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How To Spend It – The Financial Times

And for some pets it will come this Christmas, says Katrina Burroughs, with a five star holiday to rival that of their owners.

Panting for Christmas in Antigua, but can’t face the soulful stare of the furriest family member as he is packed off to the kennels? We may take the welfare of your dogs and cats as seriously as that of our children, but while the kids can be taken long haul or parked safely with granny, the animals sometimes have to be entrusted to institutions that look disconcertingly like prison camps.

What if your dogs and cats could be having their own activity holiday while you are away? Or spa treatments and sessions with personal trainers? Or stay in luxury accommodation with their every need catered for? The Caribbean holiday is beginning to look a whole lot closer…………..

Mark Thompson and Gillian Quek offer their canine charges an experience somewhere between a health farm, obedience school and playgroup at The Dog House. Once a week dogs are taken aboard a customised, air conditioned bus, complete with toys, snacks and piped music and travel from London to New King’s Road (most clients live in Chelsea, Fulham or Knightsbridge), down the M4, deep into south Wales.

The idea of activity holidays for dogs came about as the couple were looking for a way to leave their London lives behind. Gillian had worked in the art market and Mark, who had been in events management, had earned pocket money from lunchtime dog walking. People started to comment on how much better behaved their dogs were after joining his walks and word spread. Gillian remembers: ‘When I first saw Mark in the park it was like watching the Pied Piper of Hamlin. He had 20 dogs off the lead and they were all following him’. They moved to Dinas Farm in Carmarthenshire in 1997, swapping their cramped London quarters for 400 acres of wooded trails, streams and pools, steep rocky paths and flower dotted meadows.

So what kind of regime can your best friend expect there? That all depends whether he is a puppy, a lively young dog or a decrepit old chap and whether he is there for a week’s activity holiday, the two to three month gun dog training course or companion training (five weeks). Mark says, ‘We take each dog as an individual. The young, athletic ones can have a real charge around. Old crotchety dogs can have a more sedate time’. Mitzi, an ancient, half blind, semi deaf Dachshund, is perfectly happy to hang out in the office for much of her stay.

What they all get, young and old, is plenty of canine and human company. Up to 45 dogs can stay at peak times, sharing two to a room (depending on breed, how well they are getting on with the other guests and available space) in their chalet style accommodation and the daily round of activities includes up to five walks and an individual play session, all of which offer handlers the opportunity to reinforce good behaviour. As a result, most dogs will come back from their stay fitter, more confident and with better manners.

Not exactly pampering, then. Indeed, Thompson say that a good proportion of the dogs sent to The Dog House have been overfed before they arrive. Tara, a seven year old Alsatian, has a target weight of 33 kilos, but arrived this summer at a lardy 42. Over a six week stay the Thompson’s helped her slim down to 35, and her owners received a very stern memo outlining the health risks of obesity.

Improvements in fitness apart, some behavioural quirks can be sorted within a week’s stay. Gillian says ‘eight out of ten dogs that come here jump up when they are pleased to see someone. The majority don’t do that when they leave’. Hercules, a handsome Great Dane form Hampstead, is a regular guest. As a puppy, he used to ‘knock people over like skittles,’ but now keeps all four feet on the ground when he greets his owners. Prices start from £29 per day.

Martin and Debi Lawrence at Coppergate cater for both cats and dogs at their luxury boarding house, set in three acres of North York Moors National Park near Scarborough. Dogs are walked twice a day and can enjoy playtimes in the outdoor training area and extras such as hydrotherapy (swimming sessions in a custom built pool, subject to a referral from a vet). Felines, on the other hand are treated like royalty. They stay in heated ‘apartments’ with country side views, complete with mini three piece suites, radiator hammocks and play centres. Prices start from £8 per day for dogs and £5 for cats.

However ritzy the facilities at the pet hotels, many animals prefer to stay in their own homes. There are several organisations that offer experienced pet sitters. One of the best known is Animal Aunts. Started by Gillie McNicol in 1987, the company aims to provide a combination of animal care, home care and security. Based in Petersfield, Hampshire, the network of approximately 500 full time aunts (female, male and couples aged from 21 to 80) extends countrywide. Their specialities cover the care of all sorts of beasts, including donkeys, camels, llamas, gerbils, sheep, rabbits, chickens, snakes, monkeys and ducks – but you get the impression that there are few pet challenges that will faze an aunt. They will also run your household in your absence, undertaking such tasks as waiting in for a plumber and picking you up from the airport on your return. Prices start from £40 per day, plus the aunts travel expenses.

If you come back from your break worried that your pet is feeling under-indulged, you can buy back its affections with a meal out for just the two of you. Hydrovet and Starmutts in Wandsworth features London’s first café catering for both dogs and their owners (it is also a vet clinic, vet shop and hydrotherapy centre). While you enjoy coffee and cake, your hound can chew on an ostrich twister, which is totally fat free and made from air dried ostrich tendons, before he tries on one of the boutique’s extravagant leather dog coats.

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