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Where My DOG PPL At?

A new member’s only dog park and social club in LA is all about good dogs and good vibes.

by Samantha Gurrie
September 17, 2021
People and dogs running and standing in a park

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In the ’70s, a tribe of latchkey kids revolutionized skate culture and christened their SoCal stomping grounds Dogtown. The iconic, nonconformist turf that straddles Venice and Santa Monica couldn’t be a more perfect flagship location for DOG PPL, a new breed of dog park. The concept for a member’s only social club for pets and their people crystallized four years ago, when the founders — artist Alex Esguerra and photographer/filmmaker Liam Underwood — kept bumping into each other at a local dog run. Their creative minds collided, and they started envisaging an infinitely cooler, cleaner, safer space.

Esguerra and Underwood teamed up with REEF Technology, who transform urban spaces into sustainable community hubs, to annex a deserted parking lot and bring their vision to life. The result is a sublimely designed dog park that boasts splash pools and a fire hydrant mister (and spa towels to dry off, no less). A shipping container café serves up coffee, beer, cocktails, and freshly baked pupusas. Dog savvy “rufferees” keep members in check. Taking a page from Soho House, DOG PPL’s social calendar is the stuff of pet parent dreams: pop-up vaccine clinics, puppy training classes, dog-themed movie screenings, adoptable rescue dog playdates, and off-site excursions to beaches and wolf sanctuaries. And this is only the beginning. New York and Miami — watch this space. We caught up with Esguerra and Underwood to talk about how their love of dogs and backgrounds in entertainment and experiential design manifested such a rad space.

a dog splashes in a shallow pool, two members pose with a dog

So, do you remember the first conversation you had about starting DOG PPL?

Esguerra: We met over four years ago at this little park in the Arts District in downtown LA. It wasn’t designed for dogs — it was like a children’s playground — but all the local dog owners kept bringing their dogs there because our alternative was a really unsafe, small, dirty dog park that nobody would bring their loved ones to play in. Liam and I would see each other there and share the same gripes about dog parks in general —  I’d had similar problems in New York City — so we started brainstorming how we could design a better dog park for not just the dogs, but the humans.

Underwood: When you’re at a dog park and you’re with the right people, a real sense of community and connection between human and dog happens there. It’s magical. Time gets lost sometimes when you’re around good people and good dogs. That’s what we wanted to harness — that connection. 

a concession stand, a DOG PPL projection

What are some of the pain points that you found in other dog parks that you wanted to steer clear of?

Underwood: Since I got my dog in LA, I can proudly say I’ve been to a dog park almost every day. And Alex goes a crapload too. So we designed it knowing what we were missing out on and what it should be. Safety is first and foremost. At some dog parks, you have no idea if the other dogs have had all their shots. Also, dogs that are not spayed or neutered cause a lot of problems at dog parks. We have a sanitary space, water source, and supervision. 

Esguerra: Cleanliness too. Some city dog owners have nice homes and they bring their dogs to parks that are mulchy or dirty. It’s a pain to wash your dog, especially if you’re going all the time.

How do you ensure the dogs that show up to DOG PPL are healthy, spayed/neutered, and sociable?

Underwood: When people become members, they need to upload their vet records to show that their dogs have the required shots and that they are spayed or neutered. If they are under eight months of age, it’s okay if they aren’t fixed yet because spaying/neutering too early can hinder the growth of some large breeds. On their first visit, our rufferees are alerted — that’s essentially our temperament test where we can monitor how a dog plays with others and what quirks they have. If a dog isn’t the right fit, owners do get a full refund. We also offer training advice and resources to help get them approved.

What was your vision when you were designing the space?

Underwood: I had this vision of taking over parking lots. They are underutilized, especially now with people ride sharing and working from home. For our first location, we chose ground level in Santa Monica — technically Dogtown, where the Z-boys skater crew started. Rooftops are our next goal. You’ve got power, water, airflow, and skyline views of the city.

Esguerra: In terms of design aesthetics, we went through four years of renderings, spatial layout plans, different properties... Rooftop or ground level? Chinatown or Hollywood? But always using shipping containers — a café/bar and a concierge/shop. With shipping container designs and parking lots, we created an almost rinse-and-repeat model. We can go to any city and find the perfect location.

Underwood: And we chose a color palette that echoes grass, dirt, and bone. 

Esguerra: But a very sophisticated tone and shade and value of those inspiration points. I mean, it took us years to figure out which green we were going to use. We both come from creative backgrounds: Liam’s in entertainment and branding, and mine in branding and experiential design — we’re bringing all that forward and applying our experience in aesthetics to this space.

Can you tell me more about how your creative backgrounds have led to this?

Esguerra: I was an industrial design major, then graphic product branding — a bunch of different fields of creativity. But the last bulk of my career has been in experiential design and branding, so creating live experiences for brands like Nike, whether they’re activations or pop-ups. I love the career I’ve had, but all I want to do is apply all that to our baby, and just make people smile and dogs happy everywhere. In every city. All over the world. We’re just scratching the surface right now.

Underwood: I toured the world with Skrillex for 10 years, working with his record label and on his imagery. Then I worked with Will Smith through Westbrook Media. And eventually with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — I ended up shooting his wedding. But of all that experience, I’ve landed on this, my true passion, which is dogs and dog parks. I come from a family of dog rescuers, so my love for dogs started really young. Finally getting to record dogs having fun and use my content creation skills in this place is so liberating for my soul. I’ve launched a few startups that are cool, but this is where my heart and soul lives. I’m actually getting goosebumps thinking about it right now. I’m just so stoked that this is where I’ve landed.

That’s so cool your careers have culminated in this originative project. So what are some of the features that a membership to DOG PPL gets you? 

Esguerra: I can walk you through the experience: You book your membership online and sign a waiver. When you arrive, a concierge will check you in, then you unleash your pup and they have a blast. If there are any special notes in their account, we let the rufferees know, like, Hey, this one tends to be afraid of big dogs or whatever. You can sit down for a Bandido coffee, or get beer, wine, sake, soju, or a cocktail. We’ve got chargers if you need.

On top of that is our programming calendar. Just like at Soho House, you’ve got your recurring events and your one-off events. So every Sunday night, we’ll have old-school, dog-themed movie nights with a popcorn machine and dog treats. There are gonna be splash parties and snow days for the dogs. And we’re going to do excursions outside the park, like to the beach or mountains or to a wolf sanctuary. Basically, we want this to become a lifestyle where you live and breathe DOG PPL.

Underwood: Every member gets access to the programming, bar some special events that might pop up that are ticketed. Adoption events is a whole other chapter that we are going to be expanding into quite strongly. We’re going to program certain days of the week when rescue dogs in Adopt Me vests can have playgroups here so they can socialize with people and other dogs, and become more adoptable.

We partnered with a famous dog trainer, Robert Cabral. He’s the man! He sort of invented playgroups and teaches shelters how they should be giving shelter dogs opportunities to play off leash so they can confidently say that they play well with other dogs, which is huge for adoption.

three dogs surround a DJ booth

Shelter pup playdates? Amazing. Will the café offer dog-friendly food too?

Underwood: Yeah, I’ll give credit to Jada Pinkett Smith for coming up with the idea to sell pupusas that safe for both humans and dogs to eat. REEF Technology is our real estate partner and food partner on site. You can order food here, then a little robot from a kitchen kiosk across the street will deliver the food to you.

I love how cutting edge and tech-forward this is. What’s next for DOG PPL?

Esguerra: We want to become the gold standard in this kind of experience. Not just across the country, but globally. We’re already slated to open up two more locations in LA, and we have a property in partnership with REEF in Brooklyn and Miami. And that’s just the beginning. We’ve talked about opening 100 locations in the next few years. We want to create a beautiful brand and culture and e-commerce line. We want to go through the roof with this thing. Not just scale for the sake of scale, but because we believe that dogs and their owners deserve the best. 

Underwood: There are a lot of dogs out there that are waiting for this and we need to get it to them as quickly as possible. The quality of life that this offers is huge. This was originally designed for city dogs — they don’t have backyards and they deserve more. They’re wild inside. They wanna be off leash. They want to go crazy and have a blast, and we want that for them. The longer we can keep the humans here, the longer the dogs get to play. And the more tired our dogs are at home, the more productive we are. It’s a win-win across the board.

dogs and children on a bench

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Samantha Gurrie

Samantha Gurrie

Samantha Gurrie is The Wildest’s editorial director. She was previously the senior editor at NYLON magazine, co-publisher of Four&Sons, and director at Puerto Rican dog rescue The Sato Project. She lives in L.A. with her husband and rescue Pit Bull mix Midnight.