Elizabeth Staples turned a life-long love of dogs into one of the region’s most notable pet-friendly success stories, the Good Dog Spot. From one small location to two large spaces, 25 employees, and more than 2,000 customers, Staples has built her growing daycare and grooming business according to one driving philosophy: each furry client is someone’s family member, and deserves more — much more — than a hard floor and a cage.
Elizabeth Staples always wanted to be around dogs. Fortunately for her, some early disappointment gave way to an abundance of canines in her life — and a successful second career.
“When I was younger, I wanted a dog, and my mom said no,” she told BusinessWest. “But when I was old enough to get a job, I started working at a local kennel, a family-run place. I liked it — they were able to set their schedule around their family, kids, whatever they had going on.”
That was an important lesson, one she would one day apply to her own venture, the Good Dog Spot, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in Chicopee this year, as well as the first anniversary of its second location in Northampton.
That part of her story begins in 2007, when Staples, who worked for MassMutual at the time, couldn’t shake her love for animals, and a growing desire to craft a career around them.
As a board member with the national Pet Care Services Assoc., she noticed doggie day cares were becoming more popular, many launched by people in the corporate world who had built some savings and decided they’d rather play with dogs all day. But the centers she saw springing up regionally left her cold. She saw an opportunity to do better.
“On the East Coast, I was seeing chain-link kennels, warehouse kennels … just places for the dog to stay until their owners came back,” she said. “But out west, in California and Texas, you were seeing cage-free dogs playing with each other. It seemed like a more labor-intensive thing, but the dogs enjoyed themselves more. I thought that just made sense.”
So she launched the Good Dog Spot in Chicopee in 2007, envisioning a place where canines can mingle and have fun during the day, a model, she said, that more accurately reflects the pet-owner relationship when the pet and owner can’t be together.
She maxed out a credit card and convinced a bank to give her a small loan, which she used to open the business in a small space on Old James St. in Chicopee, which she quickly outgrew by 2009, moving to a warehouse about a mile away on North Chicopee Street. “Whatever we were doing was working, because we grew right away.”
What she was doing, in fact, became one of the region’s more successful pet-related ventures, one that continues to expand its customer base and introduce more dogs to a daycare experience that involves more than cold floors and chain-link fences.
Groomed for Success
At first, the Good Dog Spot focused on day care and grooming, the latter service overseen by Lisa Peloquin, Staples’ business partner and senior groomer.
“Shortly after that, people started asking us about overnight care, so we put in some overnight suites — crates we built into the walls,” Staples said. The area was designed with a homey feel, but the sleepover dogs are typically plenty tired after a day at the Good Dog Spot.
That’s because play and socialization are critical elements of the business model. First-time visitors begin with a day-long evaluation to make sure they get along with the other dogs.
“One of the things we decided early on was to really get to know the dogs,” she said, explaining that dogs that have interaction issues are kept separate from their fellow day campers (but still given plenty of human interaction), while the more social dogs are grouped by age, size, and play style, so senior dogs, for example, aren’t overwhelmed by puppies and high-energy dogs.
“They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break,” Staples explained. “Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps.” Naptime is roughly from noon to 2, just like a child would at a daycare. “When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”
The staff-to-dog ratio is never less than one per 10 to 15 dogs, so the handlers can give individual attention as needed, she added.
“Every dog-owner relationship is different. There’s so many reasons they might be using daycare. Maybe the dog is destructive at home, and they can’t go home during the day and let the dog out of the crate. Or maybe we can help reinforce basic potty training.”
Even the grooming customers, who tend to schedule regular visits every six to eight weeks, on average, can benefit from professional expertise, she went on. “Maybe the dog’s fur is really matted because the owner doesn’t know how to brush properly. We can talk with them, and a lightbulb goes off, and they get it.”
Whatever the issue — and often there’s no issue at all except a desire to give their pets some socialization during the long daytime hours — Staples said her goal is to strengthen the dog-owner relationship. “I love being able to make a difference. If the dog has issues at home, we work to make the relationship better, and make the bond between the owner and dog stronger.”
They play all morning, and around 11 or so, we take them in their groups outside for outdoor play time and potty break. Then it’s back in to settle down and take naps. When they’re active and they go, go, go all day long, they can get cranky.”
She makes that promise to well over 2,000 clients with the help of 25 employees. Besides Staples and Peloquin, the Good Dog Spot’s leadership team includes Corey Staples (Elizabeth’s husband), director of operations; Jacob McCarty, office manager; Shannon O’Connell, daycare manager; and Jennifer Rueli, Northampton facilities manager.
“I knew I didn’t want the business to rely solely on me, so we’d be functionally useless unless I was in the building,” said Staples, who, like the kennel she worked for as a teenager, aims to provide work-life flexibility for her employees, just as her services offer the same flexibility to clients.
New Leash on Life
The Chicopee site, which initially offered almost 5,000 square feet of space, has since expanded twice to double that size — while adding amenities like a small retail shop and the Bark Bus shuttle service — but that still wasn’t enough room.
“We knew we were nearing capacity in our Chicopee location,” Staples said. Northampton made sense as a second site, but she was only feeling out the area, not intending to commit, when her real-estate agent found a King Street building that wound up working perfectly — a wide-open, rectangular structure that she would be able to customize into a flow that would meet the Good Dog Spot’s needs.
That location was also successful right from the start, buoyed by a number of Chicopee clients who switched over because Northampton was more convenient for them, and also by the company’s growing reputation, paired with an expanded advertising and marketing presence.
“The Northampton community was so welcoming as a whole,” she said. “The city was easy to work with, and it’s such a dog-loving community. I really feel fortunate to be where we are.”
Staples’ commitment to pet welfare extends to her training — and that of her staff — in pet first aid and CPR through the American Red Cross. She has also donated time and resources to Dakin Humane Society, Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center, and Rainbow Rescues, and donated pet oxygen masks to local fire stations.
But her most lasting contribution to pet welfare may be her embrace of a model of doggie daycare that treats dogs like family — the way most pet owners today treat them.
“We definitely think we see friendships form between our daycare dogs,” she wrote recently on the Good Dog Spot blog. “Many dogs come on certain days of the week and regularly see the same dogs every time they come. We notice that dogs will be excited to see certain other dogs, and play together every time they come. The dogs here will even form cliques with each other, with a whole group of dogs playing together and becoming friends.”
New clients are sometimes bemused by the report cards and even art projects that get sent home with their furry friends each day, but they quickly understand Staples’ view of dogs as furry kids, and worthy of being treated as such.
“We want to support pet people in our community,” she told BusinessWest. “People around here are so passionate about their dogs, and we’re there to help in whatever way we can.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com