Text By Marah Eakin
Images Courtesy of Dog PPL
A members-only social club for pups and their owners, Dog PPL opened two years ago in a long-empty parking lot in Santa Monica, turning what was once solid asphalt into an urban oasis full of wide-open Astroturf, doggie splash pads, and bacon-scented bubbles. The club also offers plenty of places for people (and dogs) to lounge or to work, a cafe and bar if you want to grab some people food, and even a broad calendar of social events like movie nights, disco parties, yoga (with your dog) and trivia contests.
Dog PPL began five or so years ago when co-founders Alex Esguerra and Liam Underwood struck up a conversation while watching their dogs play at a park in downtown Los Angeles. Why, they wondered, weren’t there more dog parks in the city? And why were the ones that are open so hit-or-miss? All too often in LA, dog parks are glorified dirt pits, and a mix of the unpredictable—dogs that might be aggressive, wild, or otherwise unsupervised. In them they found spaces that weren’t cleaned often enough, or drinking fountains that rarely worked,
Esguerra and Underwood dreamed of a place, they say, where dogs would be safer—and where their owners could feel at ease. An experiential designer and a videographer by trade, respectively, Esguerra and Underwood started working through the idea in their free time, dreaming up a concept.
“It started with the simple idea: ‘What if we got a tiny block of land and charged all our friends $10 to come?,’” Underwood says. “Then it turned into, ‘What if we got a shipping container, and turned that into a cafe?’ and ‘How do we keep the dogs safe?’ We realized we’d need to have their vaccine records, so we’d have to have a front desk person to check people in. Over time, it just built into what it needed to be.“
Today, Dog PPL boasts hundreds of doggy members, all of whom made it through a rigorous health and temperament screening to be admitted to the club. Owners pay $120 a month for access to the club and most of its activities, as well as amenities like high speed wi-fi, baskets full of dog cologne and branded poop bags, and on-site “rufferees” to supervise all that doggy roughhousing. There’s grooming on-site Fridays and Saturdays, and the grounds are routinely sanitized and deep-cleaned, lest things get a little too funky.
There’s really no detail of Dog PPL Underwood and Esguerra haven’t thought about, from bringing in dog expert Robert Cabral before opening to both checking out the space and giving them advice on how to train their rufferees to making sure all staff members know both human and dog CPR. Esguerra says he and Underwood have become like “sponges” for dog information, absorbing the latest research on dog psychology and canine-friendly design and putting it into immediate action. “Any day we learn something new, we implement it,” Esguerra says. That doesn’t just apply to dog brains, either—the co-founders have also worked to stay on the edge of technology in terms of waterless cleaning solutions, solar power, and even sending off all the club’s excess dog hair to be made into mats to clean up oil spills.
The result is a space that has turned out to not just be good for dogs, but also for people. “Post-pandemic, People are longing for connection outside of digital spaces and Zoom calls,” Esguerra says. “They’re dying to be around other people but currently, as a city dweller, your options are go to a bar and get drunk, go to a restaurant, or maybe join some sort of member’s club, but that’s not really that targeted. Where do you go to meet like-minded people?”
Meeting someone at Dog PPL, Underwood says, means you know, at the very least, they absolutely love their dog. “When you come into this space, it instantly breaks the ice,” he explains. “You can say ‘How old is your dog? What breed are they? What’s their name?’ The social aspect just evolves from there.” Some Dog PPL members have become friends outside the park, and more than a few love matches have sparked on site as well. “Alex and I have promised that, if a couple meets here and wants to have their wedding here, we’ll facilitate it,” Underwood says.
The club is also working to connect rescue dogs with new owners, launching Canine Rescue Club with an eye toward getting more long-term shelter residents into their forever homes. Frequently they’ll invite rescue dogs to come play, outfitting them in “adopt me” vests and putting out well-produced videos about the dogs’ best qualities that their members can share. Given most of Dog PPL’s canine members are mixed breed or rescues already, the advocacy is a natural fit for the club, which Underwood says is about “helping dogs above all else.”
“We just want the world to experience what we’ve built here in Santa Monica,” Esguerra says. “People love to say, ‘A private club for dogs? That’s so L.A.,” but once you see it, you realize it’s just a beautiful, amazing, relaxing outdoor space where everyone is happy and living their best life with their dogs.”