A Pet Project

More than just a job

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

oh-my-dog0519After volunteering with a rescue organization, Dog lovers Whitney Troy-Vowell and his wife, Mia Troy, founded Oh My Dog in 2011 as a dog day-care and boarding facility.

The reception area at Oh My Dog in South Burlington is a friendly place that showcases dog-related products, funky artwork, and humorous touches such as a framed needlepoint claiming, “Home is where the fart is.”

Whitney Troy-Vowell founded the business with his wife, Mia Troy, in 2012, originally as a place to board dogs for All Breed Rescue. It has grown from a first-year heavy loss to a $1 million-plus dog day-care and boarding business with a 30-year lease and 27 employees who, he says, receive 15 to 25 percent higher pay than the industry and 100 percent medical/dental insurance, if requested, plus an annual paid vacation. It’s been quite a ride.

To say that Troy-Vowell’s early life was not easy would be a gross understatement. But his story helps to explain how he feels about the rescue dogs he cares for at Oh My Dog.

The Lubbock, Texas, native says he “moved around a lot growing up.” Also an understatement. He attended 11 schools before dropping out in his senior year of high school. “My father was in time-sharing,” he says. “My mom gave me up when I was 7. I flew across country alone from Idaho to South Carolina, then to Canada to meet up with my father.”

The summer before his sophomore year in Dennisport, Massachusetts, his father broke up with his girlfriend and moved them to San Diego. “It was a really rough move for me,” says Troy-Vowell, “the nuance of being another new kid in a new school. So I begged to come back to the Cape, and his girlfriend said yes.”

Unfortunately, the girlfriend was in no condition to deal with him, he says, and he ended up homeless, living on friends’ couches or outside. He was homeless for nearly four years, following bands around the country, working at odd jobs, until 1999, when things changed with the birth of his daughter, Soleil. She’s attending college here now.

His relationship with Soleil’s mother wasn’t a good one, he says, and it took him till 2006 to get his life together.

That was the year he met Mia. “It took me 30 years to figure out who I was, and I was still trying to figure out what my place in life was.” They dated a couple of weeks before moving in together, and six months later, they were married.

A business graduate of the University of Denver, Mia had worked in marketing and advertising. Instead of taking a honeymoon, they drove up to Vermont, where she was to interview with Burton Snowboards for a position as PR coordinator.

The Troy-Vowells decided to move here, even though she hadn’t yet been hired. They rented a house on Pine Street, and he took a job with a local construction company. Burton hired Mia a month later.

Their interest in dog rescue was sparked by Dixie, a rescue from Tennessee they adopted to join Mia’s two other dogs. “Dixie’s 15 now, completely blind,” Troy-Vowell says, “but she gets around pretty well.”

Wanting to give back to a community he felt had embraced them, Troy-Vowell began applying for jobs at the Howard Center, a place he felt represented the work he wanted to do. After several tries, he was hired as a substitute overnight awake counselor. “If somebody didn’t show up, I was called if I wanted to work.” He was eventually hired full time and worked there for three years.

Things went well until February of 2010, when Mia was laid off; two months later, Howard laid him off. By then, they had adopted three more dogs, making a total of six, and had bought a house in Vergennes.

Mia was writing freelance copy, he says, but they wanted something deeper.

They had joked that, with their canine crew, they could begin a doggie day care, had even looked at possible locations, but hadn’t taken things further. Then in the spring of 2011, Mia became active with All Breed Rescue (ABR), and, as Troy-Vowell puts it, “really found a calling.”

All Mia’s talents lent themselves to the endeavor, he says, and she became a good asset for the organization, which had been around for about 15 years.

“Nonprofit dog rescue is not for the faint of heart,” says Troy-Vowell. “It’s taxing; you’re always in debt.” The debt was getting so high, he says, that ABR was finding it challenging to continue to pull in and place dogs and have someplace for them to stay after coming up from North Carolina. “That’s where we came up with Oh My Dog.”

Oh My Dog would provide the overhead, labor, and support as an umbrella for ABR and give the organization somewhere to hold the dogs before they were placed.

In partnership with the president of All Breed Rescue, they formed Oh My Dog LLC, found a building (where they remain), and hired a team of four. The building was mostly carpeted, “not designed for dogs,” he adds.

Troy-Vowell’s construction experience came in handy, as he began building out the space to fit the requirements for a canine facility.

“We went from 54 dogs in November of 2011 to 133 when I was working alone that Christmas. We went from having no crates to having kenneling for these dogs.”

Still, by November of 2012, All Breed Rescue was seriously in debt, unable to cover costs, including those of Oh My Dog. “If it wasn’t for Mia’s folks and family, it would have died,” Troy-Vowell says.

They neglected payment of their home gas and electric utility bills the summer of 2012: no hot water; the electricity was cut off once a month for a year, says Troy-Vowell. “But we paid our staff and rent and utilities on the building. We were running our business and, as volunteers, were running All Breed Rescue. I would drive down to South Carolina and back, straight through, every week or two and come home with 30 to 40 dogs.”

The plight of these dogs kept them going, he says. “We would take dogs we knew we would have a hard time placing — dogs we knew they would have to euthanize — because we’re no-kill.”

The financial stresses soured their relationship with All Breed Rescue, whose president left the LLC by the end of the year. Troy-Vowell negotiated a deal with ABR to take a quarter of the building and begin doing day care and boarding, leaving the rest for rescue.

The Garridos of Essex Junction and their dogs, Barney, a basset hound-beagle mix, and Blaze, a chihuahua-terrier mix, were Oh My Dog’s first clients. “It coincided with doing some remodeling work on our house,” says Maria Garrido.

“We got Barney and Blaze in December of 2010, as fosters. I like to refer to us as failed foster parents because we refused to give them up. They came from a high-kill shelter in the Carolinas.

“Whitney and Mia immediately felt like family,” Garrido says,. “In the car, if we didn’t take the turn to go there, Barney would start getting agitated.”

Still doing transport and managing the other three-quarters of the building, the Troy-Vowells worked to generate revenue with Oh My Dog. By late 2013, they severed volunteer ties with ABR, and began charging it for boarding service. Part of that agreement involved taking a third of the warehouse space to support Oh My Dog’s growth.

Sadly, the fallout from all this stress was the Troy-Vowells’ marriage. “From day one to the day we separated, which was six years, I worked anywhere from 90 to 100 hours a week,” Troy-Vowell says. “Both of us put a primary focus on the business: She did all the marketing, social media, handled all the front desk stuff, meanwhile pulling and placing all these dogs through ABR. We went from five to 18 dogs at home. Our lives were pretty full.

“While we were still in love with each other, and still are best friends, all the intimacy was gone.”

Mia moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she remains, and has started her own business. She’s still a 50 percent owner of Oh My Dog, and continues to handle marketing and oversee social media. “We talk and message daily,” Troy-Vowell says.

Since November 2014, Oh My Dog has had the entire building, plus 12,000 square feet of usable play space outside. In 2013, Troy-Vowell installed rubber flooring, and in 2014, with a $63,000 loan from a business client, he installed canine grass outside. By the end of 2014, ABR was no longer in the mix.

“Giving back” remains an important focus for Troy-Vowell, who sees the business as a vehicle for doing community-based work. The company hosts Paw It Forward each holiday season, a take on the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree, which has benefited organizations that include the likes of Howard Center, Steps to End Domestic Violence, Outright Vermont, COTS, and ABR.

Things are also looking up for him personally. He has reconnected with his biological mother and a half brother he didn’t know he had, in Houston. That sparked his relief effort to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. He rented two 24-foot moving trucks, two cargo vans, and another van, and carried more than 30,000 pounds of supplies from over $100,000 of donations south, with a police escort all the way to the New York border.

But it’s the dogs (including his 18 at home) that keep Troy-Vowell going.

Susan Brodeur started taking her “ginormous, 125-pound chocolate Lab,” Big Tuk, to Oh My Dog about five years ago. He was adopted through a rescue group that “forgot to mention that he had separation anxiety,” she says. “I tell people I’m going to get my own vest saying I’m his service person.”

After a friend suggested doggie day care for when she couldn’t take him to work or had an appointment, she asked around for suggestions. Oh My Dog was the consistent reply, even from her veterinarian.

“They go over and above the call of duty,” she says. “Big Tuk doesn’t like to be by himself, ever, so when they eat, somebody goes in and has a date with him while he eats.

“I tell my friends they should take their dogs to Oh My Dog. They come back clean and happy. I never worry. They treat Tuk like family.” •