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Monday, December 22, 2014

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Doggie daycare keeps hounds happy

Tags: Business
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Jesse Sternberg

As the puppies play at Woof and Shloof in midtown Toronto, it’s hard to say it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. None of the happy hounds look dog tired, there wasn’t one who could claim to be sick as a dog, but, truth be told, it certainly looked like the place was going to the dogs.

But in a good way.

It turns out, today’s pampered pooches never had it so good, what with the spa-like grooming services and doggie daycare at their convenience.

As people spend more and more on their canine companions, enter Woof and Shloof, a grooming, daycare and dog-training company located not far from Forest Hill. It bills itself as a “first-class facility [that] is cage free and architected entirely from the dog’s point of view.”

Jesse Sternberg, founder and owner of the 18-month-old company, believes he has hit on a winning formula that distinguishes Woof and Shloof (Yiddish for sleep) from other facilities catering to canines.

At the heart of it is his uncanny ability to see the world as dogs see it, to relate to them on their own level and to provide them with a stimulating and enjoyable experience that sees them return to their owners calm and peaceful.

It’s something they appreciate, he said. The last thing many of them want to do is deal with a hyped-up hound that’s been cooped up all day in a house or apartment.

Sternberg can relate to dogs because he’s been around them all his life – he jokes he “was raised by a sheepdog” – and has learned to recognize and apply the non-verbal signals they use to communicate.

“I can do stuff other people can’t do,” he explained. “I can take a plate of food off your table and put it on the floor, and [the dog] wouldn’t touch it – he’d wait for me to give it to him.”

Through his own experience and by following the lead of renowned dog trainer Turid Rugaas, Sternberg communicates with animals through gestures and subtle signals.

“Dogs see us as part of the animal kingdom,” he said. “They communicate non-verbally.”

“Dogs come from a place where they avoid conflict, where they want to be peaceful,” he continued. They avoid eye contact, which can be seen as a gesture of assertiveness.

Since he is sensitive to these hidden clues, Sternberg is able to create an environment in which as many as 30 dogs can socialize without conflict, play, get exercise and expend their energy. His staff is trained to employ his techniques, and his clients love the calmness in their animals when they pick them up at the end of the day. They usually come back for more.

“I’ll get crazy, poorly behaved dogs at home, and after they come here, they go home and they’re blissfully calm. The owners are amazed and they spread it around by word-of-mouth,” Sternberg, 31, said.

“It’s a huge part of my business because I have two customers every time someone comes into the store, the dog and the human.”

As a result, the business has grown by leaps and bounds. In the 18 months since he opened, more than 1,300 customers have come through the doors. “Every month, the numbers are growing.”

“We hit our break-even point,” Sternberg said. “It took a while. It took 16 months. Since then, it’s basically been exploding.”

The April 2012 revenue numbers are triple what they were the same month the year before, he added.

Woof and Shloof’s revenue model is based on selling packages for half-day or full-day daycare, as well as providing grooming services and training.

The hourly rate drops as larger packages are selected. A full day is priced at $39 to drop in; $33 a day for a package of 10, or $29 a day for a package of 20.

The competition can’t match that value, Sternberg said, not when dog walkers charge $20 just for a one-hour walk.

“The best customers are the ones who are double-income earners who work long days and their dog is essentially their child,” he said. “They feel guilty leaving the dog at home. Also, when a dog is left alone for that long, dogs tend to be destructive. They chew the couch and rip the baseboard. So this becomes a solution.”

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