A quirky sense of humor helps the owner of Brooke’s Bark and Recreation, in Freeport, to bond with the animals who visit her doggy day care. Visit and you’ll see why these four-legged friends are having a dog gone good time while mom and dad are away.
Brooke Baran’s love of animals began at an early age.
Baran was four when she found a pregnant cat sitting on the doorstep of her family’s home. Mama Kitty, as she was named, gave birth to a litter of kittens and young Baran was allowed to keep one tabby kitten she called Gizmo.
Gizmo was just the first in a long line of animals that stole Baran’s heart over the years. She’s cared for dogs, cats, birds, snakes, even a bearded dragon. She’s rescued bunnies and doves, and her current cat, Leo, was discovered in a dirt pile.
Baran has a definite soft spot for furry, four-legged friends.
“I think it’s their kind nature and unconditional love that appeals to me,” she says. “They’re very non-judging creatures.”
Baran describes herself as quirky, with an odd sense of humor that helps form a bond with animals. Friends and family will say Baran’s greatest attribute is her generosity.
“I care a lot about people and animals,” she says. “I have so much empathy for everyone and I’ve always been this way.”
So, it came as no surprise to those who know Baran best when, two years ago, she opened Brooke’s Barks and Recreation, a dog day care in Freeport, where she’s lived for the past three years. Baran’s business includes day care services, group and in-home training, pool therapy, and a retail shop called Mr. Bean’s Biscuit Bar, named after one of her rescue Golden Retrievers who died from cancer.
In early 2020, construction crews began renovating the building Baran bought to launch her business. Work came to a grinding halt a few months later, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Baran’s plans were put on hold, but her enthusiasm remained steady. Brooke’s Barks and Recreation officially opened in July 2020.
Almost a year later, after a chaotic beginning, business is starting to return to normal.
“I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the community,” says Baran, a certified dog trainer and therapy dog expert. “I’m doing this for the dog owners in Freeport. They need a safe-structured space for their furry friends, and I’m excited to create that experience for them.”
Long Way from Home
Baran grew up in Morgantown, W. Va., a hilly town of 30,000 located 75 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Growing up, Baran was interested in the arts. She participated in dancing, theaters and acting, but she also played soccer, softball and volleyball.
“I was a typical, all-around kid,” she says.
Baran decided to stay home and attend West Virginia University, where she majored in ceramics and worked as a teaching assistant, helping lead a service dog class. That’s also where her husband, Engin, earned his master’s degree. The couple has been married five years and Baran says her husband has discovered his own affection for animals.
“Growing up in Turkey, he didn’t have any pets,” she says. “But he’s developed a fondness and an eagerness to interact with them.”
The newlyweds left West Virginia for Illinois, first for a two-year stay in Sterling, Ill., where Engin worked at 3M, and then in Freeport, where he now works as an electrical engineer at Honeywell.
“Freeport reminds me of my hometown,” Baran says. “It’s a tight-knit community, very well-balanced with schools and plenty of things to do. We especially love Krape Park. We’re happy here.”
Barks and Plenty of Play
Brooke’s Barks and Recreation, a play on words from the popular television show “Parks and Recreation,” is sandwiched between several businesses on Freeport’s south side. The day care’s neighbors include a hair salon, flower shop, heating and cooling company, and an auto dealership down the street. Brooke’s Barks and Recreation is off the road with plenty of trees that provide isolation and ample space for future expansion.
Prior to opening her business, Baran worked mostly part-time jobs. She was a trainer at another local doggie day care before venturing out on her own.
“I always knew that I wasn’t the type of person to work for someone else,” she says. “I don’t mind playing by the rules, but I want to have that control to ensure the best possible outcome for customers, clients and the dogs. I want to do my absolute best without any red tape.”
Baran purchased an existing building that featured great interior space. It was used as a landscape company and a chiropractic clinic before Baran took possession.
Juggling so many details, especially in the midst of a pandemic, left the first-time business owner anxious.
“The entire construction process was stressful, just the unknown and the uncertainties,” she says. “I started to get cold feet, thinking about signing my life away. There was a learning curve just trying to make sure we thought of everything.”
Eventually, Baran turned to family and friends to help with some of the work that couldn’t be finished by contractors, like painting and fixing floors.
“A lot of my ‘Illinois family,’ as I call them, rolled up their sleeves to help,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Slowly, Baran is getting the hang of running her own show. When it’s your name on the door, there’s plenty to learn, such as paying taxes and tackling payroll, for example. It took Baran a few months to devise a system that worked for her.
“There was a lot of trial-and-error with stressful moments,” she says. “There have been times I’ve wanted to throw in the towel, but you just keeping trying things until something works.”
Baran has a staff of three whom she calls her Bark Rangers, and they help care for the dogs each day. She’s recently partnered with Jan Carlson, well known in the area for dog training, and Carlson helps train at Brooke’s Barks and Recreation.
Four years ago, Carlson hired Baran as a trainer when she operated Carlson Canine Camp, a business she has since sold.
“She was a godsend,” says Carlson. “She’s very patient, knowledgeable, calm and good with the dogs.”
Carlson knows firsthand how difficult it is to start a canine business during trying times. She opened her business during the 2008 recession. Carlson says that Baran has what it takes to be successful. “Brooke is doing it the right way,” she says. “The facility is small enough to get the dogs the outlet they need. My dogs love it here. When I grab the leashes, they get so excited because they know they’re going to day care.”
Brooke’s Barks and Recreation cares for 10 to 20 dogs a day, with room for 30. Baran prefers a low ratio of dogs to handlers for the safety and comfort of the animals. Some dogs are on a daily schedule, while others attend twice a week or a few times a month.
All dogs are put through a screening process to make certain that they are compatible with other dogs and staff. The process is simple. Baran meets with the owners and their dog, reviews the application, discusses any behavioral problems at home, and goes over the personality profile of the dog. Each dog then meets with one other dog that’s already enrolled in the program.
“Meeting more than one other dog can be overwhelming,” says Baran. “That interaction is so important. If there is good communication back and forth, they are welcomed into our program. If not, we relay that news to the owner. Not all dogs can handle day care.”
The dogs are placed in one of two groups: big dogs on one side and small breeds on the other. However, there are some larger dogs with calmer dispositions that prefer being with smaller breeds.
A typical day consists of the dogs playing outside in a fenced area until lunchtime. After they come in to eat, the dogs head off to their individual crates for an early afternoon nap. “Not everyone is tired at the same time,” Baran says. Then, it’s back to the yard for more fun with friends.
Baran likes to stimulate the dogs with enrichment activities that help to lower a dog’s stress level, develop their problem-solving skills and decrease their boredom.
“Engaging their brains is the fastest way to tire them out,” she says. “We hide food in certain containers, for example, and they have to figure out how to get the treats out. With another game, they must pull on a rope to get the toy open. They also bob for apples in a bucket of water. These activities engage their noses and paws.”
Laura Youngblut, of Freeport, brings two dogs to Brooke’s Barks and Recreation a couple of times a week. She first brought Loretta, a 6-year-old rescue Bichon, for social interaction, and soon Mazzy, a 14-year-old part dachshund/schnauzer, wanted to tag along. Youngblut has noticed a big difference, especially with Loretta.
“It was a nice opportunity for her to interact with other dogs,” Youngblut says. “Brooke does things with the dogs that are fun, and they really enjoy the enrichment activities. Brooke is creative when it comes to dog care. She has the energy, the knowledge and the passion.”
Brooke’s Barks and Recreation also has a canine pool that has been mostly closed due to the pandemic. Water therapy is beneficial in many ways. It helps dogs recover from surgery, helps arthritic dogs work their joints and maintain muscle mass, and keeps all dogs in shape with low-impact water exercises.
“We are gaining a lot of interest in water therapy from word-of-mouth,” Baran says. “The pool is a great option for local dogs, and we look forward to opening it again soon.”
Baran has also held themed events for the dogs. They’ve made paw prints for Mother’s Day gifts, had their photos taken to celebrate their birthdays, and dressed in costumes for Halloween and other holidays.
Still, dogs will be dogs.
“They do misbehave at times,” Baran says. “There’s a mix of ages and personalities and we have tiffs here and there. It’s like running a day care for both toddlers and teenagers.”
The cost to enroll a dog in most day cares ranges between $20 and $35 a day. Enrichment activities are extra, and there are special packages available. Owners provide lunch for their pets.
Snuggles and Kisses
Brooke’s Barks and Recreation is turning heads in the Freeport business district. Baran says cars will slow down and walkers will gather along the fence just to catch a glimpse of dogs like Maggie, Winnie and Chuck frolicking in the yard.
The dogs are just as happy to be there. Baran says on most mornings she can see dogs sprinting from their car in anticipation of an eventful day.
For Baran, there’s also a therapeutic factor with the dogs, especially with one of her own pets. Baran, who suffers from a rapid heart rate issue, is often helped by Kida, her 4-year-old Siberian Husky, who will wake her owner from a deep slumber if she detects a problem with a rapid heart rate.
“It’s more of a bond that we have,” Baran says. “Dogs are incredible with sense of smell and awareness around another animal or human behaviors. Some dogs can really sense that something is not right. Kida knows when I’m uncomfortable, and that makes her uncomfortable. She keeps me healthy, not physically, but emotionally. These dogs are amazing.”
Starting her own business during the teeth of a pandemic has taught Baran many valuable lessons, mostly in persistence and patience.
“I’ve learned that I can do more than I thought I can do,” she says. “I’ve learned to rely on my support system and not try to do everything myself. And I take things as they come. It’s important to slow down and enjoy not only the process, but life as well.”
Baran has some advice for people looking to find a day care for their animals. The biggest suggestion is to do your due diligence. Check into the business’ background and licensing, and ask for referrals.
For Baran, all of the hard work and long days are worth it.
“The dogs are the driving force behind this,” she says. “The snuggles and kisses definitely help.”