It's a stressful, bewildering existence for most dogs at the Sacramento animal shelter. They don't understand why they are there. They don't know where they're going.
But some lucky dogs among them have begun to enjoy a kind of pre-release therapy – they're picked up by an upscale dog day-care service and, for several hours each day, fall in with some of the most pampered pets in town.
For these shelter dogs – 20 and counting since fall – it's a window on a new world, a break from life in a cage, and best of all, a near-certain escape from the death sentence that awaits so many stray and abandoned animals across the country.
Most weekday mornings, Robert Espinosa, owner of midtown's Grateful Dog Daycare, visits the city of Sacramento Animal Care Services on Front Street and, after a careful behavioral evaluation, springs one deserving dog for the day.
Espinosa's not just being kindhearted – it's part of an innovative public-private partnership that's helping animals, creating awareness about pet adoptions and, if all goes well, setting an example for other businesses to follow.
"When my wife and I were starting Grateful Dog, we wanted to have a social aspect to give back to needy dogs," Espinosa said. "In these days of budget cuts, the shelter doesn't have much money. We thought, 'What if we brought the dogs here?' "
The idea works like this: Espinosa consults with the shelter staff and selects a canine to visit his Grateful Dog, a cage-free day-care and boarding business where discerning dog owners spend $32 a day for day care and $55 a night for boarding. The selected dogs often get several visits before they are adopted from the shelter.
Grateful Dog treats its guests like VIPS. There's play time, nap time, regular feedings and lots of petting and hugging. For boarding, it's more like a slumber party than a kennel, with dogs sleeping in a large, cage-free room next to a Grateful Dog employee's bed.
The visit not only provides these pound puppies with a break from traumatic shelter life, it provides would-be adopters with valuable information. Hand-selected by Espinosa, these dogs have proven themselves in a group setting and, in doing so, receive a sign for their Front Street kennel: "I have been to Grateful Dog and am well socialized."
The shelter animal, in other words, is marked as a star candidate for adoption. Then there's the financial incentive for potential owners: a $200 gift certificate for day care, boarding or grooming at Grateful Dog.
It's a winning formula. Since starting the program last fall, Espinosa has gathered up more than 20 dogs from the shelter – and they've all been adopted within days.
"I think it's extremely innovative for a municipal animal shelter and a private businessman to come up with this program," said Gina Knepp, the city's animal shelter director. "I don't think this has ever been done before, at least not in Sacramento. Every single dog that Robert takes gets adopted."
Espinosa hopes the idea takes off with other businesses.
"I would love it if I weren't the only one," he said.
Typically, Espinosa picks up a dog in the morning and returns it by 4 p.m. He requires that the dogs be spayed or neutered.
During a recent visit to the day-care center, a shepherd mix from the shelter named Rex had easily worked his way into the fold with a dozen or so day-care dogs.
"Today he's doing great – super playful, good with staff, loves playing with other dogs," Espinosa said as Rex trotted along in a play area outfitted with a rubber floor. "He's like the dog this (program) was designed for. He's young and active. Dogs like him at the shelter will start going crazy being in cage. So he comes here, he runs, he burns off all that anxiety and then he goes back and he's less stressed."
The public-private partnership is not only good for the shelter, it's good for business. Grateful Dog has its logo and information on the shelter's website and word spreads that this upscale business has a soft spot for dogs in need.
One such dog, a lithe whippet mix named Opal, has not only been adopted, but has gone from shelter visitor to pampered client.
Kristine Lee, who lives in south Sacramento, said she began her search for a new dog online and soon gravitated toward Opal as the dog she might adopt. When she learned Grateful Dog had given her the thumbs-up, it cemented her decision.
She used the $200 gift certificate and continues to take Opal to Grateful Dog for daycare.
Months later, Opal is thriving.
"Now she's a regular customer," Espinosa said. "We get to see her a lot and see her develop. She's gotten very confident."
Said Lee, "I continue to be very grateful that Opal was part of that program and that collaboration."
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.