Jennifer Swayze of West Trenton is a single mom who, as team leader for a new product design group with a leading software company based in Texas, works out of her home and manages 15 other professionals scattered around the U.S. Her job involves 25 to 50 percent travel. She usually flies to Texas on Sunday night or Monday, returning on Thursday or Friday. Her five-year-old daughter, who attends Villa Victoria Academy, stays with Swayze’s mom nearby, but her two Labradoodles, Zoe and Summer, are not quite so easy to make arrangements for.
Swayze tried several kennels but ruled them out one by one — they were either too expensive or the hours weren’t convenient for her travel schedule or the setting wasn’t homey enough — until she struck gold with Camp Bow Wow at 231 Baker’s Basin Road in Lawrenceville.
Founded on the concept that dogs prefer to be social and play in packs, Camp Bow Wow shuns the old-fashioned cages associated with traditional kennels. Dogs play all day in one of three fenced-in areas (they are separated by size, age, and temperament after a four-hour free evaluation), and nap and sleep in their own roomy “cabin” (family dogs sleep together), complete with water and a cot and any toys the dog’s “parents” have brought. Dogs are called “campers” and the staff are called “camp counselors.” The “overnight camper” schedule starts with 6 a.m. “rise and shine group play” and ends with “last call, a campfire treat, and bedtime.”
Those are all key factors for Swayze’s passion for Camp Bow Wow but what makes her heart go pitter-patter is the CamperCam, a webcam accessible via the Internet. “When I go to Texas, everyone comes into the conference room where I camp out and watch my dogs on the CamperCam.” Other factors that won her over are the facility’s top dog cleanliness and the way owners Sherri Hayes and Randy DeFazio have made Zoe and Summer feel at home.
“Summer once had a cyst on her foot that had ruptured, and I was concerned she wouldn’t take her medicine at Camp Bow Wow. Not only did they let her come, they put her medicine in a liver packet and she took it right away,” says Swayze, who herself used to work for a vet earlier in her career. “They have these dogs under control. Now I just E-mail them and say Summer and Zoe are coming on such and such a date. I don’t even write my last name anymore.”
For business people like Swayze the hours a service business like Camp BowWow is open can make all the difference in keeping — and enjoying — your dogs. The fact that Camp BowWow is open on Sundays is very unusual, says Swayze. “I can drop off my dogs on Sunday on the way to airport.” Swayze’s ex-husband or a friend often picks them up late Thursday afternoon (just like a child daycare, parents can leave a list of other adults who are allowed to pick up their canine campers) so they’re home when Swayze gets home from the airport. “This affords me more time with my dogs. They give them a bath the night before I pick them up. I get to be with my animals.”
Before, Swayze had to drop Summer and Zoe off on Saturday afternoon, even though she might not have been leaving until early Monday morning. “When I came home on Thursday night, that was giving me only two days a week with my dog.”
Coincidentally, right around the corner from Camp Bow Wow is another doggie day care founded on similar principles, All Good Dogs Day Care, at 160 Basin Road, where campers sleep on a choice of bunk beds, couches, armchairs, cots, or blankets on the floor and overnight stays are called “slumber parties.” Camp Bow Wow is a franchise. Owners Hayes and DeFazio have a second location in Bridgewater, and are scouting sites for a third in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. All Good Dogs is a private company; owner Carole Lini also has locations in South Brunswick and Cherry Hill, and she also runs a successful petsitting business, Whisker Watchers.
Stephanie Gold of Lawrenceville, owner of the Bellies & Booties maternity and infant boutique on Quaker Bridge Road, takes her Shih-tzu, Sofie, to All Good Dogs on her way to work every day. Michele Guhl of Lawrence brings her seven-month-old yellow lab, Chauncey, to All Good Dogs three times a week, before heading to her office in downtown Trenton, where she is the executive director of the Commission on Rationalizing Health Care for the New Jersey Department of Health & Senior Services.
What these and other “camper” kennels cropping up all over the United States share in common is the fact that they are making the difference between whether working professionals, single or with families, can keep their dog — and keep their dog happy and healthy. The costs range from $38 for overnight boarding at Camp Bow Wow to $55 at All Good Dogs Day Care. This compares to traditional kennel rates, which typically are $20 and up, depending on the size of the dog, plus extra for outdoor play sessions.
Sherri Hayes of Camp BowWow relays the tale of one “greyhound who had such separation anxiety that the people didn’t know what to do. The dog was a nervous wreck. Its health was compromised. They brought it to day care just as a last resort. And the dog ended up coming five days a week. The dog is now great, it’s calmed down, it has daytime companions. Being the difference between whether a dog is able to stay in the household is huge for us. We take great pride in that. That means there are fewer rescue dogs out there.”
Hayes says coming home to a happy dog is also a great perk for mommy and daddy. “Maybe that owner’s had a bad day. They come to pick up their dog and that dog comes out and is happy. That’s a huge stress reliever. And that brings a lot of satisfaction to us. A healthy, happy, safe dog — that’s huge for us.”
The owners of both doggie daycares came to their businesses by very different routes. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Sherri Hayes, now 42, had a Pomeranian named Gidget. Hayes’s father was a civil servant, an aircraft mechanic, and her mother was an administrative assistant at a vocational school. After graduating from Georgia College in 1986 with a bachelors in biology, Hayes taught high school, got married in 1988, and went back to Georgia College for a master’s in vertebrate paleontology in 1992. She wanted to get a Ph.D. in genetic engineering but dropped the dream when “it didn’t seem like my husband thought it was a route that I should take.”
Hayes instead joined a training program in the claims department at Geico Insurance, and when that track wasn’t moving fast enough for her she worked as a case manager and marketer for Pain Care Inc., a small start-up in Macon. After divorcing in 1993 and transferring to Atlanta, she joined Manor Care Health Services as executive director of assisted living. There she met DeFazio, a regional human resources director, who would become her partner. They transferred up north as part of a traveling team for Manor Care, opening new facilities all over the East Coast.
The move to Newtown, Pennsylvania, was a bit of a homecoming for DeFazio, who grew up in Philadelphia. The daughter of an attorney/judge and a high school English teacher, she earned a bachelor’s in sociology at Temple in 1978 and a master’s in human services at Rider in 1996. Like Hayes, she had a dog when she was a child, Schatzie, a dachshund.
But the move north was also smart on a personal level. “It made sense because, obviously for our lifestyle, it’s a little more friendly up here — Georgia’s horrible,” says DeFazio. The two, who moved to the Glen Afton neighborhood in West Trenton last year, now have four dogs: Jessie, a golden retriever; Liberty, a border collie mix; Frieda, found on the road last year; and Eliot, a long-haired dachshund.
In 2000 DeFazio joined Alta Health Services, formerly a managed care company, and her boss recruited Hayes in 2001 as operations and project manager. Slowly it dawned on the two of them that all they were doing was making money for other people. “Between the two of us, we probably opened about 30 $10-$20 million facilities. We couldn’t see ourselves sitting behind a desk for the rest of our lives. We were getting to that 40ish point, where we were asking ourselves, do we want to be doing this at 60? And the answer was no.”
Everybody thought they were crazy, shocked that they would leave a pension and 401k plan behind. “Family and friends are never supportive of you opening your own business,” says Hayes. Undeterred, they stayed in their jobs while looking on the Internet for franchises. They actively pursued a doggie day care DeFazio found for sale in Philadelphia, but because of glitches in the lease “it just didn’t make sense. We were completely disappointed and moping around for about three months.” Then one day while DeFazio was surfing on franchisegator.com, Camp Bow Wow popped up. It was a new company, just two months old. They called immediately and within two weeks were on a plane to Denver to see the facilities and meet owner Hannah Flammang.
“We’re not big risk takers but we knew that day we were going to buy that franchise. We thought, this woman is brilliant. She came up with the concept and it worked. It was the cleanest facility I ever walked into. We were business travelers; we boarded our dogs constantly and had tried every kennel in the Bucks County and Mercer area, but never found one we liked. It was just a place to store our dogs.” At Camp Bow Wow, Hayes says, “I could not believe that all these dogs were running around and there was not a speck of dirt anywhere. The employees were smiling, the dogs were playing, it was different from any kennel we had ever been in. It was cutting edge.”
Hayes and DeFazio had four weeks of on-site training and plunked down a $20,000 franchise fee plus another $25,000 to reserve a total of six territories (counties): Somerset (the Bridgewater location); Mercer, East Morris, West Monmouth; Center City, Philadelphia; and Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. They had enough saved to pay cash to retrofit a warehouse for the Bridgewater facility at a cost of $285,000, but looked for investors for the second facility in Lawrenceville.
Through their old boss at Alta they met John P. Whitehead, the former CFO of Alta, now with Philadelphia-based insurance firm USI. They met a second investor, Michael Weisbrot, through a financial broker in Philadelphia. Hayes and DeFazio own 51 percent of the business; Whitehead and Weisbrot are silent partners. Six percent of their gross revenues goes to Camp Bow Wow’s founders (new franchisees are now paying seven percent).
Hayes says that they have 20 to 25 dogs in their care any given day and about the same amount of boarders. Most of their clients are business people, many of whom work long hours. For example, says Hayes, many have a young, energetic dog who needs a lot of exercise. “They bring them here, they play all day long, and when the owners pick them up at night, the dogs are exhausted. We feed most of them dinner about 5 p.m. So when (the owners) pick them up, all they have to do when they get home is enjoy them. They don’t have to take a three-mile walk; they can help their kids with their homework, they can get some things done around the house.”
For Carole Lini, owner of All Good Dogs, the path to Dogtown was straight and narrow. The lifelong Ewing resident and youngest of seven had collies and cats and “all kinds of little critters” growing up. Her father has run Lini’s Beauty Salon at 1780 Olden Avenue in Ewing for over 50 years, and his father had several salons in Trenton in the 1920s through the ‘50s. With seven kids Lini’s mother stayed home. A tomboy through and through, with sisters who were a good seven years older than she, Lini found companionship as a child hanging out with her critters. “I always saved the little injured wildlife.”
Though her parents sent her to Pennington Prep in the hopes she would go to college, Lini had different plans. After graduating in 1986 she started a dogwalking business, Happy Tails and Whisker Watchers, which she still has today. Her first job was at the West Trenton Animal Hospital, where she was trained as a veterinary technician. “I said to my parents, `Give me a year. Let me try it.’”
Today Whisker Watchers employs a staff of eight sitters, who make anywhere from 20 to 70 home visits per day. And her family pitches in, her sisters and father with petsitting, her mom with bookkeeping. (Her mother also works at Vessel 27, a collectibles shop Lini owns in Kingston next to Charlie Brown’s.)
In 1999, just as the doggie daycare concept was emerging, Lini knew she had clients who would be interested in another choice for their dogs to get the socialization and exercise they needed when they were at work or traveling. “Although petsitting is a good choice for many, we really felt there was something lacking,” says Lini, who started All Good Dogs with partner Kristi Lupescu, who later moved out of state. They took their business plan “to at least eight banks and everyone said no and looked at us like we were cuckoo.”
Their golden ticket was handed to them by Bob Mangano, president of First Constitution Bank. “He was the only one who really seemed to get the concept,” says Lini. “I showed him my tax return for petsitting. He saw that that made pretty good money, and he saw our passion. Failure was not an option.”
Armed with a $65,000 loan they renovated the lower level of a pet hospital in Kingston, after looking at about 20 different prospective locations, all of which were either out of their budget or because the building owner “just didn’t get the concept.” Within three months, in 2000, they were open for business. “We ended up getting a lot of clients from the petsitting business and the vet [upstairs].”
When the pet hospital later closed Lini couldn’t take over the whole building because there wasn’t enough parking. “I asked my contractor if he knew anyone with $60,000 or $100,000, and within a week Vladimir [Visnjic] called me.” Visnjic, a Temple professor who lives in Princeton and does realty on the side, bought a building in South Brunswick on two and half acres on Schalks Crossing Road and rented it to Lini. Coincidentally it was a property she had originally looked at but had been out of her price range.
Lini knows she has competition but believes her philosophy and approach are sound. “Dogs are little people in furry bodies, they really not only love their humans but love to be around their own kind as well. There weren’t any choices in their best interest, letting them be dogs, letting them get rid of all their excess energy, which makes them better pets. It is very important for them to get their exercise and socialization. And it gives their owners peace of mind. A lot of other places just put them in cages or crates. Now people are making their pets a part of the family and they just don’t feel comfortable with their pets being in confined spaces for long periods of time.”
Not every dog passes All Good Dogs’ evaluation for acceptance. Says Lini: “About 95 percent are wonderful. We test for aggressive tendencies, and behaviors of trying to escape. We only want dogs who will enjoy themselves and have a good time.” For dogs that Lini feels are not good candidates for daycare, she always offers alternate option such as petsitting. At Camp BowWow and All Good Dogs, dogs must be up to snuff on their vaccinations and be spayed or neutered. They will take puppies who are not fixed if their vaccinations are up to date.
Lini says more difficult than getting the loan or the location was getting the township’s permission. Lawrence took two years. She found the site in Lawrence while driving down Basin Road one morning at 6 a.m. while doing a petsitting job and saw the “Will Build to Suit” sign. The owner, Bob Wells of Bob Wells Tree Service in Princeton, was “very understanding of the whole dog concept. He really got it,” says Lini.
Lini opened her third location in Cherry Hill (just daycare and grooming, not boarding) again through Visnjic, who found a spot right next to a vet hospital. The building had actually been a child day care center, which required only a “mild” renovation, knocking out some walls and putting in a reception area. It was already fenced in, an advantage considering that the fence in South Brunswick cost $13,000. Steve Sung of First Constitution Bank helped Lini with the funding for the South Brunswick and Cherry Hill locations.
Lini calls her staffers “professional cuddlers,” and I can attest to that. To research this story I had my two beagle puppies, Diego and Lily, evaluated at All Good Dogs. When I dropped them off one morning, I had the same apprehension I felt when my son was six months old and I first put him in family day care. The puppies (as my son was) were fine; it was Mommy who was sweating bullets. But when Scott Hahn, a compact bundle of energy and warmth, came out into the reception area, where there is a small gated space for welcoming new dogs before joining the other dogs out back in the five play areas, my fears dissipated.
Hahn got down with Diego and Lily and chattered away to me about his background growing up with dogs and learning to train dogs since he was 16, all the while scratching my puppies behind the ears and under the neck. How did he know that blisses Diego out?
When I came back four hours later, I peeked through the window at the play area before the puppies saw me and was greeted with every doggie parent’s dream. Hahn was down on the ground with about seven dogs wallowing all over him, having a ball. Diego had found a playmate his size and the two were cavorting on a Playskool jungle gym. Lily was perched atop a large cement tunnel under a giant red sun umbrella. It was, in fact, kind of like preschool, only with dogs.
Hahn later told me that my seven-month old Lily had curled up next to him and stuck her little head in the front pocket of his hoodie sweatshirt. “I just sat there,” he said. “What was I going to do, move?” With a staff of 38 in the three centers Lini has from two to five cuddlers on duty 24/7.
Lini says working professionals make up 90 to 95 percent of the All Good Dogs clientele, 75 percent of whom also do boarding. “We’re catering to people who don’t want anything less than carte blanche. If they’re lying on the beach somewhere, they want to know their dog is having a good time too. So they’re not consumed with guilt.” All Good Dogs does not have a webcam but Lini’s staff takes photos of the dogs and puts together a little report on the dog’s activities to give the owners. “Usually once people find us they say it lets them go away and not have to worry or be consumed with all those emotions about leaving their pet,” says Lini.
She says this type of business is “a lot of hard work.” Right now every penny is going back into the business yet she feels comfortable knowing she’s smack dab in the middle of the nearly $3 billion dollar pet services and grooming industry, according to figures from the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association.
Lini admits she has no personal life and is working seven days a week, 365 days a year, from 6 a.m. to about 10 p.m. “I always have to be on. I am single. I have no social life. I never go out.” But she says she wouldn’t want it any other way, and she isn’t lonely. She has a five-year-old boxer-spaniel mix, Madison, a foster dog from All Good Dogs’ original location. “She’s the perfect dog for me because she’s used to my lifestyle.”
All Good Dogs Day Care, 160 Basin Road, Lawrenceville 08648; 609-587-3535. Also 113 Schalks Crossing Road, Monmouth Junction 08810; 609-497-1511. Home page: allgooddogsdaycare.com. Carole Lini, president.
Camp Bow Wow, 231 Bakers Basin Road, 609-689-3647. Randy DeFazio and Sherri Hayes, Home page: www.mycbw.com/lawrenceville.
Dogs now have their own sports clubs, known as dog parks. One of Princeton’s private establishments, the Rocky Top Dog Park, invites visiting dogs to participate in a Doodle Romp, to benefit the rescue program of a club that focuses on mixed breeds, the International Doodle Owners Group.
The Doodle Romp will be Sunday, November 11, Noon to 4 p.m., at the park at 4106 Route 27, just north of the Amish Farmer’s Market in Kingston. Cost: $10. Bring your dog, the dog’s shot records, and a towel. Children over age eight are welcome. Call 732-297-6527 for information.
When Adrien Gerson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, she photographed and edited a Dog Days of Lambertville calendar as a benefit for such animal charities as the Hunterdon Humane Animal Shelter, Make Peace with Animals, and the Animal Alliance.
The 2008 Dog Days of Lambertville Calendar is available for $10 at various locations in Lambertville, and online at www.lambertvilledogs.com for $15, including shipping.