Buddy is very socially adept for a 3-year-old. He does not mind sharing his toys and plays well with others.
That amiable demeanor helped the golden Labrador retriever pass the entrance exam for Happy Dog Care, a day care center for pooches that opened this week in Ellicott City. Owner Julie Sampogna screens dogs before admitting them.
If he can get along with both her rambunctious 1-year-old Weimaraner and her employee's 13-year-old mutt, then he is "obviously the perfect character for our day care," said Sampogna, who owns Happy Dog Care with her husband, John.
The U.S. pet industry has nearly doubled in the past decade, from $17 billion in 1994 to $32.4 billion this year, according to a July report by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. And dog day care is the fastest-growing segment of the pet business, according to the North American Dog Daycare Association. It has spread through Canada and is gaining momentum in the United States.
At Happy Dog Care, which operates out of a converted child day care building, canines can hang out in the "Hounds Lounge" to watch doggy videos or reruns of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Pooches can also romp through the spacious outdoor playground, complete with kiddie swimming pools, plastic playhouses and jungle gyms that the day care left behind.
The price for such pampering runs $30 a day, or $27 a day for 10 prepaid "Happy Days," and $25 a day for 20 prepaid visits.
Happy Dog Care - which can accommodate 60 dogs and will have one trainer for every 12 dogs - also provides behavior classes and grooming.
Sampogna, a longtime dog owner and former regional director for a Fortune 500 company, said she wanted a business of her own once her four children reached school age. After doing research, Sampogna said, she knew dog day care would be a good option.
"Doggy day care is slow in Maryland," but it has become hugely popular in other parts of the country, Sampogna said. Los Angeles and New York each have more than a dozen dog day care centers, she said.
There are a number of dog-sitters and walkers in Maryland, but only a few large centers where dogs can romp and play, including Doggie DayCare in Baltimore, the Coventry School in Columbia and Doggie's Den Daycare in Germantown.
Ellicott City dog owners are enthusiastic about the idea, Sampogna said. More than a dozen people showed up Saturday at a Happy Dog Care open house.
The fliers that Sampogna gave to the Dog Wash, a dog-grooming salon in Ellicott City, have been restocked three or four times, said Corrine Britton, who works there.
Dog Wash owner Susan Robson said that a number of her customers had been inquiring about dog day care before Happy Dog Care opened.
Customers have been known to drop their dogs off at the Dog Wash for a morning shampoo and not come back until after 5 p.m., Britton said.
But the Dog Wash cages animals during that time because there is not enough space or staff members to let dogs run around the shop.
"Some people that bring their dogs in really adore their dogs and feel bad leaving it with us all day," Britton said.
Day care "is a good alternative to keeping the dog in a cage all day."
Sampogna said she has seen pet owners suffer separation anxiety no matter where they leave their dogs.
But dog day care centers are usually places where dogs feel at home, she said.
"All dogs are instinctually pack animals," Sampogna said. "Their first day, they are shy. They're a little nervous."
"But after a couple of days," she said, "they're the king of the jungle gym."