Taking doggie care ‘to the Max’

--New business parlays passion for pooches into destination for Culver pet owners--

A first-time visit to Culver's newest retail venture, TLC to the Max "pet spa" at 1125 N. Lake Shore Dr., Unit B (that's the corner of State Road 17 and Lake Shore Drive) might hold some surprises for the newcomer, but most can be summed up by noting that when business partners Tony Hauptli and Colleen Stephenson call their operation a "pet spa," they're not kidding.

That is to say, for starters, that the place might defy expectations of a typical kennel or animal boarding space. It's bright, cheery, clean and even fragrant. Hauptli and Stephenson say they aim for something more along the lines of a "slumber party" atmosphere for the dogs they board (and yes, at this point, it's only dogs, for the sanity of the humans involved as well as any potential felines or other pets): the animals have their own "bedroom" and are only crated if the owner says that's their comfort zone. And indeed, rather than a row of cages or crates, TLC is comprised -- besides a greeting area just inside and grooming area in the back -- of small but pleasant rooms for the dogs, besides an outdoor space to run and play.

If the slumber party analogy sounds like a stretch, Hauptli and Stephenson may just convince you. First off, they're passionately exuberant about the animals in their care and may resemble doting aunts as much as hired hands, as they remark on the attributes -- both in appearance and personality -- of each dog.

Secondly, it's evident from even a brief observation that they know whereof they speak, and backing up all that affection is grounding in real experience, training and working with dogs.

Stephenson's 22 years of dog etiquette background are evident in her handing of the dogs and navigation of the personality conflict between one pooch and another, here and there. For her part, Hauptli brings 10 years of pet grooming experience to the table.

"I call Colleen 'the dog whisperer,'" jokes Hauptli of her partner's doggie etiquette prowess, describing a large and somewhat unruly dog Stephenson managed to convince that a bath was "his idea."

Stephenson says Hauptli "not only does the proper cut for every dog -- and a lot of people don't have the proper cut, by breed standards -- but she will also personalize it for people. She was a hairdresser for 20 years also; so she looks at their (dogs') faces as if they were people! She kind of designs a hairdo for them."

The two have spent some years in their field in the South Bend area, though each lives within 10 minutes of Culver.

"We thought Culver needed us more," says Hauptli. "I always come here to eat and shop. I knew there was no dog grooming and boarding except what the vet offers.

"This is our retirement," she adds. "We have a passion for animals. We eventually want to do rescue and everything else."

TLC to the Max opened May 31 (look for them on Facebook), and so far business has been remarkably robust.

Defying their expectations, the two say the bulk of their clientele so far has been year-round, rather than summer residents, though they note word of mouth seems to be driving an ever widening array of customers their way.

Hauptli and Stephenson say customers have been coming in steadily every day -- so much so that, "We roll into our homes at 7 or 8 p.m. every night," notes Hauptli.

"We're very, very lucky," she adds. "We go home and say, 'That was a great day!' We have a blast. Each dog has a unique personality...we're more concerned about their well-being than ours! And we don't muzzle unless we have to."

Stephenson recalls one dog for which TLC was "his last step before going to the pound. Now he's getting training, so we feel very good about this. We do our best to make the customer happy, but we're really into what's best for the dog...preserving the dog."

And if you'd like an exclusive photo of your "baby," newly groomed, photographer Kaitlyn Hollar is on hand shooting photos, with customers given the option to purchase a few prints, the entire disc of photos, or anything in between.

TLC to the Max is open Monday through Saturday from 8 to 5 officially, though Stephenson says it's not unusual for one or both ladies to be at the shop by 6:30 a.m. to meet a customer's schedule, and they're "here `til the last dog goes home," even at 7 p.m., or possibly even taking boarded dogs home with them, as needed.

"We're tired," she quips, "but we're not complaining."

Hauptli and Stephenson say they're "really happy" with their business' location and their landlord, Rod Jamieson, owner of Jamieson's Town & Country Package Liquors, a few doors to the east. Stephenson notes with a small that Jamieson is sometimes called upon to play the part of a "stranger" for a dog in manners training.

"He never knows what he's walking into -- so far, he hasn't complained!"
Surely most customers don't know it, but TLC's founders say they're still improving the space they're in. They laid down 18,000 pounds of pea gravel for the dogs' outdoor play area by themselves.
There's that tiredness quotient again.

But the joy Hauptli and Stephenson take in their work is apparent.

"I go home at night and my husband is like, 'You are always so happy now.' You feel like you really did something good at the end of the day."