Busy pet owners are increasingly availing themselves of dog daycare. It's difficult to know just how many dogs spend time in these dedicated facilities, but the number of such businesses in Western North Carolina suggests there's a strong and growing demand. Boarding, grooming, training and other related services are offered by many canine daycare facilities, but for most, daycare is their primary business.
Why doggie daycare?
The reasons dog owners make use of dog daycare facilities are varied, but center around benefits to humans and canines alike.
"Many of our clientele work full time jobs," says Kim Harper of Happy Tails Country Club in Fairview. "Our services provide a safe, enjoyable place for dogs during work hours." Pet parents gain peace of mind knowing that their dogs are getting socialization, exercise, mental stimulation, and attention.
Tara Horne of At Play With Sparky near Biltmore Village makes the point that for those who work long hours -- healthcare workers with twelve-hour shifts, for example -- dog daycare is a good way to make sure their pet gets the "bathroom breaks" they need. "It's a better value than paying a dog walker for a fifteen-minute walk," she says.
Separation anxiety is a real phenomenon for many dogs, and daycare can help alleviate that. "If the dog is stressed out at home, he might do damage to the home, or to himself," says Michelle Hart of Asheville daycare Hair of the Dog. Leaving a dog home all day can bring out feelings of guilt in their owners, notes Selena Ramey of The Woof Lodge in Henversonville. "And that may lead to some not-so-nice behaviors in their dog, as well," she says.
"A well run daycare is a safer alternative to traditional dog parks for socializing," says Harper. "Particularly for puppies or dogs that have had poor or unknown socialization histories."
While most who bring their dogs to daycare are returning or regular clients, they're not the only population that finds the facilities useful. Out-of-towners shopping for a new home in Western North Carolina often use dog daycares on a drop-in basis, says Jeff Mueller of A Dog's Day Out in Hendersonville. "And the relationship just grows from there." Once settled, many become regular clients.
"A tired dog is a happy dog." That sentiment was echoed -- if not repeated verbatim -- by nearly all of the facility owners and managers interviewed. "Dogs in daycare learn social skills with other dogs and people, and they get exercise that is important for good health," says Mueller.
And as much as many dog owners might think that they are their pet's "everything," that's not always the case. Daycare can fill an important emotional need for canines. "Dogs are, by nature, social animals," emphasizes Kathy McDowell of Dog House Doggie Daycare in Asheville. "In general, they don't like being alone." Horne agrees: "I always tell people that we can be a lot of things to our dogs, but we can't be another dog," she says.
Business has gone to the dogs
The reasons for getting into the canine daycare business are as varied as the facilities themselves. Sometimes it's the culmination of a lifelong journey. "It has always been our dream to work with animals, and to give them a fun place to go where they can get plenty of exercise," says Selena Ramey. She calls Asheville "dog country," and believes that it's an ideal place for a dog daycare business. "We wanted to offer a family-owned and -run business to our community and all others traveling so they would have a more home-like place to leave their dogs."
Melissa Helms of Woof Pack Pet Services in Boone grew up as an only child, and her parents were German Shepherd breeders. After a career in real estate, a personal experience brought her back to working with dogs. "I had rescued a dog who I took to a training class and didn't like the methods used," she says. "So I started my own."
Kathleen McDowell has been around dogs her entire life as well. When she was five, her mother started training and showing dogs in obedience competition. Her mother eventually founded Companion Dog Training School in Asheville. McDowell hadn't originally planned to get into the dog daycare field, though. "I had been looking into getting my Master's Degree in Biology," she admits. "At the time, I didn't realize that this would turn out to be such a passion for me." When the original owners of Dog House Doggie Daycare decided to sell their business, McDowell and her mother purchased it. "I work the business, and my mother is the 'silent' partner," she says with a laugh.
Tara Horne says that she grew up thinking of her dogs as part of her family. Once she was an adult, she got a dog of her own. "But I couldn't bear the thought of having to leave him in a traditional kennel where he would be isolated most of the stay," she says. She notes that while in the early 2000s, dog daycare facilities were common in larger cities, "nothing like that existed in Asheville." She opened At Play With Sparky in 2003. "I come from a family of entrepreneurs," she says, "so even though I didn't have experience running a business, I had lots of support. I decided to take a chance and hang out with dogs all day."
Kim Harper graduated from UNCA in 2009, when the country was in the throes of the Great Recession. Very few places were hiring, she says, and she found herself unable to find work in her chosen field of biology. She already had experience working with animals, gained as a volunteer at a wolf and wolf dog sanctuary in Black Mountain. Leveraging that experience, she applied for a job at Happy Tails Country Club. "Happy Tails provided me the opportunity to expand my knowledge, particularly with dog interactions and play," she says. "I quickly fell in love with the business and started learning more." Now a CPDT-KA certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, Harper manages the company's West Asheville location.
Michelle Hart started out her dog-focused career as a receptionist and secretary at Buncombe County Friends for Animals, then the county's animal shelter. From there, she went to work at the office of a local vet. She opened Hair of the Dog in 1999 as a canine grooming salon. "Day care and boarding were added in 2006 after a move to a new facility gave us more room," she says.
Accentuate the positive
Many people bring their dogs to daycare facilities for the same reasons that preschool age children are sent to daycare. They're kept safe and fed, looked after and given opportunities to develop social skills. But as with children, dogs can benefit from education. And there is more than one school of thought regarding methods used to train canine behavior.
"Some trainers are still using negative reinforcement," admits Pia Silvani, a noted animal behavior specialist and trainer based in Weaverville. "Thirty-plus years ago, dog training was very similar to horse training. You really weren't teaching the dog through a reward system. Instead, the dog had to avoid something unpleasant in order to get a reinforcement."
Negative reinforcement-based trainers "use a form of punishment," Silvani says. "Instead of teaching the dog what to do, they're punishing what they don't like." And she says there's a fundamental problem with that approach. "Because then the dog really doesn't know what to do."
Silvani provides an example to illustrate her point. "If the dog is barking at the window, some trainers will punish the behavior of barking. That might stop the barking, but what is the dog supposed to do?She can start to become more and more frustrated." The dog might start limiting her barking to times when the owner isn't at home. "And then the barking when the owner's not home is reinforced," she explains. "It's not a good way of getting the dog motivated to understand what the rules are and what's expected."
Decades ago, Silvani and some like-minded trainers decided to take a different approach. "We started to think, 'There's got to be a better way to train an animal to do things,'" she recalls. "We looked at zoo animals and large animals; [trainers] couldn't use negative reinforcement, because it would not work." She says that the positive method is beneficial for all concerned. "It's an easy way to get dogs to do something. And it's pleasant not only for the dog, but for the owner as well."
Happily, while negative reinforcement -- employing shock collars, shaker cans and even water hoses -- may be the chosen method for some dog owners, that approach is widely discredited, and isn't found in the working practices of any of the dog daycare facilities discussed in this story. "We never want the dog to feel like he just got in trouble," says Selena Ramey.
"We focus on positive reinforcement in all behavior problems," says Jeff Mueller, expressing a sentiment shared by all seven of the facility owners or managers interviewed. "We use praise, play, attention, and petting as positive rewards for good behaviors," says Horne, adding, "Any undesirable behaviors are met with firm, short 'no's or 'eh!'s. And if the behavior persists, they will get a 15 minute cool-down break before returning to the group for more playtime."
The positive approach carries through to all interactions with the dogs. "If we need to tell a particular dog 'no', we don't use their name," explains McDowell. There's a simple reason for that: saying "no" along with a dog's name leads to the animal associating his name with a negative connotation. Like most of the guidelines for positive reinforcement, it calls for common sense than anything else.
To communicate successfully with a dog, the trainer must treat them like a method actor. "You've got to find out what motivates the dog," says Silvani. Often that means food, but it's not always the case. "Some dogs are just not motivated by treats." She says that when treats are used, they should be "high value" items like cheese or hot dogs. The reasoning is straightforward. "When you're around distractions, basic household treats are not going to be motivating enough for the dog."
Still, many trainers exercise restraint when using treats as behavioral rewards. "A lot of trainers don't want to use treats for training, because they feel like they're going to have to walk around with treats for the rest of their life," says Silvani. But she believes that's a misconception. "If you really know how to use food in training, you do not need to use it forever," she says.
McDowell says that there's another reason for avoiding treats as rewards for good behavior. "More and more dogs are showing sensitivity to certain foods or additives, and we don't want to stress out their digestive systems."
And while most people enjoy petting dogs, that petting isn't always a reliable reward for good behavior, either. "People pet their dogs constantly for no reason at all, other than they love them," Silvani says. "So petting really isn't a powerful reinforcer."
Silvani was instrumental in developing a series of positive, reward-based techniques for training dogs; while at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey, she developed a behavior department that eventually offered more than 100 classes per week. Relocating to Western North Carolina, in 2013 she took on the new role of Director of the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. The methods used by many of the region's daycare facilities are similar to the ones Silvani teaches.
"We follow the LIMA model: Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive," says Kim Harper. "Depending on the behavior that we're seeking to modify, we will use a combination of praise, treats, play, and brief time-outs." She says that calming pheromone sprays and thundershirts are also used when appropriate. "When a dog is enrolled in a socialization plan, we use the power of choice as much as possible to help the dog feel in control of the situation and increase their confidence."
Surprises, challenges and rewards
Regardless of their level of preparation prior to starting dog daycare businesses, each of the owners or managers interviewed for this story experienced unexpected challenges.
Many owners admit that operating a dog daycare facility pulls them in many directions at once. "We do so many things," says Melissa Helms. "The biggest thing for me is dividing my time to give all the services one hundred per cent." Jeff Mueller agrees: "Pet concerns, dealing with employees, payroll and operating expenses are all very demanding on your time."
"There are a lot of things you learn along the way that it would have helped to know off the bat," admits Michelle Hart. She specifically mentions knowledge of the rules and regulations set forth by the Department of Agriculture, the licensing entity for dog daycare facilities and kennels. Most provisions are enumerated in North Carolina's Animal Welfare Act, Chapter 19 of the state's General Statute.
"You're never alone, and you never get bored" running a dog daycare, says Kathleen McDowell. "This a business that requires quick thinking, constant observation, multi-tasking and ability to change at the drop of a dime. And it's very physical. But the doggie clients never complain!" She does note that time off is rare. "Holidays are the busiest times," she says. "This is a 365/24/7 commitment."
"I really didn't know what I was getting into when I started the business," says Tara Horne. "I worked very long hours, most weekends, and I didn't take a vacation for five years."
Dog behavior itself can be unpredictable. "Dogs are wonderful, fun, and unconditionally lovable," says McDowell. "But they can be destructive, both intentionally and unintentionally." She says that dogs seek the purest form of play and fun. "They don't play card games," she quips. "They dig, jump, scratch, run, and chew. And that leads to physical wear and tear on every object they come into contact with. Walls, floors, fences, doors and gravel -- just to name a few things -- have to be replaced or fixed on a regular basis."
Even though running a dog daycare facility is a business, for most there's a strong emotional component that they might not have anticipated. "The biggest surprise of this business is how close I become to each dog," says Kathleen McDowell. "Whenever a dog leaves, passes away, moves away or goes to another home, it's amazing how much I miss them." She says that the emotional attachments formed with the dogs are unique. "And when you don't get to see them any more, it's heartbreaking."
"The most surprising thing to us," says Selena Ramey, "is how dogs act so much like children, and how many different personalities you'll see." Describing what she calls "power of the pack," Hart observes, "established dogs can teach the new dogs much quicker than we can; they're vital in keeping the hierarchy."
Still, many of the surprises encountered by facility owners and managers have been welcome ones. "I knew I would love the dogs," says Tara Horne. "But it didn't occur to me how awesome my customers would be. Most of our clients sacrifice to bring their dog to daycare, because they see the value in it. Anyone who places their pets in such high regard is a person I love to know."
"The most rewarding part of what we do is watching the dogs in our socialization program progress from being nervous and unsure to confident players that are happy to engage with other dogs and people," says Kim Harper. It makes her happy to see dogs realize their play potential. "And getting to love on the dogs and watch them play isn't bad either!"
What to expect
To avoid overcrowding, encourage best health and hygiene practices and allow for proper attention, North Carolina law requires no more than a ten-to-one ratio -- dogs to humans -- at daycare facilities. Some go beyond what's required. Mueller says that the staff of 12 at A Dog's Day Out is "set up to handle 60-plus dogs a day." At Play With Sparky has 16 non-managerial employees; Horne says her facility can accommodate more than 100 dogs on site. Hart says that Hair of the Dog usually maintains a 5:1 ratio of dogs to staff.
Happy Tails Country Club employs 45 people at its two locations; together those facilities can offer daycare for nearly 200 canine friends. Melissa Helms of Woof Pack Pet Services in Boone says she usually maintains a 3:1 ratio.
A typical day for a dog visiting one of Western North Carolina's daycares includes ample time playing with other dogs, and plenty of time for rest. "The only time our dogs play alone is when they have health or social restrictions," says Ramey. "Most dogs that come to our facility are always in a pack, having social time. We have large climate-controlled playrooms and very large areas outdoors; the dogs are able to go in and out as they please."
For rest time, many facilities provide "suites" where dogs can relax and take a break from the pack. "We turn off the lights and play classical music to encourage all of the dogs to rest," says Kim Harper. "It generally gets amazingly quiet!"
The alternating rest and activity is still primarily weighted toward the latter. At the end of a day in care, Horne says that dogs are happy to see their owners, but tired. "Once we get them back to their owner, they get out to the car and are asleep before their owner makes it to the red light," she says.
Each facility has its own approach to staff training. A Dog's Day Out is typical. In addition to internal training, "employees must complete a Pet Care Provider Certification in addition to pet first aid and CPR training," Mueller says. Ramey says that all staff at The Woof Lodge are trained in reading animal body language and managing dog play.
Many daycares conduct an "interview" with each new dog to ascertain his or her ability to coexist with the other animals. "We closely observe the new dog's body language, on the alert for signs of stress or discomfort," says McDowell. "If at any point we feel like the dog is overwhelmed or uncomfortable, we will pause the process to speak with the owner about creating a socialization plan to help their dog be comfortable in a group."
McDowell offers some guidelines for choosing a dog daycare for one's pet. "Make sure it's secure so dogs cannot escape. Cleanliness is important; dog hair will be visible no matter how much you sweep, but the facility should not smell of urine or any other unpleasant odor. Speak to the staff and ask how the dogs spend their day and what the procedures are for emergencies." She emphasizes that "the vast majority of doggie daycares are wonderful; The owner just needs to feel secure in leaving their fur baby to play."
While noting that her facility does not allow in-person tours while daycare dogs are present, Ramey says that the most important quality to look for in a daycare is transparency. "A reputable dog daycare will be more than happy to discuss how they do things with the dogs," she says.
Among the businesses surveyed, rates vary significantly for dog daycare; most charge between $18 to $25 per day, but almost offer half-day rates and discounts for long-term commitment. And for one-off or emergency needs, several provide for drop-in daycare at hourly rates.
To cam or not to cam
Some -- but by no means all -- dog daycares have installed webcams. In recent years the technology has become popular; many owners like the peace of mind that comes with being able to see one's pet any time of the day. But while most facilitates have cameras for on-site monitoring, acceptance of webcams is not universal.
"I have thought about using webcams in the past," says McDowell. "But I've had customers who did not want strangers viewing their dogs." Instead, her staff is willing to take and send photos and video. "We even have FaceTime with owners and their pets," she says.
At Play with Sparky is another daycare that doesn't offer webcams. "After much discussion with other daycare owners all over the country, we decided not to install them," explains Tara Horne. "Many facilities who used them have removed them due to excessive calling from owners wanting their dog in camera frame, or misinterpreting rough play for fighting."
But technology does play a role in well-run dog daycare. Mueller says that A Dog's Day Out uses front-end software to check dogs in and out each day. That system is also used to schedule additional services like baths and nail trimming. "And information like warnings and issues with the dog is listed on each dog's info screen," he says.
"We use a specialized kennel software that contains all contact information, vaccination records and appointments," says Tara Horne of At Play With Sparky. Ultimately, effective management requires a mix of technology and humans. "We use software called Kennel Connection, but we also rely on our staff members' knowledge of each dog as an individual," says Happy Tails Country Club's Kim Harper.
More than money
Most of the owners interviewed for this feature characterize their businesses as profitable (or, in the words of one, at least "somewhat profitable"). But the dividends that running a dog daycare can provide are often measured in ways other than financial rewards.
Tara Horne mentions a dachshund named Hazel. "She has had many health scares, but she's a fighter; she always bounces back. Hazel comes to daycare every weekday," Horne says with a smile. "And if there is a long weekend, she gives her mom dirty looks until she brings her back here!"
Kim Harper tells the story of Tallulah, a Native American Indian Dog and recent graduate of Happy Tails' socialization program. "Utilizing an abundance of patience and the power of choice, Tallulah is now excited to come to daycare and play with her friends," she says. "Watching her play and interact with the other dogs and staff puts a smile on all our faces."
Bozley is a Cairn Terrier who comes to The Woof Lodge several days each week. Before he started attending daycare there, a medical condition necessitated the surgical removal of both of his eyes. "At first," admits Selena Ramey, "we were a bit concerned about how much he could benefit from coming to daycare." But he surprised everyone and adapted quickly. "It's so sweet watching Bozley sit and listen to the dogs as if he is watching them play. Daycare definitely gives him the stimulation and happiness he needs. He's probably the most remarkable dog we've ever met."
Melissa Helms tells the story of Mr,. Wiggles. "Thrown in a dumpster as a puppy, he was adopted through a local rescue group. He had severe fear issues." He took several classes including one in "nosework," an activity that leverages a dog's natural hunting instinct. "After that nosework class, Mr. Wiggles would do various tricks using boxes, and he would go through the agility tunnel with ease," she says. "Now he is a regular visitor in daycare. He has a lot of confidence and has made lots of friends."
"The positive story that repeats itself is seeing pet owners feeling a sense of improvement in their daily life and routine," says Jeff Mueller of a Dog's Day Out. "And it's rewarding meeting and getting to know people who love dogs."
Kathleen McDowell of Dog House Doggie Daycare sometimes refers to the dogs as her clients. And she shares a sentiment common to everyone interviewed for this feature. "My clients are the softest, sweetest, and non-judgmental clients anyone could ever have," she says.