. Socialisation can be positive or negative, and it can be what separates one dog day care from another.
Don’t think that a human can replace a dog either, she says. If you do you’re missing the whole point of DogHQ. It’s not just about the dog being ‘home alone’, or about a dog day care providing a convenient dog-minding service. It’s about providing a harmonious, stimulating social environment that produces healthy, robust dogs from a young age that can cope with the expectations of the real world. Dogs need more than humans.
Nothing gives Louise more pleasure than seeing young dogs transformed through their time at DogHQ. You’d be surprised to see how dogs help dogs she says – especially timid dogs. “It gives them general confidence to be out in the world.
“One of the most unprompted comments I get from new customers is ‘I can’t believe how different my dog is.’ The dog is calmer because it’s getting the necessary stimulation.
“People definitely underestimate how much a dog needs in regard to contact with other dogs.”

Glenn Baker is editor of NZBusiness.


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