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heavy petting

Happy Tails: Muskoka's retreat for the furry elite

As summer vacations beckon, devoted pet owners face a dilemma. Leave Fido and Fluffy at a boarding kennel and suffer the big-sad-eyes-of-guilt consequences? Or bring the furkids and spend your holiday picking up their poop and wondering what havoc they're wreaking in the hotel room while you're at dinner?

There's a third option: resorts for pets. The latest and perhaps grandest entry in the market is the Best Friends Pet Care Resort at Disney World in Florida, opening Aug. 27 and already booking up. The 50,000-square-foot complex includes a water park for dogs, a separate "kitty city" and VIP suites with flat-screen televisions - because dog forbid your mutt miss a minute of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Not enough? Add extras such as 10 minutes of "cuddle time" for $8 (U.S), and bedtime stories at $6 a pop (or Hop on Pop, if that's what your pooch wants to hear). Basic boarding rates start at $21 a day for cats and $34 for dogs.

"Pets are family members," explains Deb Bennetts, spokesperson for Best Friends Pet Care, which operates 44 boarding centres in the United States. "They share our lives, our couches, even our beds. It is hard for them to be separated from us - and for us to be separated from them. We want our pets to have all of the comforts of home, and all the attention they are accustomed to receiving."

And if that means paying $3 for tuna on a Ritz cracker for your cat (another extra offered) while you ride Space Mountain, by God it's worth it - to someone.

Pet resorts aren't some crazy new idea. Well, they're not new, at least. One industry pioneer is Ontario's own Lisa Brooks, owner of Happy Tails Pet Resort and Camp, a.k.a. "Muskoka's retreat for the furry elite."

Ms. Brooks has been catering to canine campers since 1996, and launched a cat camp last year. For dogs, she offers a full curriculum with activities including water sports, arts and crafts and singalongs (or howlalongs, as the case may be), with dogs grouped according to age, size and temperament. Daily rates range from $35 to $85.

"People still think I'm crazy," she says, but she's living her dream - literally. As a kid she used to lie in bed and dream about being surrounded by dozens of frolicking dogs.

The problem with your average, non-resort kennel, Ms. Brooks says in all earnestness, is "the dog is not treated like a person."

Yet despite the anthropomorphizing inherent in singing Kumbaya to canine campers, Ms. Brooks says she aims to let urban and suburban dogs reclaim their inner doggyness: racing through woods, diving after frogs, rolling in smelly things, on no one's schedule but their own.

In her youth, dogs used to run free through the neighbourhood and have all sorts of doggy adventures. "Now, as a good owner, you can't let them out of your sight," she says. "We limit our dogs more than we've done in the past. … Dogs get to come here and live like they used to do. This is their happy place."

And there's the (belly) rub. Our happy place is with our pets, but could it be that they need an occasional vacation from us and all our weird human stress? Maybe. Ms. Brooks's version of doggy heaven is so alluring that owners ask quite often if they can stay, too.

Nope, her resort is strictly for the dogs. But she does direct anxious owners to a hiking trail that climbs a hill above her property until it comes to a lookout. Some people sit there for hours, she says, just watching their dogs romp through the valley below. Now, that sounds like a pretty good vacation.

Rebecca Dube blogs about pets at