Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
In the small-dog yard at a San Antonio pet boarding facility, Lynette Gibson watches over Coco and Bentley and a dozen or so other pups toddling across the synthetic grass. She knows each one by name, which ones visit regularly, which seem the smartest, and which may be feeling a bit grouchy that day.
“I stop aggression, I clean up after them, and I love on them,” said Gibson, who previously worked with the military’s bomb-sniffing dogs before she was injured in Iraq.
Watching dogs is what Gibson and 122 other employees do at Lucy’s Doggy Daycare and Spa in San Antonio, a pet care business that opened its third facility on the far North Side in November 2018.
The sprawling complex at Loop 1604 near Vance Jackson Road has a tree-covered, half-acre park, wade-in pools, splash pads, 30 climate-controlled indoor “suites” with raised beds and 24/7 webcams, 142 other runs, an onsite doggy grooming “spa,” self-serve bathing stations, and veterinary services.
“That’s Rosie. She comes every day. We love her,” said Lucy’s founder Max Golman, pointing out an English bulldog trotting across the yard one afternoon during a tour. Amid the mutt melee of dogs chasing, barking, jumping, and tail-wagging, Golman called many of the dogs by name, like old friends.
Established in 2005 and named after Golman’s own Australian shepherd mix, Lucy’s Doggy Daycare is known for its large, interactive pet day care areas and its customer service, said Golman, who owns the business with Mike Tommack. “There’s an expression: If you’re not amazing, then you’re invisible. So we try to be amazing in every way we can,” he said.
Lucy’s is one of 32,000 pet boarding facilities in the United States, according to estimates from the International Boarding & Pet Services Association (IBPSA). More than 8,000 are members of IBPSA, an organization founded nine years after the long-running American Boarding Kennel Association declared bankruptcy.
IBPSA’s founder and CEO Carmen Rustenbeck said the failed association “lost its way” in understanding where the industry was going – from small mom-and-pop outfits that boarded animals for extra income to full-scale boarding and pet service operations run by business-minded people.
“So we started providing small-business education – pricing for profit, how you build a relationship with pet owners so they understand the proper care of pets, how to find expertise, and help keep customers coming back,” Rustenbeck said. She also works with boarding facility owners on transition planning and advocates for the industry on state legislative issues.
The industry is thriving. Of the nearly $70 billion Americans spent on their pets in 2017, about $6.5 billion went to pet services, grooming, and boarding, according to the American Pet Products Association. That’s up from a total spend of $43 billion just 10 years ago.
The Texas Pet Sitters Conference in February will hold its fourth annual meeting at the Bluebonnet Bunk‘n Biscuit, a Selma boarding facility. The conference is a networking and training opportunity for business owners who care for animals in a client’s home, their own home, or in a boarding facility. Pets are welcome to attend, of course.
Though there is a national certification program in place for pet care providers, over the years, the industry mostly has advocated for self-regulation and training. Currently, there is no big watchdog in terms of government oversight and regulation of commercial pet boarding businesses is minimal, Rustenbeck said. But that’s changing, she added.
The City of San Antonio imposes a fee of $150 a year for a commercial boarding facility permit, stipulates the condition and size of kennels, and lays out basic food and water requirements. Nineteen pet boarding facilities currently hold permits, a spokeswoman for Animal Care Services (ACS) said. A facility must pass inspection before a permit is approved, and ACS reserves the right to conduct unannounced inspections. She said most such inspections happen if there is a consumer complaint.
IBPSA recommends pet parents tour a facility before dropping Fido and Fifi there for the day or longer and refers consumers to a list of screening questions they can ask. Rustenbeck’s advice: “If it smells, that’s not normal.”
Cleaning after the pets is, of course, a big part of the boarding facility’s job. Finding workers who will do that and all the other tasks that come with pet care, however, can be a boarding facility’s greatest challenge. Turnover is high, and that drives up both hiring and training costs. IBPSA is trying to change that by encouraging facility owners to create more long-term career paths.
The other challenge they face is staying afloat when the economy dips and consumers cut back on discretionary spending. But times are good, and day care services have become the No. 1 revenue stream for many boarding facilities, Rustenbeck said.
In addition, spa services including massages, facials, and nail care are all the rage, as are pet birthday parties and arts and crafts activities for pets – think dogs walking on paper with animal-safe paint applied to their paws. Rustenbeck said the industry is taking its cues directly from the childcare sector in coming up with services and programming that appeal to pet owners.
At Lucy’s, interactive day care costs $26 a day, with discounts offered for packages and multiple pups. The business soon will add a drive-through pickup and drop-off service. Retirees David and Jeanne Seldner have been dropping off their three dogs – Clemson, Lulu, and Maisy – at the facility five days a week since moving to San Antonio a year ago.
“It’s good for the dogs, and it’s good for us, too,” David said one afternoon as other pet owners arrived to collect their dogs from the day care. “We think it’s great for the dogs to play with other dogs … and have a place in a larger pack. They get exercise and socialization, and they look forward to it.”
At Rob Cary Pet Resort, owner Caryl Scrimpsher turned a farmhouse and four acres on the outskirts of town into a boarding business 42 years ago, then expanded the facility in 1997 to make it the first pet “resort” in South Texas. Today, Rob Cary is a modern, 30,000-square-foot pet service, product, and training emporium that is caring for the third and fourth generation of some families’ pets.
Rob Cary offers individual day care, not interactive group care, so a dog is boarded in a single-occupant indoor run with access to the outdoors. Day care ranges in price between $31 and $52 a day depending on the size of the dog. The pet resort also boards cats in its “Cat Chateau,” birds in “Tweet Suites,” and the occasional small animal, like rabbits. With more than 200 runs, or kennels, it is often fully booked during holidays when owners typically board pets while they travel, said Brad Beaman, kennel supervisor.
Another IBPSA member in San Antonio, Camp Bow Wow, is a franchise business that candy-maker Mars bought a year ago from pet care provider VCA. There are three locations in San Antonio. Camp Bow Wow founder Heidi Ganahl is credited with popularizing the concept of doggy day care as the company grew into the largest and fastest-growing pet care franchise in the world.
By contrast, the Alamo Heights Kennel Club & Salon is a family-owned facility and an IBPSA member with day care available even on Saturdays.
An online search for boarding facilities in San Antonio results in about 20 commercial providers, mostly across the North Side. But that likely does not account for boarding commonly offered by in-home providers, pet stores, or veterinary offices.
At Lucy’s Doggy Daycare, about 30 percent of its business comes from clients who say they were referred by a friend, Golman said. Perhaps man’s best friend?
“It is great from a word-of-mouth perspective because we kind of become family,” he added. “The moment you come to Lucy’s, you become part of our family. The longer you’ve been at Lucy’s, the more family you become.”