When Gabi comes to work, she enters a room with food and toys before walking down a winding hallway to greet her guests.
The friendly welcome she receives could be due to her soft, black hair or her mellow charisma, but her happy tail wag is probably a factor, too. Gabi is "head dog" at Noblesville-based DogDayz Playhouse and Retreat.
Her human companion, Brian Cottrell, launched DogDayz in 2003 to offer other pet lovers the kind of services he wanted for Gabi, a 7-year-old Labrador-Rottweiler mix.
The Noblesville facility provides doggy day care, overnight boarding, grooming and training. About 50 percent of its canine clients are there to be boarded, 25 percent spend their days at camp, and the other 25 percent come for grooming or training.
Campers and overnight guests are kept in individual rooms ranging from 30 to 120 square feet that are equipped with cots, blankets, food, water and a television. When they feel social, they can spend time in one of three recreation areas, climbing playground equipment, interacting with one another or resting on an employee's lap. Web cameras are positioned throughout the building for customers to see how their dogs are doing.
Cottrell said his business sets itself apart because the dogs are given more room to sleep, more interaction and more walks. Instead of a couple of walks, he said, Dog-Dayz offers its guests five walks and four hours of play time each day-making the sleeping rooms even more inviting.
"We're not just dog lovers who started a business, but pretty good businesspeople who love dogs," said Cottrell, 38.
He got a loan to finance part of the $200,000 startup cost, researched the industry, and wrote a business plan, but Cottrell still wasn't prepared for some of the problems he encountered.
"[Challenges included] getting our name out there and finding people to work in this type of environment, where you spend all day in a room with dogs that are playing with others and playing with you," Cottrell said.
Finding good people is always hard, but he now has a great staff-thanks to patience, persistence and luck.
He marketed DogDayz through a large sign on the back of the building along State Road 37, and now it's getting recognized more. His main source of customers is word-of-mouth and veterinarian referrals.
Cottrell said he wasn't worried about competitors, since none are nearby and most provide smaller rooms and fewer walks.
In January, DogDayz expanded the 12,000-square-foot facility, which now has 83 sleeping rooms and 5,000 square feet of play space. The recreational options are what appeals to customer Sue Lighthiser.
She has been bringing Sandy, her 8-yearold Labrador mix, to the doggy day camp since July after receiving a coupon and researching it online.
"We went to a vet before that had boarding, but this place is great with everything it has to offer," the 63-year-old Fishers resident said.
Lighthiser is among a growing population of dog owners seeking additional pet care options. Spending on pet services is expected to go from $41 billion in 2007 to $52 billion in the next two years, according to Maryland-based consumer research firm Packaged Facts.
The United States has 18,000 pet facilities, said Joseph Lyman, CEO of the Colorado-based American Boarding Kennels Association, about 2,500 of which are doggy day cares.
Cottrell said he understands what it takes to make a dog feel welcome and is continuing to find ways that will help his business grow.
"I would not put your dog in a situation I wouldn't put my dog in," he said. "It's about what I would do for Gabi and that's how I judge how the rooms look and the programs we have. I think customers get a peace of mind when they leave their dogs here."