Work like a dog: Play Dog Excellent likely to sit, stay in Red Bank

Photography by Olivia Ross / Nancy Miller of Play Dog Excellent has Dillon, Coach and Xela practice staying.

The whiteboard inside the front door of Play Dog Excellent (PDX) doesn't actually read, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here," but it might as well.

What the sign does announce, though, is that there are more than 200 dogs on a wait list for daycare at PDX, which also offers agility and other performing events, boarding and training. As much as a balance sheet, the board is a testament to the success the business has enjoyed since opening at the end of 2004.

"We started with three people," says Nancy Miller, a managing partner in the Dayton Boulevard business. "We celebrated when we got our 10th dog, and now we average 135 daycare dogs per day and run 30 classes every six weeks."

Miller owns and runs PDX with fellow managing partner Bev Eitner, whose prior career couldn't be further removed from her current one. Eitner says she put in 35 years with Nabisco and Kraft, and lived in a New Jersey condo.

And she was a cat person.

"I had an International Cat of the Year twice," she says, adding that she left New Jersey for Chattanooga after 9/11.

"It was terrible" after the attacks, she recalls. "It had an apocalyptic feel. The funerals seemed to go on and on. I had family here, and I wanted to be with family."

And living in a single-family home with a yard, she says, meant she could change pet species.

"The first thing I did when I moved to Tennessee was to start researching breeds," she says, "and I got a dog."

Miller also enjoyed having animals in her life. She grew up in Chattanooga Valley, close to a grandfather who was a livestock inspector for the federal government. She says she worked in the insurance industry for 23 years, then left to work for a major pet-store chain. On the side, she adds, she started training dogs at the Obedience Club of Chattanooga.

"I met Bev in one of my classes," Miller says.

Eitner says she had continued to work remotely for Kraft, but the company curtailed remote work in 2003. She adds that she knew Miller, who'd gone back to office work, was unhappy with her day job.

"Daycare (for dogs) was in its infancy at that point, but I started investigating," Eitner says. "And I didn't want to do just daycare, because training is the fun part -- but I needed training expertise."

Eitner recalls pitching a dog daycare/training business to Miller, who says she agreed in "two seconds." Eitner says she drew up a business plan and "found a nice banker at Regions" who agreed to finance her purchase of a former skating rink in Red Bank.

"We stood out front and looked at the building," Miller says. "We thought, 'Are you kidding me?' It worked for what we wanted to do, but it looked like the building we'd need in five years, not as a startup."

The partners say PDX got off to a solid start, but the business took a gut punch from the Great Recession of 2008-09.

"It was a very scary time for a lot of people," Eitner says. "It was coming down to 'I can take the dog to have a good time today, or I can buy soup,' and people were keeping their money close."

Miller and Eitner also recall that PDX's boarding business, which accounts for about 30% of its total revenue, "went to zero" a dozen years later when the global pandemic hit.

"There were a couple of times," Eitner says, "when I sat with the numbers and said, 'If we can't turn around this trend line, we'll be looking for other jobs.'"

PDX did turn those trend lines, though -- in fact, the business that started out with three employees now has 30. And while expansion might be a logical next step for Eitner and Miller, they say they're going to sit and stay.

"For us," Miller says, "the thing about expanding is that we'd have to be able to have the right people in place.

"It's hard enough to keep the right people taking care of our dogs the way Bev and I want them taken care of," she adds. "I can't see finding 30 more for another location."