Wag-N-Train: How one business survived, thrived and dares to dream through COVID-19
New kennels, procedures, expansion ideas energize passion to provide a home away from home for pets
This spring, Dana Fiedler sees a “COVID puppy” surge affecting her small business. More time at home prompted more people to purchase pets over the past year. Now as offices open back up and travel picks up, those puppies will need a place to stay on a daily or weekly basis — as well as obedience training and socialization.
For the past nine years, Fiedler, 34, has owned and operated Wag-N-Train, a pet boarding, daycare and training business on the western edge of Grand Forks, N.D. A native of Grand Forks, Fiedler graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota, took the LSAT to apply for law school but “all I ever wanted to do was work with animals,” she said. After being turned down by three or four banks when she was 25 years old to finance her small business dream, she finally received approval from a local bank and completed the purchase of Wag-N-Train in 2012 as the previous owners retired.
Fiedler and her husband of four years, Jason Hunter, planned to close Wag-N-Train for one week in early April 2020 to install new kennels. Then COVID-19 shutdowns hit and their business went from waiting lists of reservations to one cancellation after another. Fiedler, Hunter and Wag-N-Train employees took the extra time to deep clean the kennel before reopening and waiting for pets to return. With most people working from home and/or not traveling, boarding and daycare reservations were sparse.
“March to May was terrible for reservations. Everyone stayed home, which they needed to do. But our customers supported us. They bought packages and extras they didn’t have to, simply as support to us,” Fiedler said.
Summer 2020 weekends picked up some with 10 to 20 animals a weekend in their boarding facility. Fiedler has capacity for 90 dogs, usually 60 boarding and 30 in the daycare program. They also board cats and the occasional rabbit or guinea pig.
There have been bright spots during the past year of upheaval. Wag-N-Train’s grooming business never slowed. Fiedler hired a second groomer and now offers grooming appointments Monday through Friday when previously the lone groomer split her time training dogs as well. There’s also been a surge in demand for their training program. Families and individuals who welcomed a new puppy in the past year have primarily kept close to home, so Fiedler says those puppies need more opportunities to socialize.
Working with her banker and accountant, Fiedler applied and received two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program federal funding, a North Dakota Economic Resiliency Grant ) and received approval on the Bank of North Dakota COVID-19 PACE Recovery II program, specific for North Dakota businesses who sustained a minimum 20% year-over-year gross revenue loss in 2020.
“I received approval through the Bank of North Dakota program on my birthday last year and cried. It is such a relief for us. We used the ERG grant to install UV air scrubbers which both benefit helping with COVID-19 protection and also killing particles that may contribute to upper respiratory infections in dogs.” Fiedler said.
While PPP, the state grant and the Bank of North Dakota helped Wag-N-Train’s business, Fiedler made additional adjustments in 2020, which she has continued into 2021. To save on payroll, she closes from noon to 2 p.m. daily to tackle business operations and allow pets to rest after their morning exercising and playtimes. Another protocol Fiedler established a year ago and continues to follow is one family can drop off their pets at a time versus multiple families in the lobby. Fiedler believes it creates a more relaxed atmosphere for families and pets.
The past year has given Fiedler, Hunter and seven employees, who share a combined 40 years of experience working at Wag-N-Train, to dream big about the future. In addition to upgraded kennels, the business features a large indoor play space, outdoor exercise area and the popular in-ground, 10-foot by 30-foot outdoor swimming pool for dogs which ranges in depths from 1 to 3 feet. Dogs spend six to eight hours a day active and playing at Wag-N-Train.
Fiedler hopes to add a new swimming pool sanctioned for North American Diving Dog lessons, practice times and competitions, adding in NADD league nights, complete with food trucks and live music for dogs owners, families and friends. Dog dock diving leagues and competitions could create community events and gathering around sporting dogs competing.
On March 29, I picked up our family’s yellow labs, Champ and Libby, and my parent’s dog, King, a chocolate lab, who spent the previous two weeks at Wag-N-Train for their own spring break, off the farm. We’ve used Wag-N-Train the past six years to board and train our family’s dogs . They always leave cleaner than they arrived and better mannered, too.
Fiedler and I go way back — in fact, I first babysat her and later she was a bridesmaid in my wedding as well as my sister’s. Today I am most proud to see her as a smart small-business owner who followed her passion. After seeing and learning about how Fiedler, Hunter and Wag-N-Train employees have persevered over the past year, you can be sure our family will be returning customers with dogs in tow for years to come. And my husband, Nathan, is ready to sign up Libby for a NADD lesson and competition as soon as Fiedler's business expansion dream comes to fruition.
Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at email@example.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.