The Pet Care Pro Interview: Laura Schorrak, CPACM is just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals. Read the current issue online here.
Laura Schorrak is a charter member of IBPSA (celebrating five years of membership this July), a Certified Professional Animal Care Provider (CPACP) and Manager (CPACM), and the owner of three dog daycare and training facilities in Madison, Wisconsin – The Dog Den (two locations) and The Puppy Den. She and the staff at her three locations possess the highest number of Professional Animal Care Certification Council (PACCC) certified professionals at one company. As revealed in this interview, Laura values, encourages, and, on a daily basis, incorporates continuing education and training. That commitment to excellence has paid off. Her pet care facilities are so popular, there is currently a new client waitlist at two of the locations. Learn how it was that passion for learning that set this research biologist on a pet care business path, helped her manage the business bumps, and succeed.
How did you get involved in the pet care industry? How did the opening of The Dog Den come about and how did you decide on the location?
My story is not a traditional pathway. I didn’t actually set out to own a business and how I came to own The Dog Den all began with my first love, my chocolate Lab, Kelly.
I received my Bachelor of Science from University of Wisconsin-Madison where I focused my studies on two forms of biology: Bacteriology and Zoology. While studying Zoology, I concentrated specifically on how animals and humans interact. My love for research and all things science led me to begin my career in research. I worked in several different laboratories at UW-Madison, doing everything from working with plants, worms, bacteria, mice, and even primates. Although I always had dogs, cats, and various other animals growing up, it wasn’t until 2004 that I was able to adopt my very first dog on my own. Kelly came with a variety of problems ranging from little training and manners to several health issues. It was because of Kelly that I began to focus on all things dog – learning more about behavior, training, and health. Because of him, I found a company called The Dog Den for training classes. At this point, The Dog Den was strictly training classes, but the daycare was in the final planning stages and about to open in a few months.
I knew I wanted to learn more about dog behavior and training so when The Dog Den daycare opened in December 2004, I was there the very first day. Talking with the then-owner, and eager to learn all I could, I asked if I could help out to be able to learn more. I was offered a part-time position. For a while I split my time between research labs and canine Labs (plus many other breeds) and, over the next few years, I transitioned from part-time to full-time to manager at The Dog Den. As manager, I worked really hard to create a unique daycare and training experience focusing on the individual dog and what that dog needed to thrive. Using Kelly as my guide, because he did not love a group play environment, I worked to be a place that was inclusive for each dog and their family. Fast forward to 2011 and the business that had become so important to me came up for sale and I just knew this was my calling. I was able to secure a loan for the asking price and, before I even knew it, I was a business owner!
Because my background is in science and research, I am always keeping up with the newest research in animal behavior and training. I read as much as I can and attend seminars to continue my education. I work to incorporate these things in my daily interactions with all the dogs, both in daycare and in classes. My previous training in lab work taught me that there is no one-size-fits all when it comes to animals. I am always looking for new ways to approach training and behavior. I love helping people and their dogs create a fun and fulfilling life together.
With my team, everything we do is based in training and education. We never settle for what has always worked but continue to grow and learn and take that to our interactions with the dogs.
Almost immediately after I took over as owner, we outgrew our current facility. We moved in the fall of 2013 to a building twice the size of the previous facility. And, by the fall of 2014, we had reached our capacity. We began to search for a second location when we found out that another daycare in the area was up for sale. Long story short, we determined this was the best for our second facility, so in the fall of 2016 we opened our second location on the other side of town.
Because we are behavior and training centered, we have always worked with puppies differently than the adults. Puppies have so many different needs as they develop and need very specific training, socialization, and enrichment to grow into the best dogs that they can. After a few years of operating with puppies on their own daycare floor, we decided to pull that portion of the company out separately and our third location – The Puppy Den – was born in February 2017.
Can you provide an overview of your current locations including how many employees you have? Services offered? How many pets can you accommodate?
We have three locations – two adult locations for pups that are 6 months or older and one location for puppies under one year. We have 35 employees across all locations, including our training department. Our puppy location is unlike anything else in the area. We focus on helping to develop puppies from as young as 8 weeks old to help them socialize and train in a safe setting with staff that are puppy pros!
We offer daycare Monday through Friday. We have training classes on the evenings and weekends, ranging from puppy to basic obedience to aggressive dog classes. We also offer private, in-home lessons and behavior consults. We also have “puppy social hours”.
Between all three locations we accommodate about 200 dogs per day in groups based on size, playstyle, developmental stage, and friend preference. We pride ourselves on being behaviorally focused – all of our playgroup leaders are trained in behavior and dog body language as well has how to train and modify unwanted behaviors.
How did you build a successful customer base? And how do you maintain/expand it?
We have such an incredible family of clients. One of the foundations of the company is to help people find that bond with their dogs so everything we do centers around helping people find what makes their dog thrive. For some, that is daily or weekly activity in the daycare. For others, it is training and determining what makes their dog happiest. We believe in open, honest communication to help owners and their dogs in any way we can. We are actually so full at our adult locations that we have closed enrollment and are currently running waitlists for new clients. Our Puppy Den location is the only location accepting new dogs and they find us from word of mouth and online searches. Being the only location in the area servicing puppies only, people find us pretty easily. Our training classes are also word of mouth and repeat customers.
We strive to provide a family-like atmosphere helping owners with their dogs through all stages of life. Because we are not only a daycare but also a training facility, we are able to help people with their dogs no matter what their situation. Our motto is Learn and Play…Every Day!
Describe/outline your typical day?
My typical day is anything but typical. I am very active in the daily operations at this point, so you can find me checking dogs into the daycare and talking with the clients, spending time on improving the procedures and policies, working directly with the dogs in the daycare, and so much more.
What do you get out of being a member of IBPSA? What value do you see in the association?
For me the biggest takeaway from being an IBPSA member is all of the available education. I use it all the time and have my staff look at it as well. With a career begun in research and science, not planning on being a business owner, the business aspect of this could feel bumpy, so I use the available IBPSA business resources considerably.
What prompted you to become certified by PACCC?
Becoming certified was important to me to show credibility in an otherwise unregulated field. One of the foundations of what we do is education – within our staff, in the community, with the dog. This is a field that is easy to join and claim yourself as a “professional”. True professionals look for ways to stand apart. Certification is a great way to show that you are a professional looking to meet the standards in the industry.
Currently, your facility has the highest number of PACCC certified professionals. To what do you attribute your high certified rate? How do you encourage your staff to become certified?
We currently have 10 CPACPs including myself. We will have two more sitting for the current exam and a few more looking in to the next testing date. Education is very important to us and I have just encouraged my staff to try for the test. We have a rigorous training program for the staff and are constantly doing continuing education, so this was just a natural fit for us. My team is incredibly motivated and love to learn.
What benefits for your business, if any, are you seeing due to the PACCC certifications?
As the only facility in our area to have certified professionals on staff, we have found our clients to feel even more confident in our care for their pups. But even more important than that, I find the team members that have become certified are even more driven to keep our dogs safe and happy. They are motivated to keep up with their education and to share their knowledge with each other, the clients, and the dogs. The enthusiasm that this team brings to the day is truly inspiring.
How do you find people to bring into your organization that truly care about it the way you do?
Culture is so important. When we are hiring, we hire for culture and fit first. We believe we can train for the skills, but the passion and drive have to come from within. Our process is multi-step and involves several of our team. The first step is simply applying for the job and answering a few basic questions. From there, applicants are selected to join a group interview. At a group interview, we have a team of Dog Den-ners asking questions and talking with a group of applicants. During this process, our team determines if they think the applicant is good fit for the company. This group will select people to come to a working interview in the daycare. During the working interview, the interviewee will meet with several more staff members and our daycare pups. During the entire process, the applicant will meet and talk with at least seven different people in the company and each will weigh in if they think that person will be a good fit for the team. I actually do not take part in the interviews at this point because I want the team to choose their team members. It’s a lengthy process but we find that it produces a team that wants to work together and lowers the turn-over rate.
What would you say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?
A great support system – friends, family, professionals in areas you aren’t proficient in, your team.
Determination – you can’t give up when things get tough.
Love – for what you do and those surrounding you.
Vision – to keep you on path when distractions (good or bad) set in and keep you true to yourself.
Flexibility – because things don’t always go the way you thought, but if you can be flexible you will find amazing things.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn from them?
Not taking our time to hire the right people because we just needed to fill open slots. Turn-over was terrible and really made the team feel defeated and unmotivated. Once we turned our hiring process around and really started to focus on hiring for the right fit, the team started to have more fun with each other and everything else fell into place.
Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?
I don’t know that I have one inspiration. Kelly, my chocolate Lab that led me to this life and that passed on in 2015 would be one. He always inspired me to never give up, to keep asking questions, to trust my gut, and never be satisfied with the status quo.
I’m also constantly inspired by my team. I have a core team that has been with me for years – anywhere from 3 years to 11 years. These people and their unwavering passion for providing the best pet care and education are truly amazing!
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
It’s not one moment, but all the moments shared with our family of clients. Not every client will be a forever client, but we have several families that have been with us for the life of their dogs and into the next generation of pets. Being a part of someone’s family like that – being trusted to care for their precious pups from puppy to adult to senior is the greatest honor. Knowing that we are an important part of their family is the reason for getting up and doing what we do every day.
Other amazing moments have been winning Best of Madison five years in a row, winning a local small business award, and of course, having 10 CPACPs on our team!
What three pieces of advice would you give to anyone who wants to open and maintain a successful pet boarding facility?
Create and develop a team that you trust and believe in so you are not alone in the journey and you can take breaks.
Have a very clear vision of what you want to do and achieve – this is the roadmap you will follow, and it will keep you from feeling like you need to do what everyone else is doing.
Enjoy the moments – most people who get involved in pet care are doing so because they love pets. Don’t forget to take time to enjoy the dogs. They have so much love to give, things to teach, and fun to have. Take the time to enjoy it! I have a group of dogs that I have been with since they were puppies, and each Tuesday morning I work the daycare floor with them to keep me grounded. It helps me remember why I do what I do and why I love it!
Photo, above, Laura with Kelly. Photo provided by Laura Schorrak.