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A Dog-Eat-Dog World

The doggie daycare business is growing -- and growling over one competitor.

Denver's once-friendly doggie daycare industry has gone to the dogs.

Since Deb Steinberg opened the area's first facility, Doggy Day Camp, in what's now Centennial back in 1991, the industry has been breeding like crazy. Today there are thirteen doggie daycares in Denver alone.

"This is the perfect example of the kind of industry that we didn't have in our databases five years ago," says Susan Liehe, vice president of public affairs for the Denver/Boulder Better Business Bureau. "We're all struggling with how to categorize it."

And how to comprehend it. With the economy stalled and the state's unemployment rate hovering at 5.8 percent, it would seem that doggie daycare -- a pet-sitting concept that took off in San Francisco during the rah-rah dot-com days -- would be a superfluous, rather than hyper-growth, service. But nationally, doggie daycare is now a $500-million-a-year business.

"I think dogs have taken on the role of kids for a lot of people. We put dogs on a pedestal," says Camp Bow Wow owner Heidi Flammang, who has a branch in Broomfield and one in south-central Denver. "I think that most people are tired of corporate America or burned out on their jobs, and they see the demand and all the positive stuff that goes along with hanging out with dogs all day. It's fun."

Not only do people want to hang out with dogs, but there are plenty of dogs available to hang with: Approximately 20,000 canines are registered with the Denver Division of Animal Control. And this city's residents like to lavish cash as well as affection on their pets -- $230 million annually, according to Dogs and Cats Colorado Style. No wonder the Purina Pet Institute last month named Denver the "Pet Healthiest City" in America for the second year running."It's not something that we're going to make millions off of, but I definitely think it's something that you can make a comfortable life doing," says Cristal Newell, who opened Mile High Mutts at 2450 Larimer Street with her husband, Marcus, in April. "I think that once people see what we do, how well we take care of their dogs, they want to come back. We're growing quickly, and many daycares around town are operating at capacity."

Most daycares charge about $20 a day per dog and accommodate between fifteen and thirty dogs each day. To bring in extra cash, they offer additional services such as grooming, pet photography and overnight kenneling. They also try to differentiate themselves by specializing: Mabel's Pet Playhouse in Glendale, for example, accepts only dogs that weigh less than 35 pounds.

"A lot of people identified the same need that we saw, at the exact same time," Marcus Newell says. "But there are more than enough dogs to go around."

"When we opened our doors in June 2001, we were the third doggie daycare in the Denver city limits," says Terri Desnica, owner of Hounds on the Hill, at 960 Lincoln Street. "Now there are at least a dozen. But we're all very friendly. We refer clients back and forth and network with other people."

Doggie daycare owners are quick to say how great everyone is, how friendly the business is, how everyone scratches each other's backs. How the business is so, well, not dog-eat-dog.

But talk with them a little longer, and the dog doo starts to fly.

Marcy Albin, owner of the Golden Bone Doggie Country Club, at 341 South Lincoln, is the pack's most controversial member. In the ten months that her facility has been open, she's collected bitter detractors as well as such allies as Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown, who got involved after constituents wrote in asking him to help Albin. (She also won a 2003 Best of Denver award.)

"In my judgment, dogs are one of the most emotional issues that we deal with," Brown says. "There is no middle ground."

Much of the backbiting centers on Albin's location. Before she leased the space, several of her soon-to-be competitors had also looked at it. But they passed on the prime piece of real estate because it was zoned B-4, which Denver Zoning considers a general business district, allowing only retail, consumer and business services. The city has yet to officially categorize doggie daycares as a business, so a loose interpretation of the zoning codes might well allow such a facility in a B-4 district. Most doggie daycare owners, however, instead opt to settle in industrial areas, where there are fewer neighbors to complain and fewer zoning hoops to jump through.

"A lot of city departments have no idea what to do with us," says Marcus Newell. "They think we're a vet clinic or a kennel, and we're not. They don't understand the ins and outs of the dog daycare business."

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has been regulating the industry since 1995, lumping doggie daycare in with boarding and training facilities. In order to obtain a CDA license, the daycare must have "a minimum of one human, at least sixteen years of age, supervisor present, at all times, able to directly view each enclosure or common area where dogs from different owners are commingled." In addition to CDA approval, a doggie daycare facility in Denver must obtain a general business permit from the Department of Excise and Licenses, as well as a restricted-use permit tailored specifically for that facility and location by the zoning department.

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