Geoff Golovsky knew there was more to veterinary business than healing wounded and sick animals, so he opened VetHQ; a dog day care centre to stimulate bored canines. Now the only problem is finding room for all those tail paintings.
“I’d be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time someone said ‘you’re a vet? What a wonderful job, I always wanted to be a vet’. Veterinary science is a wonderful career, but the job itself is far from glamorous. It’s not what people think,” says Dr Geoff Golovsky, veterinary surgeon and owner of dog day care centre VetHQ (formerly Ark Vet East), located in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
If Golovsky sounds like a disillusioned man don’t be fooled, because more than anything it is his passion for animals that makes veterinary care a double-edge sword. In fact, it was in his first few years out of university that he discovered the hard part of the job.
“My first year out was mixed animal practice down in Nowra, driving around the countryside in a Landcruiser. You’re keen and green and ready to do anything, but everything is an economic decision,” he explains. “People had a price that they were willing to spend and if your price went over, the animal would go to the cattle yards.”
Golovsky was no stranger to the unpleasant side of veterinary science, having dissected a dog in the first fortnight of his tertiary study. “I am sure they do it to weed out people who are not suited to the hard concept, you always see three or four people drop out,” he says. “Everyone has these James Herriot connotations, they don’t actually understand all the other components of the job, the nitty gritty, the smell, the faeces, the urine that we deal with on a daily basis.”
Despite being exposed to the unsavoury aspects of veterinary science, even the upbeat graduate came away from Nowra less than satisfied with the valuable but demoralising experience. For the first time since he was seven, Golovsky swayed from being a vet. He even sat a GAMSAT (Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test) to become a doctor, defying a cheeky vet society slogan ‘real doctors treat more than one species’. But then he successfully applied for a position under AusAID’s Australia Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) program and secured a teaching and practising position in Thailand.
“I worked in a university in a place called Khon Kaen, very close to the Laos border. My qualifications and experience were equal to the professors in surgery. I did one day a week in cattle practice and four days in the small animal clinic,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful opportunity and a turning point. Since then, [being a vet] has always been positive.”
Golovsky returned to Sydney to open his own practice, but knew he had to distinguish himself from other practices, and so decided to offer dog day care. “I don’t like saying I’m the world’s best vet, and I needed something to draw people in,” he explains. “Dog day care is not in itself a business, but an add-on to my professional business.”
While the concept wasn’t entirely new, Golovsky saw that it was gaining traction. “People are starting to live in smaller places, we all want dogs for companionship but we have no garden and we all work far too hard for our own good. Dog day care makes people feel comfortable that their dogs are going to be looked after. We walk the dogs, we look after the dogs, and we do a little bit more than some of the other day cares—we also help train the dogs and make them better animals.”
The canines are interviewed before being accepted to make sure they can cope with being in a social environment. Although Golovsky notes that other dog day care centres do the same, he is also inclined to take on dogs that have social issues—dominant or anxious dogs—to help them work through their problems. “We work with the owners, we ask them what behavioural issues there are and we see if we can improve the dogs,” he says.
From a vet’s point of view, having the day care centre adjoining the surgery means Golovsky sees more than the ill animals that make up his patients, which provides a more stimulating side than straight veterinary care. This is evident on the premises, where photos of the dogs—and paw and tail paintings—adorn the walls.
“To stimulate the dogs we have an activity every week [so] the owners get a little laminated photo of their dog doing something. A dog is at the same level as a two-year-old. They can’t communicate, but they enjoy seeing different things,” explains Golovsky.
The owners also receive report cards of their dog’s behaviour, ranging from ‘improved in crossing the road’ to ‘had a fight with another dog’, to help them understand where their pet needs improvement. Golovsky laughs and suggests that most often it’s the owners that need the training.
“Ultimately we see a regression every Monday because the owners let the dogs get away with everything. We were closed for two weeks over the [Christmas/New Year] holidays and the week back was mayhem because the dogs had gotten away with blue murder,” he reports. “One day we’ll have the owners in day care to train them on what we expect them to do [at home].”
In addition to constant human supervision and stimulation, two daily walks to nearby parks and the beach, and being fed dinner, the day care dogs enjoy being the centrepiece of the pet community around Golovsky’s practice. Some are happy events—Golovsky describes a dog wedding held in the clinic on their most recent open day—others bring on the tears, such as the story of a Labrador that gave blood to save another dog’s life.
Apart from a shopfront presence and the branded bandannas the dogs wear on their walks, Golovsky’s business has all come via word-of-mouth, which makes him grateful for all the recommendations given by existing clients, especially the day care patrons. The day care’s long opening hours and the webcam are attractive for working clients, and the concept is so popular that the centre, open since the end of 2006, have already closed their books to new dogs.
“I only have 40 square metres so it’s not a huge money-making business where I’m cramming dogs in. There are other day cares that put twice as many dogs into the same space, but we’re not accepting any more dogs because we’re fully booked until June. We’re trying to do the right thing for the dogs,” explains Golovsky.
Although his next move will be to provide a 24/7 veterinary service, Golovsky also sees an opportunity to expand by setting up day care premises in other areas to satisfy growing demand, no mean feat considering that Golovsky admits his business skills still need a bit of work. “I’ve had to change my name to VetHQ [from Ark Vet East]—it had to do with the trademark office,” he says. “In university we went through about two hours on legal issues and about half a day on business yet we’re all expected to run a business. I’m a vet not a businessman.”
His big-picture business plan is to create a place where pet owners can access everything they need. With a cat lounge, pet boarding, pet grooming, physiotherapy and acupuncture services already offered besides dog day care, and a full range of veterinary services, VetHQ is almost there.
But while he doesn’t have an empire yet, it’s clear that Golovsky feels he’s already achieved something special. “There’s nothing more rewarding than having dogs run into the clinic with their tails up; the owners let them out of the car and they bolt to day care. The dogs appreciate it and the owners say ‘wow you’ve really changed my dog’—that’s all I need.”