A year spent in California in the mid ’90s prompted Laurie Yost to look at human-canine relationships in an all-new way. Dog parks, dog hotels and dog spas were all-new concepts at that time. The way dogs were treated and cared for would eventually make its way east and ultimately set the tone for Laurie’s dream-come-true venture in Lancaster County that is set to expand next month.
Dogs are now treated as members of the family. Laurie verifies that notion and offers the observation, “Dogs are part of the family like never before. They’ve gone from the backyard to the bedroom.” A survey conducted by Chewy, Inc. concurs with that statement, as 84% of respondents say they consider their dogs to be important members of the family.
Chewy’s latest ad campaign provides a humorous look at the phenomenon with a television commercial that shows a family – including Bailey the talking dog – gathered around the dinner table and discussing the events of their day. The kids are obviously jealous of the attention that is paid to Bailey and his exploits by their parents.
Appropriately enough, the spot is called “Favorite Child.” According to the results of Chewy’s survey, which were released in April, three in 10 parents name their dog as their favorite child, while four in 10 consider their dog to be their best friend.
The results also reveal that 61% of survey participants report that their pets are better at cheering them up than are their partners, while 93% state that their pets make them happier people. Oh, and 60% of respondents admit to allowing their dogs to sleep on their beds.
Laurie, who was born in Hershey and spent most of her childhood in Texas (her mother was in the military), moved back to Central Pennsylvania after college. Her one-year stint in California was centered in Laguna Beach. When she returned home, Laurie opened a consignment shop in Elizabethtown she named Now Wear This!
However, the avowed dog lover’s mind kept returning to California; she dreamed of opening a boarding and daycare business based on what she had seen on the West Coast. “I came up with a five-year plan and started taking classes, attending seminars and conferences and visiting pet facilities,” Laurie explains.
During her travels around the area, she took note of buildings that were for sale and contemplated the challenges of making them canine-friendly. That’s when she realized her “Champagne taste and beer budget” didn’t correlate. Reality set in: It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit any of the buildings she saw. “I’m driven to do things right,” she says. “If I do something, I give it a 110% effort. I was fully committed to doing this right.”
So, it was back to the drawing board. She ultimately realized the answer to the dilemma was right in her own backyard. Laurie and her husband live on 19 acres of woodland along Milton Grove Road in Elizabethtown. They decided it would make more sense to build a facility from the ground up. A 6,900-square-foot “hotel” was built to accommodate guests whose families were traveling and could not take them along. What dog wouldn’t want to spend their “vacations” in such a beautiful spot that features secure, tree-shrouded play yards, nature trails and other amenities?
Playful Pups Retreat opened in 2010 with six employees. “It’s a special culture,” Laurie says of the pet-care industry. “Yes, you must love dogs, but it has to go deeper than that. You must be fully committed. It’s hot, dirty work. Summer and holidays are our busy periods. We’re open 365 days a year.”
One Adventure Leads to Another
The venture proved to be so successful that Laurie began offering daycare and training. “We cater to people who want a high level of care for their pets,” she explains. Because of that, Laurie and her staff consider pet parents to be an important part of the equation. “A lot of our clients are in their 20s and 30s. Their dogs are their kids. The expectations are higher than ever before. Leaving a pet with us for the first time is equivalent to a parent putting their child on the school bus for the first time. They’re nervous, they wonder how their pet is coping … we want to give them peace of mind.”
To alleviate anxiety, Playful Pups’ canine clients engage in arts and crafts projects (creating framed paw or nose prints is a favorite pastime) and pose for photos and videos that are texted/emailed to their families. “The projects aren’t for the dogs,” Laurie says. “They’ll become keepsakes for their families.”
Success also spawned expansion. Laurie sold the consignment shop and transformed the building into a center that is exclusively devoted to daycare. Open since 2019, the Hershey Road facility offers programs that are designed for dogs of all ages and entail a balanced agenda of social interaction, mental stimulation, enrichment activities, group play and quiet time. It is also home to a splashpad water feature. Evaluations are conducted before a first visit to determine a dog’s proper placement based on personality, play style, energy level, etc. “Our programs meet the needs of every stage of life,” Laurie notes.
Once again, the venture proved to be a success. So much so, that an expansion is nearing completion. “We’ve been averaging 120 dogs a day at the Hershey Road site,” Laurie says. “We have a waiting list. Our plan is to expand the Puppy Social Skills daycare, as well as the Enrichment daycare. Enrichment activities, socialization and potty and crate training help to create confident and social dogs.”
According to Laurie, “enrichment” is the new buzzword in the dog world. Dogs that are left to their own devices all day and don’t benefit from stimulating activities, socialization or exercise can create problems in a household. “You want your dog to be the best self it can be,” Laurie says. Demand for such services is at an all-time high. “We’re in the process of growing our training programs,” Laurie notes.
The Hershey Road facility is also an example of a new trend – memberships – in the pet-care industry. “To enroll, a dog must come to the center at least one day a week. (Full and half-day memberships are offered.) Laurie says average attendance is two to three days a week. “And, if a dog is sick, we ask that they stay home,” she says of the health precautions that are taken. “After all, we have a responsibility to every dog in our care.” Air-scrubbers are also utilized to purify the air at both facilities.
When Laurie became aware of a new offering called Sniffspot (sniffspot.com), through which home and land owners make their backyards and fields open to dog owners (fees vary from property to property), she joined the online roster and made an enclosed area on the Milton Grove Road property that is removed from the Playful Pups complex available. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I didn’t do anything to promote it; I just relied on Sniffspot.”
The first year, she estimates six visitors utilized the yard. “Now we get a nice number of visitors almost every day,” she reports. The site offers its own parking lot and clients are trusted to clean up after their dogs and abide by Sniffspot’s and Laurie’s rules. “Our clients have been great – they’ll message me to alert me of any issues they notice.”
Caring for Less Fortunate Animals
Laurie has always been supportive of rescue organizations and shelters. “Rescue is a labor of love,” she says. One of the ways in which she supports the cause is to both foster and adopt rescue dogs. Her personal pack once consisted of 11 dogs. “We’re down to seven now,” she shares, adding that she is currently fostering a French bulldog. “They just become a part of your life,” she says.
Laurie is the founder of Pitties Love Peace, which works to find homes for pit bulls and pit-bull mixes throughout the Northeast. Founded in 2010 and given nonprofit status in 2011, the organization relies heavily on foster homes to provide the first steps to finding forever families for their charges. Laurie especially likes to champion senior dogs, noting, “They have so much love and life to give.” For more information, visit pittieslovepeace.com.
With two facilities to oversee, Playful Pups’ workforce has grown to include 70 team members. “Many are part-time,” Laurie says. Clients hail mainly from the Elizabethtown/Mount Joy/Hershey area, but some long-time clients arrive from Lititz, Jonestown, the Harrisburg area and Lancaster. “They value what we do here,” Laurie says of those who travel longer distances. “They’ll do anything for their dogs.”
While further expansion is not out of the question, for now, Laurie prefers to concentrate on providing quality care and growing the programs at the two locations she operates. “There’s never a dull moment,” she says of working with dogs.
Playful Pups Retreat’s daycare center, located at 406 Hershey Road in Elizabethtown, will be holding an Open House on a date to be determined in July. For updates, visit playfulpupsretreat.com or call 717-689-3756.