The owner of the Colorado daycare center had seen that kind of shyness before. She gently coaxed Harper toward a room filled with brightly colored climbing toys and a pack of eager friends.
But Harper refused to surrender. Nearly 2 years old, she jammed her feet into the floor, squirmed to escape then cowered in the playroom. Finally, 15 long minutes later, she started to relax among her new pals. Her posture softened. All it took was a welcoming sniff from Bongo Billy.
At Dogtopia, where more than 130 franchises embody the tender themes of child daycare – from naptimes to report cards – that recent moment marked Harper’s first day of school. The puppy, a red heeler mix, had spent her life at two animal shelters before being adopted in December.
These days, Harper – along with Bongo Billy (a basset hound) and 120 other furry clients – are regulars at the Dogtopia of Fort Collins, Colorado which offers the national franchise’s standard fare: daycare, spa and boarding services.
That location, not long ago a bike shop, built its pooch population only a few months after opening in May 2019. And the rapid expansion there only underscores the company’s growth-minded blood lines.
Since 2017, Dogtopia has opened 90 franchises across the U.S. and Canada, with at least 60 more coming online in 2020. It’s the grand vision of Neil Gill, CEO and president of Dogtopia, a canine-loving Aussie with previous franchise-building stints at KFC, Pizza Hut and Gloria Jean’s Coffees.
“What pleases me most is it’s not insane, unsustainable growth; it’s strong growth. It is growth fueled by the expertise of our management team and by the talent within our franchise network,” says Gill, who in 2015 took over what was then 28 fragmented locations.
“We’ll deliver 3 million daycare experiences this year. When you start thinking about that in sheer numbers of dogs, we needed something to help us make the right decisions,” Gill says. “Technology has helped us scale.”
Dogtopia, headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, now collects and analyzes business data from all 130-plus franchises – warehousing that data in Microsoft Azure, visualizing trends in that data through Power BI then delivering timely data analyses back to the franchise owners in easily digestible morsels via SharePoint. The franchises are Office 365 customers.
“We’re continuously looking for ways to integrate Microsoft products,” says Jim McBrayer, Dogtopia’s IT manager. “We can go straight from OneNote to Outlook and the daycares can all do the same thing. They can talk in (Microsoft) Teams, and we can have it together in one area.”
For example, Power BI dashboards show every Dogtopia franchise their unique, daily ratio of daycare dogs versus boarding dogs. That’s important because when the share of daycare regulars is high, staff trainers (called “canine coaches”) can provide more education to their pooches, like basic commands and bark control. Boarding dogs are new to those ongoing lessons, changing the daily teaching plan.
“That allows the canine coach to go into the playroom quite prepared,” Gill says.
“It’s no different than school where you have kids returning to their own classroom every day,” he adds. “They synergize and learn from each other. It’s the same with dogs. If you’ve got a room with a lot of new daycare dogs or a lot of boarding dogs, the coach will focus more on socialization.”
Echoing the benefits of child daycare is an intentional (and adorable) theme at Dogtopia.
On a recent Friday afternoon at the Fort Collins franchise, folded report cards sat in a neat line on the lobby’s front desk, awaiting the return of dog owners (known as “pet parents”). Summit, a pink-nosed pup with a white and orange coat, enjoyed “being on the play equipment,” ate all his meals, romped with his “best friend” Bongo and was “so sweet and kind,” according to his report card.
Near the lobby, rows of plastic cubbies held the coiled leashes of Beezer, Olly, Layla, Chico, Charlie, Daphne and the rest. And everyone was celebrating Letty’s birthday, preparing a special card (using Microsoft Publisher) with hand-written messages from every employee (“Hope you get all the treats!”), all surrounding a photo of Letty wearing a pointy yellow hat.
Each play area was a separate scene of joyous chaos. Dogs were grouped based on their size, age, temperament and play style. That afternoon, some curled up on soft, corner napping benches, eyes closed. Some chased each other over and under climbing toys. Some stood on their back legs to peer through observation windows or doors. Many flashed smiles.
The staff all wore the same orange T-shirts that read, “canine coach.” In one room, an employee blew bacon-scented bubbles into the air as five dogs gleefully surrounded her and jumped to bite the bubbles. One of those dogs was Harper, the previously shy heeler mix. Her tail fluttered and she barked repeatedly.
The cornerstones of the company’s mission, Gill says, are to “enhance the joy of dog parenthood” and to ensure that each pooch returns home at night “a better canine citizen than it was in the morning.”
“If we can do that, we know we create a better relationship between the dog and pet parent. Once you create that stronger relationship, that pet parent will never, ever give up that dog,” Gill says.
The CEO has had four dogs in his life.
As a boy in Australia, there was a long-legged Corgi mix, a rescue, with big energy tempered only by nonstop action. There was a black Lab, Marty, that was not allowed in the house, so Gill sometimes hid Marty in his bedroom then built him a carpeted kennel. Later, there was a super-smart German shepherd that taught Gill loyalty. And today, there’s a golden retriever – “just a loving beast,” he says.
All four dogs gave him bits of wisdom that now make up pieces of Dogtopia’s culture, including a celebration of play and the understanding that the animals are hungry to learn and ready to give.
Those are some of the, (yes), dogmas that attracted Ashley Todd, 26, to purchase and open the Fort Collins Dogtopia franchise last year.
A 2016 graduate of Colorado State University, where she majored in business, Todd was drawn to the company’s tenets, including safety, cleanliness, transparency and special attention paid to the “two-client aspect – you have the pet parent and you have the dog,” she says. “We nurture both.”
What her clients may not know: Todd is now living her lifelong dream.
At age 5, she sketched business diagrams and pictures of the dog daycare she planned to build and run as an adult. Her inspiration was Duckie, her German shepherd-husky mix.
“She was amazing, she was a friend,” Todd says. “I loved how my family made my dog feel like family. I wanted to do something someday with dogs. I really liked the concept of having a doggie hotel. It seemed like I was born to do it.”
Todd has 30 employees. One of those is a formerly retired man working the front desk, greeting pet parents and pooches alike. It’s Ashley’s father, Greg Todd.
“This is a daughter-father business, as we say, not a father-daughter business. She is the boss. She runs the show. I help in any way I can,” Greg Todd says. “But what father could have a better dream than working with his daughter as she follows her dream?”
Late on a recent afternoon, as dog parents filed in to fetch their pooches for the evening, Greg Todd picked up his walkie-talkie to alert his daughter and the rest of the staff working in one of the three playrooms and in the outside play area.
“Can I have Miss Dottie, please?” he said into his walkie. “Miss Dottie is going home.”
Soon, it was time for Harper to leave, too.
“Can I have Harper, please?” Greg Todd requested into his walkie.
In the lobby, David Thiel, a building maintenance technician, waited for his girl. He’d adopted her in December because he liked her high energy level and friendly personality.
Wearing her leash, Harper bounded into the lobby. Her eyes were wide, her tail was bushy, and she greeted Thiel with wags and licks, a 180-degree difference from her outward fright earlier in the day.
They walked together to Thiel’s car. Harper hopped in and quickly curled up on a seat. Then she closed her eyes and slept all the way home.
All photos by Helen H. Richardson. Top photo: Ashley Todd blows bacon-scented, edible bubbles for dogs in the outside play area at Dogtopia of Fort Collins.