Meet Downtown Dog’s Longest Serving Team Member Erin

Erin is our Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). In October 2004, she was hired among the very first handful of employees at Downtown Dogs, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year!  

Downtown Dogs is where Erin has grown her career. She was initially hired as a Dog Handler, promoted to General Manager in the fall of 2006 and assumed her current role as Chief Administrative Officer in May 2018. Erin has lived, breathed, and committed herself fully to the business since day one. During her early days at Downtown Dogs, Erin earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science from the University of Minnesota. 

Erin’s work ethic and sixth sense for managing dogs and people are uncommon and incredible. She is such a valuable, integral part of Downtown Dogs that when she and her family had the opportunity to move closer to family in her hometown of Alexandria, MN, Downtown Dogs Owner Ralph Bernstein reworked her job description to let her work primarily remotely. According to Ralph, “We had not previously considered long distance management. After all, this was prior to the pandemic, before remote work was less of a trend or necessity. But I knew if anyone could make it work, it would be Erin.”

Erin is a champion of all dogs, especially fosters and rescues. Over the years, she has managed Downtown Dogs’ relationship with the many rescue organizations to which we provide free and reduced boarding. 

As part of our ongoing series for readers to learn more about the folks who care for the pups here at Downtown Dog, let’s hear from Erin: 

Q: How did you get started at DTD? 

A: I was a college student at the U of M sifting through the want ads (remember those?) in the Minnesota Daily and I saw the best ad imaginable — to work with dogs at Downtown Dogs! As an Animal Science major, this seemed right up my alley and a great way to get some animal experience. I guess “some” turned out to be an understatement! 

Q: How has your role, the business, and the industry changed in 20 years? 

A: When I first started at Downtown Dogs, hardly anyone knew what a “dog daycare” was. Explaining the concept was difficult and people just didn’t seem to understand it. As the years went on, the industry grew and grew. Clearly we were ahead of our time!

As our business has expanded, almost every aspect of it has evolved, including my role. What we do has been updated, refined or improved from when I started, including hiring needs, protocols, procedures, client interactions, playroom layouts, enclosure needs, etc. Every change we make is grounded in our ongoing desire to improve the DOGS’ experience when they are in our care — even if it creates a bit more work for our team.

Q: In your view, what sets Downtown Dogs apart from other daycare and boarding facilities? 

A: The love we have for each and every dog and the respect we have for their individual needs. There is zero judgment and nothing but high regard for each dog and their particular situation. We don’t turn dogs away, regardless of their breed, age or behavior. Too often we hear stories about dogs getting “kicked out” of other daycare/boarding facilities. I’m proud to say that nearly 100% of these dogs end up being successful at Downtown Dogs. And it’s due to our team being carefully trained and diligent. All our employees care deeply about the dogs and we work hard to ensure every possible success. We talk to parents and work through any behavioral issues we are seeing together here as a team. Communication is key! 

Every single dog that walks through our doors is treated as if they are our own dog. That is how we view it. We employ all our experience, tricks, and plenty of treats to help dogs when they need a little extra TLC. On occasion I’ve even taken client dogs into my office to help me with “office work” (aka to help them settle down). We do everything possible for the dogs! 

Q: You’ve been doing most of the hiring for Downtown Dogs for the last 18 years. What qualities do you look for when hiring? 

A: The hiring world has shifted a lot over the last few years. Applicants with service industry experience (restaurants, bars, baristas, etc.) are often good fits for us as they are already accustomed to being on their feet the entire shift, busy rushes, customer service, smiling, and staying busy. Having worked at other dog daycares is great experience as well, but attitude and overall demeanor also play a big role. We look for employees who are hardworking, kind, patient, and problem solvers. The most important qualification: all our employees MUST LOVE DOGS!

Q: What makes a successful employee?  

A: Their heart and devotion to the dogs. This job is not for the faint of heart and it tends to be quite different from what most new employees think it will be. Working at Downtown Dogs is not just playing with dogs all day. Other than when you’re on break, you are on your feet for an entire shift, putting on 10+ miles! You are managing lots of dogs with different personalities and energy requirements. There is a tremendous amount of cleaning, laundry, dishes, sanitizing, etc. Just like any job, there are some rough days, but here you know that everything we do is for the dogs. Our best employees are reliable, hardworking, and team-oriented. They keep their heads up and take away positive things from every shift, which often include plenty of slobbery kisses. 

Q: How do you approach teaching, mentoring, and supporting the Downtown Dogs managers whom you manage?  

There is no perfect guideline for managing employees. I feel a really great manager shifts the way they teach employees based on their personality and learning style. Working at a dog daycare can be stressful on many levels. Even when I’m working remotely, I try to always be accessible to our management team. If there’s an emergent situation, I pause briefly to categorize the circumstances before we troubleshoot together. I ask myself, “Is this an emergency? Is this an immediate teaching moment for me to guide the team so they can find a resolution? Or, is this a take charge now and teach them later opportunity?”

I’ve found that it’s key to use the correct approach and wording based on each person, to ensure that they are taking away what we want them to from the conversation. Validating feelings goes a long way too! 

I hope that the philosophy we apply at Downtown Dogs — to treat all customers and their pups as unique and meet them where they are at — extends to my management style. I try to model openness, respect, creativity, and flexibility. 

Q: Can you tell us how you navigate work/life balance; having a demanding position and demanding job of parenting. 

A: It can be extremely challenging. I have three elementary school-aged children whose schedules are getting more intense with each year. I often feel I am either doing very well at my role as a mom but not as good with my career and vice versa. You  just can’t always have it all. My kids have only known me working at Downtown Dogs so they are incredibly understanding that sometimes they need to be patient when I am taking a call or writing a follow up email. When I get off the phone they ask if there is a “dog who is not feeling well and needs help” and I will explain the situation. They will tell me that they hope Rocko (our current dog) gets taken care of that well when we are gone and I assure them he does!

Since this job and industry is 24/7, I do have times where I am not very available due to my kids schedule. I have amazing support with my management team and Ralph. For example, I can let them know ahead of time that I may not be as available as I usually am due to a traveling schedule with sports and they will gladly pick up the slack for me. It goes both ways for when they are in the same situation so it’s nice to have that support as family is very important.

Q: You are a big fan of Great Danes and had five of them in your lifetime. Why this breed? 

A: Growing up, my family had multiple German Shorthair Pointers and a Vizsla. I had never met a Great Dane in person before coming to Downtown Dogs. During my first week of work I met a Dane named Karl and he was hands down the sweetest dog I have ever encountered. His owners were fantastic and ecstatic to learn that I got the first Great Dane my senior year of college because of how special Karl was.

Q: Can you tell us about Rocko, your current “foster fail”? 

In 2021, our rescue Dane, Lucy, crossed over the Rainbow Bridge the week of Thanksgiving. The house was empty and I was having a hard time with not having a dog. I reached out to the Upper Midwest Great Dane Rescue (UMGDR) about wanting to foster an adult Dane. My only requirement was that the Dane needed to be okay with kids. Two weeks later I got an email about a stray that was picked up in Iowa. He had been at the shelter there for six weeks with no one claiming him and his stray hold was almost up. The rescue organization was trying to find a Dane-experienced foster home, but it was challenging because they didn’t have any history on him to provide. I had a strong, gut feeling that I wanted to take a chance on him. I drove three hours south, while someone else drove three hours north. We met halfway at a gas station. Rocko needed a few surgeries before he would be officially available for adoption, but after five months of recovering in our home, we knew he was staying with us! Rocko is a true gentleman. He’s great with the kids and loves people. He has some dog reactivity that we manage but he is worth everything! He is projected to be around 4.5-years-old and we have had him for about 2.5 years now. I’m so grateful to UMGDR for bringing Rocko (and Lucy) into our lives. They do amazing work saving Danes from all sorts of situations.

Finally, we as ask all the team members we profile these two questions:

 Q: What has working with dogs taught you about life? 

A: So much! My second Great Dane, Maynerd, had a lot of behavioral issues that were stressful to manage at times. Working with him, and many other misunderstood reactive dogs, has taught me patience, dog handling skills, and how to not be judgmental of the situation. Many people will see a reactive dog in a car or walking down the street and immediately judge the dog or owner without having a clue what they both have been through. Being in that same situation, too many times to count, has helped me be kind to everyone regardless of their situation.

 Working with dogs is very hard work but the most rewarding job you could ask for! At Downtown Dogs we work with many rescue groups who need a place for a foster dog so we take them in. Initially, we see these dogs at their worst — scared, confused, overwhelmed, and stressed — but then we get the privilege of watching them come out of their shells. We see them go through the process of finding their forever home and oftentimes they continue to come to Downtown Dogs as the happiest dog in the world…that is what makes it all worth it! 

 Dogs are complicated, adoring, selfless, misunderstood, loyal and so many other wonderful things. Growing up with dogs in my family was a huge blessing for me. I wish everyone could experience the unconditional love that a dog brings to their lives. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers/customers?

A: Downtown Dogs is not just a “job” for me; it’s a career and a second family. I am so grateful that I am apart of this wonderful team and that I have the best boss in the world in Ralph! Being with the company for almost 20 years, I have been through my fair share of situations, and to work for a company that fully supports you, inside and outside of work, is rare and amazing.

 I am so grateful for everything Downtown Dogs has taught me and I will continue to do everything I can for the all the wonderful dogs and their owners who support us. 

We asked Erin’s colleagues to share some thoughts on what it’s like to work alongside her. 

Dog’s Day Out Manager and Lead Groomer, Andy values the advice Erin gives him on how to handle employee conflict resolution.

“She’s taught me how to be direct with people and to do it with compassion. Erin has shown me the value of checking in with employees regularly. It’s also awesome how she speaks up when something isn’t right and addresses things very promptly.”

Andy adds, “It’s impressive how incredibly caring Erin is with dogs and people for that matter. I feel like she and Ralph really care for every team member and get to know them on a personal level. We feel understood and supported as individuals and empowered to take on more responsibilities and move up the ladder.”

Downtown Dogs General Manager, Lindsay marvels at how much Erin has taught her over the ten years that they’ve worked together at Downtown Dogs. “I could write a book about everything I’ve learned from Erin. Not only did she do my initial training (teaching me how to clean the boarding room and how to become a dog handler), she helped me a year later when I was learning to run shifts and she continues to guide me today. Erin is not only my boss, she’s my mentor, someone I know I can come to with any issue and we will work it out together. 

When I started working at Downtown Dogs, Erin had already worked here for a decade! From the very beginning, Erin was generous with sharing knowledge and experience.  Over the years, as our roles have evolved, our professional relationship has evolved. Before Erin was promoted to CAO, she had the position that I have now. Following in her footsteps is an honor!”

Downtown Dogs and Dog’s Day Out Owner, Ralph says,

“Erin has been my “right hand” since I bought the business in 2014. Every day, her experience and knowledge help make us better. She’s always the first person I bounce new ideas off of and I appreciate and admire that she’s not afraid to tell me when she thinks an idea won’t work. When I bought Downtown Dogs, I told Erin that I couldn’t make it work without her. That was true then and it’s just as true today!”

Abbe is our Retail & Community Outreach Liaison and the editor behind all Downtown Dogs and Dog’s Day Out blogs. A life-long dog lover in her own right, Abbe is wife to Ralph (whom she calls “the Big Dog”). Together they parent resident bloggers Frannie, Helen, and Lyle.