Whitney Troy-Vowell looked out the front door of Oh My Dog in South Burlington last week as a blue van pulled into the parking lot.
“Gracie B, please,” Troy-Vowell called to one of his employees. She retrieved the retriever, a golden with silky hair and a cheerful disposition, from the playground at the back of the building on Lime Rock Road.
It was the busy time around 5:30 p.m. when a constant stream of customers arrived to pick up their puppies after a day of play, napping and loving attention from the Oh My Dog staff. Troy-Vowell stood in the front of the house like a multitasking butler, going out to chat with his customers and inquire about their well-being.
Over the past year, guests have also asked about his well-being. Troy-Vowell struggled to keep his daycare and pet boarding afloat; the pandemic cost him about 70 percent of his normal annual income. But customer concern has helped Troy-Vowell get through the most difficult time in Oh My Dog’s 10 years in business.
“I’ve had so many clients who have said, ‘You know, we’re not going to let you fail,'” he said.
In mid-March 2020, when Gov. Phil Scott ordered non-essential businesses shut down to stem the spread of the coronavirus, dog daycares were allowed to remain open to workers. But many Oh My Dog customers turned to working from home, where they could entertain their dogs themselves. They also stopped traveling, which brought down Oh My Dog’s boarding business.
Before the pandemic, Oh My Dog housed 150 to 180 dogs most of the time, Troy-Vowell said. The average is now 130-170, rising from a low in late fall. For Thanksgiving weekend, Oh My Dog would normally take 105 to 115 canine guests overnight. Last November, only 11 dogs came to stay, Troy-Vowell said.
In March, Oh My Dog’s ledgers went black – totaling more income than expenses – for the first time since February 2020, according to Troy-Vowell. He said he plans to resume employee health and dental benefits, which he had to cut last year.
But Oh My Dog’s 26 employees have never missed a payday since the pandemic began, even when the facility closed for six weeks in March and April last year, Troy-Vowell said. . In June, he gave them raises. A little fortuitous foresight early last year made this possible.
In 2019, Oh My Dog had its best year ever, making good profits, said Troy-Vowell. He gave his staff vacation bonuses and put the balance in the bank. Normally he would have turned the money into business for a major project, he said, but he decided to keep it in reserve this time around.
This money helped carry Oh My Dog’s payroll, while Troy-Vowell himself received no pay. By the time the daycare reopened in late April 2020, a federal paycheck protection program loan brought the company $ 434,000, he said.
“Without [the employees], without the clients, I don’t have the life I have, ”said Troy-Vowell.“ And I never forget that. I always keep this up front. Several times a day I remember how lucky I am. ”
In Troy-Vowell’s back corner office at Oh My Dog, the walls are lined with musical posters and photographs, and a loudspeaker plays rock music outside. Her elderly rescue puppy, Mac, sleeps under the desk in a cozy bed, his grizzled muzzle tucked in a blanket.
Including Mac, 12 rescued dogs live with Troy-Vowell at his home in Cambridge. He lost six more last year, mostly due to his old age, he said. His daughter Soleil also lives there and works at Oh My Dog.
Troy-Vowell, 46, grew up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and came to Vermont in 2006. Prior to opening Oh My Dog, he worked for the Howard Center with people with the autism spectrum.
Oh My Dog started in 2011 as a partnership with Williston-based All Breed Rescue. Troy-Vowell and his ex-wife, Mia, signed a contract with the organization to house and care for the dogs she rescued and offered for adoption. The couple served as the primary conduit for dogs transported from high-mortality shelters, primarily in the south, to Oh My Dog.
“I have personally driven and brought back over a thousand dogs,” said Troy-Vowell.
They had no plans to start a commercial dog daycare and boarding business. Within a few years, however, All Breed has struggled to pay Oh My Dog under the terms of the contract, Troy-Vowell said. In 2013, the owners changed to offer their service to the public, adding grooming and a limited retail section.
Over the years, Troy-Vowell has continually remodeled the sprawling building and invested $ 125,000 in dog-friendly faux turf for the playground. The business operates seven days a week and he often works 16 hours a day.
“It’s a small, community-driven business because of the way we started,” said Troy-Vowell, referring to the rescue mission. “It’s part of the roots and foundation of this business that I never want to change.”
Marc Pratico and his wife live in North Hero, work in Burlington, and drive a few miles further to bring Tyrone, their high-energy terrier mix, to Oh My Dog. Although his wife started working from home during the pandemic, Pratico still drops Tyrone off at daycare at least once a week.
“I applaud small business owners like him for keeping the doors open and the staff in place,” Pratico said when he picked up his black and white inflatable pooch last week. He and his wife like it, they can see pictures of Tyrone having fun on Oh My Dog’s social media posts. “I firmly believe that if you find a place that offers you excellent service, it is okay to go out of the way.”
To ensure the safety of customers and staff during the pandemic, Oh My Dog has abandoned group parties in the lobby during pickup time. Instead, he started a curbside service, with staff accompanying pets to their owners’ cars when they arrived.
“The curbside service ended up being the best thing that ever happened to this business,” Troy-Vowell said, admitting he didn’t like the idea at first. “It’s so much more personal.”
Now Troy-Vowell is looking to the future again after the pandemic. On the one hand, it comes down to a long-held idea of making Oh My Dog a company owned by its employees.
“There is something so special about this particular iteration of the Oh My Dog family, and a lot of it is because of COVID,” Troy-Vowell said. “We went through hell together that we didn’t ask for, and we came out the other side.”