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April 28, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 28, 2004

For pet's sake For pet's sake (April 28, 2004)

With opening of a doggy daycare center, a former high-tech worker's career has gone to the dogs

by Terry Tang

Today is no ordinary day for Maca Alegado. It's his first time at daycare and some parental separation anxiety hangs in the air.

"We usually leave him on the balcony," said Rosie Alegado, a Stanford graduate student. "But, we feel better leaving him with someone. He's much better off."

Maybe it's because of his Toy Fox Terrier heritage, but Maca makes a seamless transition into the playgroup. Born from a petite breed, he looks like a larger dog's Scooby Snack. Yet, his pint size belies his unbridled energy. Chasing a green tennis ball, he speedily beats his furry friends in the small canine play area. Too enraptured in the game, he has already forgotten about mom.

Maca is the latest charge in the care of A Dog's Life, a new doggy daycare center operating in Palo Alto. For $35 per day -- cheaper if you buy a package deal -- clients can leave a dog at the 6,500-square-foot facility on Commercial Street, just east of San Antonio Road. Since opening its doors on March 29, A Dog's Life has lured more than a dozen clients.

The start-up marks a mid-career change from the high-tech world for owner Keith Uchida, a former Cisco and Microsoft employee.

"The hours and pace haven't changed," Uchida said. "Just the intrinsic rewards. ... If you can take your passion and make a career or livelihood, that's a good goal to have."

A Dog's Life's cushy, Starbucks-esque ambience manages to sidestep extravagance. From the three-seat bar offering all-natural goodies from Five Paw Bakery to a lounge with complimentary beverages, Uchida clearly wants dog owners to feel at home. Yet, the puppy-dog eyes in the professional photos lining lobby walls remind people that at A Dog's Life, it's all about the four-legged customers.

Dogs pass the hours in the 1,500-square-foot indoor playroom, the "Shy Dog Room" -- where timid and older dogs can unwind -- or the "ZZZ Lounge," where pooches get sleep under the watchful eye of trainers. For dog owners heading out of town, A Dog's Life offers "slumber parties," in which a dog stays with a staff member. The dog's home routine is duplicated as much as possible, and returning owners receive an in-depth written report.

Uchida, 40, embarked on this enterprise last year. He was tired of commuting between San Jose and Seattle every week as a recruiter for Microsoft and also noticed how his own American Eskimo, Kimo, benefited from doggy daycare.

He enrolled in an intense six-week course at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Academy, the "Harvard for dog trainers," he said. The curriculum required Uchida to care for three different dogs using the coursework.

"The big test was to really see if that was a career I wanted to pursue," he said.

After finishing the curriculum, he tweaked his business plan and budget. The Mountain View native had already begun looking for the right location.

Finding a good spot turned out to be the biggest obstacle. For more than 11 months, Uchida searched, but prospective landlords either had reservations about dogs roaming the grounds or the market potential. Fortunately, last November, he met a landlord who was a dog owner too. They eagerly sealed a long-term lease agreement.

Unlike the tech industry's dot-bomb, the pet-care market has a loyal following that seems resistant to the nation's rough economy. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, the pet industry fetched $32.4 billion last year, almost double the amount from a decade ago. Services such as grooming and pet sitting accounted for $2.1 billion. Although upper-class households comprise the bulk of consumers, more owners are sacrificing personal expenses to provide for their pets.

"More people want to take their pets with them or they're just reluctant to leave them," said Bob Vetere, COO and managing director of the association. "Pet spas, pet hotels, pet sitters -- there are all these different alternatives to not taking Fido or Fluffy. I think you just want to feel good that you're treating your fluffy child (well)."

Meanwhile, dog care will only continue to become more lavish. From massages to lipo-suction, dog spas in metropolitan areas are leading the growing trend toward pooch pampering.

Uchida was reluctant to discuss the investment that he and his wife, Theresa, made to start the business, concerned that it would encourage people without animal expertise to launch unprepared into the field.

But Lewis Daniels, owner of Planet Pooch in Redwood City, estimated that establishing an operation that serves between 35 and 40 dogs can cost close to $90,000. However, different factors can affect the final budget, such as whether some renovation work on a building can be done without contractors, he said.

"We broke even in about four months and that's almost unheard of," said Daniels, who opened Planet Pooch in August of 1999 with the help of two partners. "We were fortunate with extended family helping out."

Daniels' 20,000-square-foot facility -- situated appropriately enough on "Kaynyne" Street -- caters to 65 dogs per day on average. The company's database lists 85 Palo Alto clients to date, but Daniels isn't concerned about any dog-eat-dog competition with Uchida. There is ample room for more daycares in the area, he said.

Still in its honeymoon period, A Dog's Life will need some time to become profitable. Ideally, Uchida would like to have a client base of at least 40 dogs.

In the future, Uchida is planning programs for improving dogs' socialization skills, puppy playgroups, group obedience classes, a sports camp and a full-service grooming station. But no matter what, the dog-to-staff ratio will remain eight or nine canines for every attendant. This way, they can provide more personalized attention.

Given that Uchida even researched what kind of floor material would be the easiest on canine joints in the playroom, pet owners will find it difficult to question the integrity behind A Dog's Life.

"People treat their dogs like their children," he said. "Like child daycare, safety is an issue. That's what they trust us with." To find out more about A Dog's Life, call (650) 494-DOGS or visit www.dogslife.biz.


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