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Change for Animals

How One Couple is Making a Difference in the Lives of Pets

Article by Sue Baldani

Photography by Lucy Hawthorne

Originally published in Minneapolis Lakes

Ralph Bernstein, owner of Downtown Dogs and Dog’s Day Out, and wife Abbe, are ardent supporters of many rescue, foster and other animal-related organizations in the Twin Cities. One of the things they’ve done for many years is offer free or heavily discounted boarding for dogs who are without foster homes. Now, they are hoping to do much more.

“We wanted to find a way to also support these organizations financially and to raise our customers’ awareness of them at the same time,” says Ralph.

So, they came up with Change Unleashed, an ongoing round-up program. “When people pick up their dog from daycare, boarding or grooming, we’ll ask if they want to round up their bill to the nearest dollar,” he says. “Each quarter, we will match that money (up to $1,500 to start) and donate it to one of the organizations we want to support.”

The first one chosen is Mission Animal Hospital in Eden Prairie, a large full-service 501(c)(3) nonprofit veterinary practice. Dr. Susan Miller, the veterinarian who founded it, has a goal to serve as broad a community as possible. It has a sliding-scale fee structure based on the ability to pay, says Ralph, but people without financial hardships also take their pets there due to its outstanding services. “They have a full surgical suite and dental service, plus a super-cool full mobile veterinary clinic that is completely fitted out.”

Downtown Dogs was one of the sponsors of Mission’s in-person fundraising gala two years ago as well as their virtual gala this year. “We’re big supporters and big fans of what they do because there are not a lot of options for good quality veterinary care for pets whose owners struggle financially, so they are filling a critical need. You bring a pet into your home and into your heart and when something happens, you don’t want to be forced into making a really awful choice.”

“As dog lovers and animal lovers, we want to do what we can to make sure that their mission can continue. That’s why we picked them as our first organization to support.”

Every quarter, another animal welfare organization will be chosen to receive the funds from Change Unleashed.

“This program was really Abbe’s idea,” says Ralph. “She does a lot of the behind-the-scenes marketing for our businesses. She is also the only person I know who is as wild about dogs as I am.”

For the former banker, owning a doggie day care and his other business, Dogs Day Out dog spa (which opened last year, mid-Pandemic), was a radical change and one that came after a devastating event in his life. “My first wife died very suddenly 10 years ago and I found myself a widower at 49. This is how I discovered Downtown Dogs. After my wife died, I needed a place for our dog to go, and I just fell in love with it.” He was so enamored that he ended up buying it seven years ago. (Downtown Dogs has been in business since 2004).

Since then, Ralph jokingly says his wardrobe budget has gone way down. Instead of suits and ties, he wears jeans and a polo shirt every day, and so enjoys what he does.

Downtown Dogs has an incredible 18,000 square feet of space and four playrooms, and there is at least one dog handler in each room to make sure all the dogs are getting along and playing safely.

“Dogs are separated not by size like many other facilities, but by temperament and play style. For instance, Abbe and I have three dogs, and two of them are essentially the same size. But Frannie, the 10-year-old Pug, just wants to sleep all day, and Lyle, the 2-year-old Wire Fox Terrier, wants to play all day. Putting them in the same playroom just wouldn’t make sense.”

And for dogs who aren’t comfortable being around other dogs, they can stay in their suites or oversized kennels and can be taken out to the exercise and potty yards on their own. “We have a blind hound mix, Helen, who is very skittish around strange dogs. So when she comes here she has her own room.”

One of the things he and his staff, who are naturally all dog lovers, pride themselves on is knowing all of the dogs’ names. “At the end of the day, what most dog parents want is their dog to be happy and very tired. These are people’s children, and they expect us to make sure they are well cared for and loved.”

His staff of 25 not only makes sure the dogs are engaged and having fun, but they also keep the place extremely clean and sanitary. The whole facility is scrubbed every morning and all throughout the day to keep odors down and to ensure a healthy environment for its precious clientele.

To find out more about Downtown Dogs, Dog’s Day Out and the Change Unleashed program, go to https://dtdogs.com/ or https://dogsdaympls.com/. 821 2nd Avenue N, Minneapolis. (612) 374-3647.

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