The City’s dog-loving community is faced with a ruff reality.
The COVID pandemic has transformed the canine care industry — from boarders to trainers to walkers — and altered the lifestyle not only of San Francisco’s city dogs, but their owners as well.
With COVID-19 having decimated the industry — which drove up costs for dog owners — fashioning the best life possible for one’s dog today isn’t just expensive, it’s a competitive, research-intensive endeavor.
San Francisco is a city for dogs, statistically any kind of doodle with amusing names like Pesto or Breakfast. And the adage that there are more canines than children in The City is backed by data.
But the demand for doggy day care plummeted when the health crisis hit. When even experts were unsure of how COVID-19 spread, people sequestered themselves in their homes and took care of their own dog’s needs. It was a great time for pups and a not-so-great time for their professional playmates.
“We had some overnight care and some day care for critical workers, but business really dried up,” Pet Camp owner Mark Klaiman said. “Unfortunately we did have to furlough some people.”
For other businesses, including Here, Doggy operator Jessica Guerin’s, the pandemic played out worse and employees were not furloughed but laid off.
“We laid off our entire staff, we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.
Some ventures didn’t make it. Peninsula dog walker Danielle Revives witnessed that firsthand as owners made the difficult decision to close up shop by April or May of 2020.
“My really good friends shuttered (their center) within the first month. They were in South San Francisco and there’s only a handful of day cares down in the Peninsula area. They could do 50 dogs overnight and 100 dogs a day; that’s a huge amount of dogs now floating without doggy day care or a doggy boarding option,” Revives said.
The rush to return
Now with the return to work — no matter how stunted — consumers are scrambling for the few remaining doggy day care services. Guerin says she has a hefty waitlist. Revives tells her interested customers to expect at least a three- to four-year wait; even that may be optimistic.
“At this point I’ve taken myself off the web,” she said. “It’s morbid because a dog would have to pass away in order for a new one to be added to my crew.”
Now, especially with the return-to-work movement, these businesses are a hot commodity. For Guerin and many others, an internal conflict has arisen on how much to raise prices.
“None of our customers complained about the price increase and were very understanding and supportive,” said Guerin. “We’ve started to consider, because of the inconsistency of people (keeping appointments), changing the pricing package structure.”
The dog parents whose pocketbooks may have taken a beating have sought out other solutions. Rob Erlichman, a board member of the Friends of Lafayette Park, will take his dog to the vet and a boarding center in Sonoma during his occasional visits to his office there.
“They take good care of him and it’s maybe half the price,” he said of both facilities that help him out with his Puli named Bob.
Erlichman said he had scans of a polyp in his 10-year-old dog done for a fraction of the price of what it would have cost locally. A Redwood City clinic, recommended by a San Francisco vet, wanted up to $6,000 for the scans alone.
That’s the kind of chunk of change that could be used for other fees necessary to dog ownership. For example, pet insurance is a cost that many dog services mandate.
With the cost of living and inflation in San Francisco, one should assume that they’ll face the higher end of fees related to their animal. Dogs are still the bargain, however. Children’s Council San Francisco estimates that a toddler, which most local trainers compared your average dog to, comes with a $22,560 price tag just for their care alone.
Attention to anxiety, aggression
As it turns out, money isn’t the only thing that dog owners have to worry about. Be it Old Yeller or Pandemic Pup, many dogs are displaying behavioral issues — especially if their parents worked from home. Primarily, separation anxiety and dog or human aggression are dominating conversations among dog lovers.
“I talked to a vet friend and lately they have had to prescribe more anti-anxiety meds than ever before. It’s unfortunate that it has come to that,” Guerin said.
Lea Winters, a South Beach resident, knows the anxious dog prototype well. Her dog, a corgi named Zorra, fits the bill despite undergoing training.
“She scream-barks and howls, nonstop, at the top of her lungs,” Winters said. “She freaks out and has a panic attack every time she’s alone. This has impacted every aspect of my life.”
It makes sense that the person an animal spends the most time with would be their comfort. After all, for months, animals could not greet other dog owners or one another. This is a new stressor, trainer Beverly Ulbrich explained, one that must be addressed quickly.
Trainer Lindsay Dellas, who started her own business after working through trials with a reactive dog, said it is possible to calm a pup down and even enjoy walks again. This is particularly important in The City, which Dellas describes as “dog-dense.”
Especially for first-time dog owners, being realistic and conscious of a dog’s behavior makes the difference. Guerin said that a large percentage of dogs who go through a one-day evaluation process in order to play at Here, Doggy! — a standard practice in the industry that includes many rounds of exposure to other dogs and humans — are failing.
“A lot of people used to self-screen, to understand that day care wasn’t right for their dog. But with more people going back, they’re going, ‘Oh gosh, what am I going to do with my dog?’” the entrepreneur said.
It’s not just the thinking of pet parents that has changed, but of the pet professionals, too. Guerin lessened her capacity and became pickier about the dogs she brought in.
“If a dog is riling up the group so much that just that one dog changes the entire dynamic of the group, it can be a big red flag for us,” she said. “We generally apply this across the board.”
A changed industry
In the last decade, getting one’s dog into any of these gregarious groups has been compared to getting a child into preschool or a teenager into an Ivy League college.
“It’s both our faults — the industry and pet parents,” Klaiman said.
With dogs taking the place of children in some people’s lives, standards have surely increased. Expecting to be able to watch your dog on a webcam at day care, for example, is no longer outlandish.
“In San Francisco, our dogs are well taken care of,” said Dellas. “The pandemic just exacerbated everything, the amount of dogs but also the (need) for training itself. There are a lot of people looking for help and only so many hours in the day.”
Ulbrich, too, suggested thinking like a dog. She advises owners to try to understand why their dog is acting a certain way. Every good boy or girl has a different attitude.
“Everything I do is unique to each dog,” she said, reflecting on guides she wrote for dog parents who were secluded during the worst of the health crisis. “They will make some bad mistakes if you leave them bored; it’s about giving them jobs to do.”
Even for those who owned dogs prior to 2020, dog ownership doesn’t always come naturally. This is why Saratoga dog moms Ruchi Joshi and Purvi Janardhan created the DogHood, an app that immediately connects neighbors so they can learn from experiences with their dogs. Joshi and Janardhan copied a model that already exists: the ingenuity of mothers who crowdsource information among one another.
“It was formed during COVID times because we saw the need. We immediately knew how the community played such a strong role,” said Joshi.
The app enables users to create meetups as well as engage with other dog parents to set up a “dog swap,” or an arrangement to watch each other’s dogs while they’re out of town.
These kinds of features aren’t just meant for the dog’s socialization; after being shut in for much of the last few years, many humans are learning to socialize again too. They’re also meeting their neighbors and learning to trust them — a not-so-retro idea.
“You build up the trust over time, you meet up,” said Janardhan of options like dog swapping, acknowledging the societal distrust that exists in today’s times. “At the end of the day it’s your own decision.”
The pandemic surely changed the culture of raising a dog, but it wasn’t all bad. It provided a reminder of the value of collaboration.
“Being a dog in an urban environment is hard. A dog is not a robot,” said Klaiman. “We should collectively do what we can do to help them succeed.”