Facilities for Fido take off. About 20 are open in the Charlotte area - and more are coming.
By Jen Aronoff
Posted: Sunday, Mar. 21, 2010
Tips for choosing a dog day care
Investigate and pick a day care for a dog much like you'd select a place for a child, advises Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association. Visit facilities you're interested in, look around and talk to others who go there. See if the staffers are kind and understand pets, and if the pets themselves are happy and well-tended. Many day cares offer a free trial day; beware if you aren't allowed to take a tour.
Experts also recommend considering the following:
Cleanliness: A facility should be clean, with disinfected surfaces, and have minimal odor ("In this business, it's very hard to have zero odor," the Pet Care Services Association's Briggs cracks). Worms and other health issues can arise in an unsanitary operation housing a group of dogs.
Facility: What's the layout, and how do the play yards look? Are there ways for dogs to escape? What kind of surface do you want? What about a climate-controlled environment?
Exercise level: Does your dog have ample time to play, mixed with rest, so it doesn't become ornery?
Separation: Are dogs grouped by size and personality?
Attitude and training: Can staffers talk to you about the dogs in their care? Do they understand dog behavior, body language and safe play? If not, a dog can be not only physically injured, but behaviorally and emotionally affected in an altercation.
Supervision: Are play groups supervised, in person, 100 percent of the time? If not, fights can break out quickly; a human is needed to lead the group and head off trouble. The Pet Care Services Association recommends one person for every 15 dogs.
Entry requirements: Are your dog's vaccines up to date? What else does it need to play well with others? And note that some day cares won't accept certain breeds.
Just around 1:30 p.m. at a tidy south Charlotte day care, the pupils began emerging from naptime - with a loud, eager chorus of barking. No bones about it, playtime was about to get under way at Dogs All Day, where four-legged friends frolic while their owners are away at work.
The 11,000-square-foot center on South Boulevard opened a year ago this month, providing a service that's gaining fans here and across the country. The first local doggie day care opened about 10 years ago, and there are now about 20 in and around Charlotte. At least a quarter of those have opened in the last two years, and more are on the way.
They come small and large, upscale and low-key, chain and independent, with a variety of themes - including a rustic camp and Tuscan. Most also offer boarding, and sometimes other services such as grooming. But it's day care that has especially caught on, particularly among busy, urban adults who want dogs but can't or don't want to leave them cooped up at home all day.
Day care has seen explosive growth over the past three to five years, more than any other area of pet care services, said Susan Briggs president of the Pet Care Services Association, a trade group. Even as the economy has slowed new dog day care openings, she said, client demand remains strong, and existing boarding and training centers have been adding the service, too.
"Dogs are becoming more and more like a member of the family, so they'll spend the money on the dog to go to day care like they would a child," said Briggs, who has owned a dog day care in Houston for 10 years. "And they expect the same kind of services and care, which they should....As pet owners, we want our pets to be happy."
The day cares are poised to continue booming, experts say, with additional business owners entering, some for a new start after corporate downsizing. And pet lovers tend to still cut back in other areas of their budgets instead of scrimping on Fido or Fluffy.
"Basically, no matter how many reports we saw of a bad economy, or layoffs at Wachovia, or falling housing prices...the places where I worked were absolutely packed and busier than ever, and having to turn away dogs," said Kristen Hall, who worked for a breeder and another dog day care before opening Puptown Charlotte, a day care and boarding center, last April on Statesville Road near Interstate 77 Exit 18. "It was just amazing."
Christine Rhatican of Indian Land, a nurse at Blumenthal Cancer Center, arrived at Dogs All Day on a recent afternoon to retrieve Brady, her 4-month-old black-and-white Australian shepherd/Lab mix. She works 10-hour days, lives by herself and likes spur-of-the-moment travel, so she was leery of getting a dog and didn't want to leave one crated in her home all the time. But after investigating day care and meeting Brady, she went for it, finding a discount for Dogs All Day through Carolinas Medical Center.
Now she brings Brady a couple of times a week, with a neighbor helping on other days. Though it adds to the cost of having a pet, she said, "I just sacrifice other things." And she looks forward to pickup time: "He is the cutest, sweetest dog. He's great company. He's loving. It's good knowing he's in good hands."
When Meadows Bed & Biscuit opened in Huntersville in 2001, day care was about 20 percent of its business. Now, it's about 50 percent, and the center expanded last year to add two "gyms" and other amenities, assistant manager Whitney Howell said. Pet Paradise Resort, a Florida-based chain that focuses on airport locations, opened near Charlotte/Douglas Airport last August and has seen strong day care business, marketing director Lisa Pogue said.
For dogs, the benefits include socialization and plenty of exercise. Owners, meanwhile, get the convenience of leaving their dog in a trusted environment that, ideally, will make pets happier and healthier.
"It's his home away from home," said Hayley Hatley of Charlotte, as she picked up her 2-year-old shepherd mix, Reames, at Dogs All Day one evening early last week. "You can just say 'day care' and he's at the door."
Hatley had long wanted a dog but works long days in sales and lives in a patio home with little room for a pet to roam. She figured she'd hold off until she moved to a house with a backyard, but then she found Reames, a stray that went unclaimed, on - yes, Reames Road. Now, she brings him to Dogs All Day twice a week, checking up on him via the center's Webcams during the day. Her dog, she said, has made friends, and she likes the facility's size, cleanliness and prices.
That comes at a price that can add up quickly: Local doggie day cares charge anywhere from about $20 to $30 a day, with lower rates for those who buy day passes in bulk. Most dogs, however, don't visit every day, and owners say the service is worth it.
At Dogs All Day, which has four fenced indoor/outdoor play areas, the canines leapt up and pressed their noses against their enclosure when president Anita Williams walked in on a recent afternoon. "Hello, Nyssa! Hello, Luke!" she said.
Williams opened the center after about 20 years in corporate jobs, most recently with Bank of America. When her position there was eliminated, she said, she could have taken another job within the company, but decided to branch out on her own.
Williams was initially skeptical of dog day care, but she became a convert after trying it on her two energetic Jack Russell terriers. They came home tired and happy, and she didn't feel guilty about leaving them alone.
Later, she began researching opening her own day care. To better learn how to handle groups of dogs, she began volunteering at the Humane Society, and she also scoured the city for a suitable location. After plenty of looking, she said - zoning restrictions proved an obstacle - she found and renovated a warehouse that previously housed an auto detailing center.
Though Williams didn't plan on opening in a recession, as far as she can tell, it hasn't dampened business: She's tracking close to her business plan - with growth every month - and the business became profitable around the beginning of the year, ahead of schedule. The center now takes in about 60 or 70 dogs a day, with day care on weekdays and boarding all week. It also has grooming and a full retail store.
Dogs must be vetted and interviewed before they're approved to attend day care. Once they arrive, they play in the morning and afternoon, with a break in between, in groups separated by size and temperament. Their leashes and other supplies sit nearby in blue and green cubbies, in bins labeled with each dog's name. Williams and her staff get to know each dog's personality and identify owners by their pets.
Williams loves her job, she said, but it's not as simple as cuddling with dogs and raking in easy money, she notes. "I have people come and apply for jobs, and they say, 'Oh, I love dogs!'" she said. "And I say, 'That's good, but do you love to clean? Because that's really what we do.'"
It's also important, she said, to keep a close eye on dogs as they play in a group, to head off fights. Out in the fenced yard, staffers did just that, tossing balls and squirting rowdy pups with a water bottle to remind them to behave, as their feet padded and nails clicked on the pavement.
Despite the new doggie day cares that have opened locally in the last year or so, Williams said she believes the market is far from saturated. Nationwide, only about 4 percent of pet owners surveyed by the American Pet Products Association had taken their dogs to day care in the last six months.
Nationally, spending on pets rose 5.4 percent last year, to $45.5 billion, and it's projected to grow again this year, despite the recession, the Pet Products Association said. Other centers have witnessed its resilience, too.
Puptown Charlotte's business has grown through word of mouth, owner Hall said. And the center works to foster a connection with its customers by hosting birthday and holiday parties for its dogs and sending owners pictures of their pets during the day.
Allen Barker of Charlotte, who manages a landscaping supply company, began bringing Bentley, his 3-year-old yellow English Lab, to day care after his vet recommended it for health reasons. He had taken his dog to two other centers before coming to Puptown earlier this year, switching after what he saw as too many fights and a lack of staff attentiveness and cleanliness. Now, he said, Bentley is happier and in better shape.
His last dog, he said, started having hip problems at a young age, in part because he laid around the house all day, confined indoors.
"I see the difference in letting the dog go to day care," he said. "It's expensive, but I don't have to worry. People shouldn't have an animal unless they're going to take care of it."