The door to Dogtopia opens, and in swaggers Buddy, a giant schnauzer, pulling his owner, Cathy Miller, behind him.
"He's wagging his tail," said Miller, who lives in Dayton. "He knows where he is."
Buddy will be spending the day at Dogtopia, running around with other dogs, climbing on gym equipment, taking a nap, and generally getting the kind of attention usually reserved for children in preschool and day care.
"It's just so convenient," said Miller, who planned to be away from home most of the day. "He's only a year old, so I don't want to leave him alone in the house."
Dogtopia provides "doggy day care," as it is known within the company, as well as "spa" services such as bathing, toenail-clipping and ear cleaning. Dogs go home at the end of their "spa day" clean but tired. Self-service bathing areas are also available for owners who want to clean their dogs.
Sue Dietrich, who opened Dogtopia in Clarksville with her husband, Ron, said she became interested in the concept because she was looking for a place for her own dogs, a Boston terrier named Minnie and a pug named Bambi.
"That was the incentive," said Sue, who handles day-to-day operations, while Ron, who kept his Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. job, typically handles the late shift. "We basically didn't like the kennel concept."
Sue Dietrich worked in information technology for 15 years, but left her corporate job when her daughter was born, she said. She took on some pet-sitting jobs, and then she learned about Dogtopia. The Howard County location was only the second franchise for the company, which was established in Tysons Corner, Va., in 2002 by Amy Nichols.
The Dietrichs, who live in Clarksville, opened their location at the end of May in a building they bought, formerly an auto shop. "We gutted the whole thing," she said. The space now has a reception area, an evaluation room and three play areas. An outdoor exercise area for the dogs is expected to be ready by the end of the summer, Dietrich said.
In the evaluation room, a small space with nothing in it but a crate, new doggie visitors are examined to make sure they are comfortable in the environment, and that they won't be overly aggressive. Once the dog is comfortable in the room, and shows that it will go in and out of the crate without fuss, both male and female dogs are brought in, one at a time, to see how the newcomer reacts.
Ideally, there should be a lot of sniffing and tail-wagging. But Sue Dietrich said three dogs have been turned away for aggressive behavior. "If they take correction by ourselves and others, that's OK," she said. "But if they continue to snarl and snap, that's what we can't have. It's not safe for that dog, or for any other dog in the room."
The Dietrichs learned about dog behaviors during several weeks of training in Rockville, Sue said. They have passed on the knowledge to their employees.
The next step is choosing which playroom is most appropriate for the dog. The three rooms are generally divided by dog size. All have rubber floors, a few indestructible toys and either a couch or plastic children's playground equipment.
As many as 25 dogs can go into each play area. The animals are supervised at all times, and television monitors are set up so owners can watch the dogs from outside. Web cams allow dog-owners to watch their pets from anywhere in the world.
As with a day care for children, a board on the wall alerts supervisors to any special needs. "We have a deaf dog that comes here, and he has specific hand signals he recognizes, so that gets noted on the board," Sue Dietrich said.
From noon to 2 p.m., the dogs are taken to individual crates for naps. Dogs that spend the night are put in the crates from 11 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.
Miller said she takes Buddy a couple of times a week and plans to leave him for nine days when she goes on vacation in July. She likes it, and Buddy likes it. "There's nothing else, other than a kennel," she said.
Dogtopia is at 12212 Clarksville Pike, Clarksville. 410-531-WAGS (9247), or www.dogdaycare.com/clarksville/.