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Ruff Life, Welcome to Dog Daycare – Brendan Higgins

By Brendan Higgins

Have you ever thought about walking away from a successful and lucrative career to start something new? Something you love. Something you have a passion for. Well, Gretchen Toorock knows exactly what it’s like, because she did it.

Gretchen grew up in Potowomut. She graduated from Rocky Hill Country Day School in 1990. From there, she attended Eckerd College for one year. She returned to Rhode Island and graduated from URI in 1994. She also attended Johnson and Wales University where she earned a paralegal degree in 1995. Then she headed off to the University of Toledo School of Law where she graduated in 1999.

With her impressive academic accomplishments under her belt, Gretchen moved to Boston and went to work for Mitchell Garabedian. She was immediately involved in high profile cases. She did that for a year before she found herself with an opportunity to move to London. Her boyfriend was taking a new job in London, and asked Gretchen to come with him. She began to weigh the fact that she had just started a new job, against the prospect of living in England, and decided to quit her job and make the leap over the pond.

Gretchen was unable to practice law in London. Instead, she took a job at Starbucks and started a dog walking service. She knew she would be living in London for 2 years. During her time in the United Kingdom, she reminded herself when the time arrived to return to America, she would get a job in a big law firm. In the meantime, while she was living in London, she had every intention of enjoying this adventure to the fullest. She said, “It was the most fun time of my life.” Gretchen also had another idea in the back of her mind. She wanted to open a doggie daycare service. She added, “When I was in London, I couldn’t practice law, so I had a plan. When we returned to the States, I’d go to work for a big law firm, make a ton of money, then open a doggie daycare. The name and the logo were created in London in 2000. We were just kinda playing around.” That may be so, but the idea was a good one.

When she returned to America, she eventually landed in Washington, D.C. doing exactly what she said she would do. She went to work for the law firm of Weil, Gotshal and Manges. For the next 5 years she focused on her career. She explained, “I worked from morning till night. I would have CEO’s calling me from Paris in the middle of the night. I was in this new area of anti-trust law that only a few people in the US knew at the time. I loved the job, but I really didn’t want to wake up everyday answering to all these people. That’s when I decided to try the doggie daycare. I started looking around South County for a property, and I found the place I was looking for. I made the decision to do it.”

In 2007, Gretchen went all in on the project. She bought the property located at 8205 Post Road, in North Kingstown. She started doing renovations to the building. She attended conferences on how a doggie daycare operates. She said, “At the time there really weren’t any doggie daycares around. Nobody really knew what they were. In big cities maybe, but locally not at all. I went to a mega dog daycare conference in Dallas. It was a big thing. I knew what I wanted to do. As much as I liked the conference, I felt it was a little like a factory and I wanted to do something homier. I wanted to open something more personal. A place I would want to bring my dog.”

When Gretchen lived in D.C., she went to a doggie daycare as a client. She told the owner she wanted to open a daycare of her own. The owner told Gretchen she would be crazy to quit her job at a law firm to do this. In fact, he said everything he could to discourage her. The thing this particular doggie daycare owner was not aware of, Gretchen was about to open a unique, one-of-a-kind, doggie daycare featuring her own ideas and personal style. She brought her dog to that D.C. daycare and observed certain things she knew would not be part of her new business. For example, she didn’t like the way her dog smelled when she came home from daycare. Gretchen was taking notes and building momentum for her vision.

In late November of 2007, Ruff Life Doggie Daycare opened its doors. Gretchen said, “When I first opened, my employees were my mom, my aunt and my neighbor (laughing). I didn’t have any budget for payroll at the time. I promised everyone involved that when I was up and running, I would pay everyone, and I did.” During her first year in business, Gretchen was just about breaking even. She lived through the ups and downs of life while she learned more and more about day to day needs for her alternative but growing business.

Gretchen explained, “Every big decision about this venture happened effortlessly. From the logo to picking the building. I didn’t even have to think about it. I walked into this building and I could see it. My contractor was with me. He probably wasn’t seeing my vision, but I knew this was it.” Gretchen informed me that today Ruff Life has somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 clients. The entire facility is cage free. They offer overnight boarding. The staff, pre-covid, was around 15. Today, Gretchen has 7 employees with most being full time. The staff came to Ruff Life by word of mouth. Most are in the 20-something range. Many came from URI. As I toured the facility, the atmospere felt like family.

Gretchen gave high praise to her staff including her manager, Jessica Ferrara. She said, “Jess is the best. Totally my right hand. Sometimes my left too.” When Gretchen first opened she literally lived at Ruff Life. She rarely left the building because she didn’t have the right person in place to become the manager. That was before Jessica arrived on the scene. Gretchen and her mother knew Jess from the animal hospital just down the street where Jess worked. They decided to offer her a job and Jess accepted. Fast forward to 2022 and Jessica has now worked for Gretchen for over 14 years.

I spoke with Jessica about her experience at Ruff Life. She said, “I started right around when Gretchen first opened. I actually left my original career plan going to school for pre-vet. I stayed here instead of going off to vet school because the dogs are awesome, the clients are awesome, and it’s a great place to work. The clients and the dogs become part of our family here. I’m the manager. I handle all the employees, scheduling the dogs, and getting new dogs in and evaluated, as well as the day to day operations.”  The evaluation itself lasts for 2 hours. Staff will greet the new doggie candidate in the parking area. Then they will bring the dog inside. Typically they will take the dog right outside because they usually need to go. The staff will review the dogs medical history and make sure they are up to date on everything including a current negative fecal test. Then staff will invite another strategically chosen dog in to do a temperment test. If the new dog handles it ok, they introduce more dogs. There is nothing automatic about this process. It all depends how the new dog is reacting to the situation.  

I asked Jess what a typical day looks like for a client bringing a pooch in. She said, “You pull in the parking lot, we come out to greet you, we see how everyone is doing, how the day is going, then we get you on your way, and we get the dog inside. Then they go right outside and get incorperated into the pack. From there, it’s a fun day playing with other dogs. We are constantly watching to make sure everyone is staying safe. On bad weather days, we are all inside doing the same thing. Most of our clients are full-day dogs. That means they pick up after 3pm. When clients start showing up to pick up their dogs, we bring them out and let them know how the day went and get them on their way home.”

I asked Jess about the process for a dog staying overnight. She said, “A dog needs to be a regular to board with us. They need to have been here at least a month so we are sure they know the routine. If they are spending the night, we feed them dinner, and then it’s a slumber party. We have a pull down king size bed that some of the dogs sleep in with the staff member. We also have some comfy cots. We set them up with blankets if they prefer there own bed. Since the dogs are all familiar with each other, its not uncommon for a staff member to be snuggled up with 10 dogs in the bed. We do not have cages. The staff really love working here. They almost never leave.”

Ruff Life has someone on site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. After all these years, Jessica still does 2 overnights per week. She said, ‘Someone is here 365 days a year.”

If you like what you are reading, and want to enroll your dog, you are not alone. There is an extensive waiting list to enroll at Ruff Life. Jess added, “Gretchen doesn’t advertise. Its pretty much word of mouth. We get a lot of referrals. Some clients are with us through the life of multiple dogs in their family. We don’t rush dogs in. We only evaluate 2 dogs per week. Rushing them in is not good for the dog. We like to give the new dog a chance to settle in. We want to let the established dogs get familiar with the new dogs. We do it slowly so it’s safe for everyone.”

Gretchen added, “You basically need to know everything about what’s going on with each dog. If they are scared, if they are nervous, or if they might be ready to attack. We have scuffles but our expertise is knowing the dogs very well. My staff is very well versed in recognizing the mannerisms of dogs, to stay on top of situations before they happen. You don’t know how dogs will interact with each other until you observe dogs interacting with each other.” I asked Gretchen to share an example and she said, “We had a dog named Stella. She would come in terrified of everything in her surroundings. Dogs, humans, everything. Typically, that is not a good fit. Stella didn’t want any dogs near her, didn’t want people near her, nothing. We were able to take the time with her to get her used to everything. After a month or so, she started to let other dogs sniff her. In time, she is running around playing with everybody. It was that slow introduction that helped her get comfortable. We never outwardly say we are training dogs, but we never let them go through the gates before us. We do not let them go inside before us. We never sit down with them we always stand.”  

Gretchen Toorock and Jessica Ferrara

I asked Gretchen what the biggest life lesson she has taken away from the past 15 years at her well-established business. She replied, “I think the biggest lesson I have learned is patience is invaluable. Short fuses do not work in this or any business. Patience with the dogs mostly, but patient with the client/dog owners. Patience with the staff. I learned early on that getting angry or loosing your cool can mess up the relationship with the dogs, people, and the vibe of the business.”

I wanted to know if Ruff Life had met Gretchen’s expectations when the idea was still just an idea. She said, “It’s better. It’s way better. I feel like we could do more. We are still growing. Four years ago, I put an addition on the building out of necessity. We could always use more indoor space.”

Ruff Life also offers a grooming service. Everything from baths to nails to ears and even teeth. The menu has every service a dog could ask for, while they ditch their humans for the day. The grooming price list is extremely inexpensive. In fact, pricing in general is quite affordable.

I enjoyed my tour of Ruff Life immensely. Gretchen and her staff have created a true puppy paradise. One thing I noticed; Gretchen referred to her staff as her friends more than once. A Freudian slip? It might be, but it also felt like a reflection of how she feels about her employees.    

In the beginning of the article, I mention Gretchen walked away from security and a successful career for the unknown. After hearing her story, the decision to walk away from practicing law to open a doggie daycare looks more like just another rung up the ladder in a life filled with success.

For more information on Ruff Life visit them on Facebook and Instagram or visit their website: ruffliferi.com or call (401) 667-7387 or email Gretchen: gretchen@ruffliferi.com.

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Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.

We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.

To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/

Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”