It’s a dog’s life


June 30, 2022

Doggie day care is booming across Charlotte: Changing trends and an uptick in pet ownership have made it harder than ever to find a coveted spot for your pup.

by Katie Toussaint Thurston | photographs courtesy Skiptown

Once a week, I drive my 2-year-old — dog, that is — to day care at The Barker Lounge. It might seem absurd in an era when people are paying rent-like sums of money to enroll their human children in day care. But I’m not paying rent-like sums — doggie day care is about $30 to $35 per day, depending on the location and packages available.

I’m also not an outlier. To accommodate dog-parent demands, there are now more than 20 dog day-care establishments across Charlotte. Certain businesses are regularly at capacity with their day-care programs, from The Barker Lounge, with locations in MoRa and Montford, to Skiptown in South End, with its 150-dog limit. The doggie day-care business is booming.

A shift in pet parenting is contributing to the trend. A 2020 survey showed that 61% of American pet owners are willing to spend the same amount of money or more on their pets’ wellness compared to their own. It makes sense, considering 72% of Americans now consider pets to be family members, according to a 2018 study by EY-Parthenon. 

Trends also show that people are having kids later in life and both partners in more than half of U.S. households are working. 

“You have all of these market trends that have led to support getting a dog and treating that dog like your own blood child,” says Meggie Williams, founder and CEO of Skiptown, which also offers boarding and full-service grooming.

That’s what inspired her to get into the dog day-care business, starting with a dog-walking company, originally called Skipper. “Both my husband and I are working professionals. We work outside of the home, we have two dogs that we love as our children and we couldn’t find services that we felt could accommodate their needs,” she says. “We learned quickly that this was not just our problem in Charlotte, but that it was a nationwide problem.” 

Williams opened Skiptown in summer 2020 and designed it as a dog-focused playland. The space features indoor and outdoor play areas, an agility course and a splash pad. Depending on a dog’s needs, two-thirds of their time at Skiptown day care is spent in playtime, with a rotation of indoor play, outdoor play and rest. There’s also a bar with beer and cocktails for pet owners who bring their pups to play in the park area after work and on weekends.

Rather than leave their dogs cooped up inside (and perhaps destroying the house) during the workday, more and more dog parents want their fur babies to get human attention, to enjoy playtime with other pups and to get exercise.

I started taking Murray, my Great Pyrenees, to day care after my husband and I rescued him during Covid. Unlike our first dog, he was an anxious stray who tore up the house when we left him at home, no matter how much we tried to wear him out. A romp at day care exhausts him — and has helped make him a happier, calmer pup.

Skiptown opened in 2020 as a dog-focused playland.

I’m not the only one who appreciates those effects. Allie Schwartz, a Skiptown dog parent, says, “I started taking Sully to day care because I thought it would be a good way for me to make sure he wasn’t cooped up in the house all day while I’m at work, and to help him become socialized and used to being taken care of by someone other than me. I love that after being at day care he’s tired and usually more relaxed, which allows me to get more done after work.”

Mitch Nodzak wanted to socialize his pup, Fern, in as many ways as possible, even though she was born during Covid. After she graduated from an enrichment-training class that was mixed with play, he and his wife started taking her to The Barker Lounge.

“I appreciated that most places test new dogs for temperament, so I could be assured that she would be safe,” Nodzak says. “Nowadays, she’s the — and I’m completely unbiased here — best pup in the world. She loves every person and dog she meets, and I credit the experiences she’s had at day care for helping with that.”

I like to remind Murray that he’s privileged. But it goes beyond pet-parent demand. Capacity limits also justify the opening of more dog day-care locations in Charlotte. Barker Lounge co-owner Caitlin Owens started as a customer before buying the business with her husband, Russ, in 2017. “I brought my dog to the Montford location, and I could never get in,” she says. “Once we took over, the goal was really to open that second spot, to open the valve, to let our customers who can’t get in have another location.”

They opened The Barker Lounge on Monroe Road as a family-owned extension of the small franchise in 2018. As of summer 2022, both locations are regularly at capacity for day-care bookings, often days or weeks in advance. Safety is a core reason.

“The business model is not to get in as many dogs as you possibly can,” Owens says. “Our business model, the franchise business model, is all group play. So if a dog is coming here, then 90% of their time is spent playing with other dogs of similar size and temperament.”

By limiting capacity, the dogs are able to spend more time out of crates and kennels for play and enrichment — activities that challenge and exercise their bodies and brains. And trained staff is able to handle them as they rotate through indoor and outdoor yards with pools and group play equipment for climbing and romping, with most dogs taking a two-hour midday nap. 

Covid accelerated the doggie day-care boom. But between pet-parenting shifts and capacity limits, dog day care in Charlotte was already becoming more marketable prepandemic. “The day-care boom was maybe expedited a little bit because so many people got dogs during Covid,” Skiptown’s Williams says. More than 23 million households in the U.S. adopted pets at some point during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In 2020, 54% of U.S. households had at least one dog, up from 50% in 2018.

With day cares regularly hitting capacity in Charlotte, Owens says, “I do think it has directly correlated with people going back to work, or at least just trying to get out of their house, or needing their dogs to get socialized because they were Covid puppies.”

All of the exercise and socialization that dogs get during day care supports their sense of independence while helping reduce anxiety — for dogs and their parents, who want them to be content while they’re busy with work or other responsibilities.

“Some dogs do really well in a social environment, and day care is set up for that,” says Williams, who plans to expand Skiptown to other cities, opening three new locations next year. “Dogs that do our day-care program come home and then they sleep for days. It’s meant to really get their energy out, which is a lot of times what their parents are looking for.”

And for a lot of us in Charlotte, it’s worth every penny.  SP

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