Inside the small southside Indianapolis home of Happy Hounds doggy day care, the positive vibes are overwhelming.
Walls are painted in bright, bombastic colors and adorned with funky canine art. Bouncy music plays in the background. And soon, equally energetic dogs and young adults with autism or other developmental delays will fill the facility with the sounds of play.
That reciprocal affection is the whole point.
"Dogs give unconditional love, and so do our team members. It’s a really nice combination," said Jennifer Parker, co-founder of Happy Hounds. "Dogs don’t expect you to say the right thing all the time; they don’t expect you to act a certain way. They just want you to give them attention and love. And our team members are experts at that."
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Happy Hounds was founded to provide local residents with a daycare option for their dogs, while at the same time offering young adults with developmental disabilities an opportunity to build job skills. They will work side by side with the Happy Hounds staff to care for the animals, make homemade dog treats and do upkeep on the facility.
The set-up gives animals a place where they can feel loved, and the young people can do work they enjoy while interacting with the community.
"Our team members can work, and they do a fantastic job of working, as long as they have a safe environment. They need structure, adequate supervision and love. When we put all of those things together, we know that’s a winning combination," Parker said.
On a blistering August morning, Alex Parker was hard at work. He stood before a pile of mulch, and shovelful by shovelful loaded it into a wheelbarrow to be spread out around Happy Hounds’ new home.
The work was hot, he said. But he did it cheerfully.
"He loves it. He’s building skills he never had before, learning to do things that he’s never done," Jennifer Parker said. "He’s thrilled that he’s learned to do this."
Alex is one of the namesakes of the Alex and Ali Foundation — along with his best friend, Ali Callahan. The nonprofit group was founded by his parents, Jennifer and Andrew Parker, in 2014 with the goal of empowering young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities through meaningful employment opportunities. Both Alex and Ali have autism.
When Alex was a child, his parents found numerous resources and opportunities to help him grow and enhance his life. But as he grew into a young adult, those benefits ceased to exist; there were fewer and fewer chances to interact with the community and be productive, Jennifer Parker said.
The first outreach of the Alex and Ali Foundation was the Hope Gallery, a Bargersville boutique offering local artwork and other handmade items. Local adults with autism — known as team members — were paired with volunteers to help run the store, as well as create some of the art and other items for sale.
As of March 2019, the gallery had more than 30 team members.
But Alex and Ali Foundation officials wanted to expand those opportunities, Jennifer Parker said.
"So many of our team members who work at Hope Gallery love animals. We always wanted dogs to be a part of Hope Gallery, so this was a natural extension," she said. "The boutique gives our team members one set of skills, while this could give them an opportunity for another set of skills."
For more than a year, Happy Hounds has dominated the Parkers’ attention. They purchased the property on West Stop 11 Road last year, and had to change the zoning on it through a variance.
Rooms had to be remodeled, painted and restored.
In the midst of creating the doggy day care, tragedy struck the Parker family. Their daughter, Hope, who had been born with a severe congenital heart defect and endured 17 surgeries, died on Feb. 25.
The tragedy gutted the family, but throughout Happy Hounds, Hope’s impact can be seen and felt. Near the front door, a tribute to Hope greets visitors to the center with her warm smile.
"We’re using the slogan, ‘Love big,’ because that’s what she did — she loved big. She was so much a part of this, helping painting the floors and doing other things. Even she had the opportunity and was so proud to be a part of it," Jennifer Parker said.
Work on Happy Hounds moved forward. The foundation hired a manager, Courtney Hack, with doggy daycare experience to develop the program.
"It’s been stressful, but really rewarding. It’s a really cool experience that our team members wouldn’t be able to get with a normal employer," Hack said. "It’s kind of a stepping stone for them."
Playrooms will be set aside for small dogs, and in the garage, larger dogs will have an area of their own. A special dog pen will serve as an acclimation area, where they can sniff and adjust to their surroundings and other dogs.
Each dog will be given an evaluation to determine how social it is, Hack said.
"There will be a lot of free play, directed play, relaxation time, all guided and safely monitored," she said.
A quiet room will be set aside for team members to get away from over-stimulation, accompanied by an animal to cuddle if they’d like. In the kitchen, they’ll be mixing up homemade dog treats for the pups.
In the back, an acre of grassy, fenced-in yard will give the dogs places to exercise. One area of the yard has been designated a play area, another for games of fetch, and further back, a more wooded, natural section where team members can take the dogs on nature walks.
"They’re going to get a lot of one-on-one attention," Hack said.
Team members working at the daycare will also be in charge of lawn maintenance, mowing, trimming and laying mulch.
"We’re giving them new opportunities, we’re teaching them, and then they get to be a part of the community, able to give back and be contributing members. So there’s a pride there," Jennifer Parker said.
Happy Hounds will have six hired staff members, while also employing around 20 team members. The opening of the facility will be Tuesday, with an open house for the community scheduled from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Everyone involved is excited for people to see what Happy Hounds can be, Jennifer Parker said.
"We know our team members have worth and value. We need the world to also see that they have worth and value," she said. "They need the opportunity to do these things in a safe environment, and that’s what is lacking, so we’re filling that gap."
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”At a glance” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
What: A nonprofit doggy daycare staffed by young adults with developmental disabilities.
Who: Run by the Alex and Ali Foundation, a nonprofit that empowers young adults with autism and other developmental disabilities through meaningful employment opportunities.
Where: 111 W. Stop 11 Road, Indianapolis
Open house: A community open house will be held from 2-5 p.m. Sunday
Services start: Tuesday
Prices: $25 per day, $225 for a 10-day pass; dogs can receive an oatmeal bath for an additional $10, and an oatmeal bath with a FURminator brushing for $25
- Dogs are required to have the following vaccines: Rabies, bordetella and distemper.
- Additionally, dogs over 6 months old must be spayed or neutered. Dogs under 12 weeks old will not be allowed to play with other dogs.