Leftovers: Dog days are still upon us

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Mellie, the Portland Phoenix director of barketing, attends day care upon occasion. She’s enrolled at Salty Dog Adventures in Falmouth and is a staff favorite if she does say so herself.

When Mellie first relocated from Jackson, Mississippi, in March of 2020, I researched the best place for her to socialize on her days off from work. At the time, there were many competing options, all of them offering attractive packages and flexible hours. Ultimately, I decided on Salty Dog Adventures because of the location and thumbs-up from other dog people.

Natalie LaddDogs do not have opposable thumbs and cannot do it for themselves. 

Today, Salty Dog is waitlisting new canine adventures into late October for a variety of reasons. Of course, there are staffing challenges, but it’s also due to people returning to in-office or hybrid workplaces after home quarantine. Many became new dog owners during that time, which now puts pressure on licensed day care providers. Statewide, more than 23,800 cats and dogs were adopted from Maine shelters in 2020; the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland found homes for 2,900 of them. That’s a lot of new dogs.

Other Portland-area doggie day cares have responded in a similar fashion by shortening hours, eliminating weekend days, and raising prices. Even when the day cares are fully staffed, there are limits to the number of four-legged clients they can safely and legally accept. 

Along with tennis balls, the topic was tossed around at Quarry Run dog park on Ocean Avenue one afternoon last week. 

“I went to four different places over the past two weeks,” said a new dog dad from Portland. “Forget bringing Mitzi in for her ‘compatibility assessment’ (think air quotes) in three weeks from now, it took days for someone to even call me back. It was easier to get my daughter into Waynflete and I think Mitzi’s day care may end up being more expensive.” 

Dogs at Happy Tails
Dogs enjoy some time away from their owners at Happy Tails on Bishop Street in Portland. (Courtesy Happy Tails)

Another dog dad told me “Zappa may be a little dog, but he’s kind of aggressive when he’s scared. We’ve been in and out of a few day cares, and work with a trainer to get him to a calmer place. My wife is going back to school, so we really need to figure something out.”

Martha’s dog mom brought up Rover.com which is a national dog-walking service scheduled online. “It’s better than nothing,” she said. “I can’t bring her here every day and I think most dogs want to play with other dogs. I feel bad for Martha when she’s home all day. I know dogs sleep like 18 hours a day or something, but she deserves better.”

Like child care, there are home-based, privately run dog day cares, but openings are scarce and it’s often difficult to check references. Under-the-table day cares are best discovered by friend-of-a-friend and it is my understanding the rates are not much better. However, there’s no judgment on my end. We all have to do what’s best for our individual pups and if that involves love, trust, and communication, then I’m all in. 

In our area, licensed day care for dogs can cost up to $40 a day. The hours vary from place to place, with many offering add-on services like before- and after-care, nail trimming, baths, snacks, toys, and overnight boarding. One long-time staff member at a local facility said “don’t use my name, but we raised our prices almost 20 percent and we are still full, with calls coming in every day. I’ve never seen so many new dogs coming through the door. And it isn’t slowing down.”

According to a story from News Center Maine in January, Janine Hague, the president and founder of Rescue Charlie’s Friends based in Woolwich, found homes for 600 dogs in 2020, which was 200 more than the year before. Hague said this rise isn’t just something she’d noticed during the pandemic. She has worked with rescue animals for 15 years and said she’s continuing to see more interest in adopting pets as opposed to purchasing from a breeder.

”(Adopters) really want to help the rescues. They hear more about it, they hear the sad stories, and they really want to help and adopt one of those rescues,” Hague said.

The small group at Quarry Run joked that dog day cares will be fully staffed soon – with positions snagged by former restaurant workers and exhausted nurses. While only sarcastically funny, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t have compassion for abused, abandoned, or surrendered rescue dogs. There’s also a fair share of human beings who find dealing with dogs easier than other people. 

I’m not sure if opening or investing in a dog day care is a bad idea because dog adoption surely isn’t a fad. As Deidre Jewett, adoption coordinator for Rescue Charlie’s Friends said, “If anyone’s ever had a rescue dog, you know they’ll love you more than any dog you could ever imagine.”

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]