Jeanne Kelp grew up in Spokane surrounded by pets – dogs, cats, birds, rats – and imagined someday becoming a veterinarian.
“That didn’t work out,” she says matter-of-factly.
Actually, elementary school didn’t work out. She quit in sixth grade.
Her husband, Lonny Kelp, who spent part of his youth on a farm outside Chewelah, dropped out of high school.
But achievement is measured in many ways. And Jeanne’s Doggie Daycare and Pet Hotel – with sites at 720 E. Sprague Ave. and 17809 E. Appleway Ave., and expansion plans – has grown steadily since the Kelps launched their enterprise more than a decade ago.
“I have a lot of respect for both of them,” says their son Lani, who manages the East Sprague facility. “To come from the background they did and have the success they’ve had means a lot.”
During a recent interview, the Kelps discussed their niche of the hospitality industry, animal bites and separation anxiety.
S-R: What drew you to this?
Lonny: I had a janitorial service from 1987 to 2000. Jeanne opened a children’s day care center in 1997, and within six months it was the second-largest in Spokane. She sold that business two years later because it would have cost too much to bring everything up to code. We were going to breed and socialize small dogs, but when we lost our oldest son in a bull riding accident, we put that idea on hold. We wanted to get away for a while, but couldn’t find a place to board our dogs and cats. That’s when Jeanne came up with this idea.
S-R: What did you know about the business?
Lonny: Nothing, really. So we traveled to Seattle, Portland and California to check out animal day care facilities.
S-R: What distinguishes your services from others?
Lonny: We are the only local one that will socialize aggressive dogs into the pack and get them playing with other dogs.
S-R: Do you ever reject dogs?
Jeanne: Not even trained attack dogs.
Lonny: But we treat them differently. Not because we can’t stop (their aggressiveness), but because their owner doesn’t want them to change. All we do is put them in their suite, take them out to go potty, and keep them by themselves.
S-R: How much did it cost to start the business?
Lonny: Realistically, it should have cost about $250,000. But we started with practically nothing.
Jeanne: We spent between $35,000 and $45,000 on construction.
S-R: Did you have a business plan?
Jeanne: Not in writing. In my head.
S-R: What was your basic strategy?
Lonny: When she explained it to me, I thought she’d fallen off the deep end, because I was raised on a farm where dogs didn’t even come into the house. The idea behind this is that when people take off, they want to leave their pets somewhere that’s clean, quiet and fun – like a hotel. It turned out Jeanne was right.
S-R: You have as many as 100 dogs in the same day care area. How do you keep them quiet?
Lonny: We treat the dogs as if they’re in a pack, and we’re the pack leaders. As soon as they come through the door, we take control. The dogs go, “Oh, he’s the boss,” and react just as they would in the wild. That doesn’t mean we don’t hug and love the dogs. They still get to play and roughhouse – do what dogs do.
S-R: And they never fight?
Lonny: We occasionally have problems. The difference is we solve them. Dogs are like kids on a playground – you can’t stop a kid from going up and punching another kid. But you can stop it from happening a second time. And that’s how it is here. Since we’re the alpha, they don’t have to be, and they get along.
S-R: Are customers skeptical?
Lonny: All the time. I tell them if I can’t get their dog to behave with the others, I’ll give them their money back. I have a 100 percent success rate.
S-R: What impacts customer traffic?
Jeanne: Weather is big. Last winter there was no snow, so people didn’t go skiing.
Lonny: We probably did half the January business we’d normally do.
S-R: When are you busiest?
Lonny: We’re booked solid every holiday. Some customers reserve space several years in advance.
S-R: You’ve had other careers – child care and janitorial. Did any skills from those jobs transfer?
Lonny: All of them – especially our standard for cleanliness.
S-R: What’s your typical schedule?
Lonny: We work seven days a week. I’m here anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day, depending on what I have to do.
Jeanne: I’m usually in the office six hours a day, overseeing things and watching monitors.
S-R: What’s the key to being accepted as the alpha?
Lonny: You have to show dogs you’re the boss. They should never jump on you or do the other things most people allow dogs to do without permission. When I’m in the day care room, they can’t come up to me. That doesn’t mean you won’t see me laying on the floor and dogs licking me. But the alpha allows other dogs to come up to him only at his request.
S-R: How often are you bitten?
Lonny: Maybe 30 times since we opened.
S-R: How does that square with your alpha role?
Lonny: Dogs don’t bite because they’re mean. They bite as a form of communication. Early on, someone brought in a big Lab, and immediately I could tell this dog had been abused. When I went into the suite to socialize him I didn’t have a good hold on him, and I knew he was going to bite me. So I let him grab me, and he sunk his teeth in. After about five seconds he let go, I was able to socialize him, and pretty soon he was licking my face.
S-R: How did you know it was safe to allow a dog that just bit you to get close to your face?
Lonny: I’ve studied dogs my whole life. If you know what to look for, you can tell. But if you don’t know, it’s dangerous.
S-R: Are there common misconceptions about your business?
Lonny: Job applicants say, “I’ve always wanted to play with dogs.” But our job isn’t to play with the dogs. They play with each other. Our job is to be the alpha, to clean up after the dogs and take care of customers.
S-R: What qualities do you look for when hiring?
Jeanne: The first thing I look for is longevity at previous jobs.
Lonny: Also patience, and a loving attitude toward animals.
Jeanne: And not afraid of them.
S-R: How do you know someone can be an alpha?
Lonny: It takes training, just like in the service. The guy who becomes a colonel wasn’t a colonel when he first walked through the door.
S-R: Do you ever have long-term guests?
Lonny: One customer who was posted overseas left two dogs for over a year.
Jeanne: We’ve had people leave their dogs to die, because they couldn’t stand to put them down.
S-R: How about separation anxiety?
Lonny: When we first opened, a guy sat across the street and watched us through binoculars. Finally he comes in and says he wants to leave his basset hound with us while he goes to Las Vegas with his daughter. And he leaves a bunch of German sausages, because he says his dog gets them every day. The next morning when we arrive for work, he’s waiting for us. He gets out of his car, sobbing, saying he just can’t be away from his dog. When I get his dog, this rather large guy drops to his knees with a thud, grabs his dog and just lays there bawling. And his daughter, who’s with him, says, “He treats that dog way better than he ever did us.”