Pup Culture

There’s seldom a dull (or quiet) moment at this business

by Keith Morrill

sandy_pines_0515In 1973, Jim and Mary Roche launched Sandy Pines Boarding Kennel on Chapin Road in Essex Junction, a business that grew out of their love for racing sled dogs.

Routine defines Jim Roche’s life. His clients demand it. If he deviates or is even a few minutes late, they’re bound to whine and beg, he says. Worst-case scenario, one will have an accident.

And then there’s the barking.

Fortunately, Roche’s short commute — a quick stroll to an attached two-car garage and adjoining addition — makes it easy to answer their call. This is Sandy Pines Boarding Kennel, where Roche and his staff have adhered to the strict routine demanded by the four-legged house pets, day in, day out, seven days a week, 365 days a year for more than 40 years.

“Everything is structured,” Roche says. “Dogs are creatures of habit, and they like structure.” That means most days look more or less the same at Sandy Pines. From feedings and outdoor runs to diligent physical exams and administering medications, the team divides and conquers tasks from early morning to lights-out.

“Everything is based around taking proper care of the animal. You’re taking care of a someone’s family member; there’s no room for error,” explains Roche. “You don’t get any makeovers, so you do it right the first time or else you pay the price.” He adds, “Next to their kids, pets are the most important thing in the family.”

To that end, Roche tries to give both pets and owners peace of mind. He accomplishes this in a number of ways, such as offering emergency boarding services for his customers, and posting daily videos of pets to Facebook so that owners can check up on their loved ones. Client Kathy McLoughlin of Jericho appreciates the little touches.

McLoughlin winters in Arizona and last year started boarding her two cats, Rudy and Murphy, at Sandy Pines. The feline duo has achieved small-time celebrity status via the Sandy Pines Facebook page. “Something really cute happened — [employees] Nyssa and Matt threw them a birthday party. It was so cute. It was a seven-minute video,” says McLoughlin, adding, “He sends me videos probably once a week.”

If making family the core of Sandy Pines comes so easily for Roche, it’s likely because his family has always been the core of Sandy Pines. “We run it as a family business,” explains Roche.

His wife, Mary, and their three grown children, Lisa, Jimmy, and Kelly, each worked at Sandy Pines. The team effort was necessary to help Roche maintain the balance between running the kennel and full-time employment at IBM, where Roche worked until ’92. “This was what we called a put-a-kid-through-college business,” he says of those early years.

“In fact,” says Roche, “my kids and I were at Champlain College at the same time. Don’t laugh: I got better grades.” He had attended the University of Vermont from 1961 to ’63, but calls those years “party time.” He studied at Champlain College from 1983 to ’85. “I didn’t matriculate; I took the courses that I wanted to take, and we were at some point taking some of the same courses. And I got the 4.0 average!”

Roche grew up in Burlington, the son of a mailman who later became Postmaster in Winooski. His mother worked for Vermont Gas Systems. He and Mary (nee Hammond), were sweethearts from seventh grade at Nazareth School and all the way through Rice Memorial High School. They married in 1962.

Roche’s first full-time job was for Grossman’s Inc., a lumber company headquartered in Braintree, Mass., where he worked, spending time in the Boston area and Connecticut until 1965, when, wanting to come home, he was hired by IBM to work on the manufacturing line. By the time he retired, he was the senior buyer/commodity group administrator in purchasing.

The business grew out of a family enthusiasm for dogs — particularly dogsled racing. Roche bought his first husky in 1968 when he lived in St. Albans. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Foster Road in Essex Junction and started acquiring more huskies. “My idea was to go ahead and race the Siberian huskies as a team and as a family,” which they started doing in 1972, traveling the eastern United States and Canada.

Their introduction to animal boarding came about almost incidentally when one of his colleagues at IBM, Bruce Blackman, and his wife, Judy, were planning a six-month assignment in Germany and needed to board their yellow Lab, Dusty. Because Roche’s backyard was already equipped with pens for the huskies, he offered to watch the dog for the duration of its owners’ absence.

Laughing, Blackman tells what a relief the offer was. “I said, ‘Well, that certainly solves a lot of problems, Jim.’” When the Blackmans returned six months later, they found Dusty happy and healthy, and they continue to board their pets with Roche.

Roche speaks fondly of that first experience, explaining it was how he “got the taste and the spark for boarding animals in addition to racing the dogs.”

Because the property was zoned for residential use only, the boarding went no further until January 1973 when Mary spied a property about a mile away on Chapin Road. The area was undeveloped at the time, but by spring the Roches had purchased the property and started building. By that summer they had moved in, with permission from the zoning board to both maintain his brood of huskies plus run a boarding kennel.

They had built the house with the boarding kennel in mind; the attached garage was built to aesthetically blend with the house and at least hold the appearance of a garage, though Roche points out it has never housed a car. Thus Sandy Pines Boarding Kennels was born.

The kennel has undergone a number of changes over the years. Although the staff at Sandy Pines remains small, the kennel space has expanded. In anticipation of his retirement from IBM in ’92, Roche had his brother, a contractor, build an addition to the existing kennel. The old two-car garage became a reception area, and the cages were relocated to the addition, a much larger space, allowing Roche to double capacity from 20 to 40 enclosures.

Sandy Pines also has a cattery, which was added in ’87, initially as a side project for Roche’s mother, who had retired. It was later absorbed as a regular part of business operations. The cattery has room for nine felines to stay and lounge, stretching out in cages and on a windowsill. A large flat-panel television is tuned to Animal Planet (or ESPN when Matt is working).

Catering to the needs of the animals requires a four-person team. Matthew Mylniec, 32, is the business manager and Roche’s right-hand man, and Nyssa Leo, senior technician and Roche’s 19-year-old granddaughter, keeps the family spirit of Sandy Pines alive and well. A technician position was being filled at press time.

Roche boasts of the care his employees receive. “The way I feel about the employees and how you take care of the employees is pretty much how I feel about the clients and how I take care of clients. It’s kind of hard to differentiate the two.”

This includes a host of benefits, including paid leave and vacations and full coverage of medical and dental plans. “It’s my responsibility as the owner of the business to take care of these people like they’re family, whether they are or not. They’re treated as partners in the business, not as employees.”

Once his employees have gone home, Roche will do late-evening check-ins to administer any special medications, and give the old-timer dogs a last-chance bathroom break before it’s lights-out.

“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” says Blackman. “He works on relationships first, and the health and welfare of the dogs. From that standpoint, he doesn’t worry about anything else. And he’s done extremely well ensuring that his facilities are clean, and spacious, and open. And the dogs come first.”

While Roche’s dedication doesn’t leave a lot of time for vacations and leisure, he is looking forward to a trip to Dallas this spring to see his first grandchild graduate from the University of Texas. Once back home, Roche has no plans to deviate from his schedule, at least until he hits 80.

“I’m 72 now. That means I’ve got about seven and a half years of going. But I don’t go as fast as I did. And I work smarter.” Seven and a half years is practically a lifetime for his boarders — and is still plenty of time for Roche to learn a few new tricks. •