Diana Boos, Coral VanLandingham and Julie Mendelsohn live in different regions of the U.S. and come from varied backgrounds, but they all have two things in common: they love dogs, and they own facilities where dog owners can safely enjoy and play with their own canine friends.
Each of these entrepreneurs offers a different service that, nonetheless, fills a need in her community and, for that matter, in the dog-owning community as a whole.
Mendelsohn opens up her daycare and boarding facility in Revere, Mass., on Tuesday nights and midday Sundays from October through March to people who want to spend some time with their dogs and exercise them without braving New England’s often inclement weather.
In San Diego, VanLandingham offers memberships to her daycare facility, Bark Boulevard, that allow owners to hang out while daycare dogs and their own canines enjoy indoor and outdoor play. They can throw balls for their dogs to fetch, play in the ball pit, or just sit in Adirondack chairs and watch as the dogs climb ramps, run and play.
Down in Durham, N.C., Boos’ business, Lap It Up, is a 10,500-square-foot former gym. She retrofitted it to be a swim and play facility for dogs and their owners.
Lap It Up’s website states Boos’ vision as “a place for you and your dog to enjoy the wonder of play and learning together. We are not a dog park or a traditional dog daycare. We are a unique place with activities your dog will love and activities you will love to do with your dog.”
The center houses six distinct areas: a maze where owners can hide treats, toys or even themselves, and let their dogs find them; a training area for working on obedience or other skills; a swimming pool where dogs can get wet, chase balls and swim to their hearts’ content; a running track for getting some serious exercise; a play area with a ball machine; and an agility area for fun or practice.
Boos originally planned to open a swimming pool for dogs, she says. “I have dogs, and I’m not a fan of dog parks or a fan of daycare.” Her dogs loved to swim. But then, “A lot of people started explaining their needs to me,” she says.
If you check out the Lap It Up track or maze, you’ll most likely find one dog and one person there. “The whole philosophy is about you playing with your dog,” Boos says. “The focus is that people need to play with their dogs. There are plenty of places for dogs to play with other dogs, but there’s no place for people to play with their dogs.”
People who want to visit can book a space online or call Lap It Up to see what’s available at a certain time or even right away. Sometimes two friends will use one area with their two dogs, Boos says, but mostly it’s one dog and one owner. “It’s nice because your dog doesn’t have to like other dogs to be here,” she adds.
In the six months since opening, Boos has had more daytime customers than she expected, and usage has been better than she anticipated. “It’s doing very well. I’m really pleased.”
Both dogs and owners have a good time, she says. “It’s surprising how it makes people young again and brings out the kid in them.”
The pool – 42 inches deep at one end and 36 inches at the other – is quite a draw. Lap It Up offers swimming lessons for dogs that haven’t yet perfected the skill.When Boos puts up a notice about an upcoming swim class, “it’s full,” she says. After a few visits, even dogs new to the water “love it.” Although some people use the pool to condition their dogs, “it’s really meant for fun.” Boos says. Due to health regulations, people can’t swim with their dogs, but they can stand in the shallow end.
Boos says dogs seem to really love the play area with the ball machine. It shoots off tennis balls, which, of course, many dogs love to chase. But the machine makes a funny noise, she says, and the looks on the dogs’ faces as they anticipate a ball’s release are “hilarious.”
Most people spend a half an hour at Lap It Up. “Some people will take their dog to swim for 15 minutes, then go on the track for 15 minutes,” Boos says.“By then the dog is tired. It really wears them out.”
The pool costs the most to use at $1 a minute (with discounts depending on how long you stay). Next is the track at $18 for 30 minutes. Fees go down from there to $6 for 30 minutes in the maze.
In addition to open play for single dogs and their owners and swimming lessons, Lap It Up offers agility, rally, targeted obedience and even therapy dog classes. But the focus is one-on-one time for dogs and their owners.
“It’s really fun and it’s really different,” Boos says. “There isn’t any other place where they can come and do this kind of thing.”
Bark Boulevard, on the other hand, looks like many other modern daycare and private boarding centers. It has 3,500 square feet of space indoors where dogs can run, play, rest and sleep, plus 1,000 square feet outdoors. Unlike similar facilities around the country, however, at Bark Boulevard you can buy a membership for $179 a year that gives you and your dog access to the indoor and outdoor play spaces from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
In addition to playtime access, members get two free nights of private boarding, six free hours of doggie daycare, a special daycare rate Monday through Saturday, two free self-serve dog washes and 20 percent off all services. For the human members, a complimentary coffee bar is included.
Open since March, Bark Boulevard finds most of its members within a 10-block radius of the facility. “They’re actually figuring out that ‘hey, I can come and play with my dog,’” VanLandingham says. The center is in a high-density commercial and residential neighborhood of apartment buildings and condominium complexes, so people walk from their homes with their dogs to play.
VanLandingham, herself, has needed just such a place for her own dogs in the past. “Sometimes we lived in an apartment or a duplex. People need a place to go that’s a safe environment. We discovered there are only a couple of completely fenced dog parks in our area. There are a number of dog parks, but not all are fenced. You live in an apartment, you don’t have a take to place them, what are you going to do?”
At Paws Here, dog owners who take advantage of the indoor facility to exercise and play with their dogs are about evenly split between daycare-boarding clients and non-clients, Mendelsohn says. So are the owners who actually engage with their dogs and those who use the time as a social hour with other dog lovers. Fortunately, she says, the people who come to play like to play with all the dogs.
Why would Mendelsohn open up her 8,000 square foot facility for a simple playtime?
“Six or seven years ago, we had a really bad, icy winter,” she says. “We decided to open up a couple of times a week.” The number of people attending “open gym,” as it’s called, varies from 10 to 25 on Tuesdays and about six to 20 on Sundays. Most stay for the full hour and a half, she says, and pay $8 per session.
The facility offers “tons of tennis balls,” equipment for the dogs to climb and run on, and beds so that they can lie down and rest.
“It helps the people to get out with their dogs more than anything,” she says.
Although participants have asked Mendelsohn to hold open gym more often and to do it all year long, she has no plans to expand because of the staff it would require. Normally, Paws Here closes at 6:30 p.m. when the daycare dogs go home and the boarded dogs crash. They’ve been playing all day and are tired, she says. Normally, just one staff member stays after 6:30 to watch over the boarders who don’t sleep in enclosures. During open gym, staff members stay to monitor all of the dogs as play is extended to 8 p.m.
Mendelsohn points out that such play opportunities are “not for every single dog, but for the dogs that come, it really helps to socialize them with people and dogs. They get socialized and they get exercise.”
Whether you choose a place like Lap It Up, designed just for owner-dog play, or a daycare-boarding facility that opens its doors to owners, too, Mendelsohn says to check it out carefully. “They’re not all good places,” she says.