Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
Doggie day care in Western North Carolina: There’s more involved than what meets the paw, er, eye.
Is playing with puppies your idea of a great day at the office? Well, don’t go into doggie day care. But wait, won’t you be surrounded by cute dogs? Okay, yes. But the foundation of this business is interpreting and monitoring animal behavior. In the best of places, a well-trained staff is working constantly to stimulate a dog’s mind as well as his legs.
The state-of-the-art trend in dog training is positive reinforcement. Aaron Bales was introduced to the method in 2000 when he started working in doggie day care in Washington, D.C.. He was employed and trained by a woman who began her career as a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. “Dolphin training is where positive reinforcement came from,” Bales says. “It’s the best way to do it.”
Bales, now the owner of Happy Tails Country Club in Fairview, sees the trend continuing to gain momentum. “People are more into their dogs,” Bales says, “and they’re getting better at understanding dogs.”
“In the last ten years, more people have become sophisticated about positive reinforcement,” Elliot Weiner says. “It doesn’t mean you never say anything negative.” Weiner’s been working with animals for 25 years and is a nationally certified Professional Dog Trainer. He currently leads canine behavior evaluations for both Asheville Humane Society (AHS) and Brother Wolf Animal Rescue (BWAR).
Weiner believes a good doggie day care can be beneficial for a lot of dogs. “At a good doggie day care the safety of the dogs is paramount,” Weiner notes. “The staff is trained to recognize body language and head off a conflict.”
Pet parents bring dogs to day care for many reasons; some dogs are destructive at home, others are lonely and bored. A dog may need some basic training. Or owners are just too busy to exercise their pet. These facilities are regulated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which imposes strict requirements on cleanliness, current shots for dogs, and supervision; a one to ten ratio of people to dogs is required. (Pet parents and day care operators dodged a bullet recently: On March 1 in North Carolina, new sales taxes on certain services such as automobile repairs and appliance installation went into effect, and an early proposal by the state Senate had also included veterinarians and day cares. Those services were eventually excluded from the law, however.)
Pet Vet On Patton
The clean and bright facility of Pet Vet on Patton is centrally located in Asheville near the I-240/I-26 interchange. It also serves as a veterinary office and therefore has a full-time medical staff during day care hours. Many clients drop off their dog for a checkup and routine shots, with the benefit of spending time in doggie day care until their pet parent can pick them up after work. Alternately, boarded pets benefit from day care services offered as part of the package. Pet Vet is also able to handle dogs with special medical needs.
Candy Breisacher has been in the animal industry for over 25 years and is a senior staff member specializing in dog behavior. She is the one who evaluates dogs before they come to doggie day care to be sure they are a good fit. But sometimes the evaluation process can take more than a day. That’s why Pet Vet gives new clients a free week of day care (five consecutive days).
At Pet Vet, the dogs are attended at all times. The outdoor play areas are divided into big and small dog areas, and there is a smaller separate fenced space for dogs to begin getting comfortable before they enter the social space.
The indoor areas are basically small rooms without windows and are used when the weather doesn’t permit outside play or the dogs need a rest. There are no indoor/outdoor runs.
“We structure these dogs from the minute they’re here,” Breisacher says. “We do light training if needed. The goal is to keep play from getting out of hand.”
A Dog’s Day Out
Located in Hendersonville, A Dog’s Day Out is both a doggie day care and a grooming facility. Owners Jeff Mueller and Beth Koller have been in business for three years.
Koller started cleaning cages at a kennel at 16, quickly moving into managing a kennel. Soon she was a vet tech. Her dream was to open a doggie day care, but to do it right.
“I worked for a kennel that did day care, and I saw too many risks and injuries,” Koller says. “Basically, they didn’t have enough knowledge.” Her partner, Mueller, was working in the construction industry rehabbing houses, but he put it aside to help Koller get her dream business up and running. They both learned a lot in the process.
The first hurdle was to find the space. They saw promise in the empty building not far from downtown Hendersonville, but it was zoned industrial. Unfortunately, their business is considered a service business. “We had to do a zoning amendment,” Mueller recalls. “It took about three months. The city council had to approve it. When they said, ‘All in favor’? I held my breath.”
With the zoning approved, all they had to do was get their license. “Once we got the building we called the inspector so we would do it right,” Koller says.
One of the main requirements is that all materials must be non-absorbent. That means no wood floors. Gravel is required in the yards because mud can breed disease, whereas gravel is easy to clean and disinfect.
The couple borrowed from family to get the business off the ground. “We spent twice what we intended—a lot of it on safety features,” Mueller admits. One unique aspect to their set-up is a garage-size doorway draped with huge plastic strips, which allows dogs to go inside and outside at their pleasure.
The couple finds their clients run the gamut: working people, retirees spending the day on the town, theater-goers attending Flat Rock Playhouse, and even the celebrity dogs of the Dirty Dancing cast and crew, whose filming headquarters is just down the road.
“Positive reinforcement can train them to do anything you need them to do,” Rehner says. “It’s just as effective and doesn’t carry the side effects of punishment.”
Tristan Rehner is the Animal Behavior Manager at Brother Wolf Animal Rescue [www.bwar.org] in Asheville. “As a trainer, I’m always thinking, what behaviors are dogs learning when we’re not teaching them? They’re always learning.”
She sees play times interspersed with rest times as very important. “You need more structure than dogs playing all day,” Rehner says. “Down time should be built in. Dogs that play to the point of fatigue can get snappy.”
Since Rehner began dog training in 1996, she’s seen the industry change.“Positive reinforcement can train them to do anything you need them to do,” Rehner says. “It’s just as effective and doesn’t carry the side effects of punishment.”
“It’s the only movement that makes sense,” fellow trainer Weiner agrees.
“Some places the dog has to be ‘good’ to be allowed in,” Pet Vet’s Breisacher says. “Not here. Usually we can work through their behavior. I can count on one hand how many we’ve turned down.”
Breisacher says dog behavior is not about set formulas, but techniques for different situations. There’s a lot of troubleshooting, she adds, but overall it’s always about what is best for the individual dogs. “Some people want their dogs to do things like play, but it’s not always what the dog wants.”
Melissa MacKinnon of Woof Pack took a circuitous route to becoming a proprietor of a doggie day care. She became a realtor in 2003 and built her dream home, which meant she could finally adopt a dog. “The minute I had my own place I knew I’d get a dog,” MacKinnon says.
She rescued Lucy, a hunting hound who had been badly abused. Lucy was shy, very afraid, and terrible on a leash. When MacKinnon took Lucy for some training, it wasn’t working. The approach was far too harsh for her timid girl. This launched MacKinnon on a journey to learn more about animal behavior, hoping to find techniques that would work well for dogs like Lucy. In 2007 she went to Animal Behavior College, becoming a Certified Trainer. She opened Woof Pack in 2009, a boarding and day care facility near her home in Boone.
MacKinnon designed the facility to best accommodate dogs of all temperaments. The den-like individual rooms are luxuriously appointed with televisions, classical music, and raised beds. These are real rooms, not fenced pens. There are indoor playrooms for multiple dogs to cavort. There’s also a huge outdoor fenced yard. Dogs are never left unattended and are structured in their day between outdoor romps and indoor rest.
MacKinnon practices only positive reinforcement in her training and handling of dogs. To help dogs adjust to their day care and boarding experience, Woof Pack offers new clients a free day of day care, a “trial day,” where a dog’s separation anxiety can be measured and appropriate playgroups can be determined. This gives owners an extra measure of confidence.
MacKinnon was happy to announce Woof Pack just won “Best Boarding Facility” in Watauga County, a community vote sponsored by the Watauga Democrat and Mountain Times.
“Spending 40-50 hours a week around dogs for the past 18 years, I might have learned a few things.”
Happy Tails Country Club
The entry area of Happy Tails Country Club, with its comfy sofas, TV area, and dogs freely lolling about on the furniture, will make any dog lover feel at home. The large building sits on eight acres of former pastureland in Fairview, just east of Asheville.
Happy Tails has a golf cart to take visitors on tours of the spacious grounds, allowing guests to observe the dogs without interacting with them. Three staff members are outside working with dogs in the larger dog area. “Staff is the highest cost in this business,” owner Bales admits.
Happy Tails has 50 suites situated inside a 4000-square-foot clubhouse, and an additional 10,000-square-feet of outdoor play areas. With endless cleaning, training, walking, and interacting with dogs, it’s easy to see how staffing costs could be substantial. Fortunately, with good word of mouth, business is booming. “We’ve already got reservations for Christmas,” Bales says. (The recent spring break period in Asheville and Buncombe County found the business completely booked up.)
Dogs that want to come to Happy Tails will go through an evaluation process, although there are no breed restrictions. The facility prides itself on offering a top-of-the-line experience for each dog. “Spending 40-50 hours a week around dogs for the past 18 years, I might have learned a few things,” Bales quips.
Dog House Doggie Daycare
“Expect the unexpected,” says Kathy McDowell, co-owner of the Dog House. “You have to think like the dogs, and don’t take anything for granted. It’s a different day at work every day.”
McDowell owns the business with her mother, Jane Johnson, who is an expert on dog behavior from her many years training and showing dogs. McDowell started training and showing dogs at 12.
Located on Riverside Drive in Woodfin, the facility has indoor/outdoor runs and separate areas for big and small dogs. They offer boarding as well.
Dog House celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year. “It’s a great business to have. It’s fun and never boring,” McDowell says, “but it’s not what everybody thinks it is. What I do for Christmas is work here—stay the night and work all day.”
One of the most unexpected situations to erupt in the industry was last year’s outbreak of the dog flu, which swept through the area, forcing some facilities to close. Doggie day care facilities require dogs to be current on Bordatella, Rabies, and Distemper vaccinations, as well as regular heartworm and flea protection, to ensure the safety of all animals. But despite these precautions, diseases are one of the risks; it’s analogous to how rapidly and widely an illness can be transmitted throughout a human kindergarten class.
“It spread like wildfire,” Happy Tails’ Bales recalls. “It was one of the worst things I’ve experienced in the business.” Bales’ own dog contracted the flu and had a cough that lingered for three weeks. Happy Tails closed its doors for two weeks to allow the outbreak to subside.
A Dog’s Day Out handled the situation by cleaning extensively with products that kill flu and watching for symptoms among their client’s dogs. They kept on the pulse of things by regular contact with veterinarians, somehow managing to avoid an outbreak.
McDowell of Dog House says behavior changes can signal sickness. Unfortunately, with the dog flu, animals were contagious before symptoms became apparent. She sent a couple of animals for testing, but managed to avoid an outbreak.
Despite the fact that the scare has subsided, that doesn’t mean dog flu is no longer a risk. “They developed a vaccine, but it was a different strand,” Pet Vets’ Breisacher says. “Dog flu is always going to be an issue.”
Many of these doggie day care facilities work with rescue groups. Some dogs get highly stressed in the shelter atmosphere, which can be loud and limited in terms of individual attention. Day care offers relief to these dogs and teaches them socialization skills.
“AHS has partnered with Happy Tails before,” Weiner says. “They’ll take a dog that’s overwhelmed at the shelter and work closely with them, even letting them stay there.”
A Dog’s Day Out often partners with Big Fluffy Dog Rescue (which is headquartered in Nashville and has volunteers in several states in the South as well as New England) by offering free services to foster dogs.
To Webcam Or Not?
All of these facilities have internal cameras to monitor dogs. But the latest in modern doggie day care is the webcam. Now pet parents can watch their dog playing and hanging out at the facility. But is it just a fad?
Breisacher admits they discussed having a webcam at Pet Vet but decided not to, because many behaviors that are normal for dogs may not be what pet parents want to see, such as humping.
Koller adds that the camera can misrepresent things. “They may look at their dog lying down and think, he’s not doing anything, when he just played for two hours.” Still, at A Dog’s Day Out they feel it is a novelty some customers will appreciate, so they are planning to add it at some point.
MacKinnon polled Woof Pack clients, asking if they would be willing to pay extra for the webcam service, but the majority did not find it worth the extra charge.
But for those pet parents that want to view their dog on camera, one area doggie day care, You Work I’ll Play, has installed webcams, one in the large dog area and one in the small dog area. When the West Asheville business opened in 2006, webcams were fairly new, so the costs were much higher. “We spent $900 a piece on the webcams,” co-owner Jill Lydic says. “We’ve never regretted the decision.” Jill and her husband, Jason, knew that owners would love to see their dogs throughout the day, and it lent an air of transparency that the couple felt would be a good selling point. Occasionally they do get calls from owners saying, “My dog isn’t doing anything.” Jill then explains to them that the dog played for a time and then took a rest. “We strive to be honest,” she says.
Because the cameras don’t cover every square inch, each dog might not be visible at every moment. But mainly, owners appreciate seeing dogs being supervised and playing appropriately. You Work I’ll Play accomplishes this by limiting the number of pets per day (24 large dogs, 14 small dogs) so they are always adequately staffed, therefore at times exceeding the one person per ten dog rule. The other benefit of this day care and boarding facility is that R.E.A.C.H. (Regional Emergency Animal Care Hospital; www.reachvet.com) is right next door on Brevard Road and is open 24 hours a day.
Overall, the modern philosophy in dog behavior is that each dog has a unique personality that can be influenced by breed, environment, and socialization.
There are no magic formulas in dog behavior, but positive reinforcement gets the best results. With more and more pet owners considering their dogs as family members, and up-to-date behavior techniques becoming more mainstream, doggie day care will surely continue to be in high demand.
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