Range Rovers and luxury SUVs roll into the covered cul-de-sac driveway. Professional portraits of regal breeds line the walls of an airy, postindustrial showroom stocked with designer bedding and gourmet treats. A receptionist fields phone calls next to a jar full of biscuits while behind her, through a wall of glass, a couple dozen pups raise a ruckus. Up pop whiskers and snouts over the sill – one, two, three – heads cocked and ears flopping. I’m at Wag Hotels.
Spotlights danced in 2006 when Wag Hotels opened its San Francisco location on 14th Street. Admittedly, the first time I heard about the concept of a five-star pet resort, I raised an eyebrow but I was also intrigued. I grew up with dogs, but these days I’m without pet. Still, vacationing friends share stories of savaged furniture, little “presents” left for returning owners, and furry cold shoulders. I wondered if flat-screen televisions, a steady diet of Iams, and summer-camp play earn us a reprieve from angry pets?
I wanted to get the Wag Hotels experience firsthand, but I was not allowed to check myself in as a guest. Wag, however, was down for me to participate in the next best thing – to don apron and join the ranks of hotel staffers running through the hectic schedule from check-in to bath and social hours to nap time. By day’s end, I hope to discover exactly what everyone gets out of a stay at Wag Hotels. And if I'm lucky I'll be buried in a pile of kittens.
Lily and London arrive while I'm hanging out with the concierge. Their people, a young couple heading out of town, checks them in while the two chocolate labs skid circles on the polished floor. I get sniffed as the receptionist goes through the paperwork: Will they take their meals together? What kind of shampoo for the complimentary bath? How are they off leash? Medications?
The couple seems distraught about the imminent parting from their dogs, but Lily and London are unfazed. Maybe they’re putting on brave faces for the motley crew of pups dropped off for All Day Play. Just a window away, the doggy daycare room’s a ceaseless current of carefree canines. Older guests lounge atop crates watching the youngsters. A puppy jumps in and out of a towel hamper.
Lily and London take no notice of this spectacle. There are too many walls to sniff, places to explore, and there’s no time to waste. I follow down countless corridors snaking through the converted warehouse's 36,000 square feet, past the salon and a second All Day Play room for bulkier beasts, into an orange linoleum expanse of industrial kitchen appliances, laundry, and suites.
I show Lily and London into the largest luxury suite, a 7’x8’ glass chamber where they'll lay on plush beds and watch Animal Planet on their flat-screen TV. Off comes the webcam's plastic wrapping, in go peanut-butter-packed chew toys. The guests debate who gets which bunk while the hotel's hi-fi plays pop classical. A walkie-talkie announces another arrival so it's a pet good-bye before scampering off.
I’m told that for the most part, it’s pretty quiet around here. But that changes quickly when it’s playtime. Twice daily peace is disrupted by the spreading anticipation of doggy recess,; the excitement whips through the tiers until everyone's on their feet, scrabbling at the door.
My accompanying attendant opens a suite and fifty pounds of nervous energy bounds out. Rocky, a black and brown dappled behemoth, is charged for fun. There's no time for introductions, there's barely time to slip on the leash before he pushes past and tears off. I'm sprinting down halls and up stairs, out of control and bouncing off walls dragged by some serious canine adrenaline. We wrangle up a few other dogs from their suites; each addition is greeted by an orgy of licking, barking, and chase. By stampede's end more than a dozen dogs are skidding across the floor. This is as close as I get to the running of the bull's in spain.
Playtime is initiated by a flurry of elimination. While an employee scrambles to clean, the pack erupts into a joyous explosion of chaos. Dogs spin circles in a butt-sniffing embrace. It's the most socially awkward roller rink I've ever seen.
As I lack credentials, I'm not allowed to work as a playgroup attendant, and am forced to watch from afar, peering through an observation window or between the slats of the white picket fence. My presence isn't going unnoticed. A tall and wily poodle sees me lurking and begins barking.
Being a playgroup attendant requires amazing dexterity and a good memory. Not only do the attendants know every dog’s name, they also know the personality traits that belong to that name. Costello's a troublemaker. Annie's a sweetheart. Clyde's a little cranky. Rocky can't keep it in his pants. My poodle admirer pauses to say hello as attendants begin to break up the playgroup. Her name's Bella and she bats her lashes as I scratch behind her ears. Humping is quelled, bad habits rebuked, aggression checked. After a pint-sized Zamboni scrubs the mezzanine, small dogs get their playtime. All of them except for a blue-blooded gentle dog by the name of François. I join a groomer to meet with our white, fluffy patron who got a little too excited with anticipation, and requires a butt-bath.
In the salon's back room the groomer whispers soothing words and massages red shampoo along François' hindquarters. An American bulldog named Reggie rests in a post-pampered reverie while warm air is pumped through a maze of tubes and vents. Not wanting to make our incontinent charge any more self-conscious than he already is, I sit with Reggie and exchange pleasantries, but it's clear I’m interrupting his peace. Fine, then.
I retreat to the main grooming room and meet Dusty, a strapping young standard poodle who can hardly contain himself. The groomer checks his ears – certain breeds are susceptible to ear-canal hair, which can cause painful infections.
All of Dusty's attention suddenly becomes focused on what's happening. I'm wincing at his pained retorts and reactive spasms. This must be the worst part of this job.
After François is blow-dried, a groomer and I walk him and Dusty back to their rooms. François softly trembles in my arms but I think it's because he's impatient for Dusty to finish “expressing” all over a wall. They’re both returned with tails wagging, free to relax and enjoy clean bottoms and brushed coats.
Just past the exercise pool, which is sadly unoccupied, I find the quiet corner reserved for the most particular guests. The Cattery is made up of 20 triple-tiered condos surrounding a tropical aquarium. Distant sounds of barking disappear, providing a safe haven for visiting felines.
Room service turns down the bed while I'm hanging out on the floor with a self-assured orange tabby named Big Red. A feather toy provides an easy icebreaker, but really what he wants is some scratching behind the ears. After a little purring he's off to the scratching post for some stretching. The Hotel doesn't provide katnip but there's no policy against kittens getting a little giggly if owners leave some for the stay.
Big Red's unhappy when his 30 minutes of socializing is up. His next-door neighbor Kingston is simply not happy. Kingston glowers down from the top floor. Lean forward and he growls. Wave the feather toy and he hisses. Life is hard for a hairless sphinx with no sweater. The condo is very carefully cleaned while Kingston trembles with a mixture of contempt and rage. We leave the door open for half an hour, whispering and bobbing toys from a distance. No dice. Well, you can't make everyone happy. Big Red flicks his tail and meows farewell. Kingston continues glaring down from the top floor.
It's been half a day and I'm exhausted. The dogs at All Day Play catch sight of me through the glass wall and begin running and barking, inviting me to join them. Lily and London should be settling into a little Animal Planet and dinner. A car rolls into the driveway and another guest charges into the lobby. I have to make my escape now or I'll be sprinting down halls and up stairs, out of control and bouncing off the walls again.
There are several ways for you and your pet to enjoy the Wag Hotels experience. In addition to over-night stays, it offers all-day playgroups, day boarding, grooming services, and a well-stocked store. Anyone is welcome to take a tour. Check out the website for services and pricing details.