Sarah Segal spent many years working full-time in telecommunications sales and as a part-time language teacher to fifth and sixth graders. When some of her students decided to direct their charity towards the Atlanta Humane Society, Sarah happily agreed.
She’d grown up with family pets, but she’d never had a dog of her own until a fateful day in Spring 2002, when she took her students to the humane society on a field trip. That’s where she met Boomer, a young Beagle, who was both housetrained and great with kids. She and the students played with him and walked him around. But after they left, Segal says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about that Beagle.”
Since Boomer came in as a lost dog, society rules required him to stay seven days to give his owners time to find him. No one showed, so Segal soon brought him home. “It was a Charlie Brown and Snoopy thing,” she says. “All I wanted to do was be with him.”
Single, with no kids, Segal suddenly wondered what on earth she’d do with Boomer now that he was home. A friend suggested daycare, so she tried a couple local spots. Ultimately, her experience as a consumer of dog services turned Segal into a purveyor, just six months later.
Atlanta Dog Spa opened in October 2002, directly across the street from the Atlanta Humane Society, where the love connection first happened. Today, Segal estimates that 20 to 25 percent of her clients come as a direct result of her prime location.
Segal wanted her spa to resemble a home inside and out, so from the street it looks like a cottage, and inside it features a reception area, individual doggie suites and a living room with couches, chairs, a television and scads of dog movies on tape and DVD, running all day long. The rented space, which is just over 5,100 square feet indoors, has a very open feel as just one way of showing that Atlanta Dog Spa is an honest, caring place. Even grooming is done in a large open area, where clients can see and hear everything. “It makes the dogs feel more comfortable, too,” she says.
Segal tapped into her own network to develop and maintain the business to ABKA, DOA and her own personal standards. That’s one reason her 7,000 square-foot play yards boast real sod grass, not concrete or fake grass. Divided into four separate yards, the outdoor play spaces have six- to 12-foot wooden privacy fencing, awnings for shade and protection from inclement weather and even big, beautiful trees. That’s one reason the spa gets marketed as “Atlanta’s Back Yard.”
Inside, the flooring is tile and concrete. Kennel runs are constructed from either brick or vinyl, depending on the size and durability needed for various dogs. Segal says the vinyl ones “look like mini horse stalls.”
Areas requiring drainage have a single-slant, running to underground drain pipes. A sump pump then connects to public sewers.
In addition to hand cleaning spot messes, the staff at Atlanta Dog Spa uses pressure washers along with Kennel Sol, for day-to-day sterilization of suites and common areas, and BioClean to neutralize and deodorize urine and soil odors.
Staff uses various kinds of equipment and supplies to keep the spa running. The groomer, for example, has a grooming table with a lift, several kinds of shampoo for different skin types and high-powered dryers. The daycare handlers manage a cadre of toys, pools and potty bags for cleanup. Kennel staff take care of stainless steel feed bowls, bedding and special pet food needs for overnight guests. The spa has laundry and kitchen facilities, of course, as well as an assortment of hand tools to fix things that break.
Segal prides herself on providing a safe and fun environment at the spa. Play pack safety comes from dividing dogs based on both size and temperament, with a very special group for really tiny dogs to keep them safe. The spa keeps very strict rules on dog behavior and tight vaccination and healthcare policies for each pet. These rules include:
- No aggressive dogs, including bans on Pitbulls, Pitbull mixes and Bull Mastiffs (driven both by market norms and liability insurance rules)
- No pets under 4 months old
- All pets over 8 months old must be altered.
- Proof of current vaccination (defined as one- or three-year rabies and DHLPP and bordatella boosters every six months) faxed directly from licensed veterinarian
- Yearly heartworm checks from age 1 on up
- Maintenance of monthly flea/tick preventives
The staff members check daily or at every visit for up-to-date vaccinations and remind clients as renewal dates approach.
Every dog must pass a free temperament test, which lasts from two to four hours. They cannot be aggressive toward people or dogs. They also cannot be food or toy possessive. Dogs that fail this test cannot come back.
“We call their parents, and they come pick them up,” Segal explains. “That’s why we offer it for free. We just say it’s not the proper environment for your dog. This is a pack environment, and the dogs have to get along. We also recommend training, and they can retest in the future.”
“We’re very fair in our temperament testing,” Segal adds. “In two to six hours, we feel that’s enough time. We don’t throw them into the pack right away. We let them hang out in the living room for a while, then we bring in a couple of dogs to see how they react. Some dogs come in, and it’s like they’ve been here forever. Some are more timid and need to warm up.”
Handlers feed dogs based on owners’ instructions and encourage clients to bring food from home to prevent tummy upset. Atlanta Dog Spa works hard to prevent “hunger strikes” by boarding guests. If that means feeding a dog green beans every day at 3 p.m., just like at home, then that dog gets green beans every day at 3 p.m.
Boarding and daycare dogs alike get full daycare services with their play groups (usually around 15 dogs or less each), which includes mid-day rests to watch movies and sleep. Overnight guests get extra rest times to prevent overexertion and exhaustion from so much play.
Thanks to the spa’s size, staff can be somewhat flexible regarding reservations, where last-minute exceptions can be made with little or no notice. Even daycare can be done on a drop-in basis, although the spa appreciates reservations.
Regular and specialized grooming services range from nail trims and basic baths to a full spa works, which feature bathing, nail trims, ear and teeth cleaning, sanitary cleaning and hair cuts. Clients can also request a “rapid groom,” where the dog is done immediately for quick pick-up. Atlanta Dog Spa also offers hot oil treatments for dry coats and even canine massage therapy to ease the aches and pains of older guests or simply provide any hard-playing pooch a quiet moment.
Clients can also request one-on-one training with the spa’s two certified trainers. This training can be done either on-site or at home. For dogs needing additional work, clients can purchase packages of training sessions, where the trainers work with the dogs during normal daycare or boarding visits.
“People ask us if we can train their dog because they need help at home, not so much in our environment,” Segal explains.
Atlanta Dog Spa sells daycare packages with discounts for regular clients as well as discounts for multi-dog families and extended stay boarding. “We have one client with four dogs who brings them in every day,” Segal says. “It’s cheaper than a pet sitter. I don’t know what the statistics are, but we have many multiple dog families who come regularly to daycare.”
The spa also hosts doggie birthday parties. In fact, Segal’s own Boomer hosted his birthday party as a benefit for the Humane Society of the United States, an organization for which Segal does a lot of volunteer work in the legislative and animal rights arena. HSUS president even sent a video greeting to Boomer for the party in July.
Due to the individualized nature of dog care at Atlanta Dog Spa, Segal screens all handlers carefully and ensures they are trained to pay attention to each dog’s personality and needs. To address turnover the spa experienced early on, Segal instituted a volunteer day (up to four hours), where job candidates shadow and experienced staff member so they can get a good feel for the job.
“We found we had a huge turnover until we did this,” Segal says of the unpaid observation time. “It’s been wonderful for us. And, we’ve had amazing success with our employees since we started this. We’ve had two people stay on for almost three years, and many people over a year, which is a long time in this high-stress job. We are a small business, and (unpaid observation) is only fair to the employees that work here and to the person coming in. It seems like such a glamorous job from the outside, but when you get in there, you’ve got to work. So we want to make sure people understand that you need to get along with us, we need you to get along with (them). You say you want to work here, but are you willing to do the work?”
New team members get at least a week’s training before they are weaned onto their own when experienced staff members feel they are ready.
In addition to meeting ABKA standards, staff members receive in-house training by others who are certified in veterinary assistance.
The management structure is made up of one kennel manager, one kennel supervisor, and Segal, the sole owner.
Full-time employees are offered basic incentives like paid vacation and promotion. All employees are eligible for birthday pay, complimentary daycare and boarding for their dogs who meet the spa’s requirements.
Segal admits to seeing a higher turnover in summer months, as students and even parents sign on as if they plan to stay but do not once summer ends. When this happens, management takes over vacant spots until a new, qualified employee is found.
Segal is proud that an estimated 90 percent of her new business comes from referrals. She occasionally puts up billboards or posts brochures in the lobbies of local apartment and condo complexes. The spa also gets the recommendation of the Four Seasons nearby.
With the support of family and friends, Segal has seen her venture thrive. When you think about it, it’s a pretty brave thing to give up a solid career in sales to start something new.
The bandwagon keeps on rolling, however. Segal launched a second business next door called Golden Years Dog Retreat for older dogs that need less play and more specialized care.
Surveying her little empire, Segal adds, “I just think that’s our passion, and something we want to do every day.”