The difference between people and pets

ABHA BHATTARAI
Last updated 15:03 02/09/2014
Lance Rosenfield/Prime

A cat named Clyde hangs out in the cattery at the Olde Towne Pet Resort in Springfield, Virginia.

Lance Rosenfield/Prime
Tom Baldwin guides Al, a 9-year-old black Lab, through pool exercises at the 240-room Olde Towne Pet Resort in Springfield.
Lance Rosenfield/Prime
Dixie Eng, general manager of the Olde Towne Pet Resort, holds Marley, a ten-week-old puppy.

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Hotel manager Dixie Eng stops by a room to check on an overnight guest. Classical music plays while guests sleep. Some have brought blankets and toys, reminders of home.

Signs on each door give a hint of the personalities within: separation anxiety, escape artist, poo eater.

"Let's see how you did," Eng says, looking around the room. "You peed, you pooped. Good job, Ollie."

Oliver wags his tail.

Eng tousles the fur on the Yorkiepoo's head. He squirms happily.

Upstairs, Louie, a Labrador retriever mix, watches "Access Hollywood," and Gunner, a schnauzer, gets his hair trimmed.

Belle, a cat with pink-painted nails, stares out the window. Ennui or existential crisis? One never knows with a cat or a resort guest.

It is a typical day at Olde Towne Pet Resort in Springfield, Virginia, US, where more than 100 dogs and cats are in stages of grooming, exercise and day camp.

Eng, 56, oversees the 240-room resort after three decades of managing Washington properties such as the Georgetown Inn, Hotel George and the Capitol Skyline Hotel.

Nowadays, instead of surveying the large outdoor pool at Capitol Skyline, she stands next to the compact indoor pool at Olde Towne, cheering on Oberon, a husky-Lab mix whose owner is treating him to his first swimming lesson.

"Good job, Obie!" Eng coaxes before Oberon collapses, hugging his instructor with his front legs on her shoulders, head resting in the nape of her neck, tongue lolling.

What she does at Olde Towne, it turns out, isn't much different from previous hotel jobs. She still spends 13-hour days catering to the whims of guests at a multimillion-dollar enterprise — except now, she makes sure all of her clothes are washable.

And she doesn't walk as fast as she used to, she says. "There's a good chance you could step on slobber."

The pet resort is an unlikely perch for Eng, who is allergic to cats and, until she began working at Olde Towne three years ago, wasn't much interested in dogs other than her own.

"When I was asked what would I think about working for a pet resort, I have to tell you, initially I didn't understand the concept," says Eng, whose husband spotted the job posting in 2009.

At the time, she was working a temporary hotel gig after five years as general manager of Capitol Skyline. (The hotel's owners wanted to "take it in a different direction," she says. A manager at Capitol Skyline declined to comment on personnel issues.)

But she toured Olde Towne and thought: "This is it. This is the Ritz-Carlton for dogs."

Prices start at US$30 (NZ$35.9) for cats and US$60 for dogs per night, but luxury suites begin at $105 a night and come with webcams and TVs. ("Animal Planet is always a favorite," Eng says. "But I've got a few addicted to soap operas.")

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There are Pawlates for Pooches classes, limo rides and "cuddle dates," during which a human spends 20 minutes petting and whispering sweet nothings to a dog or cat.

Clients can also spring for personal shopping sprees, allowing their dog or cat to pick out toys from the gift shop.

"People will spend whatever it takes to make their pets happy — and we understand that," Eng says.

Woodbridge, Virginia resident Cathy Bennett has brought her two goldendoodles, 5-year-old Harley and 3-year-old Leo, to day camp ($35 a day) since they were puppies.

Leo is enrolled in agility training; Harley is learning new tricks, such as twirling and standing on his hind legs.

Bennett has grown children who live nearby, but "on vacations, I am more apt to let my dogs stay with Dixie than with family."

Eng began her career in 1980 as "Miss Hospitality," a concierge-like position at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Virginia. Later, she worked full-time as a concierge and front-desk agent at the Embassy Row Hotel while majoring in business administration and marketing at American University.

When she became general manager of the Wyndham Bristol Hotel (now the Melrose Hotel in Washington) at 30, Eng was one of a handful of women to run a downtown Washington hotel and among the country's youngest general managers; she later became the first woman to chair the Hotel Association of Washington, DC.

"Dixie is a very strong hotel operator in an industry that is still dominated by men," says Marc Sieracki, former general manager of the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington. "There are personal touches, little things, that guests remember about Dixie."

At the Hotel George, which she managed from 2001 to 2003, Eng was known for floating a daisy in every toilet — a reminder, she says, that each room was "as fresh as a daisy."

At Olde Towne, instead of daisies in toilets, she places heart-shaped biscuits on guest pillows for Valentine's Day.

"I have hand-fed dogs, I have sung them to sleep. I've put pajamas on the dogs," Eng says. "Whatever the dogs want, we'll do it."

Some dogs get a Popsicle every night. Others like warm coconut oil drizzled over their food. Eddie, a black Lab, prefers Chicken McNuggets. (If he refuses to eat anything else, employees are instructed to pick up an order at McDonald's using a prepaid gift card.)

"The guests are easy for me," Eng says. "I can connect one-on-one. I can read pets, and I can understand when they're anxious."

She understands anxious humans as well, so she has a suggestion aimed at assuaging owners' guilt and pets' feelings of abandonment: She advises owners to wear the same thing on drop-off and pick-up day.

When a pet is delivered to its humans days or weeks later, "I believe your dog honestly will think, 'They've been waiting for me!' " Eng says.

Eng and her 4-year-old Doberman, Hera, arrive at the pet resort around 6 a.m., and Eng begins making rounds.

"It's just like being at a people hotel," Eng says, arms waving, as she walks into the cattery. "You have to check in on your guests, see how they're doing."

She crouches to greet Mollie Foreman, a cat whose owner has been deployed to Afghanistan for two months. Mollie is eating chicken soup from her bowl.

"Ohh, look at you," Eng coos. "You've got chicken. You've got chicken, Miss Mollie."

While she continues her rounds, Eng stops by her office periodically to check on Hera, who spends her morning sleeping in a back corner. Around noon, Hera heads to day camp, where she has a particular fondness for a boxer named Chaz.

"When I first got her, she wouldn't walk on the floor," Eng says. (Hera was terrified of the shiny tiles.) "And if anybody came in, she'd get up and pee on the floor."

These days, Hera often sits in on job interviews.

"My dog is a very good judge of character," Eng says. When Hera likes someone, she barks a couple of times, does a quick sniff, then heads back to her bed.

"But if she senses that a person is afraid of her or doesn't like her, she'll bark and approach," Eng says. "This is her office, too, and she's not shy about telling people how she feels."

As Hera has acclimated to humans, Eng has acclimated to animals. "Before this job, I didn't realise that I really had much of a connection with pets," Eng says.

Now, her friends call her "the pet whisperer" and at family events, the dogs all want to jump into her lap.

Eng can imagine someday returning to work in the human hospitality industry. But for now, she says, there's one difference she appreciates.

"In a regular hotel, if you ask someone 'How was your stay?,' they'll probably say, 'Oh, it was great,' but you won't know if they're telling the truth. With dogs or cats, you know right away."

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