Pet resorts, restaurants: Will it end? PUTTING ON THE DOG

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is early afternoon at Happy Tails Pet Resort in Crownsville. A golden retriever named General Custer is watching a talk show, which is something you have to see to believe, and even then you probably want to be sitting down.

What's even more unnerving is the dog seems to be nodding his head in all the right places, as if thinking: "Right, right . . . I had a problem with troops in Haiti, too."

Then again, if the sight of a dog watching TV brings with it a certain weirdness factor, it is evident to only one of the three people standing in this immaculate kennel.

"The dogs like to watch Barney the Dinosaur and 'Sesame Street,' " kennel manager John Plotner explains to a visitor.

Oh?

"We don't put on Fox 45, so they don't watch a lot of violent stuff."

Well, that's certainly good to . . .

"They don't watch 'Cops' or 'Rescue 911' or anything like that," ++ adds Happy Tails owner Caryl Buckler.

Wait a minute. No "Cops"? No "Rescue 911"?

What is this, Cuba?

"CAN THEY AT LEAST WATCH 'BLOSSOM?' " the visitor shouts, but the words are lost in the din of some 20 dogs barking, an unearthly chorus of St. Bernards, Labrador retrievers, Akitas, boxers, etc.

With all the noise, you wonder how these mutts even think, never mind concentrate on talk shows.

So this is what we've come to in the '90s: dogs watching politically correct TV in luxury kennels while Mommy and Daddy frolic poolside with pina coladas in Aruba.

We have pets now that -- God help us -- eat in their own fast-food restaurants and shop with their owners in their own superstores. We even have pets now that take Prozac, the feel-good elixir of the '90s.

From sitting slack-jawed in front of "Donahue" to downing little beige-and-green pills that dissolve edginess and compulsive urges, our pets are becoming like us. Maybe too much like us, say some people. It's a price we pay for indulging our pets.

"Indulge" is a loaded word to pet owners, of course. It implies a certain frivolousness of character and an unseemly doting that suggests, at least to non-pet lovers, that the pet owner has recently had a piano dropped on his or her head.

Nevertheless, if you're jetting off to the Caribbean for a week and want first-class treatment for your pet while you're gone, there are places such as Happy Tails or Country Comfort Kennels in Jarrettsville that will spoil the little dear rotten.

Happy Tails is located off Generals Highway on 35 bucolic acres, which sounds like something off a real estate brochure, only in this case it happens to be true.

When a dog checks in -- cats are welcome, but the kennel caters mainly to dogs -- these are some of the amenities: a full grooming salon, where herbal shampoos are available along with eight toenail polishes and -- this is absolutely true -- six "doggie perfumes," including Aramis and Polo.

Three outdoor exercise periods a day. Color TV, which tends to soothe them and remind them of home. A radio tuned to easy-listening or classical music at night. (No 98 Rock. Apparently it makes the dogs edgy and paranoid, like they're in an Oliver Stone movie.)

Plus the place is run by a pleasant, energetic woman who actually says things such as: "Our guests love it here" and "We believe in personal attention for our clientele."

That might be a bit much for some humans to take. But if you're a dog, you've got to be thinking you died and went to heaven.

"I wanted a place where dogs could actually vacation when their owners vacation," says Ms. Buckler, who charges $10-$15 a day, depending on the size of the dog -- a price in line with other area kennels.

Ms. Buckler, 46, and her husband Frank, 48, opened Happy Tails two years ago. It was an immediate hit. Over the summer and Christmas holidays, the place is like a doggie Woodstock, with more than 65 animals boarded.

Ask Ms. Buckler to explain the success of her, um, resort and her answer is part New Age-speak, part '90s feel-goodism: "There was a need for alternative-type kenneling. The status of dogs has changed. They're more part of the family now. And they miss being treated like that at most kennels."

At Country Comfort Kennels in Harford County, a rolling, 35-acre spread that advertises itself as a "Camp for Pets," the dog-as-part-of-the-family theme is equally strong.

This becomes evident when you enter the main office and spot a bulletin board crammed with postcards. The postcards are from vacationing pet owners to their pets.

One particularly gooey Mickey Mouse postcard, mailed from Disney World, says, in part:

"Hi baby!

"Miss you bunches already . . . Hope you're having a wonderful time at camp. Please be good for your counselors. Mittens cried all night for you last night, so did I."

Reeling, you turn and shake hands with owner Pat Weiskopf, 40, who is kind enough to postpone a tour of the facility until your stomach settles.

Country Comfort has many of the same amenities as Happy Tails, minus the TV and radio, and charges $9 to $11 per boarder. Its major selling points, however, are nature walks and pond swims for pets, which look like so much fun you want to check in yourself.

"These dogs are used to a lot of attention," Ms. Weiskopf says. "They're people's babies."

The personal touch is everywhere: One owner tape-records mushy messages ("Hi, sweetie, Mommy and Daddy love you!") for his Dalmatian and has the Country Comfort staff play the tapes while he's away.

Reportedly, the dog perks right up when he hears it.

The things we do for love . . .

A bone with fries, please

On the phone from Toledo, Ohio, is Sheila Mullan. She is a pioneer, not in the way Daniel Boone was a pioneer, but more in the manner of Ray Kroc.

Ray Kroc opened a small hamburger joint in California years ago and called it McDonald's. Folks took a liking to his fun food and fast service. Pretty soon Ray Kroc was making so much money that he was lugging it to the bank in duffel bags.

Six months ago, Ms. Mullan, 36, a computer programmer, and her partner, Jackie Zajac, 30, a financial planner, quit their jobs. Then they opened Puppy Hut, a drive-through restaurant for pets, thought to be the only one of its kind in the country.

The place serves pet food in the shape of cheeseburgers, fries, pizza, etc., plus something called kanine cola, which is really beef-flavored broth. When you ask Sheila Mullan what prompted her to open this business, her answer is almost Kroc-ian in its simplicity: There was a need.

"We noticed that whenever we pulled into fast-food restaurants, our pets would go nuts in the back seat," Ms. Mullan recalls. "It was like: 'Why can't we get a cheeseburger?' "

This idea of a fast-food joint for pets might be considered high-concept in L.A. or New York, but in Toledo, it was assumed that the two women had lost their minds.

"I didn't tell my family what we were doing until about a month before we opened," Ms. Mullan admits.

After all, how do you tell people that you plan to run a business from a small building shaped like a doghouse, with a giant dog bone attached to the roof? How do you tell them there's a Park 'n' Bark play area, not to mention a complimentary fire hydrant for customers?

Naturally, since this is still the land of opportunity, and it seems there's no indulgence too extravagant for today's pets, the place was a huge hit from the get-go.

"People came out in droves," Ms. Mullan says. To pets, it was Valhalla, entertainment for all the senses. Owners had no problem with plunking down an average of five bucks per order to keep the mutts happy.

"People love to spoil their pets," says Ms. Mullan, before running off to an interview with a radio station.

She does not add: "It's a great country."

But you hang up the phone thinking that nonetheless.

Attention, pet shoppers!

It's Friday afternoon, almost Happy Hour, and you're staring at a ferret exerciser at Petstuff in Towson, the pet super-store where customers bring their pets along to shop.

One aisle over, a man wearing motorcycle leathers is deep in conversation with his Akita.

"You want that leash?" the man says.

The dog doesn't say anything.

"I kinda like this red one," the man says.

The dog is like: "Whatever."

Clearly, for people who deny their pets nothing, this place is the Taj Mahal. The store, part of an Atlanta-based chain with 46 outlets throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, measures 18,000 square feet and sells over 7,000 items, including ferret exercisers. ("A mini-gym! A million laughs!")

Other more, um, exotic merchandise includes the Rainbow run-about ball for hamsters for $5.97. ("A Completely Unique Concept in Small Animal Care and Devotion!")

There is also the -- steady now -- Ferret "Combo" Trampoline and Hammock for $9.99, plus the Fun Spot Rolling Puzzle for $5.99. ("Can Your Cat Get the Bird Out of the Cage!")

There are doggie T-shirts, doggie caps, doggie leather coats, doggie sweaters. ("Let the world know your dog is special with Fashion Funwear from Poochi!")

There are even -- this is where it gets real ugly -- Rebark All-Weather Sport Shoes for $5.99. ("Boots give protection against cold, heat, hard-walking surface, glass and other abrasions.")

Perhaps none of these products should surprise anyone. And yet it's still somehow unsettling to see a bulldog wearing a tiny sweat shirt that reads: "Bad to the Bone."

And . . . doggie visors. What does it say about a country that now worries about whether a dog is squinting into the sun?

Pooches on Prozac

Maybe you saw him on "Good Morning, America," or, if you happened to be in London at the time, "Good Morning, United Kingdom." He did the Australian version of "The Today Show" twice.

He's been written up in the Washington Post and the Knight-Ridder newspapers. In the ultimate testimony to celebrity-hood, he's scheduled to be profiled in this week's People, where he could find himself sandwiched between a puff piece on Heather Locklear and the latest dirt from the O.J. trial.

Steven Melman is a Potomac veterinarian. The reason he's becoming famous is this: Dr. Melman gives Prozac to dogs.

Understand, the dogs that arrive in Dr. Melman's office are not listless and grim-faced. They don't dab their eyes constantly with a Kleenex and complain of an ineffable sadness that threatens to overwhelm them.

But some of their owners do, mainly because these dogs have severe behavioral problems -- such as obsessive tail-biting, manic itching, etc. -- and the owners despair of ever finding a cure.

Dr. Melman found that Prozac, in conjunction with other forms of therapy, will often help these dogs.

It might not hurt the owners, either.

"But Prozac is not," he hastens to add, "the end-all and cure-all."

It's also a last resort, he says.

In the old days, if your dog kept biting his tail, you might bop him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and shout: "Knock it off!"

Now you might put him on Prozac. And he might get better in a hurry.

Or he might not.

"So far we've had over 100 dogs try Prozac," Dr. Melman says. "The dogs have different conditions, of course. And . . . the success rate is as low as 30 percent in some cases and as high as 70 percent in others."

This warm and fuzzy pharmacological story would have never come to life if not for the 5-year-old bichon frise that arrived in Dr. Melman's office in late 1989.

The dog was obsessively chewing his tail. Around his neck, he wore one of those Elizabethan collars that looks like a TV satellite dish, to prevent him from mutilating himself further. A previous vet had recommended amputating the dog's tail.

"I thought that was a bit severe," Dr. Melman says.

After all other forms of therapy failed, he put the dog on Prozac. This was based on studies by the National Institute of Mental Health that showed some traditional anti-depressants worked well in treating compulsive behavior in dogs.

The result was astounding. The bichon frise became a different dog almost immediately. He was calm and relaxed. He stopped chewing his tail. The collar was soon removed.

"That was the defining moment in my work with Prozac," Dr. Melman says.

Ultimate pampering

Knock at the rambling, three-story colonial in a pricey neighborhood in Glen Arm and a huge black poodle answers the door.

This is jarring enough, and then you notice the poodle is wearing a blue cap.

Just as your brain starts working on the obvious question -- how did this dog manage to turn the doorknob? -- a friendly woman appears behind the door and says: "Hi, I'm Joyce Miller."

Maybe this is some sort of code, because suddenly the dog, named Nicholas, leaps in the air and lands in Joyce Miller's arms. You have not lived until you've seen a 70-pound standard poodle jump into the arms of a 120-pound woman. This much is for sure: It's a lot more interesting than watching those porpoises jump through hoops at Sea World.

In any event, what brings you here is this: Joyce Miller has been described as a pet owner who really indulges her pet.

When this is mentioned to her, you stand back, half expecting Nicholas to do that Michael Jordan number into her arms again. But all he does is stare at the ceiling.

"When you're good to something," Ms. Miller says simply, "that something will be good to you."

And Joyce Miller, a biochemist who runs a string of car washes and gas station-convenience stores with her husband, is good to Nicholas.

Every morning, Nicholas has his teeth brushed. This is to prevent plaque buildup. The brushing takes place with all the ritual of a Buddhist tea ceremony.

"First I show Nicholas the towel," Ms. Miller explains. "Then I say, 'Teeth time!' Then he literally holds his teeth together and lifts up his lips."

Some people can't get their dogs to sit -- Nicholas could probably do 45 minutes in a dentist's chair without once being told: "Open a little wider now . . ."

There is also the ritual wherein Ms. Miller cries out "cookies and milk!" and Nicholas goes happily bonkers around the kitchen, even though all he's getting is a dog biscuit and ice cubes in his water.

Every night, Nicholas has a Perdue chicken breast with garlic mixed into his dog food.

What else? Nicholas has his own couch, which is known in the family, ironically enough, as "Nicholas' couch." Actually it's more than just a couch -- it's a big brown sectional that could probably seat the Green Bay Packers comfortably.

This is probably a surprise to no one, but Nicholas also sleeps upstairs.

In a twin bed.

With the covers over him.

With Ms. Miller's 17-year-old son.

Fortunately, Joyce Miller has a terrific sense of humor to go along with a quiet air of self-confidence. She knows her pampering of Nicholas is seen as ditsy by some ("My friends give me a lot of grief") and probably borderline nutso by others.

"Look, he is a dog," she says. "I know that. But the world is too serious. You've got to have a little fun."

As this visit with Nicholas and his owner ends, a man reflects on how times have changed.

He recalls having three wonderful pets as a boy: a beagle, a poodle and a mutt. None ever vacationed at pet resorts, or shopped in pet stores, or ate in fast-food restaurants.

None ever took Prozac.

Sure, they watched TV occasionally. But it was good stuff: "Star Trek," "Bonanza," maybe a little "Kojak."

Not like the trash that dogs watch these days.

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