Seated in the newly renovated lodge on his Alexandria property, Joel Slaven inspects a large paper calendar spread across his desk. The building still smells like new wood, and just behind a closed door, you can hear the occasional bark of dogs in their kennels. 

After decades in the domestic animal show business, Slaven, 71, knew he couldn’t just retire. His newest project is the three-month-old Joel Slaven’s Dog Lodge, a dog training and boarding facility. 

The lodge is located down a long gravel road that winds past a small pond. Down the gravel road, up the hill that backs into a meadow, is a wooden-fenced pen with Slaven’s five dogs. One is a 17-year-old Lab whose hips hang low to the ground while she patiently waits for pets. The younger dogs push in front of her, jumping with their muddy paws to stand at the fence. 

For 25 years, his professional animal company was the largest in the world. Now, he’s helping central Ohioans get in sync with their pets. 

“You should be partners with your dog,” Slaven said. “You got it to have fun, not to add more stress into your life!”

Slaven’s model at the Dog Lodge is a board-and-train program in which pets come to stay for three weeks of intensive training – “sometimes a few days longer if the dogs need it,” he said. Then comes the harder part: training the owners. Slaven says this takes about a week more. 

“Most of the dogs are easier than the people,” Slaven said. 

Slaven got his start in the industry at a young age. His passion is and always has been animals. At just 9 years old, Slaven bred small birds and guinea pigs in his parents’ basement to be sold at a Columbus pet store. His love for sports and animals led him to train as a jockey in the latter half of high school. He exercised race horses at Darby Dan Farm west of Columbus until he got too big to be a jockey. There, Slaven’s mentor noticed his talent for working with animals and encouraged him to stay in the business as a trainer. 

After working for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium raising and training exotic animals, Slaven was able to leverage his friendship with Jack Hanna, the zoo director at the time, into a job interview at Cypress Gardens in Florida. The now-closed amusement park hired him in the early 1980s to train a dog as part of a water-ski show.

“If you wanted to be a professional animal trainer, you had to be in either New York, Florida or California,” Slaven said. For the 20 years that followed his move down south, Slaven worked in amusement parks across the country training animals for live shows. Locations included Silver Springs, Six Flags over Texas and Georgia, and the Arabian Nights Dinner Theatre. 

Slaven and his animals also appeared in TV shows and movies. One of his most notable credits was as the animal trainer for Ace Ventura Pet Detective, a 1994 hit movie starring Jim Carrey. Slaven himself got in front of the camera, birds in hand, as an animal expert for the Mickey Mouse Club in the early 1990s. 

In 1997, Slaven started his own company, Joel Slaven’s Professional Animals, Inc. (JSPA). Based in St. Cloud, Florida, he employed more than 70 trainers and had thousands of animals in shows from SeaWorld to Busch Gardens, the Columbus and Jacksonville Zoos, and the Texas State Fair. 

His work has always prioritized humane treatment and ethical practices, he said.

“Ninety-five percent of those animals were sheltered animals, rescues,” Slaven said. “We took about 3,000 dogs and cats out of shelters and rescues across the United States when I had JSPA. All of the animals for my shows — dogs, cats, pigs, rats — they all came from shelters.” 

Between 1997 and 2014, Slaven adopted more than 350 dogs and cats from the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando’s two animal shelters for training, and later included them as part of the Pets Ahoy show at SeaWorld. 

“Many of the dogs and cats adopted from our agency by [Slaven] are difficult to place in traditional homes due to undesirable behaviors like excessive barking and jumping,” Kerri Burns, then-executive director for the Pet Alliance said in 2014. “It’s truly amazing to watch these animals blossom into wonderful animal actors with expert training and the full-time dedication by [Slaven] and his team. The Pets Ahoy show gives these adopted pets a second career and a second chance at life.” 

The alliance honored Slaven with the inaugural Animal Hero Award in 2014.

His work was not without critics. 

In 2010, Slaven and his team coordinated the training and care of 20 dogs for The 101 Dalmations Musical’s nationwide tour, and the animal-rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) raised concerns about the use of live animals on stage. 

“PETA is determined to get animals out of the entertainment business,” according to the organization’s website. “Animals aren’t actors, spectacles to imprison and gawk at, or circus clowns.”

But when PETA approached the producers of the musical, the organization changed its tune. 

“When they came to the producers and they found out all the dogs were actually rescues and not bought from breeders, and they considered the play was anti-fur, they were willing to work with us,” Slaven said. “Every city we went to, they put their brochures and literature in the [theater] lobbies.” 

In 2014, the organization issued a release calling for an investigation into his SeaWorld shows, though Slaven said the organization’s concerns had more to do with SeaWorld’s marine mammals like killer whales. 

Slaven returned to his childhood hobby of small-animal breeding for a time in 2019, but has stepped away in recent years. There’s still a large aviary on his property from which the sounds of hundreds of birds emanate. 

Credit: Andrew Theophilus

After decades of flying between Florida and Ohio, Slaven decided it was time to set down roots and build his dream home in Alexandria. To him, it’s the best of both worlds: close enough to Columbus that his city friends will make the trek out to see him, but not so close that he loses access to the rolling hills and bodies of water that make him feel at home. 

Slaven’s home is like a large cabin. The massive front door opens to a large fireplace and vaulted ceilings. Slaven climbs a small ladder to turn on the light for the aquarium, as big as a wall and full of hundreds of fish. 

Downstairs is his memorabilia room. On the wall opposite the bar, Slaven’s memories are framed and hung. Jack Hanna’s brown leather hat is signed with a silver sharpie and rests on the wall behind the bar. There’s a boot and riding crop from a Kentucky Derby winning jockey sitting on the countertop.

Slaven worked part-time as a dog trainer in New Albany for a time, but he had been inundated with requests from clients to offer a board-and-train program. Often, this model is much more convenient for busy families – and offers Slaven better access to and opportunities for consistency with the dogs. 

“I really missed it,” he said. “I think the board-and-trains are the best way to train the dogs.”

The Dog Lodge, a 22-acre facility with a massive indoor training area, wooded trails and a fenced pasture, has been open for only about three months, but it’s been booked and busy since its launch. 

“It’s been a lot of fun so far, and we already have some great success stories,” Slaven said. 

Torria Catrone writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.