Perhaps most can think of a champion in their neighborhood who was always doing everything to improve the lives of others. In the neighborhood near Northeast High in the early 2000s, that woman was Tonja Isaac. If kids needed an extra snack, they went to Tonja’s. For a while, she took two carloads of kids to school every morning just to help. That compassion continues to play out in other ways as Tonja brings light to those facing disadvantageous situations. These days, she runs a dog boarding and daycare business that doubles as a rescue and rehabilitation center.
At Downtown Doggie Center, owners can leave their dogs for the day or they can traverse the globe and leave the pooch to play with friends all the while. They even offer military deployment and reserves boarding options. Whatever the need is, Tonja works to find the right plan. And though she is willing to work with a variety of doggie needs, if the pup isn’t a good fit for the team, she won’t sacrifice the pack to take them on.
That said, Downtown Doggie Center also offers training packages, which is perhaps one of their most impressive contributions on the daycare side of business. Tonja and her staff recognize that while some behaviors are based in personality, a human’s best animal friend is generally responsive to integrating with other dogs and even with other humans.
Her training abilities are integral to their other bottom line—rescuing and rehabilitating forgotten pups. In fact, one feeds the other. She often goes to shelters and brings back dogs to re-home. While she rescues all types of dogs, she recognizes there is an inordinate number of dogs labelled as pit bulls in shelters. She explains, “Pitties are eager to please. If you want a snarling beast on the end of a leash, that’s what they’ll give you. If you want a sweetheart who will love your babies, that’s what they’ll give you.” Pit bulls or any type of dog that hasn’t been properly socialized can display aggressive behavior. That’s why the Downtown Doggie Center works to socialize dogs that are having issues and does the same for rescued dogs with the addition of an adoption process.
Happy dogs aren’t the extent of Tonja’s work at Downtown Doggie Center. Tonja often takes on work release staff from the Pinellas County prison system. She first checked into work release because two of the kids Tonja looked after entered the prison system and Tonja wondered what she could do to make their integration easier. At a time when she didn’t give people sentenced to prison much thought other than they deserve to be there, Tonja realized she never pontificated about those issues because she never had to. Having it surface in her own chosen family, she was forced to confront some of the plights of the prisoner. Right now, Tonja has two work release staff members and two previous work release staffers that have brought so much to the business she chose to keep them on. Tonja makes her point: “They pay their debt to society.” They serve their sentence, but then they are released and they can’t rent because landlords don’t want to rent to felons. They don’t have recent work history and they have to go through their supervisor with any potential new job. Employers don’t want that hassle or the often misunderstood and falsely perceived risk.
She understands the struggle they go through and as a problem solver, Tonja also sees a practical solution. Many of her work release and ex-offender staff have developed into integral parts of her business model. Andre, a former work release staffer will soon be heading a new department of special services. Don’t have time to take Rover to the vet? Andre is on it. Maria, another former work release staffer, has shown so much skill and potential, she will soon be training in professional grooming to expand Downtown Doggie Center’s in-house services.
Tonja’s business model has the beautiful byproduct of enriching society, and other businesses can do this as well. In order to take on work release staff, businesses just have to have workers’ compensation and a position for which the applicant is qualified. Kennel assistants don’t need any prior training and the knowledge growth opportunities are huge, so the work release program fits perfectly with the Downtown Doggie Center! St. Petersburg has a lot to learn from the big hearts and bright minds at the Downtown Doggie Center. With what so many might perceive as a disadvantage, people like Tonja are quick to find community value and creative solutions.
For more information about the Downtown Doggie Center, visit downtowndoggiecenter.com.
For more information about the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re- Entry Coalition, visit www.exoffender.org.