Bed and biscuit at Barking Butlin's

WASHINGTON DAYS

I'm hoping to go on holiday next month, but I have a problem. The dog-sitter is going to be away. Lee, who does Russian translations at the World Bank, is by far the most important person I have met since arriving in Washington six months ago. He stays in my house when I have to leave town for work and he feeds and walks the dogs. He's also my new tennis partner and - oh, rare jewel - a lover of soccer who pays scant attention to this town's favourite sport, mind-numbingly circuitous chatter about who will contest and who might win next year's presidential election.

But Lee is abandoning me in August, when I need him most, leaving me with no option but to explore alternative holiday arrangements for Roxy and Macduff. Initial inquiries yielded information about Happy Tails Pet Resort, a doggy "spa" in Crownsville, Maryland. The dogs spend much of their time in the canine common room watching television. They have two giant colour sets (don't dogs see in black and white?) and programming is strictly censored. "They watch non-violent shows only," says the owner, Mrs Buckler. The dogs also have a beauty salon where they can have their toenails painted, their coats dyed and the backs of their ears perfumed.

Sorry, Mrs Buckler. I could maybe see Roxy, a very feminine Border Collie, lapping up the Estee Lauder treatment. But I wouldn't want to see Macduff, a supermacho Golden Retriever of Afrikaner extraction, anywhere near that TV room. He'd tear to pieces any dog that suggested switching from Baywatch to Larry King Live.

Another place I found out about was called Camp Gone to the Dogs, in Vermont - a vacation spot for both man and beast. Joint accommodation is provided at weekly rates of $500 to $800 (pounds 314-pounds 503) per couple. So popular has the camp proved among visitors from all over the United States that bookings have to be made nine months in advance. Among the entertainments provided at this Barking Butlin's is a retrieve-the-hot-dog contest and a pageant where dogs parade in swimwear.

Maybe next year.

I had heard about the pet cemeteries, with their elaborate headstones and manicured lawns, but I didn't know that the literature on dogs extended to a book on how to deal with bereavement: Death of the Family Pet: Losing a family friend. I've been no less surprised to learn that pet superstores are opening up all over the country catering for dogs that require low-fat dinners, chickenflavoured toothpaste, steak-flavoured sparkling water and "speciality" evening wear. Americans, it turns out, spend $17bn a year on their pets - $2bn more than the annual US foreign aid budget.

I talked to my neighbour, Linda, who also owns two dogs. Shady Spring, about an hour away in Maryland, was the "summer camp" where she sent Mickey and Zoe. "They love it," Linda said. So I made an appointment to see the owner, Charlotte Shaffer.

Washington is no interminable sprawl, like London or New York. Within half an hour I was in rolling green countryside passing road signs pointing the way to Westminster, Lisbon and Damascus. One home in three had a Stars and Stripes flying on the porch. I heard the presenter on National Public Radio say that the next day they were going to have a man in the studio talking about a new product on the market called Doggy Breath Mint.

At reception, where a sign told me what the "check-in" and "check-out" times were, a lady from Warrington, Cheshire, asked me if I could wait a moment for Mrs Shaffer. She was talking to an anxious couple, Shady Spring first-timers. I overheard parts of the conversation. Mrs Shaffer asked questions such as "Is your dog shy?" and "How does he feel about being groomed?" and then typed the answers into a computer. The couple wanted to know whether their dog might find being away from home "stressful". Mrs Shaffer responded gravely, with reassuring authority, like a child psychiatrist.

As they spoke, I read the Shady Spring brochure. "Club Med for canines"; "five-star bed-and-biscuit"; "a unique resort where every effort is made to ensure that guests are happy"; "an enjoyable resort ... where that means holding a few paws during storms or giving dogs their medicine in cream cheese".

Mrs Shaffer took me on a tour of the premises. I saw the narrow enclosures where the dogs spend most of their days and nights; the fields where they go "hiking" and "camping" - one means a 15-minute walk, the other a half- hour walk, each charged extra; the pond where they go swimming; the table where they undergo a medical check-up every four days; the kitchen, where 70 varieties of a la carte food are prepared.

"Owners send their dogs post-cards," Mrs Shaffer said. "We go over to the kennels and read them out aloud to them." I read one. It said, "Dear Corky. Wish you were here. We have a swimming pool in the backyard. You'd love it. Maybe next year. Love, Mom and Dad."

For three weeks I figured that I'd be coughing up something like $1,000. That's three times what Lee would charge me. I think I'll find out if he's got a friend.

JOHN CARLIN

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