Mocha tears after the tennis ball. Barkley is close on his heels, while Grace runs a tireless loop chasing the sprinkler. All the day care playmates seem happily occupied just moments before nap time. The center's two directors watch for appropriate behavior — lip licking, circular greetings, the sniffing of private parts — as well as any aggressive hovering, which could result in a time out. At Canine Cabana dog day care, positive reinforcement is the order of the day — along with exercise.
"Dogs need to run," said Kendall Duncan, who opened the facility in May with good friend and business partner Angie Frazier. Aside from day care, they also offer overnight boarding, training and a self-service pet wash.
The day care and exercise can help dogs both physically and mentally, the business partners say, relieving separation anxiety, chewing habits, relentless barking and other behavioral problems caused by a dog being left home alone all day.
"We have clients who say they've gone through four couches," Frazier said.
"You work a full day and you have a dog who is anxious and wants to run," Duncan said. But after hours playing at the day care, dogs are ready to head home and relax, she said.
The women worked years as zookeepers and exotic-animal trainers at Busch Gardens and other parks, handling lions, tigers, hippos and hyenas, among others. Duncan and her husband were married on Busch Gardens' Serengeti Plain. Frazier was the maid of honor.
With young families of their own and the growing desire to be closer to home, Duncan and Frazier spent the past three years researching a new business, dog behavior and off-leash play. They traveled to facilities and hands-on seminars in Denver, Virginia and Houston.
Because the day care features off-leash group playtime, they focused on canine pack behavior, some of which mirrors the traits they'd dealt with in hyenas and lions.
"There are some similarities," Frazier said. "The biggest thing with dogs is the pack behavior. It's about making sure we're with them and working with them, that we know what's going on."
The women stay with the dogs at all times, playing, supervising and trying to convey that they, the humans, are the pack leaders.
"There's always the leader in the group, the socializer in the group, someone in the middle," Frazier said.
For dogs in day care all day, there's a two-hour nap from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The women are present from about 6 a.m. until about 7 p.m. A full day of day care costs $22, though discounts are available if bought as a package. A half day of day care runs $15 before package discounts. Additional boarding costs run $10 to $12 a day.
The women bought the land on Carr Road and hired contractors to build the building, which includes 2,000 square feet of indoor, air-conditioned play space for the dogs and 20 cabanas for overnight boarders.
Outside, the dogs get to romp in 5,000 square feet of fenced yards, shaded by stately oak trees. The yards are cut in two by another fence to separate the big dogs from the little guys so they don't get trampled while playing. The women installed security cameras so they can remotely monitor the boarded dogs and the property overnight.
Duncan and Frazier began marketing their business at the end of last year, launching a Web site and joining local chambers of commerce and networking groups.
For their opening weekend in May, there were 12 boarders and 15 day care members waiting. The maximum number of day care members they aim for is 40.
For the day care, pet owners come in first to fill out an evaluation form and to tour the site without their dogs, Frazier and Duncan said. Then the dogs undergo a physical exam and evaluation to make sure they're compatible with off-leash group play. Later, they're introduced to the other dogs one by one.
Duncan says she sometimes misses the exotic animals, but she's having too much fun with the dogs most days to even notice. Plus, with a new baby of her own, she's happy to be close to home and not traveling anymore, as she did with Busch Gardens.
"There's nothing like your own little cub," Duncan said.
Carolann Ruthenberg of Brandon had been waiting since October for Canine Cabana to open.
She and her husband, an aviation consultant, travel a lot and wanted to find a nearby resort for their 5-year-old Pomeranian spitz, Rusty, after moving to Brandon from Miami.
"We're very particular," she said.
Though impressed by the new site and the women's backgrounds, she was still a little worried when dropping off Rusty before one of her recent trips.
"He had separation anxiety from me," she said. "We treat him like a dog, but he's also part of the family. I was concerned when I left."
But during her trip, the directors uploaded and transmitted videos and photos to her of Rusty romping around with the other dogs.
"He loved it, he really enjoyed it," she said.
One dog took a special liking to Rusty. Grace and Rusty are now inseparable.
"He's neutered," Ruthenberg said. "But she hit his hot buttons. They became close comrades."
Ruthenberg now brings Rusty to the day care two days a week, even when she's not traveling.
"It's totally for the interaction with the other dogs," she said. "It's playtime, you know, like how you have play dates for children."
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or 661-2441.