A Real Ruff Playtime: How One Family-Owned Business Created a Playground for Pups

The early days of Puppy Playground started at Ormond Kennel in the play yard as a way to safely incorporate group dog play. In 2000, the Bessettes began designing their Puppy Playground system.
Gary Bessette

At one point, Gary and Debbie Bessette had 17 dogs in their Ormond Beach home.

The year was 1988, and even as avid dog lovers, they knew they needed a bit more room for the humans. That’s what led them to purchase a run-down dog kennel property in the area. They figured a kennel would give their rottweilers — that they had trained for shows — plenty of space and would give the Bessettes their house back.

A single dog sits atop a Puppy Playground bridge at Lake Gaston Dog Boarding in Virginia. The Puppy Playground system is sold all over the world.

That new space turned into a business.

“We knew dogs but didn’t know the boarding and grooming business,” says Gary Bessette, an Ormond Beach resident and co-owner of Puppy Playground. Over time, they learned the business of kenneling.

Around 1994, a big-box pet store moved into the area. The Bessettes watched numerous other local pet businesses close down as a result and didn’t want to be part of that trend. Their client base had grown and included a dog training program.

Through their kennel’s training program, they discovered the behavior problems encountered were directly related to two basic issues: too much energy, a lack of socialization, or both.

A “playground” for dogs seemed to be the answer to help the dogs socialize properly and keep the business afloat. In 1994, the concept of Puppy Playground was born as the Bessettes developed group play areas for dogs. Pet owners brought their dogs to the kennel for open group play in fenced-in areas that actively promoted physical exercise, social interaction and mental stimulation. Within two months, Puppy Playground’s business was up by 20% despite the new pet store in town that also offered kennel services.

Two pups take a break near and on top of a brightly-colored Puppy Playground System at Kountry Pet Resort in Illinois.

“We built something that could stand the test of dog,” Bessette jokes.

After discovering how well group play worked with makeshift playground equipment, the Bessettes discussed how they could go bigger with the playground products. They wanted to expand to manufacturing and delivering playground items to customers around the country, but the kennel business aspect brought in the most income. Once confident that they had enough of a following to take the leap into manufacturing specialized canine playground equipment, the Bessettes sold the kennel in 2005. Since then, the Puppy Playground company has had 20 to 25% growth every year for over two decades.

Gary Bessette still marvels at the success of it: ”We’re still just selling plastic,” he says.

The first renderings of the playground were admittedly trial and error. Bessette drove around and found various pieces of exercise equipment, wood and other materials to create a playground in the kennel’s yard space. Every week he changed up the area to keep the dogs challenged and excited.

Mary Bessette

“I could see early on they needed something to play on and under,” he says, noting that shy dogs often would run under their owner’s chair in the early days. That’s where the idea for Puppy Playground’s bridge came from.

Nowadays, products are American-made with colorful polyethylene plastic in colors like blue, red, yellow and green.

Customers can build bridges, tunnels and a variety of areas depending on how many pieces they order. All of the products are made and shipped from Ohio, so there’s no product storage necessary.

When the playground opened, there were 12 small and one large play area for pups. Chairs were added for owners to sit in and watch their dogs. The playground also became a classroom of sorts for pet owners to learn how to responsibly socialize their dogs.

“In our minds, it was an actual need that had been avoided forever,” Bessette said of a playground for dogs idea. Veterinarians and friends in the area confirmed that a playground could be a great outlet for pups.

But there were also naysayers that the Bessettes had to ignore because the concept was so different.

“Everyone was like, ‘You can’t do that, because, because, because…’” says Bessette.

Because of his willingness to try, Puppy Playground equipment has become a staple for many dog resorts.

Dogs of all breeds spend time together at Kountry Pet Resort in Illinois on Puppy Playground equipment. Dogs enjoying group play safely together is what the Bessettes envisioned when they first set out in creating the Puppy Playground system.

Many of Puppy Playground’s clients are doggy daycare owners who want a socialization aspect to their facility. Apartment complexes, dog parks and campground centers also have ordered their product for pups to enjoy.

Many users discovered his playground through pet trade shows, and the concept and sales took off like a dog after a tennis ball. From Florida to Japan and Australia to California, the playground that originated from a small town in the Sunshine State has grown leaps and bounds.

Now when he’s at trade shows, Bessette finds that other vendors or attendees will sell his product for him because they enthusiastically share stories of their personal experiences when a prospective customer stops by his table. Sixty percent of his repeat sales come from current customers looking to expand their play yards.

While his product may be in over 9,000 facilities globally, Bessette has kept it a small family-run operation with just four employees — himself, his wife and his son and daughter.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing my parents be so proud of this business,” says Mary Bessette, office manager and daughter of the founders. “When my dad starts talking about Puppy Playground, you can tell he’s in his happy place.”

As for his advice to other entrepreneurs? Patience is more than a virtue; it’s the best way to build a business.

“Have patience,” says Gary Bessette. “If you have a good product and concept, it works. When we launched in 2000, we had some money in the bank and we were prepared to throw it square at it. We took it [Puppy Playground] out in the world. To me, it was a no-brainer. We felt the energy.”

When it comes to future plans, the Bessettes hope to shake up the industry once again. Even before they had the kennel, they had a business with coin operating tables like pinball and other arcade games. The founder hopes to use some of the old equipment in a unique setting that will make Puppy Playground even more interesting for visitors. A revival of the old playground in a new location is what Bessette has in mind.

“If I live long enough, Puppy Playground will be an arcade for your dog,” he says.

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