City Paper is not for tourists
Or with human guests, for that matter.
Come Monday, Rockville-based dog hotel and spa Life of Riley will launch its second location at 2222 18th St. NW. The site used to house Sawah Diner and Mamma Mia Pizza. It’s located right across the street from the freshly refurbished Marie Reed Elementary School in one of the District’s most dog- (and family-) friendly neighborhoods.
Not one’s typical kennel, Life of Riley will feature 30 overnight suites for dogs of all shapes and breeds, upstairs playrooms separated by pet size, and a few grooming stations. The suites are made with Italian tile and Calcutta marble; the beds inside are handcrafted. The business also offers daytime boarding. Anxious dog owners at work or on vacation can watch their fur babies online through live cameras placed around the establishment, as well as GoPros that dog-walkers will clip onto harnesses. Group walks will take place every two hours.
Those canine luxuries come at a cost. Rooms will go for $85 or $100 a night (though it’ll be half-off for extra dogs from the same family), while boarding will set owners back $40 for up to six hours and $60 for more than that. Grooming prices will vary by breed, size, and coat, but start at $15 for a manicure, $35 for a wash and dry, and $55 for the full package: “haircut, bath, blow-dry, brush-out, styling, nail trim, ear-cleaning, and dental gel,” per Life of Riley’s website. While other pooch services in the area charge similar rates, these are on the high end.
Life of Riley is the latest iteration of a growing trend, both national and local. For one thing, more developers are furnishing their residential buildings with pet amenities. In D.C., demand for dog services has produced small businesses like City Dogs, District Dogs, Wagtime, Doozydog! Club, and Doggy Style, each situated in posh residential areas.
Life of Riley owners Paul and Laura Abbott settled on their new 18th Street NW location after unsuccessful attempts to lease space in Shaw and elsewhere in Adams Morgan. The Abbotts, who are Irish and married, came to the U.S. in 2013. They opened Life of Riley’s Maryland location in early 2014 after establishing a popular dog-walking service.
“It was never planned,” Paul says of the business’ origins. When the couple returned to Dublin for three weeks to sort out visa issues, they left their two dogs with a now-competitor (whom Paul doesn’t name). “We weren’t happy with the service and felt there should be a better way.”
The Abbotts recently completed renovations on the Adams Morgan storefront. They would have opened it sooner but for an electrical conduit that broke beneath the property in late May. “I’ve blocked this period from my memory,” Paul quips, adding that it took three months to receive a permit authorizing the repair work required after the incident. “It almost put us out of business.”
From the outside, the building looks like a recently flipped D.C. rowhouse, painted in that seemingly ubiquitous gray. A Life of Riley sign depicting a silhouette of the Abbotts’ eight-year-old Chihuahua–Jack Russell Terrier mix, after whom the business is named, hangs above the front doors. Riley is female, as is the couple’s second pup, Alba, a seven-year-old Terrier mix. The Abbotts have named a boarding room after Alba, and other rooms after European rugby stadiums, like Laura’s favorite, Galway.
“IN DOG WE TRUST,” says an electric sign in one playroom filled with tennis balls and other toys for furballs. “DOG VIBES ONLY,” says another in the next room over. Black decals of poodles, schnauzers, collies, and other breeds adorn the walls—a touch by Adams Morgan interior designer Mai Dolinh.
On the first floor, customers can buy dog shampoo, upscale leashes and collars, treats, and pink poop bags. There are also kitschy chew toys: a mini “Puptron” bottle that looks like the tequila, a “Chewlulemon” bag, and a “Starbarks” coffee cup (labeled “Frenchie roast,” of course).
The D.C. facility is 3,500 square feet. The Rockville location is about three times that size when accounting for its outdoor space. According to Paul, District regulations do not allow un-fenced outdoor space for dog daycare centers and spas.
D.C.’s Department of Health will allow Life of Riley to open next week, though it has not yet conducted a final inspection. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs just issued an occupancy permit to the business.
Paul says he and his wife are not discouraged by the bureaucratic hurdles or existing competition. They have about 2,000 clients at their Maryland location—including some high-rolling sports, television, and arts celebrities—whose pooches’ names include Spicy Tuna and Socrates.
“We’ve got a type [of client] for sure, but we’re proud of that,” Paul says. “People have done well for themselves. They expect the best.” He adds that certain prospective customers get “sticker shock” at Life of Riley’s rates, but that competitors sometimes have hidden fees and “add-ons.”
“Our clients wouldn’t go anywhere else,” the owner continues. “[They] treat their dogs like kids.”
Not every woofer is fit to stay, though. Life of Riley tests dogs for signs of aggressive behavior before finalizing bookings, and declines to host on a case-by-case basis. Staff will prod real dogs with a fake dog dubbed Andrew to see how they respond to stimuli.
There’s good reason for screening. Last year, Life of Riley’s Rockville location made it onto local broadcasts (and even into the New York Daily News) after a bullmastiff had mauled and killed a toy poodle in its care in fall 2015. The toy poodle’s owners sued the business, and the case was resolved in May 2016. Paul declined to comment on the incident.
Life of Riley in Adams Morgan is starting with nearly a dozen staff, and it expects to grow with demand. Paul says employees have a tough job, like keeping the facilities spotless and cleaning up after accidents—all while maintaining a personal touch with clients, canine and otherwise.
On one occasion in Maryland, he recalls that he was picking up a dog’s poop when it began peeing on him. “Groomers have stories of dogs vomiting on them,” says Paul.
“People think you’re going to come in and play with dogs all day,” he adds. “To some extent that’s true, but there are many responsibilities.”