GOING TO THE DOGS
A corporate executive turns canine-sitter
I knew in my heart that I’d rather kiss a dog in the mouth than a boss in the butt.
As dogs yapped in the background, Eileen Proctor leaned back on a chair in her sparsely decorated office in Phoenix. “I knew in my heart that’d rather kiss a dog in the mouth than a boss in the butt,” said the former e-commerce executive. “I literally couldn’t stand the idea of corporate America anymore.”
Early in 2000, Proctor decided to pursue a dream that combined her love of dogs and her sociable personality. That October she opened It’s a Ruff Life!, launching a new concept in the Valley: doggy daycare.
As a pioneer in this field, Proctor had to answer lots of questions from customers. “We were always saying, “No, we’re not a kennel” and “No, we don’t do overnights,” but we made it work,” she said.
Photo by Joe Rondone Eileen Proctor, owner of It’s a Ruff Life, takes a minute to meet some new friends.
Not only did it work, but the daycare at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard became so popular that customers requested new locations all over the Valley. In June 2004, Proctor opened a second location off Bell Road and Interstate 17 in Phoenix.
Corrine Lunt, a former Chicago police officer and It’s a Ruff Life! customer, said, “Eileen is full of life, and she makes you laugh. When she brings dogs in to be interviewed [before they’re allowed to play], she lets them interview her. She lies on her back, puts one end of a dog toy in her mouth and the other end in the dog’s mouth, and plays tug-of-war.”
Whether a dog is lively or lazy, It’s a Ruff Life! has activities suited to its needs. Each day the dogs are sorted into playgroups based on temperament and activity level. “[We] have everything from Couch Potato Kids and High-Power Players to Shy Guys and a Puppy Playgroup,” Proctor said.
Although Lunt grew up with dogs, she never owned a dog until 2001, when she adopted a black Labrador Retriever she found lying on the highway in South Dakota. A year later, she adopted another black Lab named Abby.
Lunt said she “felt rather insecure with handling their food, care, and health, and [the staff at It’s a Ruff Life!] picked up on things like illnesses that I didn’t even know about. I never have to worry about them, and that’s worth its weight in gold.”
Photo by Joe Rondone A worker at It’s a Ruff Life grooms one of Proctor’s clients.
McEldowney, an accountant with the software company Cyclone Commerce, no longer feels guilty about leaving Pepper and Maggie home alone while she’s working. “My partner and I were both working long hours, and we felt our dogs weren’t getting the exercise or attention they needed, so we started bringing them to Ruff Life,” McEldowney said. “The dogs are exhausted at the end of the day, [and] they love going.”
Proctor’s 20 employees care for about 50 dogs a day at the original location and up to 15 a day at the second. Eventually she might add overnight stays and transportation to and from the daycares.
Before Proctor opened the first location, she learned as much as she could about doggy daycare, a trend that began in San Francisco around 1995. She visited 25 daycares between Los Angeles and San Francisco over a four-day period. “Eileen researched a lot of daycares and took what she thought would work and tailored it to her personality,” Lunt said.
After her last visit to a daycare in San Jose, Proctor said her mind was reeling with possibilities, including the name It’s a Ruff Life.
Then she made a wrong turn.
“The name of the street that I had accidentally turned down was Ruff,” Proctor said. “I immediately put on the brakes and backed up because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just before that, I had asked for a “sign,”and then I made this wrong turn onto Ruff. I knew that it was the best wrong turn I’d ever made.”
Photo by Joe Rondone Proctor helps guide some dogs down the slide.
Four years later, business is booming. Proctor plans to have five locations by 2007. “I didn”t pursue my true passion until I was in my early 40s, and that’s OK,” she said. "It’s hard. Sometimes you have to create a market where none exists, as was the case with doggy daycare.”
Proctor’s passion extends to less fortunate animals. She allows the Arizona Animal Welfare League, a no-kill shelter, to bring up to four dogs to play every Monday. The dogs are exposed to more potential parents and are able to release some of the tension built up from being caged.
But Proctor’s day isn’t all play. “Even though I’m having fun, this is the hardest job that I’ve ever had,” Proctor said. “I take it so personally. This is a fulfillment of a lifetime of passion, to create a business that profitably and ethically meets the needs of dogs and the people that love them.
“The goal is to help parents continue to enjoy their lives and grow in their lives, while meeting the needs of the canine kids they have brought into their family.”
Proctor’s relationships with customers, staff and others in the pet industry have blossomed into friendships. “I don’t even want to think about what my life would be like now if I had not taken that leap of faith and let my life go to the dogs,” she said.
Photo by Joe Rondone A pooped pup takes a break after a long day of playing.
IF YOU GO
• 2734 W. Bell Rd. #1390, Phoenix
Call either location or visit www.itsarufflife.com for more information on new dog requirements, multiple pet discounts, and packages.
The Devil’s Tale showcases the coursework of individual students at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
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