At Toronto’s Dog Day Care Centres the Play’s the Thing

As a dog lover who currently finds herself dogless, I am always looking for excuses to expand my circle of canine acquaintances and my repertoire of shaggy tales. The perfect opportunity presents itself when I learn that two people I know have enrolled their pets in day-care centres, of which there are two in downtown Toronto, namely, Dogs’ Paradise and the Tire Biter Depot. My friend Linda takes Thomas, her two-year-old golden lab, to the former twice a week to be de-energized; Ian, a friend of a friend, sends his lab, Lucy, to the Depot every day because he feels she needs company while he is at the office. I call Linda and Ian to see if I can accompany their charges to day care. They are both willing.

At 7:30 the next morning, Linda and Thomas pick me up and we head off for Paradise. As we turn onto Hayden Street, Thomas realizes a joyous day is pending. On our arrival, he bounds up the steps, bursts through the door and effusively greets owner Claudia Hehr. But he soon deserts her for his cohorts, who play in the front room under the watchful eye of her assistant, Lisa Scofield. As we look on, Thomas joins in a tug-of-war with Felicity, a rambunctious crotch-sniffing Rottweiler and a licker to boot. Harry, an Airedale, romps with Barclay, an eight-month-old golden retriever. Barclay has recently been castrated but has not yet lost his heady male fragrance, which his companion greedily inhales. Not all the dogs are purebreds, I learn. Lucky and Duke, who will arrive shortly, are mutts (or “random-bred” to use the PC term).

Soon Rupert joins the menagerie. He is a Lakeland terrier and this is his first day. He is not used to socializing with other dogs, so he is shy and growls at new arrivals. Rupert does not want to share his toys. When he loses his pink rubber elephant to the pack, he plants himself in front of the King Kong dangling from the wall and barks, failing to realize this is for sale and off-limits. Claudia firmly tells him to stop, striking the right balance between authority and friendliness (she does Barbara Woodhouse proud). Rupert gets the message.

After several hours of observing the pack, interspersed with periods of roughhousing with them, I decide to go home to rest before picking up Lucy, who I will be taking to Tire Biter’s the next morning.

After dinner I walk over to Ian’s house to collect her. He has left a note explaining that she will be good as long as I share my bed with her. This is an unexpected request. I have never slept skin to fur, but I am willing to try it once. Before we go to bed, I give Lucy two pig’s ears as a special treat, forgetting her owner’s earlier warning that they make her flatulent. I pay for my mistake all night. In addition to farting and moaning, my bedfellow barks every time someone enters the building.

The next morning I feel as if I have taken the Red Eye to China but Lucy is refreshed and raring to go. When we arrive at Tire Biter’s, we are greeted at the door by the owner, Jill Schwartz. Lucy jumps up on her and then makes a beeline for a stone fountain that overflows with Milk Bones. Jill allows her to have two before leading us through an elegantly appointed room to the dog corral at the back of the house, where Lucy eagerly joins her friends.

She races around with Wylie, an exuberant English sheepdog. They periodically slow down to nudge each other with their open mouths, their black lips retracted, fully exposing the canines and incisors. I find the effect Cronenbergesque, but Jill explains they are only playfully simulating pack behaviour: When a mother brings food back to the den, her puppies will lick her teeth. After a while, Lucy loses interest in Wylie, who has been cornered by a diminutive but aggressive French bulldog, Etienne. Every time Wylie tries to escape, Etienne nips him on the heel. The sheepdog is cowed by this dwarf snapper, who stands well below his knee. When Jill notices that Etienne is terrorizing Wylie, she orders him to stop. She is the pack leader and he treats her with the submissive respect due a top dog.

Eventually I tire of dog watching. Jill’s partner, Jennifer Chaplick, offers to take me on a tour of the grooming salon upstairs. Our first stop is a room where Kate Sykes, assistant to the groomer, is giving a client with long, dirty nails a pedicure. Next I meet Deborah Le Blanc, the groomer, whose specialties include dematting, cutting and applying conditioning treatments. She is blow-drying a bichon frise named Celine. Celine’s owner, a model, wants her to look extra cute as she will be accompanying her to a restaurant at noon. On the way downstairs, we run into Tom, a laid-back Airedale who does TV commercials.

Jennifer and I return to the ground floor and sit at her desk so I can ask a few more questions. I notice a video monitor to my left.

“I guess you use that to keep an eye on the dogs when they’re in the basement,” I say. “Yes,” she replies, “but it also allows their owners to see them in their natural state.” I check the monitor and am relieved to see no signs of feral behaviour in this momentarily unpeopled landscape.

Finally, I ask how much clients are paying to put their four-legged children in day care. The answer is $90.95 a week, less than they would shell out for a two-legged child. Still, this is not within everyone’s reach. Unfortunately, no subsidized spaces are available, but pampered pets like Thomas and Lucy have never had it so good.

Some names have been changed to save face, anthropomorphically speaking.

This piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail. 
Note: Dogs’ Paradise has since closed and Tire Biter’s is under new management.

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