Stepping through the front door of Sean Patrick's Pet Spa, visitors are greeted with the wagging tails of Sean Patrick Dowling's own dogs running to the latest barking client.
Dowling's Main Street pet grooming storefront business will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on April 2 with a bath-a-thon fundraiser to support Oldies But Goodies Cocker Rescue.
Pet spa employees will bathe dogs and collect donations for the Virginia-based rescue group during Sunday's event, which will also feature a spinning wheel game for families as well as baked goods for people and their dogs.
Marilyn Kessinger, the state foster coordinator for Oldies But Goodies, said the rescue group was established in 1996, specializing in the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of cockers and spaniel mixes of all ages in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The volunteer organization typically has between 50 and 100 dogs at one time, she said, finding homes for more than 300 dogs each year.
Having adopted three cockers of her own through the group, she said she knew Dowling's work from his earlier days as a grooming manager at Laurel's Petco.
"I know they do really good work," Dowling said.
On March 23, customers peered through the storefront window to watch the team of three groomers – Stacey Birdsall, Heather Caldwell and Cora Smith – clip, trim and fluff three small dogs. In the back, Linda Zogtah bathed another "client" before his routine haircut, placing him in one of many cages with cool-air fans to dry.
Dowling said his first job in the pet industry began in the 1970s when he worked for a breeder of English sheepdogs and later for a veterinary technician in Rockville. After deciding to start his own business, Dowling leased his current building, which he purchased in 2014.
"I had a lot of people in Laurel telling me that opening on Main Street was a big mistake – that it was a horrible spot and nobody does well on Main Street," Dowling said. "I never thought I'd end up with nine employees. We've done really well here and exceeded my expectations a great deal."
On an average weekday, Dowling said the pet spa sees 20 to 30 dogs for grooming, with 35 to 45 dogs scheduled on most Saturdays.
Zogtah operated the recirculating bathing system, called Bathing Beauty, to clean Autumn, a 10-year old Bichon, using a concentration of shampoo and warm water. Zogtah said she's worked as a bather at the pet spa for almost a year and enjoys bonding with customers and their pets.
"You got to love dogs to work in a place like this," said Zogtah, a Laurel resident. "The majority of them give you love and trust almost immediately. I don't know of other places like this where they treat dogs like customers. We treat them like family."
Following her bath, Autumn waited in a cage, where a cooling fan dried her until she moved to Smith's grooming station in the main room. Smith, a four-year employee, said she is excited to celebrate the 10-year anniversary this weekend.
"I think it's pretty cool," the Laurel resident said. "Since I've known Sean for so long, it's nice to see it going well. It's a nice open environment [and] we're all friends."
Finding a home
Sean Patrick's Pet Spa has served Oldies But Goodies dogs since opening its doors on April 1, 2007. The group often receives dogs that are very neglected, Kessinger said, including cockers with skin infections caused by little to no grooming.
While the volunteer organization receives 40 to 50 percent of its dogs from shelters, Kessinger said owners also turn in their dogs for other reasons.
"We get a steady stream of dogs from people who can no longer take care of them" because they're going into assisted living or the owner died, Kessinger said. "If these poor older dogs end up in a shelter environment, they don't have as much of a chance of getting adopted or taken care of."
Before the adoption process, Kessinger said volunteers take dogs to intake veterinarians for health checkups, which may include shave-downs, spay or neuter treatments and heart worm vaccines. Volunteers then provide dogs with foster homes until adoption. Interested families can apply to adopt, and volunteers schedule home visits and give adopters at least two weeks to see if the dog is a good fit.
"We will not adopt a dog out that has not had a tryout in a foster home because dogs can behave differently in a kennel environment than a home," she said. "Most people who are into dogs believe in rescue because rescue is what saves all these dogs that are killed in shelters."
Tina Regester, spokeswoman for Maryland SPCA in Baltimore, said the pet adoption center finds homes for dogs and cats throughout the area. More than 3,500 pets are adopted out every year, while the spay and neuter clinic performs about 7,000 surgeries each year.
Maryland SPCA will take in pets from owners or overcrowded shelters, Regester said; however, the adoption rate is holding steady.
"There are always pets that are going to need homes," she said. "It's very sad [because] we do get quite a few older pets. … It does take longer to find them a home because everyone is looking for a puppy, but there's never a time limit here. No matter how long it takes, we're going to keep them here until we find them a home."
At the pet spa, Stacey Birdsall said she joined Dowling in the business shortly after his Petco departure and has remained with him over the last nine years. The Pasadena resident began as a bather, she said, but was trained by Dowling in the art of dog grooming.
"I've been grooming for about five years," Birdsall said. "You come in every day and you like your job. I like working here [and] I like the different dogs and people I meet."
"I think it's great for an independent business owner to be able to succeed nowadays," Caldwell added.
Although he's stepped back from grooming to manage the business side of things, Dowling said he occasionally considers opening a second location, but plans to enjoy the original location's milestone.
"Being self-employed has been a great thing," Dowling said. "It's scary at first going out on your own, but the rewards have been immense."