Top Dog

It’s all paws on deck
for this entrepreneur

by Janet Essman Franz

Pat Clark Pat Clark started the first daytime play and supervision facility for dogs in Vermont so she could do what she loved between jobs. Fifteen years later, Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare is going strong.

It started as a diversion: something Patricia Clark did to occupy herself by doing what she loves best — playing with dogs — while she was between jobs. Clark only dreamed her Doggie Daycare would become a thriving business, providing canine companions with a happy place to romp and socialize while their owners were at work. Fifteen years later, her business is going strong, serving about 100 dogs daily and pulling in a half million dollars a year. 

Clark founded the region’s first daytime play and supervision facility for dogs in 1994 after leaving her job at the Humane Society of Chittenden County. “At the time I had five dogs, and I had to figure out how to care for them while I was at work,” she says. “I had heard of a place in San Francisco doing dog daycare, and I thought people here would like the concept. I thought I had enough money to play with dogs for six months, and then I would have to get a real job. I realized it was a long shot.”

She named her business Doggie Daycare, but later renamed it for her black Great Dane, calling it Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare to stand out from similar businesses. The original Gulliver passed on, but Gulliver II serves as a willing mascot.

With a $5,000 business loan, Clark rented and equipped space at Brown Animal Hospital in South Burlington. She offered friends a place to drop off their dogs daily to play so potential customers could see her idea. “People would come in to look, and they thought it was funny,” she says. 

Initially, many people also thought it was a bad business idea. “I was told, ‘Nobody will pay you $12 a day to take care of their dogs.’” Today the fee is $15. “When we opened, people called to see if we took human infants,” Clark continues. 

“There was not an understanding of the concept. My initial advertising was to explain what the service was, “Don’t leave your dog home alone all day”; or “It’s bad weather out and you want to stay in but your dog wants to go out”; or “You work 10 hours a day, and when you get home you want to make dinner, open mail, and relax. What if someone else gave your dog playtime, so when it came home it was ready to eat its dinner and sit on the couch with you?”

The idea caught on, and soon Clark was fielding calls from people who wanted her advice on starting dog daycares. One day she received 12 requests for business advice. “During the first two years, I would get requests constantly,” she says, “so I started charging a consulting fee of $150, high enough so that people would say, ‘Okay, forget it,’ but people paid it.” 

She briefly explored the possibility of franchising, but eventually dropped the idea to concentrate on business.

Clark also provided overnight boarding. The first Thanksgiving, she had a half-dozen dogs stay overnight. “We haven’t seen only six dogs in a long time,” she says, noting that Thanksgiving typically brings about 180 dogs for “sleepovers.”

Clark says she has always been “dog crazy.” Now 50, she still remembers her first pet — a collie she received at age 2. “As a kid I had posters of dogs on my walls instead of movie stars,” she confesses. 

Clark grew up in New Haven, Conn., where she adopted and trained dogs, cats, parrots, and a rabbit, which she taught to sit on command. “I’ve always had a better connection with animals,” she says. 

Unhappy with what she calls a “dysfunction family situation,” she left home at 17 and tried college, but could not support herself while attending classes. She entered the police force and worked as an officer for the New Haven Police Department for seven years. “I’ve always liked to do things that are interesting and that may not be traditional,” she says. “When I became a police officer, there were six women and 500 men in the department.” A motorcycle accident on the job caused a shoulder injury that made her ineligible for police work, so she retired from the force in 1983.

Amanda PoquetteAmanda Poquette was a high school senior when she began working at Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare in 2000. Now she is the general manager and the life partner of the owner.

She subsequently drove a commercial tractor-trailer cross-country, did carpentry, renovated houses, and repaired automobiles. “I’m still a pretty good backyard mechanic,” she says, noting her collection of vintage cars, pickup trucks, and motorcycles. 

Clark enjoyed fishing trips to Vermont, and in 1986 she moved to North Fayston, “because Connecticut was getting built up,” she says. She volunteered at the Humane Society and became a paid employee, working her way up to supervisor before she quit to open the daycare. While she believed in the shelter’s mission, she wanted to be around happier dogs. By then she had moved to Chittenden County.

Clark rented the house next to Brown Animal Hospital with the understanding that she would vacate in 30 days if Brown sold the building. That occurred six months after she opened Doggie Daycare, prompting her move down the road to 59 Industrial Ave. in Williston, a former automobile body repair shop. She took out a $20,000 Small Business Administration loan to grow the business. “My plan was to buy the building eventually. The first year I didn’t lose any money, but I didn’t make any. The second year, things started to work. I paid off the loan and made enough to pay the expenses. The third year, I bought the building from the owner.” 

Revenue increased about 20 percent every year, Clark says, and continues to grow. Today the business employs 15 to 20 people, depending on the season, including many high school and college students who work there during breaks. 

Clark’s life partner, Amanda Poquette, was a high school senior at Champlain Valley Union when she began working at the daycare in 2000. She started at the reception desk and worked her way into her current position as general manager.

“Amanda’s and my friendship developed slowly over time,” says Clark. They now live together in a Hinesburg farmhouse with Poquette’s 12-year-old sister, Ginny, and a menagerie of animals: Clark’s six dogs, a Chinese water dragon, and a rabbit; Poquette’s three “house dogs”; and a team of 18 Siberian huskies. 

Lisa Primo and Tye TonkinEmployees at Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare must understand dog behavior and react properly when something happens. Lisa Primo and Tye Tonkin are managers.

While it looks like they play with dogs all day, Poquette and Clark say the work is demanding mentally and physically. Employees must understand dog behavior and react properly when something happens. They also clean the facility constantly, including crates, walls, and outdoor areas, in all weather conditions.

The facility features five play yards, indoor quiet zones, and sections for small dogs, large dogs, “goofy” adolescents, and puppies. The space evolved through the years as Clark added doors and gates and created areas for playing, training, and bathing. She enjoys doing renovations and building outdoor climbing gyms, bridges, and a pirate ship where dogs play and rest. 

“We’re still figuring out better ways to do things,” Clark says. Many new ideas come from employees. “People who work here are invested in the improvements, and they make the place better.” An employee suggestion box encourages ideas, with a $20 award given monthly for the best suggestion. Clark is exploring the addition of grooming services and an obedience course for training and competitions.

Continually improving is one of Clark’s strengths as a businessperson, says longtime client Muriel Ryan. “Pat has so much foresight, with good ideas and things to improve the situation for dogs.” Ryan often seeks Clark’s advice on dog issues. “She knows everything there is to know about dogs. She has given me so much help with ongoing things as my dog was growing up.”

A pickup and drop-off service was added four years ago. For $5 round-trip, dogs get a ride in the distinctive purple Gully Bus. “The bus was our genius,” Clark says. The company always used purple for advertising and images, she continues, and “Amanda thought it would be fun to have a purple bus. So we went on a road trip to find an old school bus, and we painted it purple.” 

Clients love the service, says Poquette. “To pick up and drop off a dog adds a lot of time to the day. It’s convenient for them to have us do it. Also, a lot of older people don’t want to drive in bad weather.”

For the dogs, socializing at daycare is important. They play and learn communication skills. 

 “If dogs are with humans all the time, they don’t learn dog language or social structure, and they might make mistakes with other dogs,” says Clark. “People tell us their dogs behave better after coming here.”

Ryan recalls bringing her dog, Chip, to Doggie Daycare and watching the dogs interact. “They were having a fantastic time, and you could just see what a great thing this was for dogs, exercising and running with the pack. Then they come home and they are relaxed.”

Training animals remains Clark’s favorite pastime. She trained “Sandy” in the Lyric Theater Company production of Annie at the Flynn Theatre in 1998. Other hobbies include renovating commercial properties (she owns two office buildings in South Burlington), restoring old cars and boats, and traveling abroad. She loves to read and become immersed in a topic — currently alternative energy. “I am looking into making solar panels. I’m also looking into windmills to see what can be done.” 

Helping dogs in need remains one of her missions. She places rescue dogs in homes and recently donated dog harnesses and oxygen masks to the Charlotte and Williston rescue squads. She also helps young people by hiring youths from Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center and Stepping Stones. “A lot of times kids with difficulties do really well with animals,” she says. “If we see a kid who has an interest in dogs, we will foster that interest.” Many return as adults to become employees of Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare.

“It’s part of giving back to the community, but it works the other way even more, in that it helps this place,” she says. “It makes it better and stronger so that I, and the people who work here, can be proud of what we do.”•