Dogs — and their owners – keep digging Dogs Dig It, a doggy daycare and boarding facility in inner SE Portland owned by Ellie Davis and Janel Hanson. In 2008 Davis and Hanson took home a slough of awards (three 1st place nods). This year they shine again as Top Dogs, winning 1st in Doggy Daycare and Pet Transportation, 2nd in Boarding, and 3rd in Playgroups/Playspaces.
The aptly named daycare began as an idea Hanson had while working as a swimming instructor in 2000. At that time she and Davis didn’t have the money to launch a new business, so she focused on research. “I think it was a good thing,” says Hanson now, looking back.
For years Hanson taught swimming and prepared for the day she’d have canine clients. Among issues like location and a low dog to staff ratio, Hanson wanted a daycare where dogs had a positive connection with humans. “Training style was a huge thing,” says Hanson. “Positive reinforcement was the biggest thing I wanted to focus on.”
Before she could put her well-laid plans into effect, Hansen and Davis needed to find the right facilities. In 2006 they did. It was close, off MLK, and had plenty of space. Then the deal fell through. “Discouraged” is how Hanson felt about the lost opportunity. But while on a drive the same day they got the bad news they found a promising old shop building on 12th & SE Salmon.
It wasn’t quite love at first site. “It was a grease pit,” says Hanson. The prior tenants were chain link fence manufacturers. The ones before that were bus mechanics. Hanson vividly remembers patrolling the yard with a magnet for three months to pick up all galvanized steel chain link pieces.
For three weeks after they opened the summer of 2006, Hanson says she had only one customer, Lilly. But in just three months they had enough customers to pay the bills. “Now we have customers from everywhere,” says Hanson. They even have a Beagle that comes from Washington twice a week.
The staff at Dogs Dig It sees 80 to 100 dogs a day. Hanson’s absolute limit is 1 staff member per 20 dogs, and there’s no multitasking for staff on dog-watching duty – their sole job is to monitor behavior.
In fact, Hanson trusts her staff so much she installed web cam soon after opening. “It’s addicting,” she says. Also, after trying bare asphalt (tough on doggy paws) and Astroturf (dogs like to rip it up), Davis and Hanson installed pro sport-grade fake grass in the two outside play yards late last summer.
“They were amazing,” raves Hanson about FieldTurf Northwest, the company that installed the ersatz lawn. Walking about in the play area you forget it’s not real grass. Staff sprays it down nightly to wash away any doggy deposits that can’t be bagged up.
While examining the lawn I was greeted by a tumultuous – well-behaved – pack of 10-plus dogs. After ascertaining that I wasn’t a threat and also wasn’t concealing treats in my pocket, they focused on Hanson, who is clearly at ease with the jostling and nudging. For me, accustomed to hanging out with a much smaller pack of four, it was a little daunting. When I asked her about the experience of stepping in to “their” world each day (the fence, play structure, grass and treats might be “ours” but it’s definitely their world), she said, “That experience doesn’t get old.”
“The best part about this job is the dogs,” she continued. “How can you be in a bad mood? They’re amazing.”
When asked about her success these past 3 1/2 years, Hanson recounts the webcams, the pro sport grass, and the fact that they have the largest doggy daycare in the city. “We have great customers,” Hanson says. Their policy at Dogs Dig It, she says, is, “We’d be happy to do it, you just have to ask.”
Hanson went thoughtful when asked about her plans for the future. Her customers want her to branch out to other areas, she says, especially the west side. But Hanson sounds hesitant. “I like to make sure everything is going 110% here.”