The Lap of Luxury

The Siberian husky has to get the ball first every time. The toy poodle always wants to yell. Daily has separation anxiety. And Bandit thinks he's in charge.

But Mindy Patterson is the leader of this pack and she treats her canine clan to resort-caliber accommodations while their busy owners work downtown.

"These are my big fans," says Patterson, 27, as three feisty MetroBark regulars perch over a half wall, resting their paws on the ledge like patient bar patrons waiting for their reward: a nuzzle behind the ears. "They each have their own personality."

The equivalent of MTV's "Cribs" for canines, MetroBark makes a standard-issue kennel look like a puppy penitentiary. For $19 per day, clients drop off their four-footed family members at the cage-free pet-care center on Payne Avenue for nonstop recess. Animals romp on blacktop littered with toys meant for toddlers. A Little Tykes playhouse is the outdoor centerpiece, and several baby pools provide a place for pets to cool off. Inside, dogs can play king of the hill on a 10-foot, four-tiered pyramid. Recreation offers plenty of ways for the dogs to wear themselves out before retiring to one of the worn couches that line the perimeter of MetroBark arena.

"Pet care is moving into a more personal business," explains Patterson, who traded elementary education for her entrepreneurial pet venture in May 2002. She grew up around dogs: schnauzers, Great Danes and now Scoot, a 4-year-old Weimaraner and her No. 1 fan. Inspiration for a cage-free environment like MetroBark came from a place in Cincinnati called Puppy Camp, where her sister boarded her Great Danes. Patterson wanted to bring the concept to Cleveland, which she notes is a bit behind the times in progressive pet care.

"Not only did I have to learn the business," she says, "I had to convince people it wasn't a silly idea."

Her renovated property offers essential elements for a tricked-out pooch pad, including garage doors for easy access to the outside area and a central location near downtown, The Cleveland Clinic and University Circle.

Proximity sets MetroBark apart from the area's six other cage-free facilities. "We solve problems for people who work downtown," Patterson says. On average, MetroBark houses 55 dogs per day, though Patterson admits she never knows how many she will get on a given day.

"Socialization is the prime benefit," says Jen Carroll, manager. "And it's tremendous fun for [the dogs] and they are so tired and well behaved when they go home."

Ian Friedman, a trial lawyer, is one of 440 MetroBark clients. His 4-year-old mixed breed, Daily, sticks by Patterson. "You love your animal like a family member," he notes. Besides, Friedman can watch Daily on MetroBark's live Doggy Cam (www.metro "We put him on the screen at the office so he's behind my head. It's nice to know that, every morning, I know Daily is having a ball."

After-hours visits for MetroBark "regulars" are just as active.

Weekend sleepovers at employees' homes and catered birthday parties pack dogs' social agendas. "Last weekend was Simba's birthday party," Patterson says, describing an 85-pound, red Rhodesian ridgeback. "We invite anyone with shot records and we serve vanilla cake. We let people in to play with the dogs — it's a special treat."

Patterson accommodates weekend travelers and late-night workers by taking their dogs home with her. "When we opened, I was bringing home as many as 12 dogs each night," she recalls, adding that it wasn't as fun as it might sound. During the summer, she and the other employees — two full-time managers and four part-time helpers — take home three or four pets, which collapse on their couches and beds.

"The clients love it," she says. "They can call if they are working late and ask us to take the dogs home."

In fact, Patterson estimates that Daily is at her house two weekends a month.

"He has school by day and sleepover camp," Friedman says, amused. "It's hysterical because all the dogs that go to MetroBark know each other. He will run up to Mindy's dog. It's an absolute riot!"

Besides boarding and day-care services, MetroBark snaps photos of dogs and compiles holiday calendars. A trainer teaches obedience classes in a special room on nights and weekends, and dogs can go home neat and clean if owners opt for grooming services. A new puppy room separates big dogs from young pups, offering peace of mind for owners who hesitate to let their babies roam with the pack.

Patterson stresses that bullies (about 60 so far) aren't invited back. Spray bottles filled with water shoot warnings at dogs that misbehave, and a timeout cage in the back room is a resting spot for tired-out pooches or "problem children." And some dogs need a little more structure than MetroBark's free-roaming facility provides. "Those adolescent Labrador retrievers don't always get along so well," Patterson observes.

In the background, Venga Boys dance music blasts: "Happiness is just around the corner." Oddly enough, the energetic beat calms down the barking crew.

"Dogs are happy and owners are happy," Carroll says simply. On cue, Moby, a chocolate Lab, hoists his broad head up to the counter and doles out slobbery kisses.

At MetroBark, the fur-coated clients get the last lap.

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