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Shop Talk: Claire’s Comfy Canines
19th October 2015

By Sandra Pearce



Claire Hunter owns a successful dog day care centre in the heart of the Chilterns. Sandra Pearce visits to learn more about the business

When Claire Hunter wanted to go out for the day, she thought it would be easy to find a dog walker for her pet. Five interviews later and she was no closer to finding someone she could trust. “I have an English bull terrier who is very nervous and used to get bullied by other dogs. I did not want her to be with someone who was walking seven or eight other dogs at the same time.”

Eventually Claire found someone, but little did she know it that a seed had been sown. It was in December 2009, about six months later, that she turned to her fiancé and said she wanted a career change after 15 years in recruitment, to provide a dog walking/day care and overnight boarding service. She’d always had dogs and horses, and as her dog suffered from allergies, knew a fair bit about nutrition. Her unique selling point would be that she would not walk more than three or four dogs at any time (dog walkers can walk up to 10 dogs at a time).  It took off. At her busiest, she would go on five walks a day: “I was easily walking 12 miles a day. I loved it.”



She was soon getting more enquiries about day care, but this was not her real focus, so turned them down. Then in December 2011, while on honeymoon in New York, she could not help but notice the number of dog day care facilities. “Everywhere I looked, there was doggy day care. I had to look into it.”

After much research and thought, Claire decided to give it a go and found premises comprising two acres of land for the dogs to play in, and with a garage and barn to run her business from. She put in a cabin, got a licence from her local council to accommodate 20 dogs, and was ready to go in March 2012.

Almost.

Because this was such a gamble, Claire employed someone to handle the day care while she continued her walking service. “I had to,” she explained. “I had the money to pay her for six months, to see if it would work. And if it didn’t, I would carry on with dog walking. So for the first few months, I was walking dogs to pay the rent on that property!”

Nine months later, just in time for Christmas, Claire turned her dog walking business over to her sister and concentrated on Claire’s Comfy Canines. Today, she has a licence for 26 dogs and has 100 dogs coming in every week. She has also added to the building and now has a small shop and a grooming salon, the latter of which has a three-week waiting list.



True to her word, Claire continues to offer something unique. Whereas many doggy day care set-ups comprise a paddock for dogs to run around in all day, with perhaps a three-sided open structure for shelter, Claire’s charges follow a highly structured routine and have access to an indoor area and large outdoor field. Sleep time, by the way, is carried out in two adjoining rooms, with piped-in classical music. (It has been scientifically proven that playing this music helps calm dogs, she said.)

“We follow a strict routine, have structure and enforce boundaries,” she said. She also insists that her charges stay for a minimum of one day every week as the dogs soon know what to expect. “The dogs learn from the older dogs how to behave, and quickly settle,” she said. While about 15% are full-timers, the most popular option is two to three days a week.

Days are structured with sessions of free play, rest/nap time, and guided activities, be it agility or training. “We do not advertise training or agility; we do it because we enjoy it and the dogs enjoy it. We also plan what we will do with the dogs that week, either as a group or as individuals. Everything is structured, but this makes it more enjoyable and the dogs soon know what to expect.”

Where’s the level playing field?
It’s mind-boggling how the dog day care and walking sectors lack legislation and regulation, says Claire. Currently, her local council says Claire needs a licence for her day-care charges. A neighbouring council however only requires a licence if the business is a boarding facility. There is no consistency, she says. The only thing that is consistent is the inconsistency, and means there is not an even playing field.



For example, Claire charges £22 per dog per day, and has four staff for 26 dogs. Her premises comprise the aforementioned two acres, indoor rooms, a shop, grooming salon, and a structured timetable. Other nearby day care services run their operations from a paddock, where the dogs run around all day, albeit with supervision. Although these other operations have lower operating costs, they still charge £20-25 a day, though some offer a pick-up and drop-off service. Yet some sites don’t even have running water or electricity, she notes.

It’s also frustrating, she says, when these businesses are run from greenbelt land, land which has restricted use, and is located within the Chilterns, designated officially as an Area of Outstanding Beauty. “Operating from a greenbelt site has its own issues. For one, they are using it for commercial purposes, and then you have the traffic from people dropping off and picking up their animals. It is only when owners visit us that they see the difference and can tell we are not at all similar. The whole industry is just so unregulated.”

The USA is far more on the ball on regulation, she says, and at least has guidelines for businesses to follow. Here in UK, it’s voluntary. “It’s not a level playing field.”



There is no point waiting for legislation to come into existence, so Claire says staying ahead of the competition is the name of the game. “We just have to focus on ourselves and what we have to offer. We were the original day care for dogs around here, and it is only natural that people will pick up on it and follow the lead.”

One aspect is greater transparency, and Claire pays for a yearly independent veterinary audit. The inspecting vet looks through all her files and paperwork, inspects her cleaning and hygiene protocols, and casts a hawk-like eye over every aspect of the business. “I’ve learned a lot from these inspections; they are more thorough than the council inspections,” she said.

Claire’s Comfy Canines was recently awarded the Grooming Gold Standard, which is independently audited by SAI Global, and is now the only independent groomer to have this quality assurance award. She is also a member of the International Society of Animal Professionals (ISAP) – it’s all about giving owners confidence in what she and her team have to offer.

“Eventually, the cream always rises to the top,” she said. “I will always offer something different. The important thing is that every dog owner leaves here with a positive taste in their mouth, and that the dog leaves happy.”

She is also committed to do more networking, especially among women-in-business circles (“They may not have dogs, but their friends might!”), PR and organise more events. For example, she ran a Christmas event last year, and has plans for a summer BBQ. “I have such a good team in place that I now have the time to do this,” she said.

She also supports Animal SOS Sri Lanka, a charity that helps strays in Sri Lanka. The UK-registered charity was set up by a British resident, who saw the plight of these animals and decided to do something about it. One of its trustees lives close to Claire, and the two got talking. Later this year, Claire’s Comfy Canines will be doing a joint fund-raiser with a local pub.

Facebook is an important tool, and Claire uses this to post daily updates. “Owners love seeing what their pet is doing!”



Her shop, Naturally for Pets, only sells pet food, treats and chews. But it has an online store through which she offers a delivery service on the first and third Thursdays. “The website is great because it attracts new clients who may not have heard of Claire’s before,” she said. “Though to be honest, I’d like to see the website evolving to become a portal of information on nutrition and food.”

Raw does well, she says, and she sells 150-200kg every week from her one freezer.

This will, however, all change, for Claire has agreed the lease for new premises, and aims to move at the beginning of 2017. Located on a farm within five miles, it offers the same two acres of outdoor area, but will more than double the internal space to 1,300sq ft, and offers ample car parking. The plan is for a much larger shop, still focusing purely on nutrition, and to double her grooming provision. “I also want to have a nice place for owners to sit and wait for their dogs, open the shop on Saturdays, and run dog training classes. Oh, and I’d like to get a licence for up to 40 dogs.”

Sounds like, well, a slice of doggy paradise!