Doggie day care more than just a place to play

These Bellingham businesses are devoted to taking care of your four-legged friend while you're at work.

By Isaac Bonnell

Bellingham is often cited as a great place to live and play. But what if you have a dog? Is Bellingham a dog-friendly place to live and play?

Consider this: Not many other cities are home to a thriving dog-hiking business or a doggie day care that sees 62 dogs a day and has a yearlong waiting list to get in.

At Tails-A-Wagging, owners Angela and Jason Lenz have created a doggie day care and training facility that is more than just a place for Fido to hang out while you’re at work.

“We’re all about making the dog’s life better,” Angela said. “Staff looks at each dog as an individual and makes sure their needs are being met. We do all reward-based training, so we know how each dog likes to be rewarded.”

The Lenzes started Tails-A-Wagging 14 years ago with the aim of being the best dog facility in town. To do that, Angela took her previous experience as an obedience trainer and as a licensed animal health technician and combined that with her love of dogs to create a two-story facility in Irongate that is both dog-proof and dog friendly.

The facility has three 1,000-square-foot playrooms that have rubber floors and rubber lining halfway up the walls so that dogs aren’t sliding around on a hard surface. The rubber is also easy to clean should a dog decide it has to poop.

“It’s considered socially cool to poop with your friends, so most dogs will wait until they get here to poop,” Angela said, adding that every poop is cleaned up immediately and deposited into a centralized garbage bag. “Really the only thing we have in our garbage is dog poop. Sixty-two dogs who poop twice a day — that’s a lot of poop.”

From the moment dogs arrive, their day is structured. All dogs are dropped off by 9 a.m. and go straight into group training time, which involves a staff member teaching  commands and good behavior. Then it’s lunch time, after which all the dogs get their teeth brushed. Afternoons are for group games and chew time, during which each dog gets a peanut-butter-filled Kong chew toy. (The company goes through 12 tubs of peanut butter each month.)

The schedule is interspersed with rest times and outside play so the dogs don’t get bored, Angela said. And if playtime ever gets too rough, a staff member is always there to make the dogs do an “emergency sit,” to calm them down.

The key to this well-run doggie day care is well-behaved dogs. To be admitted to Tails-A-Wagging, each dog must pass an interview and socialization test to show they don’t have any aggression issues and can play well with others.

“We don’t have dogs with issues. To date, we’ve turned away upwards of 500 dogs,” Angela said. “Those are probably great dogs, they just didn’t pass our interview process. We don’t breed discriminate: Rottweilers have to pass the same test as the Chihuahuas.”

The rule even applies to the Lenz’s four Chihuahuas, only one of which gets to come to doggie day care.

“One of my dogs would never pass my temperament test, so he doesn’t get to come,” Angela said, adding that two others are just too small to play with the others, so they also stay home.

Socializing a dog to other humans and other dogs is so important, Angela said, that Tails-A-Wagging offers a free puppy preschool class every week. This is chance for puppies to get comfortable being around other dogs and other people.

“For some, this might be the only time that I get to impact this puppy’s life. And if I have to make it free, so be it,” Angela said.

Out on the trail

Lance Sorensen, owner of Trail Dogs, doesn’t so much run a doggie day care — it’s more like daylong doggie adventure. And he doesn’t just take them on a walk, he takes them hiking out in the woods where they can sniff and run and chew sticks to their hearts’ content.

Lance Sorensen and his dog Jake

Sorensen started the business in 2006 after getting laid off from his previous job. Since he had a lot of free time, he would take regular hikes with his energetic, 7-year-old yellow lab, Jake.

“I wasn’t working when I got him so I took him hiking a lot,” Sorensen said.

That’s when the idea came to him. He had heard of a dog hiking business in Nanaimo, B.C., and decided to give it a try here in Bellingham. It was a rocky start at first — Sorensen paid the bills by selling real estate on the side — but now his van is at capacity with 10 dogs almost every day.

Each morning, Sorensen picks up the dogs that are scheduled to go hiking that day. For most of the dogs, Sorensen has become a daily part of their lives.

“It’s a good alternative to day care because I pick the dogs up and drop them off at the end of the day. The owners don’t have to drive their dogs to day care,” he said.

Though dogs are allowed on many local hiking trails, Sorensen prefers hiking in places a little less crowded.

“I go to public access areas with no leash laws and no people,” he said, adding that this gives the dogs more room to run around.

Though managing a pack of 10 dogs out in the woods sounds tiresome, it is rather easy, Sorensen said. Firstly, each dog is interviewed beforehand to see how they respond to commands and see if they have any aggression issues.

“If the dog has aggression problems, I don’t take them,” Sorensen said.

Secondly, dogs are pack animals — they want to stay with the pack.

“They’re just chasing sticks and doing their thing. I walk around and supervise,” Sorensen said.

The hikes typically take two to three hours. Besides carrying snacks for himself, Sorensen brings chicken jerky for the dogs and all of the trails have access to water.

At the end of the day, each dog is toweled dry and dropped off at home, happy and tired.

So maybe with all the great places to hang out and all the nearby outdoor activities, dogs like living here just as much as their people do.

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