ENCINITAS — Near the end of a rustic stretch of Union Street, surrounded by eucalyptus and palms, is a little slice of doggy heaven, British style.
It’s a dog daycare and boarding facility owned by Jon and Samantha Mears, an English couple who moved to Encinitas from London 11 years ago. Now, they spend their days training the next generation of Encinitas’ dogs to sit, stay and play nice.
Dogs walk along “London Bridge” and take refuge from the punishing sun in “Windsor Castle.”
And people wait months sometimes to get their dogs into the facility, which is very choosy on the dogs it allows in its daycare or obedience courses.
This is Woofingham Palace, which has rapidly become one of the more beloved — and exclusive — businesses in Encinitas since it opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 2014.
“Jon came up with the name, and I thought it’s a good name, it fits, and we’re English,” Samantha Mears said in a heavy English accent when talking about why they gave the facility the Buckingham Palace-inspired moniker. “But the essence of it was … we wanted people to feel they did receive something above and beyond, a royal service, and they were being treated as more than just a name, they were a client, someone important to us, because every single person is more important to us.”
Recently — after three years of red tape — the Mears received the approval from the Encinitas Planning Commission to quadruple the number of dogs they can serve.
“We were very pleased with the outcome,” Samantha Mears said.
The Planning Commission unanimously approved the couple’s major use permit request that would allow the couple to have 45 dogs on the facility at any given time — a maximum of 24 in the large play yard for Woofingham’s two daily daycare sessions from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; 11 dogs in the indoor nap and boarding areas; and 10 puppies in a covered yard for the daily puppy socialization class from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The process, which started in October 2014, has cost the Mears around $30,000 in fees and experts to state their final case to the commission.
Of the 50 people who signed up to speak at the three-hour hearing, 46 of them were clients and supporters of the business, who implored the commission to grant the couple’s request, over the objection of a few neighbors.
“We were moved so many people came to speak on our behalf,” Samantha Mears said.
Woofingham Palace is Samantha’s brainchild. The certified dog trainer, after observing a number of daycare facilities and puppy training schools, believed she cracked the code on how to make one successful: make it a half-day facility only and start with the dogs as puppies.
The couple said that people told them that half-day care would not work. People work full days and wouldn’t be able to pick their dogs up or drop them off during those off times, the couple said they were told.
But Samantha Mears was adamant that it would.
“I always wanted to only have four-hour daycare,” she said. “There were plenty offering full days, but it’s not the best environment for the dog. It’s convenient for the owner, but not for the dog because it’s there all day.
“Once we started, it took off really quickly, and people quickly saw that ‘my dog is going to be exhausted after four hours, and I don’t want him to get injured because he is pushing himself too hard,” Samantha Mears continued.
To accommodate working clients who couldn’t either drop off or pick their dogs up, the couple started a shuttle service that brings dogs to the facility and drops them off to their homes, a wildly popular addition.
But the biggest advancement since the couple began their experiment has been the puppy socialization courses.
As a trainer, Mears was seeing a number of adult dogs with behavioral issues that could have been solved earlier through socialization. That’s when she went to the “quick of the problem, the nub of the problem,” Jon Mears said.
They take puppies as early as 10 weeks old, after they have received their first vaccinations, and teach them various behaviors, including how to play with other dogs and not to being fearful of different sized dogs and styles of play or different people.
Samantha Mears likened it to a child who plays organized sports and does after-school activities rather than being sheltered in the home.
“It makes them a more rounded individual with different interests, rather than being focused on home or mum,” she said. “And they have less behavioral issues when they become adult dogs.”
Puppies are screened before they can attend the classes, their owners interviewed and the dogs given a temperament test to see how they will do with other animals.
After six months, the puppies then “graduate” to the larger adult play yard, where the Mears are very careful not to add random dogs to the mix.
“We make sure that the same dogs attend the same sessions,” she said.
As the puppy training has taken off, Mears said they are taking fewer new adult dogs. This makes the spaces at Woofingham very coveted and exclusive, she said.
“People have compared it to a prep school or a private school for dogs,” Samantha Mears said. “Some people have told us it was harder to get their dog into Woofingham Palace than it was to get their kids into the school they wanted to attend.”
But the Mears say the end result is worthwhile: dozens of dogs over the years — almost all from Encinitas — are well-behaved and their owners swear by the services.
“When you go to the dog park in Cardiff, people say you can always spot a Woofingham dog because they are the ones who are really well-behaved and know how to play properly,” Samantha Mears said. “And that means a lot to us.”
It means a lot to their clients, too, like Channing Toro, 30, who spoke at Oct. 19 Planning Commission meeting.
A couple of the Mears’ neighbors, including the Stoffer family who lives next door to the property, and Gene Chapo, urged the commission to deny the project, arguing that it was too noisy and generated too much traffic along the street.
Toro and others disputed the noise and traffic complaints and offered their own testimonials about how Woofingham saved their dogs and changed their lives. In Toro’s case, her second dog, a Shepherd mix named “Indy,” was too difficult to manage.
“He was really bad,” Toro said. “And it was almost to the point where I took him back. But I heard about Woofingham and I reached out to Samantha, and she told me, ‘Give me one month,’ and I was like, ‘OK lady.’
“In the first month, I noticed a huge difference, and from then on, I can’t live without Samantha,” Toro said. “My dogs are part of a family, and we are so grateful to have these people in our lives.”