It’s no secret that people love dogs. Many of those same people also love hanging with friends over a cold beer or a good cup of coffee. Sadly, most venues won’t let you enjoy both. Jason Underwood and Lauren Wyckoff developed the concept for BrewHound, an off-leash dog park with an open-air bar, to create a common ground for people to enjoy all of what they love in a natural setting.
“That’s really what we want to generate is this core community of animal lovers and a place for everybody to hang out and share ideas,” says Wyckoff. “It’s a cool way to get people out of their comfort zone and doing other things, not just being there, but the bigger picture of coordinating stuff together and getting back to the center of what it’s all about.”
Located on an acre of wooded land between Florida and Atlantic boulevards in Neptune Beach, BrewHound will offer designated areas for small and large breed dogs, trail maps, a bicycle pump station and “the porch” where guests can enjoy a craft beer, glass of wine, or locally roasted Bold Bean coffee. The property is also situated on the East Coast Greenway and connects to a new 1,050-foot paved trail which runs along Florida Boulevard from Fifth Street to A1A.
The 1,200-square-foot open air beer garden will be open to anyone with or without a dog. Daily, weekly or monthly membership fees will be required to enter the leash-free area to ensure all dogs are current with their vaccinations. Discounted rates will be offered on annual memberships for all current service-members, veterans, and first responders.
“Ruffarees” will be on hand to monitor behavior and even keep an eye on your pup while you refresh your drink. “We figured we should be able to take our dogs literally everywhere we go to hang out,” says Underwood. “So, we had this crafty idea of combining both the social setting and dogs, off leash.”
When the couple first unleashed the concept for BrewHound, they had recently rescued their third dog and were missing the new addition to their family while they were out of town. The idea started brewing over poolside cocktails, fittingly Greyhounds. Both Underwood and Wyckoff are environmental scientists who share a love of the outdoors. Whether camping, hiking or just enjoying nature, their three dogs, Too, Wicket and Scrambles, are always in tow. A project like BrewHound was the perfect way to fuse their love of dogs with their passion for the outdoors.
“They say that ideas come and go, and not every one is a winner. But when you find one that’s a winner right off the bat, you either make it happen or you let it cruise on by,” says Underwood. “What I didn’t know was on the way home, Lauren’s wheels were turning.”
With her entrepreneurial spirit in overdrive, Wyckoff quickly catalogued the couple’s available resources. By the following week, she’d framed a business plan, developed marketing strategies and tapped into her professional network to get the dog park off the ground. The pair worked with The Pratt Guys to complete renderings of the property and an architect helped develop the engineering plans for city approval.
The pair researched similar projects located in progressive, metropolitan markets including Seattle, Austin and Charlotte and realized that a mixed-use park would be the perfect fit for the Beaches community. “The beach is such a unique community. There is culture, but you still have that small-town feel,” says Wyckoff. “There’s a bit of everything, so I thought what a cool place to do something like that. What if we could find some land?”
Underwood tapped into money he saved from his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan to buy the oddly-shaped and overgrown parcel of land. After finally closing on the property in April, the couple have invested countless hours clearing the brush and cutting away branches on their own to reveal a diamond in the “ruff.”
“I had some money saved up from when I was in the Army, so I said, ‘let’s make it happen. It really does make a difference when you just get outside. That’s why we’re really trying to make this a space for people to do that,” he says. “After work, take your dog and let him run crazy and get tired, and you don’t have the guilt factor of wanting to take your dog out but want to go to dinner or happy hour. So, you either let your dog out real quick and leave again or don’t go anywhere. This way you can do both.”
Being a combat veteran also played a significant role in his appreciation for pups and the services they provide for men and women who have experienced combat. He joined the Army right out of college, serving as a maneuver platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colorado. At 24, he was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.
He remembers Cali, a stray puppy he encountered on patrol in Kandahar during a routine patrol of the city. Underwood recalls the small mixed breed pup sniffing around outside of one of the patrol base gates. They named her “Cali” after the small company-sized outpost they manned in Kandahar.
“There were signs posted around some of the bigger bases overseas stating that under no circumstances were soldiers to befriend or even pet stray animals, but after nine straight months of being over there with no break, I didn’t pay much thought to what the signs said,” remembers Underwood. “I was going to get that puppy and hold it, pet it, name it, and carry it around wherever I could until someone made me stop. Metaphorically, that little puppy was a lit candle in a dark room. We kept her for as long as we could until we were moved to a new position in the city. Unfortunately, we couldn’t bring her with us.”
After he got out of the Army, Underwood left Anchorage, Alaska, behind to start a new life in Florida with Wyckoff and her dog Too, whom she rescued off the street in Orlando over 12 years ago. While he was tying up loose ends in Alaska, Wyckoff rescued Wicket, a feisty little border-collie mix, from the Clay County kill shelter. With Underwood finally settled in Florida for good, the couple brought home Scrambles, a food-crazy hound mix, from the Amelia Island Humane Society.
Underwood also decided it was time to seek treatment for anxiety and trauma he experienced during his time in service. In addition to counseling and therapy, he credits the dogs for providing a sense of balance and comfort. “I can’t put into words how crucial an animal is to a combat veteran. Coming from a life of constant uncertainty, stress, and that uneasy feeling that makes you constantly look over your shoulder, the girls gave me a reason to seek help. In a lot of ways, [they] kept me grounded. I feel at ease around them,” he says.
“It’s almost magical that they can sense our feelings and adjust their behavior based off them. Dogs often train us more efficaciously than we believe we train them. They react to our emotions, feelings, and actions in ways that make sense to them, but often not us. This pattern of behavior, if we pay attention, can teach us to keep our own behavior in check,” he says.
Once BrewHound is up and running, a weekly trainer will be on site to provide instruction on various behaviors. Planned events will also include a quarterly pet market and partnership with such organizations as Go Ruck, Canines for Warriors and the VFW in Jacksonville Beach. Future collaborations could also include the Wounded Warrior Project.
“I believe dogs can give service members the most similar feeling of ‘brotherhood’ that you feel when in a combat scenario. They always have your back. They love you. They would do anything for you,” says Underwood. “My girls aren’t service dogs. They are not professionally trained to perform the duties of a service dog. However, they continue to impress upon me the strength to be a good leader and never give up.”
There are still a few hurdles to clear before breaking ground. Plans for the space are still in development review in Neptune Beach, and once approved, it will take an estimated six to seven months to complete build-out and open the fences. Until then, Underwood and Wyckoff will enjoy watching their dream take shape with a cold beer or a good cup of coffee and their three dogs by their side.