Cashing in on Pet Day Cares and Spas The Buzz


They say a dog is man's best friend. But judging by how much affection and money we lavish on our pets, perhaps the opposite is true.

Consider the case of the pet day-care center, a short-term kennel of sorts, where pet owners can drop off their animals for the day while they go off to work rather than leave them alone at home. Here, pets -- dogs especially -- have the chance to run, exercise and socialize with their canine amigos in a supervised atmosphere.

Believe it or not, these centers are a growing phenomenon. Profit magazine listed dog day-care centers and spas as one of the top 10 best business opportunities. If you like working with animals and have an interest in being an entrepreneur, starting your own pet center might prove to be rewarding.

The need for pet day-care centers arises from two central facts, according to Lauren Westreich of Every Dog Has Its Day Care in Emeryville, California. People are working longer hours and are working farther from home than they have before.

This means they have less time to spend with their pets and ensure they get the exercise and attention they need. "It's not as easy to get a dog out as much as would be beneficial," says Westreich. "A well-run center provides exercise, basic needs and socialization."

Brad Pattison of Yuppy Puppy Dog Day Care agrees. "There is a huge demand now that more people are working longer days and leisure time is compressed," he says.

And then there's the fact that more and more people are getting pets and are able to spend more money on them. "Canine partnership is on the increase for two reasons: companionship and safety. The care for the dog has advanced in a large way in the last 10 years, because we now view the family dog as part of the family," Pattison says.

Or, to put it another way, people love their pets more now than in years past. "I believe in today's world, people are more devoted to pets than ever before," says pet sitter Claudia Owen. "There are almost as many pet products in the pet stores as there are toys in the toy stores.

"People without children tend to look to their pets for that missing link, so to speak, and will and do pay to have their animals taken care of while they are away."

It's this devotion that has created the need for pet centers. And with more and more people acquiring pets, it's a need that will likely continue.

Running a pet care center means tackling a lot of responsibility, not the least of which involves "cleaning, customer interaction, selling, poop scooping, grooming, feeding, and more cleaning," according to Richard Phillips of the Home Away From Home Pet Spa in Monterey, California.

The responsibilities are in many ways similar to that of a day-care center. Owners drop their pets off in the morning and come back to pick them up after work. In between, the center ensures that the dogs get not only enough exercise, but mental stimulus as well. So when the owners come to pick them up, the animals are happy and relaxed.

"A typical day is actually a blast," Pattison says. "It isn't work. More like a day party that gives you all the freedom you want. If you want to go window shopping, then do so, just take the dogs. If you want to go to the beach, get going."

Potential pet center operators need to be aware, however, that a high level of safety and focus is needed in order to run a center effectively. "You have to have a presence or energy on the floor," Westreich says. "Dogs respond to it."

More importantly, Pattison says, "A dog is not just a dog in this day and age. A dog is a family member."

For that reason alone, center owners need to ensure that the pets are well-behaved, that they interact with each other well and that every worker at the center understands how to work with dogs and will not mistreat them. "You cannot make a mistake," Westreich says.

As far as schooling goes, there are no real colleges or degrees that will prepare you for a life of pet care. But a business degree will help you on the entrepreneurial end.

The best advice for those interested in this field is to get jobs in places that will expose you to working with large groups of animals, like other pet centers (many handle 50 dogs or more a day and require a full-time staff of several people).

Westreich says the best and most helpful advice is to find a job with a trainer who deals with "last-chance dogs" -- those who will be put to sleep if they are unable to be re-trained. That would let you see a wide range of animal behaviors and body languages. Courses in dog handling and training are also useful.

"Anything that can further your knowledge of animal training and handling," says Cory Bertrand of Bark With Me Doggy Day Care.

"The industry likes to hire people with some experience either [at a] vet hospital or [in] rescue work," says Mary Sorosky of the Animal Inn in Santa Barbara, California.

"When people come in and apply and say they love animals, it takes way more than just your love to do this work. It takes handling different types of dogs with different personalities. But if I have the time to train, I will do that with the right person."

For the most part, there are no real rules or regulations regarding operating a pet center. That may change as more and more pet centers pop up across the landscape.

Keep in mind, however, that every area is different. Some cities and towns may have local laws regarding operating a pet business. Be sure to check out the regulations in your area before setting up shop.

If you do decide to open your own pet center, don't expect it to be a moneymaking gold mine right away. In fact, in order to get your center off the ground, expect to be spending a lot more than you'll be earning initially.

"If spending $50,000 sounds like a lot, then you probably shouldn't do it," Westreich says. Also, keep in mind that running a pet center means, as Phillips says, "No holidays. At least not normal ones."

If you stick to it, though, your business can turn into a profitable venture. Depending on capacity and the amount of services offered, a successful center can generate up to $200,000, according to Phillips.

In terms of personal salary, that means you can take home somewhere in the vicinity of $40,000 to $70,000. "There's no reason you can't be successful and live comfortably," Westreich says. "If you're looking to make millions, [however] you may not be in the right business."

Not just anyone can operate a dog day-care center. First off, and perhaps most obviously, one needs to have a real love of animals and not be afraid of dogs. More than that, though, is the need to be able to work with people.

Remember: you're there not just to keep the dog happy, but the owner as well. "The number one skill is customer service," Phillips says. "There are always dogs and cats and we love them all, but if you can't make the client feel comfortable they'll never leave their pet with you."

"You have to be able to communicate well with people. Understanding really comes into play," Sorosky says. "Also, having a dependable work ethic is very big in this industry."

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