Dissatisfied that Tyson — a three-year old Labrador Retriever — was walked only twice in 24 hours at a kennel, dog owner Dan O’Brien launched Uberdog Playcare & Hotel as his treat to man’s best friend.
In the current recession, the Uberdog facility on New Park Avenue in West Hartford is still a second home for many dogs. It cares for between 35 and 55 dogs a day. The 9,000-square-foot facility can accommodate up to 70 dogs. Uberdog opened in April 2008 and charges $26 for day care and $40 for boarding.
In nearby South Windsor on Route 5, another dog day care and kennel, Camp Bow Wow, was launched in December. Part of a national franchise operation, the 8,000-square-foot facility accommodates up to 133 dogs during the day and has 40 overnight “cabins.” The camp currently has 50 to 70 dogs in day care.
Camp Bow Wow charges $25 for day care and $35 for boarding. Both facilities offer reduced rates with package deals.
Similar to the growth at Uberdog, Camp Bow Wow is “interviewing” up to five new campers a day. Both facilities require evaluations to access the dog’s temperament for compatibility before accepting it into their day care programs.
Explaining Camp Bow Wow’s growth despite the current recession, Tami Sarra, owner of Camp Bow Wow, explained, “People care about their pets. People take care of their dogs.”
Beating the recession is good news for both local startups. Nationally, the pet industry appears to be shaking off the downturned economy. According to estimates by the Greenwich-based American Pet Products Association, a nonprofit trade association, Americans will spend an approximate $45.4 billion on their pets in 2009, a $2.2 billion increase from what pet owners shelled out in 2008.
O’Brien, 28, left a career in pharmaceutical marketing and headed to California to visit dog play care facilities, which he modeled his business after. The Small Business Administration advised O’Brien during the early stages of the business.
“We don’t have kids,” said O’Brien, who married his wife Isabella last July. “So Tyson is essentially our child. And I think a lot of our customers treat their dog as their child.”
That mindset is the crux of the growth in dog day care, said Charlotte Biggs, board president of the national Colorado-based Pet Care Services Association (PCSA), formerly the American Kennels Boarding Association.
Biggs said the days of crating pets and individual dog runs are being replaced by group indoor and outdoor play. In the east, she said there’s the challenge and cost of finding or building a large enough facility to accommodate indoor play.
Of the 500 PCSA members in New England and north Atlantic states, 307 facilities offer dog day care as one of its services; 37 are located in Connecticut. The association estimates that dog day care alone — not including boarding and grooming — is a $1 billion industry and growing.
“We live in a busy society where most adults work,” Biggs said. “We need to socialize our dogs. They’re dying for attention.”
Shawn Curtis of Farmington, owner of Fenway, a yellow Labrador, is not letting the tough economy dampen his dog’s care. “You have a certain amount of discretionary income and you spend it on what’s important,” Curtis said. “Our dog still needs exercise.” Fenway spends four days a week at Uberdog.
Both Uberdog and Camp Bow Wow offer a free day care trial, which includes the required evaluation. The dogs are placed by size and demeanor in appropriate play groups.
“It’s nice to get a new customer,” O’Brien said, “but we don’t want a dog who doesn’t want to be here.” He’s honest with customers if a dog is behaving aggressively, has the wrong temperament or is extremely anxious.
O’Brien relies on word of mouth and community-based marketing events to promote Uberdog, a marketing strategy that earned him the Goodwin College Community award in 2008 from the region’s young professionals group, HYPE.
For Barbara Dell of West Hartford, customer service set Uberdog apart from the pack. Dell leaves her dog Briscoe for overnights at Uberdog.
As the concept of dog day care spreads, providers find ways to stay competitive. “That difference can be looking at customer service and the level of attention and care to the dogs,” said Biggs of PCSA. “A swimming pool can make the difference.”
Camp Bow Wow will be installing bone-shaped pup pools this summer. It also provides boarders with a night-time snack.
“Whether we have 50 dogs in camp, we treat every dog like it’s our own. This is how we are building the business, one dog at a time,” Sarra said.