Let yourself go to the dogs

DogMa is a unique in-home boarding service

A full-size van pulls up into a remote country field outside Belleville, and 18 dogs pile out. They just keep coming and coming like passengers in a canine clown car, some days as many as 24. They move as an orderly pack, even though they all come from different homes. It’s raining and the country air is quiet, save for the sound of synchronized panting. The dogs are excited, but respectful. None are on-leash. They know where they’re going and who they’ll be following.

“Calm energy and confident leadership is really what’s most important with dogs, because they communicate with energy and body language,” Lindsey Decker says quietly before she begins to lead. She’s the owner of DogMa Home Boarding & Hiking, a unique in-home boarding service. But this hike is part of Doggy by Nature Hike x Train, the training program started by Decker’s work and life partner, Craig Michaels. He runs the morning route, picking up dogs on the doggy bus and then leading them on a two-hour hike through their private farm property in Belleville. Decker does the afternoon route, and two other employees lead daily routes at a second property they rent in Cross Plains for a total of four each weekday.

Just then Bob, a shepherd collie, begins to bark. “He’s the fun police,” says Decker, smiling and pointing at two siblings that have begun to chase each other. Decker calls gently to the rabble-rousers and they fall back in line. Satisfied, Bob stops barking.

When she’s not working her Doggy by Nature hiking route, Decker works for DogMa, the business she started seven years ago. She’s built her client list to 3,500 Madison-area customers — folks who need to drop off their dogs (or have staff take them to their own home, or have staff go to the dog owner’s home) with one of 45 staff “DogMas.” But what’s really most important to Decker and Michaels, and what brings them the most fulfillment, is rescuing dogs. The couple has five dogs of their own at home, but between fostering and boarding, that number can reach 14 on any given day.

“When the dynamic is right and the energy is right, it doesn’t feel like work. And that’s something that’s really important for the boarding side of the business, too — a safe and manageable dynamic in each home,” she says. Looking around at the dogs as they continue their joyful hike, it’s easy to believe that dogs can be trained without shock collars, choke chains or yelling. The workload seems like a lot, but Decker says the dogs energize her and feed something deep in her soul. Being around dogs has improved her emotional and physical health. These daily hikes are as much for them as for her.

“They slow me down,” she says, gently stepping in front of an errant labradoodle to use body language and “spatial pressure” to let him know what she expects. The dog quickly returns to the pack. “I have to be slow for them. I have to just relax and be calm, so that helps me as a human, being present and mindful. I just feel like a better version of myself when I’m with the dogs.”

Most of today’s dogs belong to paying clients (Doggy by Nature has a 40-person wait list), with a few exceptions — foster dogs are sponsored. In the past seven or eight years, Decker and Michaels have personally fostered more than 300 dogs in their home, and they’ve connected countless other dogs with foster families.

“Foster dogs are from all walks of life. Some have been chained to a tree their whole life, some abused, some picked up as strays, some dumped at a shelter. So anytime we have a dog we feel would benefit from this sort of extra structure and help and training, we let them come out on hikes with us,” says Decker, who introduced herself to Michaels in the hope that he would sponsor hikes for her foster dogs. They fell in love and merged their businesses. “This is a lifestyle. Everything we do is about dogs. Working with them, raising them, saving them.”

Decker spent years in corporate marketing, only volunteering and fostering rescues in her spare time. As scary as it was to make the leap into starting her own business seven years ago, she knew she needed to follow her passion. If yours happens to be dogs as well, she says, the rescues need you.

“If you can’t foster, volunteer. Clean kennels, drive a transport truck, work events,” she says, reopening the van door as all the dogs climb back in and settle into each other. The hours have flown by, and they’re exhausted. Some immediately start their naps. “When you are fostering, you are bridging the gap between euthanasia and a forever home. You’re the spot, that’s your job. Give it an amazing home until you can find it a forever home that is perfect, where it can thrive and get all the things it deserves that it never got before.”