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A Dog-Eat-Dog World

Golden Bone owners Reed William and Marcy Albin with friends.
Mark Manger

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.

When Albin opened the Golden Bone, she had none of these. That's because the city told her that the business didn't fit any of its existing zoning categories and didn't need any permits, she says. So she was shocked when a neighborhood inspector with Denver Zoning showed up on Golden Bone's first day and threatened to shut her down if she didn't get the required documents.

Albin quickly obtained her CDA license, business permit and a restricted-use permit from the zoning department that, among other things, stipulated that the Golden Bone could not provide overnight kenneling and must restrict the number of dogs outside to three. When the facility subsequently violated those stipulations, the city issued two cease-and-desist orders. Albin appealed.

"I had to hire the biggest law firm in Denver, to the tune of $30,000, to save my business. That's inexcusable," she says. "And they didn't even have anything legitimate in their regulations. That's the thrust of this whole issue: There is no regulatory ruling for what they did."

Michael O'Flaherty, development and program manager for Denver Zoning, who wrote the restricted permit for the Golden Bone, acknowledges that the regulatory issue is tricky. "It's a relatively new industry," he says of doggie daycare. "We didn't know much about it. The Golden Bone has spurred a closer look at how the zoning department has been looking at doggie daycares. We try to be as even as we can."

A hearing on the Golden Bone's fate was scheduled for July 22 with the zoning department's Board of Adjustment. But on June 25, zoning administrator Kent Strapko revealed that the cease-and-desist orders were being dropped. That surprised many doggie daycare owners, especially since Albin's boyfriend and co-owner, Reed William, had gotten in a fistfight in October with Denver zoning inspector Richard Berney after Berney delivered one of those orders to the Golden Bone.

"It's really sad to see the city fold like that. If one person is allowed to disregard the rules and regulations of the city, that demeans the whole process," says Marcus Newell, who's part of the new Colorado Association of Dog Daycares. "A person can totally manipulate the system; it's bizarre. We're all banding together to keep one person from bringing the industry down. We hope that one rotten apple won't spoil the whole bunch."

"I don't think that it's fair that someone came in and thumbed her nose at the whole process and moved into a place with a ton of frontage but no legal zoning," agrees Stacey O'Rourke, owner of the Dog House at 444 Lipan Street, who'd passed on Albin's Lincoln location. "The rest of us follow the rules."

But Strapko, Flaherty's boss and the person who came up with the specific stipulations for the Golden Bone's restricted-use permit, now says that some of those restrictions may have been inappropriate. "My original decision was an impromptu one," he says. "The real concern was the effects of having dogs outside, the smell and the noise. I went out subsequently and looked over the operation, and I was satisfied that they had control over the situation. This is a temporary decision; I want to see if it works. We need to get some feedback on exactly what restrictions we need to place on these businesses."

And then Denver Zoning will create zoning requirements specific to doggie daycares, he says. Codes with teeth.

In the meantime, Albin and attorney Ross Buchanan have filed notice of intent to sue the city and Berney. They claim that the stroke William suffered ten days after the altercation was a direct result of the incident. "We're just waiting to see how Reed is doing to find out how much we should sue for," Albin adds.

Citing the pending litigation, Berney declined to comment. But his lawyer, Fredric Winocur, released a statement: "Following an investigation by the City and County of Denver, it was concluded that Richard Berney did nothing to provoke the attack that he suffered by the owners of the Golden Bone. The Denver Police Department similarly cleared Mr. Berney from any wrongdoing. No charges were filed against Mr. Berney. Charges were apparently considered against the business owners for their criminal acts against him."

"He's come into all of our businesses, and none of us has ever had a problem," Hounds on the Hill's Desnica says of Berney. (Desnica is the newly elected president of the Colorado Association of Dog Daycares.) "We were all floored when it happened."

"He was completely professional," adds Chad Mendoza, owner of Madison & Friends in Cherry Creek. "It blows my mind that that incident turned into what it did. But with Marcy, nothing surprises me."

The controversy hasn't slowed Albin down, though. Three weeks ago, she opened a second doggie daycare in Denver -- the Golden Bone at River Run, an area along the South Platte River that's zoned industrial. "The phones are ringing off the hook," Albin says. "I believe that I've paved the way for other doggie daycares. I've woken up the city."

And while some folks in Denver's doggie-daycare field are still yapping -- someone even vandalized the Golden Bone on July 1, slashing canopies and breaking windows - the business is quieting down. "I don't get very many complaints on this industry," says Scott Leach, the CDA inspector who regulates the state's doggie daycares. "Safety issues are our main concern, and in my personal opinion, looking at the inspections and the lack of complaints on the whole, I think they're doing a good job.

"Mostly, I'm visiting doggie daycares to deliver new licenses, because they seem to be popping up everywhere."