Inside a school for pampered pets

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 17/03/2013
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MICHAEL BRADLEY/FAIRFAXNZ

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It costs 30 bucks a day. There are class photos. 

Report cards. Houses – ‘Fantails’, ‘Otters’, ‘Hedgehogs’. Encouraging notes home to parents on the first day. A book recording little moments of educational triumph. A blackboard tells me today is Britney’s fourth birthday. The staff have bought her a present.

The pupils – Poncho, Portia of Venice, Rhett, Miss, Percy, Pinot, Kookie, Kora, Tapper, Dempsey, Harry, Hera, Clooney, Bear, Beau, Sean, Ruby – are dogs. But everyone at Barkley Manor (motto: Praise be to Dog) calls them “the kids”.

You could spend all day at this pioneer of the burgeoning doggy daycare industry finding unnerving comparisons to a real kindergarten. And the effervescent owner, Krista Strong, wouldn’t mind. “It means we’re not far off,” she reasons. “I don’t think the logic is very different.”

Later, she considers: “These are a bunch of kids whose parents do care. I am sure your perspective is, ‘This is ridiculous, why are you going to spend 30 bucks to put your dogs in a big house?’ [But] we have actually become a very important part of these dogs’ lives.”

Strong grew up with six red setters in rural Devon, southern England. In her upstairs office there’s a picture of her, aged five, cuddling a dog, which bears the legend ‘the start of Barkley Manor’. But it really began six years ago when, at the age of 37, she acquired a dog, a cheerful, shaggy thing called Dudley, and became heartily sick of her media sales career. She realised Dudley was more fun when she wasn’t trying to train him and he had other dogs to play with. And so dog daycare. 

“I’d never had an idea before where everyone says, ‘Oh, what a great idea.’ I thought surely someone will say it is s**t,” she recalls. “All I got was one guy saying, ‘I am sure you will make money from it but I still think you shouldn’t do it.’”

Chatting to fellow dog owners in Auckland’s Grey Lynn Park meant she already had 50 clients on the day Barkley Manor opened. The original 400 square-metre home was swiftly outgrown, and the business now occupies an old clothing factory in Arch Hill, close to the core client territory of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. There are 192 dogs in today; about 650 on the books.

Given the nation’s pet obsession, it seems amazing it took so long for someone to think of this: there are an estimated 700,000 dogs in New Zealand; 29 percent of our homes have one. We reportedly spend $1.58 billion a year on our pets.

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Strong says the pet care industry is the only one in the world to have grown continually since 1920, and it has spiked in the last 15 years. Barkley Manor has been chased into the market by a rash of competitors. She tries not to bag the opposition – doesn’t want to be seen as snobby – but there are some dark asides about some putting the dollar ahead of the dog. She finds it “exceptionally rude’’ that others have mounted spying expeditions. She can tell – they ask where she got the floor (it’s completely rubberised, designed for the dogs) and what the staff-dog ratio is.

INSIDE BARKLEY MANOR

But, nevertheless, she’ll show anyone around. The warehouse is split into low-walled rooms, dogs roughly grouped by size and temperament. Strong warns it can be overwhelming, and asks me to ‘‘be honest’’ when it becomes too much. We go into the biggest-dogs’ room. They are herded out, then re-admitted singly, starting with the calmest, a big golden dog that comes and leans on my leg and looks up lovingly.

However, there is a swift downhill slope – dog number six’s passion appears to be licking my trouser leg. Strong says it’s true, they do smell fear, and the best way to be ignored is to act boring. “Dogs tend to go towards things they are scared of – you’re scared, so I’m scared. They want to work out why, to see ‘should I be worried?’” 

Strong is a good tour guide: a great talker, breaking off only to grab a passing dog and chatter “I bloody love you” into its face. She warns: “You have to shut me up rather than wind me up; I can talk for England.”

And she talks a lot about knowing every dog by name and temperament. On cue, her offsider Kelly Silk passes, towing an unhappy dog. They know Scout is ill because she’s acting “out of character”. Strong reckons she’s got a book in her about how dominance theory is rubbish; instead explaining dog behaviour by the breed’s natural instincts, as a hunter, worker, or simply “cuddler”.

For the first two years, says Strong, she was a “stress bunny”. Now, it’s about “every single dog in this building being let to be themselves”. About this, she’s deadly serious. There are no leads or collars, cages, runs or small spaces; she loathes kennels and pounds. The manor name and motto, however, are meant to be a joke. Mock exasperation: “I’m surprised at the amount of Kiwis who thought we were trying to be posh.”

On the day school report cards emerge, a gaggle of owners gather and swap notes. The cards are real, based on Strong’s character theory and that each animal possesses a core drive – social, active (i.e. running around with a ball) or smart (a bit of both). Parents often use report cards to match their dogs for play dates.

And the school photos aren’t Photoshopped. Every dog – bar one, a recalcitrant chap named Batman – has been coerced into a tasselled academic cap and a bizarre coloured bandanna for their mugshot. 

One client took his school photos home for family Christmas in the Hutt Valley, and his parents reshuffled the grandchildren’s portraits to accommodate the dogs. He endured the “Jafa” taunts, and now each year his siblings want their own copies. Another dad sent copies of his dog’s and his daughter’s school reports to Prime Minister John Key, asking why the canine version was easier to understand.

Photos are uploaded daily to Facebook. There are video cameras linked to screens in the lobby, but they stopped the online feed because it cost too much and they got sick of the phone calls (“I can’t see Molly, where is she?”). Otherwise, says Strong, she wants an open book. Yes, she says, she makes money, but she wants people to know she cares. “These owners, do they really know what goes on here? No. Do they trust that it is what we say it is? Yes. Could I be out the back kicking shit out of a dog? Yes.”

But she’s genuine, you can tell. For Christmas, she hosted 10 dogs at her 40-hectare forestry block near Silverdale, north of Auckland, considering herself their “naughty aunty”.

IT'S A DOG'S LIFE

 “If I say, ‘Boston, you’re going to school tomorrow,’ he wiggles his bum and gets super-excited,” explains Stacey Croucher, cradling her one-year-old daughter Lola as she collects her chocolate labrador, one of those who holidays in leafy Silverdale.

I witness Strong working out a change to one dog’s timetable because the animal has sussed out which day he’s being groomed, and it upsets him. Bertie, says his owner, is “smart. He knows when he’s coming here; he sits by the car.” Inside the feared grooming salon, a very relaxed Spoodle is having a shave, and a quivering small dog is being washed. He looks miserable. “He doesn’t like it very much,” observes groomer Maya Pollard. “He should be used to it by now.”

The staff are just as dog-obsessed as the clients. All but one of the 25 workers own their own dog, and all take dogs home to stay. On team nights out, they talk dogs. Two staff members were married last week – the best man was a dog, and a dog gave away the bride.

This all translates into some unusually touching moments. One client rang to say her dog was close to death and could she bring her in to visit? When she pulled into the car park, the dog was already dead and staff came out to say goodbye. “It just takes your legs out,” says Strong.

One client, Nick Turner, rang her at nine one morning. His dog had died just an hour earlier. Staff were soon on their way to visit. “At what point could I have ever written into a business model that, when that awful moment comes, they feel they can ring us? It’s a privilege, an honour.” Turner now has four border collies and is considered a close friend.

Later, I meet him collecting a canine. “They love it here,’’ he says. “When I see someone [with a dog] in the park, I tell them [about Barkley]. No commission though.”

Staff member Karen Grant says: “We are all dog lovers. We all have the same outlook: dogs come first. I prefer dogs to children. I’ve never been remotely maternal, but I love my dogs.”

In the ‘tiny tots’ room, the dogs sense home time approaching. They’re much less disciplined than their bigger brothers. The mood is restless. Buster the manic-smiling French bulldog spends increasing amounts of time in timeout. A small black dog leaps up and licks my mouth as, simultaneously, a particularly distinctive-looking (and this is being kind) pug pogos on my thigh.

It’s nearly 5pm. A tide of pinstriped shirts and cufflinks arrive. At the front desk, Jeanette “Aunt Netty” Cocker recognises owners and calls out dog names, which are relayed by radio to the inner sanctum. Dogs emerge excitedly. A shaven-headed man in boardies departs with a tiny spaniel. Dogs looking like their owners is a fallacy, Cocker says.

Renee McMenamin arrives to pick up Rhett and asks why the photographer is here. Ten minutes later, an email arrives with a quote, should we want it: “Rhett is my fur baby and I want him to have the best while I’m busy at work… I know while I am at work, Rhett is having a great time with his friends.’”

At day’s end, I need a long, long bath. I smell of dog. 

- Sunday Magazine

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