Kennel owner takes gamble on dog business

Dog Tired Dogs cage-free setting offers owner new beginning

A curious Bubba peers over a fence of one of three dog areas at Dog Tired Dogs.

A curious Bubba peers over a fence of one of three dog areas at Dog Tired Dogs. Photo By C.T. Kruger

July 15, 2013

Glendale — Downsized and downtrodden, Susan Taylor was in life's doghouse.

Decades ago, she had been in the prosperous business of supplying ingredients to Milwaukee's brewers. As that business began to taper off in the 80s and 90s, Taylor was one of many shown the door when her employer was snapped up by a larger company.

Suddenly outside an industry for which she had cultivated a particular skill set, Taylor went on a 15-year "journey to find out what to do with my life" — a long and difficult journey that cost her a marriage. As time wore on, she bounced between trades, at times working as a micro-lender, recruiter and eventually a fast food worker and a maid.

"I ended up going down the food chain as the years went along," Taylor said. "I did whatever it took to pay the bills."

New opportunity

About a year-and-a-half ago, Taylor was down to her last nickel, she said, on her knees and praying to God, when an opportunity presented itself. The owner of Glendale-based Dog Tired Dogs, a cage-free kennel, was looking to sell.

Taylor took a chance, gambling the balance of her retirement account on the venture after she was denied bank financing.

"It was the only way I could fund it," Taylor said.

But why risk her last shred of financial security on dogs? Simply put, she loves them.

"They're funny," Taylor said. "They're not judgmental. They care about you. They're everything you want a person to be."

Area demand didn't hurt either. Dog Tired's clientele, Taylor said, is largely composed of successful business people who commute to downtown Milwaukee every day and frequently travel. Though it costs more to run a cage-free kennel, Taylor says her customers are willing to pay for the added companionship and freedom their dogs receive.

"(The former owner) saw there was a need in the marketplace," Taylor said. "These are people's pets that they hold dear. To stuff them in a cage and turn the lights out and leave them there doesn't settle well."

During the day, dogs are split up into "rooms" — areas of the building's open floor space separated by chest-high walls — based on both their physical size and the force of their personality.

The small room is populated with smaller breeds like Spaniels, Poodles and Corgis, along with some docile Labradors. In the medium room a pack of pooches trails behind a playful, black and brown dappled Catahoula named Bear, while Bertie the English Bulldog looks on from a park bench against the wall, tongue lolling. A deep, booming bark from the large room announces Oliver, a friendly mix of St. Bernard and Bull Mastiff who, on his hind legs, towers head and shoulders above the dividing walls to greet passersby.

A separate space in the corner of the building, reminiscent of a living room with a couch, arm chair, television and microwave, is where one handler hunkers down every evening to keep the overnight dogs company until the morning.

Leading the pack

Taylor's gamble paid off.

During the day Dog Tired can hold about 50 dogs, 20 overnight. Both day care and overnight stays are almost always booked solid, Taylor said. Business is so good she said she's considering an expansion to accommodate the older, placid dogs who can't handle the excitement of their younger peers.

And driving the business are the handlers, Taylor said. Assuming the role of pack leader, they dole out discipline and rewards to manage the many personalities present among dogs.

"It's a fun job, but it's not what people think," said Michelle Albrecht, a supervisor among the handlers with special training on service dogs. "It's a lot of hard work, and sometimes you need to be the boss."

Her job is to step in to keep the alpha, pack-leader types from going at each other, to mend the relationships between fighters and manipulate the personality of the pack in such a way that the dogs trust each other and reinforce positive behavior among themselves.

As a supervisor, she has to perform a similar sort of pack management among her co-workers and with customers. Which does she prefer, pooches or people?

"The dogs. No question," Albrecht said, laughing. "They're a lot easier to handle than people."

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