Dogtopia is Barking Up the Right Tree

Rancho Cordova, CA  |  By David Dickstein
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Terri and Mike Wilson own Dogtopia in Rancho Cordova. Photo by David Dickstein

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Dogtopia canine coach Aiden Keller supervises clients during open play. Photo by David Dickstein

RANCHO CORDOVA, CA (MPG) - Mike and Terri Wilson’s pet project turns a half-year old on April 19 – a puppy by dog standards, and a bona fide fledgling enterprise in business circles. But how long Dogtopia has been open is of no concern to the self-appointed boss. Tanner, a year-old, 80-pound husky-border collie mix, acts like he runs the place. Indeed, belonging to the owners of a doggie daycare facility has its advantages. Like having a bed to lay on in an office near where furry friends are released to their owners.

“Tanner, come back here – you know you can’t do that,” Mike barked in a half-serious voice as Noah, an Australian shepherd mix, was going home – not that a full-serious voice would have made any difference to the curious canine, one of the younger daytime residents of Dogtopia. Tanner and his more composed 7-year-old brother Boomer, a 90-pound English cream golden retriever, are cute as heck, but furry freeloaders. All employees get comped daycare for their pooches. Of paying guests, about 70 percent are regulars, not unlike daycare facilities for human children.

With dozens of dogs having a ball on any given day, Dogtopia has certainly brought life to 7,455 square feet that had been dead since stores selling furniture and kayaks pulled out. The first Dogtopia franchise in the Sacramento Valley is part of a renaissance for the newly remodeled Nimbus Winery. Over the past year, long-time tenants Tommy T’s and Old Spaghetti Factory have also welcomed Fort Rock Brewery and Red Door Escape Room.

Like a cat entered in a dog show, Dogtopia doesn’t seem to belong in a mall dominated by restaurants and amusement centers, Monster Golf included. But when you think about it – as a dog – it actually makes complete sense. The animals are served food and entertained in an open-play environment. Think Chuck E. Cheese’s for canines, not that the mouse mascot would stand a chance against the anti-rodent instincts of a pack of dogs.

Well, there’s one alpha male at Dogtopia who wouldn’t hurt a mouse, let alone a flea. Milo is the alpha due not to strength – he’s a sweet Shih Tzu – but seniority.

“Milo was Dogtopia’s very first customer,” said Lisa Henslee, a vice president at VSP Global who finds the facility’s location off 50 and Hazel Avenue as ideal between her El Dorado Hills home and Rancho Cordova workplace. “Dogtopia is a great doggie daycare option for my dog and for me. Milo gets to enjoy socializing with other dogs and I get peace of mind knowing that he’s in a safe and fun environment.”

Henslee, a former Gold River resident, made the switch from another daycare facility when she learned Dogtopia has webcams in each of the playrooms.

“I can check in on him, see him playing, and know that he’s having a blast!” she said.

A full day costs $33, $20 for a half day, and prices go down with multiple-day passes and memberships.  Other services include dog boarding starting at $47 per night, and “spa” treatments that range from ear cleaning and teeth brushing to a nail trim and bath.

The playrooms are set up like supervised indoor dog parks, complete with a plastic fire hydrant on a patch of artificial grass large enough for dogs to, well, do what they do around real fire hydrants. Each playroom has compressed rubber flooring that promotes safe play and easy clean-up, along with a powerful HVAC system to maintain fresh air. Named “The Beach” and “The City,” each with a theme-supporting motif, the environments are under the watchful care of certified dog handlers, which here are called “canine coaches.” Dogs in each room are separated by size and temperament, and if one gets a bit, too rambunctious, crates are nearby for a well-deserved “time out.” Full-out chaos is rare, according to the Wilsons, thanks to an extensive evaluation process each pooch goes through before being welcomed beyond the free first day.

Fortunately for the Wilsons, their dogs were not among the 5 percent that don’t pass. That would be like the school principal’s kid being expelled. Tanner actually benefits from his brother having doggie daycare experience. After seeing the value of this type of service with Boomer when the Wilsons first got him, the idea of investing in the fastest-growing pet franchise made their decision for Mike to leave corporate America after 30-plus years a little less crazy.

“I was unhappy at my job, and we wanted to do something where we’d have a steady stream of money so we can take elaborate trips when we retire,” said Mike, who before his professional life went to the dogs, was director of planning for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Rancho Cordova. From managed care to pet daycare, one could say. If you like that, how about from white collar to dog collar? No doubt, Mike has heard them all. His wife, not so much. Terri has kept her 9-to-5 job at VSP, where she’s senior vice president and general manager of International Vision Care. On weekends and after hours, she dons the franchisee hat.

Among Dogtopias 13 months and younger, Rancho Cordova’s ranks among the highest in the categories of customer satisfaction and staff retention. In fact, 16 of the original 20 employees are still there as of this printing, led by general manager and Citrus Heights resident Nickole Fiola, who worked previously for Mike when both were at First Health.

Being a top dog within the Phoenix-based company is a tasty treat that the Wilsons don’t take for granted. It’s dog-eat-dog in the growing doggie daycare business, and just a few miles away are Folsom Dog Resort and Waggin’ Tails in Citrus Heights, among other places where the area’s dog-owning population can park their pooch.

“Bringing a high-end daycare and boarding facility to the Sacramento area is one motivator for us,” Terri said. “Another is that we enable more families to experience the joy of dog ownership, just as we did when discovering the value of dog daycare with Boomer.”