Unleashed Potential

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Mikail Kruger opened her new day-care center last month, it featured the usual amenities: snacks, play time, television and "cubbies" where her guests can keep their "blankies," or whatever makes them feel cozy.

But this Newport Beach outfit is for the dogs.

Dog Day Afternoons is one of several doggy day-care centers springing up across the nation, carving a new niche in the $20-billion pet-care industry. Driving the trend are doting dog owners and animal-loving entrepreneurs.

"They're just popping up all over the place," said Funda Alp, a spokeswoman for the American Pet Products Manufacturers' Assn. "It's a great business opportunity and it's great for the pets."

Animal lovers cite a slew of reasons for dog owners to avoid leaving Fido home alone. A lonely dog may chew on furniture, bark incessantly or just pine silently for company.

At day care, the animals can romp the day away in a "cage-free" environment, operators say.

"As baby boomers grow older and their children leave, they get pets," said Buddy Grecco, an employee at the Yuppie Puppy Pet Care Inc. in New York. "And places like these are a natural extension of that phenomenon."

Often these centers also offer training, grooming and veterinarian services. Some pamper their clients.

Hollywood Hounds in Los Angeles features pet massages, "pawdicures" and complete make-overs for dogs. Opened in December 1996, the center also boasts a backyard gazebo for "muttrimonies" or "barkmitzvahs." On those special occasions, a Rolls-Royce carts the four-legged clients to the dog park.

To create her pet paradise, Hollywood Hounds owner Susan Marfleet spent $80,000 to renovate the former home of actor Fess Parker, even covering the concrete floors with nonskid tile so her guests won't hurt their tender paws.

"It doesn't look like a place for dogs," said Marfleet, whose basic fee is $25 a day or $300 per month. "It looks nicer than most preschools for children."

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Doggy day-care owners say their businesses ring up sales--as much as $250,000 a year by one account--and offer potential for expansion.

"I just wish I would have opened three years ago instead of a year ago, because now I could have had 10 locations," said Marfleet, who met recently with a company to discuss franchising possibilities.

Animal lovers say pet-care services are in greater demand these days, especially in cities where apartments are plentiful and yards scarce. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals opened a day-care center in 1994 to encourage pet adoptions, spokeswoman Lynn Spivak said. Today the center has a yearlong waiting list, she said.

"It's pretty tough for some people to go off to work all day and leave, let's say, a wire-haired pointer in the apartment all day," she said. Day care "is really beneficial for the dogs. It's not a frou-frou concept one bit."

Indeed, a cottage industry of pet sitters also has sprouted, offering house calls to take Rover for a stroll or care for other critters, from cats and birds to fish and iguanas.

Sitters also have a professional organization, Pet Sitters International. The group, founded four years ago, claims about 2,200 members.

With pet sitters, dog walkers, boarding kennel operators and doggy day-care owners all lunging for the leash, the canine care business is becoming more competitive, an unsettling prospect for operators of the traditional source for pet care, boarding kennels.

"Any small-business operator gets a little paranoid about any type of competition," said Jim Krack, executive director of the American Boarding Kennels Assn. "So I would imagine there are kennel operators who are very uneasy about this trend."

Kennel industry spokesmen pooh-pooh the upstart day-care business, pointing out that kennels have offered day rates for years. Most kennels have indoor and outdoor runs that give guests plenty of opportunities to exercise, Krack said.

Pet caretakers may opt for a day-care center simply because it's easier and cheaper to set up, Krack speculates. It costs at least $250,000 to open a kennel, he said, and kennel operators must comply with stricter zoning requirements.

Day-care owners, however, sniff at the notion that their businesses are just boarding kennels with shorter hours. Unbound by cages, animals in these settings get more exercise and personal attention, they say.

"They're completely different services," said Rhonda Marciano, owner of the Dog House in Los Angeles. "In a kennel, your dog is in a cage all day. . . . Here we paw paint with the dogs, we play games with them."

For more adventuresome canines, Gail Goldman's Muttwalkers Doggie Daycamp features daily romps at a horse ranch in San Juan Capistrano.

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Every day, Goldman picks up 18 to 20 dogs in her white minivan and shuttles them to the ranch. Owners pay $15 to $20 a day, depending on the number of dogs in a family.

"They ride together in the car, They're loud, they're obnoxious, but they learn to be very, very social," she said.

"My left arm gets very fatigued, because I throw the ball constantly," said Goldman, who has no employees. "There's always so many retrievers that say, 'One more, one more.' "

A former veterinarian technician, Joseph S. Sporn, claims to have started the doggy day-care trend 11 years ago when he opened the Yuppie Puppy Pet Care center in Manhattan.

"I had a vision, just like you hear about," said Sporn, 35, who was then working in a large animal hospital. "It just appeared before me to open a day-care center and to call it Yuppie Puppy Pet Care."

He drew up fliers announcing "Thursday Night Is Movie Night," and posted them in bus shelters.

His center attracted veterinarians, trainers and skeptics, Sporn said. Within four months, he was swamped.

"First they thought I was crazy," he said. "Then they thought it was a good idea. Then they thought it was a great idea."

He charged $20 a day for the day care, a fee he maintains today. By 1992, Yuppie Puppy was in the black, he said.

Initially, Sporn said, doubters questioned the wisdom of tossing a mix of dogs into an uncaged area, an idea that still bothers some animal lovers. But the dogs generally behave themselves, he said.

If a Yuppie Puppy client begins circling another dog or emits a low-pitched growl, it is immediately shuffled off to the "time-out" cage, Sporn said.

Sporn admits the center did have a mishap, an unplanned pregnancy involving Cuddles and Star, a pair of cocker spaniels.

Sporn said owners all sign agreements that Yuppie Puppy will not be held responsible should a dog get pregnant. But the owner of the female cocker spaniel went to small claims court. The case was settled out of court, he said.

Krack, the kennel association executive, says other problems can occur if dogs are thrown together in day-care centers without careful screening.

"There are a lot of reasons why some dogs should not be put in a group," Krack said. "There are a lot of little dogs that don't know they're little dogs, and they get aggressive around big dogs. And they're likely to get their little heads pinched off."

To accommodate pet owners who treat their dogs as family members, many centers have added human touches such as play equipment and color TVs (even though dogs are color-blind). Sporn of Yuppie Puppy admits to watching MTV with his clients, but thinks that some centers go overboard.

"I'm more of the philosophy of letting dogs be dogs," Sporn said. "What enjoyment does a dog get when you pull out it's paw and paint it?"

At the recent open house for Dog Day Afternoons, San Clemente resident Darren Denny described doggy day care as an "almost hilarious" idea--just one more way for people to "get rid of their disposable income."

But Denny said his Australian sheep dog, Osa, will be a customer at the Newport Beach center, which charges a basic daily fee of $30.

"I want her to get her toenails painted and have a birthday party with the hats," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Pet Business

The number of pets in U.S. households and sales of pet-related products and services are rising.

Households

Estimated number of U.S. households with pets, in millions:

'98: 60 million

Sales

Pet products, food and services, in billions:

'97: $20 billion

Quick Facts

* Retail pet stores in the United States: 12,000

* Veterinarians: 60,000

* Veterinary clinics: 17,000

* Most popular dog breeds: Labrador retriever, Rottweiler, German shepherd, golden retriever, beagle, poodle, cocker spaniel, dachshund, Pomeranian, Yorkshire terrier

Source: Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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