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Doggie Day Care

As an ad executive, Chris Gaba worked grueling hours, the sort of daily grind that millions of Americans have come to expect. At the beginning of each long day, his heart broke to leave his two Weimaraners – Sophie and Taz – behind. It wasn’t that they weren’t well cared for; they just didn’t receive the same kind of attention he felt they needed and deserved.

In short, they deserved to be in day care. Doggie day care is an idea whose time has come. Scientific and marketing studies show that pets have become more than members of the family. For singles and couples without children, they are surrogate children. One study shows that 84 percent of people think of their pets that way – and what parent can leave a child for hours on end without being overwrought with guilt?

Some hire sitters to keep their pets company. But others aren’t content for an hour or so of companionship in the home. When at work, these owners want their dogs engaged in happy and meaningful activity, while being well cared for and supervised. That was on Gaba’s mind when he decided to open Central Bark, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “My dogs are used to being coddled,” he said. “I’m one of those owners who’s a little nutty about my dogs.”

As sales figures show, Gaba is not alone. Americans spent more than $500 million to keep their pets from being alone during the day – whether they hired pet sitters or dropped them off at day care.

Doggie day cares range in size, specialties, activities and, of course, prices. Most offer obedience classes to reinforce basic commands such as sit and stay. Grooming services and “spas” ensure that Rover comes out smelling sweeter than when he came in. They get outdoor time that varies with the weather. Hotter days may mean more frequent trips outside for shorter periods, such as 15 to 20 minutes. A wading pool is often available for dogs to play in, and some facilities offer full pools for breeds that enjoy water sports.

The activities are patterned after a child’s day care. There’s playtime, classes (in the dogs’ case, for obedience), healthy snacks and naptime. Playtime occurs in a group setting in a room that, without the dogs, could be mistaken for a child’s playroom. Dogs romp over plastic jungle gyms and slides, and play with a human handler, who is always present. Some day cares even offer Petcams so owners can observe their dogs playing on the Internet.

Good Canine Citizens

Day cares are not for every dog. Because dogs play in groups with each other, a good day care will carefully screen applicants to make sure they can get along with the other canines and the handlers. “We turn down clients all the time,” Gaba said. “You need to, for the safety of everyone.”
Dog owners will fill out a lengthy questionnaire and show proof of a medical history to make sure the dog is free of contagious disease, free of heartworm disease, currently on heartworm preventative and proof of vaccination, which varies from day care to day care and even areas of the country. Some possible vaccine requirements include:

Owners are asked the dog’s level of training, his or her temperament and reaction to certain situations, where and how the dog was acquired, and habits (usual or unusual). Afterwards, dogs must pass a panel of three evaluators, who observe how the dog interacts with other canines and human handlers. A dog must pass all three evaluators before being accepted.

Dogs should be placed with canines of similar size and temperament, and there should be staff on hand 24 hours a day (day cares, such as Central Bark, often double as kennels). Calm dogs should be kept with calm dogs; bigger, more active dogs should be kept with similar canines, and so on. Gaba said that on occasion, dogs will have a confrontation with one another, but they aren’t given the chance to fight before someone intervenes.

A few facilities permit only very small groups or no group play at all. The Tail End Pet Resort, which is under construction, will not allow animals to play together. “The risk is too high,” explained owner Marni Blum. “If two dogs get into it, damage may be done before a human can break it up.”

When comparing day cares, owners should look at each facility like they would for a child. A good day care should:

Like children’s day care, word-of-mouth is the usually the best way to find a good day care. Ask friends and family whom they use. Many day cares offer pickup and drop-off service (for a fee).

A Dog’s Life

Doggie day cares swing from the basics to the most elaborate – and so do the prices. One marketing report noted that day cares can get “downright obscene” with limousine pickup and drop-off, massages, TVs and classical music. Gaba acknowledged that his day care caters to the type of client that “gives only bottled water to their pets.”

The prices reflect that. Rates are usually based on the size of the dog. Central Bark charges $18 a day for small dogs (under 25 pounds); $20 a day for medium dogs (26 to 75 pounds); and $22 a day for large dogs (76 pounds or more).

Does a dog need so much pampering – Mozart playing during mealtimes and the like? Probably not, but it gives the “parents” the comforting feeling that their pets are getting only the best. With the vast majority of Americans considering their dogs as children, it seems to be a small price to pay.