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For the Dogs Inc.: Day care center goes to the dogs After years of wishful thinking, owners let themselves off the leash

April 3, 2006

After years of wishful thinking, owners let themselves off the leash

Barking is music to the ears of Kristel Baker and Harvey Markley.

On any given day, dozens of canines are howling away at For The Dogs, their 3-year-old doggy day care center. And they're set for growth, with plans to open a second location sometime in the next year.

Baker, 40, got the idea for 24-hour canine care after viewing a segment on TV's "Good Morning, America" about a similar facility in California. She and Markley, a friend and former co-worker, decided to go for it.

"I have a dog. Harvey has a dog," Baker said, offering a simple explanation.

And it doesn't hurt that doggy day care is the second-fastest-growing segment in the pet industry. For six months, Baker researched the business, visiting other centers throughout the country to get ideas.

"The first time I walked into a group of 50 or 60 dogs off leash was an overwhelming experience," she said.

She and Markley, 58, found prime space in a Zionsville strip mall and wrestled with zoning before opening in 2003. They also set up policies and procedures, including ways to screen pets before accepting them.

Now there's one employee for every 15 dogs. The critters are not caged at the center; they can roam inside and out at will. They romp or sleep on sofa beds, chairs and other furniture-just like they would at home, Baker said.

The 8,000-square-foot center also offers services such as grooming, training and behavior modification. Day care costs $20-$25 per day, and the other services are extra. About 10-15 dogs spend the night.

"They are just terrific people to work with," said Warren Patitz, owner of Doggone Connection and a behavior-training specialist who offers classes at For the Dogs.

"Any kind of dog business tends to attract dog people. Some of those people have problems with their dogs," he said.

Baker and Markley financed the center's $40,000 startup costs with a low-interest credit card because the rate was lower than a business loan. The charges have been paid off and "the company definitely is not in the red anymore," Baker said. The planned expansion to a second facility likely will be financed the same way.

People need to follow their dreams of starting their own business, Baker advised. It was something she and Markley talked about for years when they worked together at The Eye Doctors, Markley's optometry practice. He still practices there, and she is an assistant trainer at Allstate Insurance Co.

"Success doesn't happen overnight," Baker said, and in the meantime "you eat, sleep and breathe the business."

She and Markley hired managers to run day-to-day operations, which has freed them to focus on improving and growing the business. Full-time employees have benefits and part-timers receive other incentives, she said.

They've marketed For the Dogs through veterinarian offices, word of mouth, Indy Tails Pet Magazine and on the Internet. The center draws customers from throughout central Indiana, including as far away as Anderson.

"Everything we do is toward the dog and how it benefits the dog, such as not being caged," Baker said.

Pam Chelf, who has two pet dogs and a service dog in training, checked out several day care centers before selecting For the Dogs. She drives from her home on the west side daily to drop them off before heading to work in Castleton.

"It is a gift to the dogs," said Chelf, who is training her ninth service dog for Canine Companions for Independence. She said day care is particularly important for the service dog.

"They are free to play and socialize with other dogs and other people" at day care, she said. "It's a form of exercise for them, a confidence builder that allows them to adapt to different situations. They learn to be a dog."

Many canine behavior problems can be traced to boredom or restlessness, said veterinarian Kerry Sweeley of Carmel Clay Animal Hospital. And doggy day care can provide some relief.

Sweeley was impressed with For the Dogs' 24-hour care and the fact that an employee sleeps with the dogs at night. He also likes the pre-admission screening policy.

"It's important that the dogs play well with others," he said.


Kristel Baker, above, and partner Harvey Markley say they want their doggy day-care center to cater to their canine clients, rather than the dogs' human keepers.
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