It’s ‘ruff’: One doggie daycare owner explains how his COVID-battered business unravelled

Jonathan Sumner, owner and manager of the Ruff House, had a career in recruitment before following his heart and earning his dog training certification in 2009. Photo submitted

Jaded by a career of working with people, Jonathan Sumner decided to follow his passion for furry friends and, in October 2017, opened the Ruff House in Ottawa’s east end.

The brainchild of Sumner, a certified dog trainer, the Ruff House offered dog daycare, grooming, dog walking, training and a retail store. The business was a “guilt-relief service,” Sumner joked.

“Dogs love it and the owners love it because they know their dogs aren’t alone.”

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The daycare quickly became the largest revenue-generator for the business, with up to 60 dogs visiting on any given day.

Then, COVID.

Now, the daycare is operating at 40 per cent capacity, with only about 25 dogs being cared for each day.

“The need changed,” said Sumner. “And the working from home really dictated that.”

In the year since he was able to reopen at full capacity, Sumner hoped the Ruff House would rebound. But he admits he wasn’t prepared for how the months of isolation and remote work had impacted dogs – and their owners. And so, he made the difficult decision to close the business at the end of this month.

Sumner said most of his clients were regulars who brought their dogs in several times a week while they were at work. However, dogs didn’t need a daycare once their “parents,” as Sumner calls them, were at home all day thanks to pandemic restrictions. 

“Back to work is still slow and work schedules have not normalized,” he said. “A lot of clients are surprised we’re closing. But we’re a government town, even those workers are still partially remote, and our daycare is what sustained our business.” 

Sumner says half of his regular clients didn’t return after the pandemic, either because they no longer required the service or because their dogs were “unsuitable for daycare after the absence.”

The Ruff House has seen the effects of pandemic isolation on animals, Sumner said. 

“New behaviour issues developed and separation anxiety was No. 1. A dog that used to come to us three times a week couldn’t spend five minutes with us now without their parents,” Sumner explained.

The canine clientele changed to include a whole new generation of dogs that were born and raised in isolation — dogs that those in the industry call “COVID puppies.”

“They are coming out of a pandemic with little or no training, life experience or exposure and they can’t be away from their parents,” explained Sumner. “For a domesticated canine, it’s all very important for socialization.”

Before admitting them to daycare, Sumner’s team evaluates dogs to ensure they can follow instructions and don’t show aggressive or fearful behaviour. The sessions are 45 minutes to an hour, but Sumner says many of the “COVID puppies” don’t even make it halfway through before it is clear that the daycare will not be a good fit. For many of these animals, he adds, the main developmental period has passed.

“An analogy we developed is, imagine introducing children who have been unsocialized and not taught, bringing them to a playground full of other children, and giving them a pair of scissors,” said Sumner. “It’s difficult for the dogs to adjust.”

Typically, separation anxiety in dogs occurs when the dog is left at home alone, Sumner says. But, post-pandemic, it’s simply separation from the primary owner.

“The result of separation anxiety is a panic attack or an emotional shutdown, which is fearful behaviour, and it’s often demonstrated as aggression. Overstimulation also becomes unsafe,” Sumner said. “The lack of training and lack of exposure also played into our ability to manage them safely.”

Interactions with human customers also changed, Sumner said, and not for the better. For example, he said, some customers took it personally when their dog was deemed not a good fit for the daycare. 

Jonathan Sumner, owner and manager of the Ruff House, said he’s grateful to have witnessed the growth of so many dogs and met many loyal dog-owners. Photo submitted

“Customers’ expectations with what we can do with their dogs have changed and there’s been a notable change in demeanour for the worse, which has really soured me,” explained Sumner. “We have some amazing clients, and they know who they are, but we’ve seen an increase in really unrealistic people making it hard for staff to do what they need to do with a smile on their face.”

In the past year, while Sumner was hoping for a rebound, the Ruff House was hit with the impacts of inflation. In October, he said, his rent at the building on Industrial Avenue increased 35 per cent.

“We tried to adjust prices and tried to hold on and the decision to close was in the back of my mind but I kept thinking it was going to rebound, it’s going to bounce back,” said Sumner. “But then I had drained my personal savings and it became clear after another year of losses that we couldn’t keep going.

“The losses started to rapidly increase, making it really clear that, unless a miracle happened, we were done.”

The closure was difficult to announce but easy to decide, Sumner said, joking that he made the mistake of announcing the closure on a Wednesday.

“Someone told me just to tear the Band-Aid off, but I was still at work and I had clients coming in crying and making me cry,” he said. “I don’t regret it, but we’re in that awkward phase. It’s almost like a breakup, but you have to live together for a while.”

Other doggie daycares in the city have had different experiences, with some newer businesses that didn’t have to navigate COVID finding ways to stay afloat. Spoiled Rotten Daycare & Spa opened in Navan in the spring of 2022 and team lead Julie Laframboise told OBJ that they had clients almost immediately.

While Spoiled Rotten is seeing its share of “COVID puppies” and dogs suffering from separation anxiety, Laframboise says they’ve been able to benefit from the need to support these pets.

“We have definitely seen a change in business when people went back to work,” she said. “These dogs grew up during the pandemic and always had someone in the house … Most dog owners now need daycare because their dogs were never crate-trained or they can’t stay at home.”

Laframboise attributes the demand for dog daycare to a new lifestyle for many humans.

“Many people are having dogs over kids and these dogs are treated like children — they have playdates and go to the park. They also go to daycare!” she said. Spoiled Rotten offers grooming and a retail store in addition to daycare. 

Bekkers Pet Care Boarding and Kennel on Huntley Road near Stittsville survived the pandemic and has come out the other side. “COVID didn’t help us but we rebounded and we have a strong business running forward,” owner Kevin Bekkers told OBJ in an email. Bekkers offers dog and cat boarding as well as dog daycare.

At the Ruff House, the future is uncertain for Sumner. 

“I worked with people for years with a career in recruitment and this is something that I always wanted to do, but COVID changed a lot. It changed a lot with animals, but what would prevent me from coming back to the industry is the people.”

For now, Sumner says he’ll be at home with his wife, who “always supported me,” and their Staffordshire terrier, Maeby, reminiscing on his journey at the Ruff House. Particularly those times before the pandemic, when Sumner and his team were planning to expand the training program, “spitballing new services” with a loyal clientele and a “big group of dogs.”

“It’s scabbed over and we’re able to look back and we’re happy to see the dogs’ growth,” Sumner reflected. “As a positive for the business, was it successful? No. But it was a good model. Maybe at the wrong time. But the relationships with staff and people were so important.”

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