Indoor dog parks: The next big pet trend

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DALLAS – An ornery little puppy started what might be the next million dollar idea in the pet industry as the nation's first indoor dog park and retail center, called Unleashed Dog Parks, has opened in Dallas.

“It's hard to believe that one little dog resulted in where we are today,” said Kelly Acree of the husband-and-wife-team's business venture sparked by adopting a puppy. “It's amazing that it was something that really did change everything.”

“Everything” takes on the shape of a sprawling 50,000-square-foot facility where half of the space is dedicated to an indoor dog run while the remainder of the space goes to various attractions, such as a pet supply center, grooming services, daycare, boarding, a lounge and cafe which also serves up free Wi-fi.

“We tried to create an environment to let people come, lounge, eat, take their laptop, but that they can also bring their dog along, which I think a lot of people can appreciate,” said Acree.

And appreciate they are. Acree says customers have been regularly frequenting the facility since its March opening from as far away as Frisco, a suburban town about 30 miles north of Dallas.

“Originally, we thought people would drive about 30 minutes to come on a routine basis,” said Acree, who found, in reality, that estimation fell short. “One lady is coming from two hours away, rents a hotel room (for the night) to spend a day and the next day just at the park.

“I find that fascinating, but we really have tried to create a destination.”

Not only has the idea been a hit destination with dog owners regionally, but investors and entrepreneurs are sending in requests from across the nation asking to become franchise partners.

“We always thought it would be a proof-of-concept facility to expand and improve upon for other facilities especially in extreme weather states,” said Acree. “But it is too early to know if a franchise will work for us. We are continuing to refine our model daily, but our intention to expand is there, absolutely.

“Phoenix, Minneapolis, Seattle, Nevada — any major metro area would support a facility, but those who don't want to get out in the extreme heat or snow are the first ones to respond to it.”

Building the 'Great Idea'

With honest modesty, Acree says she is not surprised at the seemingly wildfire success of the start-up.

“We saw that the potential for this was really big and when we did additional research that this industry is really growing, when all other industries are flat in this economy, and year after year it is exponential,” said Acree of what bolstered the entreprenial courage she and her husband, Cody, needed.

With Cody's background in real estate and finance — and the couple being experienced business owners from running their own residential construction company — they decided it was time to try something new.

“We thought we'd would kick ourselves if we didn't try it,” said Mrs. Acree, a former public relations professional. “But the thing is we took a really simple concept and improved upon it, and I think that is what's at the heart of it.”

The simple idea came from attempting to exhaust their high-strung Lab-mix puppy at the municipal dog park, which would turn into a dust or mud bowl depending on the Texas weather.

“It was just a big fenced in spot and so we did a lot of looking around at the traffic and wondering if you offered more amenities if people would come,” Acree said of the routine to get a well-behaved dog.

For two years the couple mulled over the idea, researched, wrote a business plan and finally arranged financing.

“We did work with a local bank but in large part this was our own investments,” said Acree of the lack of loans after “coming into it at a time when the economy started falling out.”

With the doors open to Unleashed Dog Parks and the end result being a sophisticated, spa-like atmosphere, Acree says people are just now understanding the magnitude of their vision.

“In the early stages, everyone we told (about it) said it was a great idea, but you just know that people think you are crazy — spending all this money to build a dog park,” Acree said with a laugh.

Regardless of the layman opinion, perhaps the greatest nod of approval comes from the veterinary community.

“Generally, (vets) say they don't want dogs to go to dog parks,” Acree said. “But they are now sending their clients to us, because they do think it is a great environment to exercise and socialize your dogs because it is so controlled.”

The basics include proof of vaccination for all dogs entering the park. Yet Unleashed takes it a step further with staffing the facility with “park attendents” who have various professional canine backgrounds, like dog trainers, vet techs or behaviorlists, “to watch and monitor behavior and avoid an scuffles.”

Such attention to detail has sidelined the couple's construction company, which today evists only in name, and instead their full-time focus is on the dog park — and all because of one dog.

'The Inspiration Dog'

Now 4-years-old, Lucas — who is also known as “the inspiration dog” — was found by the couple as they were on site inspecting the building progress for their residential construction business.

“He was huddled in the corner and I picked him up and he latched onto me, like 'are you my mom?' and we took him home with us,” said Acree.

With the puppy soon becoming glued to her side, Acree says the couple had no doubt that the homeless pup was now theirs, forever — despite Mrs. Acree needing to give herself allergy shots twice a week.

But turning the couple into unplanned pet owners was just the beginning of Lucas' impact.

“Once we fell in love with this puppy it just snowballed from there,” said Acree.

Savannah, a Lab-Bassett mix, joined the family soon after and now the Acrees are fostering Bear, a Golden Retriever-Australian Shepherd mix, who they also plan to adopt. Lucas didn't just move the couple's heart to own more dogs or spur their business minds in a new direction, but he opened the door to parenthood.

“We give Lucas credit for that, too,” Acree said of her 2-year-old son, Grant. “Once my maternal instinct broke out with carrying my little puppy with me every where, we decided that it was probably time to start our family.

“So now our 2-year-old is in love with the dogs and we joke around that he thinks he is a dog, because he is around dogs more than kids.”

Knowing first-hand the transforming power of bonding with a pet, the couple is giving area shelters round-robin access to the facility for hosting adoption events, in a stroke of paying-it-forward kharma.

“Not only do they have a venue and access to our customer base, but they can also let the dogs out, rather than seeing them in a crate, so people really see the personalities of these dogs come alive as they are out there running around and playing,” Acree said.

Amazed by how many people dedicate their lives homeless dogs, the Acrees hope to help as many rescue groups as they can, and in turn, the countless number of loving dogs which need families.

Ironically, none of it would be possible without one puppy starting off his life abandoned. Perhaps, Unleashed Dog Parks can rightfully be claimed as the brainchild of the Acrees, but the legacy of Lucas.

For more information on Unleashed Indoor Dog Park, visit UnleashedDogParks.com.

Robin Wallace is the editor for Zootoo Pet News and can be reached at rwallace@zootoo.com.

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