When you walk into Paws Unleashed in Woodbury, the first thing you’ll notice that makes it different from other boarding or “doggy day care” facilities is how quiet it is, despite having nearly 60 dogs in the spacious facility. The dogs are having fun playing inside and outside, being led and supervised by trainers, but there is none of the usual barking and noise one would associate with that many dogs. Tails are wagging and the dogs are busy at play, both with the other dogs but also with their human trainers who work with the dogs during the day. It’s part dog daycare, part dog school.
Owners Caitlin Olausen and her mother Janet, turned their lifelong love of dogs into a thriving family run business. Paws Unleashed is all part of a carefully planned facility that was eight years in the making.
We spoke with them about the planning that went into their business, their first year of business, and their plans for the future.
I see on your website that your first business was Ruff N’ Ready Dogs. What is the connection to Paws Unleashed?
Caitlin: We started Ruff N’ Ready Dogs out of my house. I trained puppies then found them homes. As the business grew, I started training other people’s dogs at the house and then I would work with the owners to show them everything that the dog had learned. I started boarding the dogs that I trained, so it turned into a lot of boarding. We continued to look for a place to have a boarding facility and add a day care so that we could expand our services. We finally found a site and it just worked out.
How long did the search take?
Caitlin: We had been officially trying and looking for about eight years. It was on and off. We always knew we wanted to do something like this but sometimes we were looking really hard, sometimes it would kind of fizzle away and then we would start again.
Janet: It was 2008 when we started looking. We had a few places we were close on and a couple false starts.
Caitlin: Yeah, it might not have been the right timing or it just didn’t work out the way it was going to so we just kept going.
You mentioned dog training. Janet, do you have a dog training background as well?
Janet: No. I came out of the corporate world after 35 years. I worked for IBM for 25 years and I worked for Northwest [Airlines] and Delta for another ten. My role is more on the business side.
Caitlin, how did you get started in dog training?
Caitlin: Right after high school, I took a few college courses, but I knew I wanted to work with dogs. I’ve always loved dogs and I grew up with them. I researched dog training schools and found a great one. I moved to Missouri for six months and graduated from the Tom Rose Dog Training Schools there. After that, I worked at a few kennels and different places and learned a lot about dog boarding. Then I decided to go to grooming school because I felt like if I was ever going to have a place, I needed to know everything about grooming as well. I moved out to Menomonie, WI and went to a grooming school there, got my certification, came home and did grooming for a couple of years. After that, we looked at quite a few places to open the business but we weren’t finding anything, so we decided to just start it out of our house and see how it goes. It just slowly grew and grew.
Is it safe to say then that it grew to be larger than what your home would allow?
Caitlin: For sure. It was going great at the house, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to offer day care, which I couldn’t do out of my house. We needed more room for dog boarding and we had requests for other things like day care and grooming. And it was mainly just me. My sister helped too.
What experience then led you to make the leap from home base business to this facility with all of the services that are offered? It sounds like maybe it was an evolution of an idea over time?
Caitlin: We always knew that we wanted to help people in many different ways with their dogs and not do just one thing. The overall health of a dog is so important. I guess you could call us a holistic place. We don’t want to just wear the dogs out so they go home super tired. We look at their overall happiness, their skin, their coat, their nails… just the whole overall health of the dog. We implement training while they’re here so that’s why it’s a calmer environment. All of the employees here are trained to handle the dogs, not just supervise the dogs. We work with the dogs throughout the day on basic manners like not jumping, barking and other unwanted behaviors. We teach the dogs to play appropriately, and socialize well so they are all very happy, healthy, comfortable and calm.
How do you socialize a new dog when they arrive?
Caitlin: Before we take a new dog on they go through an evaluation day. During the evaluation we pay a lot of attention to the dog and slowly introduce them to the pack. We don’t just throw them into a new group of dogs. We slowly introduce them to a lot of the dogs that come here three, four, five days a week so we know their personalities really well and introduce them to certain dogs. Our evaluation process is pretty strict. We don’t allow dogs with any signs of aggression. If they have any bad habits or unwanted behaviors such as barking or jumping, we’ll talk to the owners about training and that we would need to implement some kind of training to allow them to come so they aren’t stressing other dogs out or teaching other dogs bad behaviors. We watch them really close and make sure they are comfortable in certain situations like if they’re going to be ok with other dogs running around them or chasing them and that they are happy and comfortable.
Your Instagram feed is so fun. How do you use social media with your business?
Caitlin: We try and post pictures and videos as much as we can so people can see photos of their dogs during the day. We don’t do a whole lot else with it now, but I’d like to. We just haven’t had time to grow it anymore. We’ll message people if their dog is here or we’ll message them on Facebook so they can see their dog and let them know their dog is doing well if they are staying for boarding. Everyone shares their pictures of their dogs so that has helped us with word of mouth advertising.
What was your first year of business like? Is it what you expected?
Caitlin: Yes. We did not want to grow too fast and then not be able to handle all the dogs that might come in so we didn’t really advertise. It was perfect. We are just slowly growing and getting to know each dog that comes in.
Do you have plans to expand to a second location?
Caitlin: I don’t know. We want to maintain the quality. We’re worried that if we did open another facility… It might be too much. But yeah, we do think about it. A lot of people tell us to. We’ll see.
What’s it like working with Brad [Benesh, Senior VP/Business Banking] and the rest of the bank?
Janet: Great! Even before we started, we knew we wanted to be in Woodbury. We looked at other places because it just seemed almost impossible to get a place in Woodbury but we eventually found a place, worked with the city and got a conditional use permit. We had our business case in hand and everything ready to go around and talk to banks about getting a loan. North American Banking Company was a bank that was referred to us. Brad was wonderful!
[Caitlin and Janet were referred to North American Banking Company by Bob Stiglich of Stiglich Construction, a North American Banking customer for many years. Stiglich Construction also did the build out for the Paws Unleashed facilities.]
Caitlin: Yeah. We just felt comfortable with Brad. He talked to us like we were real people. He’s very down to earth. We just felt super comfortable. He made the process super easy.
Janet: Initially, we were working on the SBA loan to just do build out on everything at a place we planned to lease, but that didn’t work out. We always wanted to own a place rather than lease it. It was Brad who said that we probably needed to buy a place.
Caitlin: We didn’t think that we could. We had a lot of people tell us we had to lease, that we wouldn’t be able to purchase a place first. Brad got us to exactly where we wanted to be. We wouldn’t have to lease anything and we were able to purchase it.
Does Brad come out to check in on you all a lot?
Caitlin: He definitely did in the beginning. Then I think he realized that everything was going good and we would always be pretty busy. But whenever we are in the bank, he stops and asks how things are going.
What would you tell someone that was interested in a similar type of business?
Caitlin: I would say don’t just do it because you love dogs. There are a lot of people that do it because they do love dogs. But you need to educate yourself on everything from dog socialization to training to grooming to just the overall basic health of dogs and being able to handle a dog. Be ready for a lot of work and a lot of stressful situations. Educate yourself before thinking that you’ll just be playing with dogs all day because that is the exact opposite of what it is.