- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO Mollie was a problem child from the beginning.

She wouldn't eat. She trembled at everyday noises and shrank from the adults who wanted to hold her and care for her.

"She was really a mess," said Angela Padilla, 34, a San Francisco litigator who with her partner, tax attorney Amy Silverstein, adopted Mollie about five months ago.

They realized immediately Mollie would cost them more time, money and stress than they ever had anticipated, and that leaving her at home alone wasn't an option.

"She didn't even know how to eat food out of a bowl," Miss Padilla said.

But Mollie and her two busy guardians found salvation at K9 to 5, a 3-year-old day care center for puppies and dogs, and one of an expanding number of such facilities. The industry is striving to meet a rising demand for ever-more-sophisticated services for pets whose owners are balancing longer commutes and workdays but have more disposable income.

With Mollie in their hands, the K9 to 5 staff soon tapped into the trusting, affectionate side of the golden-brown shepherd-Rottweiler-corgi mix, who had been adopted from San Francisco Animal Care and Control.

"She's just become such a delightful dog," Miss Padilla said recently after taking Mollie to day care before work and lingering to watch the other dogs welcome Mollie with kisses and wet nose nudges.

Pet day care and ancillary animal-care services ranging from therapeutic water treatments to pet taxi services and airline reservation services for pets are flourishing. Many pet-care specialists nationally credit San Francisco with introducing the day-care trend in the 1990s and setting standards for the industry.

In 1994, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) opened its Doggy Day Care Center as an experiment, albeit a well-funded and focused one.

Space is limited to 25 dogs per day, and the wait for new clients is 18 months, said day care manager John Kehellier.

"We're jammed full. We've always been jammed full," he said. "It takes someone to leave before a spot opens up."

When the SPCA day care center opened, combining dogs from different households was a rare practice among kennel operators, who believed dogs would fight and spread diseases through contact, said Jim Krack, executive director of the American Boarding Kennels Association.

Many of the same professional kennel operators now believe the benefits of interaction outweigh the dangers. Of the association's 2,000 member kennels, 640 offer day care services, a response to client demand as well as opportunities for higher profits, Mr. Krack said.

"Over the last five to 10 years, the kennel business has changed dramatically in that pet owners are anthropomorphizing their pets, looking at their pets as members of the family, instead of just living with them," he said. "Almost every kennel I know has added one-on-one services like play centers and nature walks."

Laura Hawkins Smith, 34, the owner of K9 to 5 in San Francisco, researched her business for months before opening the center in January 1997. Mrs. Smith also searched three months for an animal-loving landlord who supported her plans.

The center and her dog-care consultation work will gross about $400,000 this year, Mrs. Smith said. She expects to net $180,000 and invest most of it in the business.

K9 to 5 has a three-month waiting list for adult dogs. Prepaid enrollment for one month costs $425, about $21 per visit.

Brett Balint, owner of the 3-year-old Marin Doggy Day Care in Corte Madera, Calif., conducts a 30- to 45-minute interview with each candidate dog along with the dog's owner and Mr. Balint's 3-year-old Weimaraner, Penny Lane.

Penny's emotional response to the applicant dog is crucial, Mr. Balint said. "She has very, very good dog skills, [including] getting a dog to initiate play," he said.

About one-third of the canine interviewees don't make the cut for admission or the waiting list because they are aggressive about food or toys or show signs that the surroundings will be too stressful.

Mr. Balint's center, which accommodates 25 dogs, is more expensive than others in the area. He charges $595 a month for a dog visiting five days a week, or roughly $30 a day.

"People are having fewer children these days and more dogs," said Mr. Balint. "The explosive need [for high-end services] is really indicative of how dogs are being treated."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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