By Elena Morabito
Buckets of rain are pouring down Ossington avenue and as the door swings open, the earthy scent of the rain blends with the musky dog smell which fills the shop. Customers are greeted by a swirling current of hot air which swiftly dries the droplets off their coats.
The back right corner of the shop is enclosed by two charcoal-coloured panels, with a portion of the wood left bare to spell out “Unleashed.” A woman’s curly brown hair peeks from behind the enclosure, which serves as a reception counter, and the sound of her fingers rhythmically hitting the keys of her computer fills the air. Crystal has been working as a receptionist at Unleashed for the past year.
A Goldendoodle is lying on a checked bed under Crystal’s desk. Her elbows are resting on her desk, her body leaning forward to ensure her eyes are close to the computer, but leaving enough space between her feet and the desk for her dog to be comfortable.
“His name is Buddy,” she says. Buddy’s head rises from in between his paws when he overhears his name, his caramel eyes imploring for a pat in his luscious golden hair. Another dog, Sprout, is lounging on a dog bed which resembles a miniature trampoline, but he soon stretches out his three legs as he stands up and lazily plods towards the bin, his snout quivering in the air. He then uses his muzzle to prop the metallic trash can open, desperately trying to reach the odorous items.
Crystal stands up from her office chair and gently pushes Sprout away from the bin while telling me his nickname is “Ninja,” “because he can get into everything.”
The door hinges whinge as another woman enters the office. She is wearing plain black clothes apart from her grey pom pom beanie, making it difficult to distinguish the strands of dog hair that would undoubtedly be stuck to them. Her name is Kate Ferguson, and is the owner of Unleashed in the City. She says to not leave bags on the as the dogs might want to assert their territory by urinating on it.
Kate has always loved dogs, and after a year working as a dog walker, she realised some dog owners were uncomfortable when she took their dog to the forest, even though she knew their dog “had the best time ever.” She kept that in mind when she opened Unleashed in the City 17 years ago. She has always tried to meet her clients’ needs while trying to improve the dogs’ life by understanding their behaviour and creating a safe but exploratory environment.
Sprout is her 14 year-old dog, and a smile stretches on her lips as she reveals his mother was called Bean. So she named Bean’s son Sprout. Get it?
Unleashed in the City does not only take care of the dogs, but also attempts to enhance their lives by teaching them to play respectfully and listen to signals.
Play-care often appeals to puppy owners as their dog is full of energy, and Kate believes that even if it takes a village to raise a child, “it also takes a village to raise a dog.” She says some dogs relish the social aspect and some dogs just wish to snuggle on the couch together rather than play. Kate affectionately looks at Simon and Jack, two older dogs, who are cuddling on the couch.
“Because if you just came in and saw Simon sitting there, you would never know that he spent the morning playing with toys and getting tons of cuddles from all the staff and kind of walking around and seeing everyone here. By this time of the day, yeah he wants to snuggle with Jack and that’s a really neat thing,” Kate says.
Suzie, a client, pushes the stubborn door of the shop and books a meet and greet appointment for her dog. She is dressed in her parking enforcement officer uniform. She has recently relocated, so she wants her dog to be taken care of a few times a week.
“It’s not just that I want to make sure that she eats things around the house, her signature teeth on things. I want her also to play and kind of be exhausted when she comes home so that she is a good dog,” Suzie says, throwing her head back as she lets out a contagious laugh.
The staff keeps track of each dog’s behaviour throughout the day by writing notes on their phone, including the activities they took part in and who their best friends are. “It’s like a little report card, it’s more than showing up and saying ‘yeah your dog had a great day,’ it’s just taking that extra step to making a great experience for everyone,” Kate says.
Kate explains that everything at Unleashed is deliberate, such as bringing out a chair when they meet a dog to see their reaction to it, and if they are scared to try and use their sense of smell by giving them a treat. A treat is an example of what Kate calls “a motivator,” which they use to obtain and maintain the dog’s focus so they are attentive throughout the day.
They have a thorough process to evaluate whether or not a dog will benefit from their services, from customers filling out a form about their dog’s behaviour when they play with other dogs and what their personality traits are, to meeting Sprout and noticing how they react in the presence of a mentor dog.
The dogs also go through a recall program for them to be comfortable unleashed. Kate says being off-leash is a “way of life” for dogs, but it requires confidence, given by a community of professionals who have their back.
Kate and Sprout pose for a picture in front of the Unleashed sign. Sprout begins to breathe heavily due to his heart condition. He lost a leg to cancer and is now Kate’s last dog of the four she’s owned, and as she massages his neck, repeatedly responding “I know” to Sprout’s silent indication of pain, the sleeve of her shirt rides up to reveal a black tattoo outlining four furry companions on her inner forearm.