Wagtime in D.C., a doggie day care/salon that helps find rescue dogs new homes

September 7, 2012

L ast year, Lisa Schreiber and Ofer Khal fostered approximately 500 dogs for adoption. But they don’t work for a shelter or a rescue agency. They’re running a business.

Wagtime looks like a doggie department store. Large dogs roam the ground-floor room of the 6,000-square-foot cage-free rowhouse, medium-size dogs are on the second floor, small dogs up on the third. There’s a separate area for older dogs, rooms for problem pooches. At any given time there are a couple of well-behaved dogs in the Wagtime boutique interacting with customers.

Khal strides through the rooms, ticking off the names of dogs available for adoption: Ladybug, Russell, Nellie, Joey, Gavin, Champ. The list goes on.

In the big-dog area, two workers are standing in the middle of a small herd of shepherds, retrievers, collies, poodles and the ever-popular mixed breeds. The dogs tilt their heads at the sound of Khal’s voice, and a visitor gets a chance to scratch behind a few ears.

The top two floors have access to screened-in areas, and the ground-floor dogs are taken to a backyard area regularly.

It all started in 2000, when Schreiber began a dog-walking business in Dupont Circle. Then she started a doggie day care in Shaw and Khal came to work with her. They married four years ago, after Wagtime moved to the neighborhood near D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center. In its new home, Wagtime has exploded: It’s a pet boutique, grooming service, doggie day-care center and boarding facility with 55 employees, including groomers, day-care employees, walkers, drivers, night-shift workers and receptionists.

There seems to be plenty for those employees to do: With all of its services, Wagtime hosts more than 150 dogs every day, at $35 a day for doggie day care and $53 a night for boarding; grooming rates are based on the breed and size of dog. The enterprise has even attracted the attention of National Geographic, whose crews recently spent three days filming a pilot episode of a show about doggie day care.

But not all of those dogs are paying guests. Schreiber and Khal’s “pet spa” works with local rescue agencies and shelters to foster dogs for adoption, fostering the dogs themselves or hooking them up with “foster parents” who take in the dogs, socialize them, and feed and care for them until permanent owners can be found. Together the partners are like a canine’s Robin Hood — they use profits from financially secure dog owners to support canines in need. About 20 percent of the dogs at Wagtime are fosters.

“Ozzy, he’s a special case,” Khal says, gesturing toward a 1-year-old Rottweiler mix. “He’s been here for like a month now, and it’s starting to get to that point where he’s like, ‘Okay, I’m done with this place.’ ”

While the day-care environment is a fun break for dogs, it wears on them in the long term. “It’s constantly playtime. There’s no quiet time, there’s no owner,” Khal says. “You can’t get a good night’s sleep!”

Ozzy just got back from an hour-long walk to the dog park. All of the adoptable dogs get daily walks with a staff person. “It is challenging, because he’s a more hyper dog,” Khal explains. “But he doesn’t need a lot of training; he just needs a routine and an owner.”

Schreiber and Khal work closely with the District’s Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, which sent them Ozzy and which takes in dogs from high-kill shelters in Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina; with Jasmine’s House in Buckeystown, Md., which rescues pit bulls and helped rehabilitate some of football player Michael Vick’s fighting dogs; with Rural Dog Rescue of Chestertown, Md.; and with the Rescue Angels Washington area branch, in Arlington. They also work with local humane societies. Sometimes they are assigned foster dogs by the rescues, and sometimes they get dogs from shelters and arrange for a rescue organization to show the dogs to potential new owners.

They don’t charge the rescue groups for any of the services they provide: boarding, grooming, food and even the occasional vet bill. “I have employees on staff that I’m paying for to care for adoption dogs,” Khal says. “So I have a lot of expenses on that end.”

No other day cares or pet facilities foster for free, says Mirah Horowitz, executive director of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue. “It is not about the money for them,” she says. “It is about the dogs.” Wagtime’s services allow Lucky Dog to rescue an additional 15 to 20 dogs each month, Horowitz says.

Schreiber and Khal have a particular soft spot for elderly and sick dogs. They’ve even paid for major operations. “You don’t realize, until you do it, how rewarding it is,” Schreiber says. “The feeling you get once you see the dog here — when it comes in sick or underweight, and then it gets adopted. Just to see that transformation.

Some dogs aren’t ready to be adopted, Schreiber says. “A lot of these dogs have never been given human attention or affection.” The work the owners and employees of Wagtime do with the dogs — feeding, grooming, walking, playing — teaches them how to be good pets.

They do a basic assessment of potential foster dogs to make sure they won’t be aggressive. “I can’t take the really bad ones,” Khal says. “I can’t. It’s a business, and I can’t put my clients’ dogs in danger.”

However, if a dog simply hasn’t been adequately socialized, Schreiber and Khal try to set up a foster parent who can give the dog the attention it needs. And clients who adopt or foster a dog through Wagtime can come back for free or reduced-price doggie day care and boarding.

Santina Latney brings her dog to day care at Wagtime, and she has fostered three dogs at Schreiber and Khal’s suggestion. “You get to experience new dogs, your dog gets to play with another dog, and you get to help them work with families,” she says. “I like it a whole lot.”

Latney, who works in Wagtime’s neighborhood, takes the foster dogs to day care for free. “All you have to do is take them home and bring them back in the morning,” she says with a laugh. “It’s easier than owning my own dog!”

The canine clients at Wagtime demonstrate the extremes of animal conditions in the United States, what KC Theisen, director of pet-care issues at the Humane Society of the United States, calls “a philosophical gulf” between well-treated and neglected pets. The same facility houses dogs that have been pampered their entire lives alongside dogs that have survived abuse and abandonment.

Theisen dismisses stereotypes that shelter dogs are poorly behaved or homeless by any fault of their own. “The vast majority of pets looking for a home are fantastic animals that are looking for the right person,” she says.

All their puppy philanthropy helps the business, say Schreiber and Khal. “Those adoption dogs come back to us as clients,” Khal says. Schreiber estimates that 20 percent of their business comes from dogs they have fostered, whether through subsequent day care, grooming, walking or pet supplies.

In the next few months, Schreiber and Khal plan to unveil a second location in Southeast Washington, across from the Navy Yard. They would like to open even more facilities, but they’re waiting to see how that one goes. “We’re so involved in it, I don’t want to open one and not have it run like we run it now,” Schreiber says.

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