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Puppy Palace for the 1%, for Lapdogs of Luxury

The Spot Experience, the Montessori of the dog world, which can easily cost you $12,000 a year to take care of your dog.
 
 
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Maggie Morrissey’s day usually starts quite early. She eats a quick breakfast in the West End Avenue apartment that she shares with Bebe Morrissey and her boyfriend. Then Bebe chauffeurs Maggie to The Spot Experience, a place on West 72nd Street where she spends most of weekdays and an occasional weekend.

Arriving no later than 7 a.m., Maggie is invariably received with delight by the staff, who describe her as “the sweetest.” Bebe, who does not enjoy the same life of leisure as Maggie, continues on to her job as a literacy consultant.

At Spot, Maggie’s days are devoted to socializing, sunning, napping and going for long walks in Central Park. She is never alone, but almost always surrounded by a coterie of friends, trainers, handlers, groomers and people who not only ensure her physical health and safety, but are constantly attentive to her moods and mental state.

In spite of her lifestyle, Maggie remains extremely down to earth, and not only in the metaphoric sense: Maggie’s slender belly floats mere inches from the earth. She has the classic dachshund build, low-slung and long with improbably stubby legs, oversized feet and enormous silky ears that nearly graze the ground.

Years ago, a dog like Maggie might have spent her days bored and alone, sleeping fitfully, pacing an empty apartment, with the brief respite of an afternoon walk. The vast majority of dogs still spend their days in this way, of course. But now professionals of means have options.

The staff of Spot, a full-service dog concierge with four Manhattan locations, not only provides all the material aspects of care—supervision, shuttle service, walkings, feedings and groomings—but also obsesses over dogs’ emotional well-being and psychological development. “One of our goals is to have a bark-free day care,” said Mitch Marrow, Spot’s founder and CEO. “People laugh, but it really is a Zen environment.”

Dog walkers and doggie day care have existed for some time, but their services are generally what you might call auxiliary rather than holistic—the nice lady next door taking care of your kid vs. a child-development-focused preschool.

Spot is the Montessori of the dog world, with carefully calibrated environments built around dog psychology.

Here you’ll find none of the aggression and rough play that infects the typical dog park, contends Mr. Marrow. “It’s just like if you threw 60 kids together in a yard. Certain cliques will gang up on other cliques. It’s a very stressful and tortuous environment for the animals.”

His trainers go through more than 80 hours of instruction to learn how to assert their alpha role to ensure Spot’s virtually “stress-free,” no bark environment. Barking is seen as a sign of anxiety or aggression, a charged social signal demanding an equally charged respone. As alpha pack leader, trainers must constantly work to diffuse such tensions before they boil over.

Not that Spot’s inner sanctum is open to just any dog. There is a three-step interview process, during which trainers carefully observe how the dog interacts with the group. About 90 percent of applicants are admitted; dogs that fail are invited to work with trainers to improve their social skills.

Spot can also take your dog to the vet, board it overnight in cage-free accommodations and bring it on holiday to a 13-acre estate in Upstate New York. The farm doubles as a training boot camp (generally about $1,800 a week) and offers a puppy kindergarten program that can take care of “all the hard training.” And of course, the playrooms have webcams so that owners can watch their dogs throughout the day. While Spot encourages deep owner involvement, especially in the training process, it’s also equipped to care for a pet with an almost total lack of it.

“We’ve had some high-profile clientele leave their dogs here for one to two months,” manager Lucas Mandell told us.

A former NFL player, Mr. Marrow spent more than a decade as a hedge funder, trying to balance his crazy work schedule and the care of his two gigantic dogs, a Saint Bernard and a bull mastiff. Not only did he see the need for more extensive care, he also saw that Americans were spending a tremendous amount of money on the things that were already out there, more than $40 billion annually. People want and love pets, but they don’t have the time to take care of them—a reality that he is happy to capitalize on.

“The kind of clients who live in luxury residential buildings have disposable incomes, and they’re willing to pay a premium to feel at ease,” Mr. Marrow explained. “I was definitely was.”

Spot’s membership is $200 annually, which guarantees space in day and overnight care and webcam access. Unlimited doggy day care costs $675 a month, and shuttle service is an additional $350. Other add-ons range from $16.20 for a half-hour group walk to an overnight in the country for $120, so that, all told, it’s easy to exceed $1,000 a month. Demand for services is growing, and a number of luxury buildings have partnered with Spot, earning a discount on the shuttle service, among other perks.

“I don’t know how people live without them,” said Bob Cohen, a TV producer whose wife works on Wall Street. A little more than a year ago, Mr. Cohen gave into the pleas of his 10-year-old son and adopted Spike, a goldendoodle. But the busy family quickly found out that even fitting in three walks a day was tough.

“We pretty much use it for everything. They even drop off food and take the dog to the vet when necessary. It’s one-stop shopping.”

But some owners have absentee guilt, which Mr. Marrow called “one of the biggest issues.” At least with his establishment, “you know you’re not being cruel to the dog,” he said. “You’re giving the dog a good life.”

One sun-soaked morning in September, we met up with Maggie at Spot. The staff greeted The Observer warmly, but did not offer us one of the gourmet Stella & Chewy beef-flavored treats on the reception desk. A 16-ounce bag sells for $30. “Pretty much the most expensive treat you can get,” Mr. Mandell told us.

Nor were we invited into the playroom. Being neither a certified trainer nor an approved dog, we might disrupt the room’s meticulously managed social dynamics.

We were allowed to peer through the windows, however, and we watched several other dogs as they mingled and dozed on orthopedic beds, stumpy metal frames with green canvas stretched over them. Mr. Mandell said the beds are better for a dog’s skeletal structure than the puffy kind, although he admitted that they were a little expensive, at several hundred dollars a piece.

A few of the dogs gazed up at us, but they turned away when one of the trainers who continually walked the room asked for their attention. Christian Polhamus, the day care supervisor, explained that the trainer was constantly reasserting his alpha position with signals and commands. If he sees two dogs engaging in prolonged wrestling—not an aggressive interaction in itself, but one that could lead to a fight—he will ask them to stop for a moment and look both of them in the eyes. A hairy eyeball is all that’s needed to diffuse escalation. Dog owners have described watching the playroom as mesmerizing—one woman told us that she had trouble getting any work done because she couldn’t stop staring at it, but after 10 minutes we were growing a little bored, so the Mr. Mandell took The Observer on a tour of the outdoor play area.

I love it back here, it’s so quiet, there’s no street noise,” he sighed contentedly. A gentle breeze ruffled his shaggy blonde hair and a faint urine odor wafted up from the Astroturf, mixing with the buttery brunch scents from a restaurant’s nearby terrace.

“This is where the majority of pees and poops happen,” he remarked, explaining that while the staff adhered to a strict “clean-as-you-go” policy, daily power washings of the AstroTurf were an absolute necessity.

Maggie then emerged from the building, blinking winsomely. She was wearing a simple paper collar with her name and breed scrawled on it—dogs remove their personal gear when they arrive, much as you exchange your clothes for a white robe and slippers at the spa.

The trainers threw tiny tennis balls, which a French bulldog named Pickle sprinted after enthusiastically, hoarding as many as he possibly could. Various breeds of toy and lapdog gathered at the trainer’s ankles, eager to be picked up and coddled.

“I thought Pickle’s owners were moving to Brooklyn,” remarked one of the trainers, brushing a clump of white hair from his black T-shirt.

“The renovations are taking longer than expected,” replied the other, as he bent down to pick a Havanese, who relaxed into his arms contentedly. Such cuddling was a frequent occurrence—a counterpoint to the routines and rigidity of pack life and more active moments of play.

 

Maggie recently celebrated her first birthday, but people often assume that she is much older. While most 1-year-olds will work themselves in a lather every time someone tosses a ball, Maggie is restrained in her enthusiasms (except when it comes to food) and quiet in her affections. An outsider might mistake her reserve for snobbery, but Maggie’s careful composure masks the fact that she is terribly shy—a challenge trainers have been working on. They say that her confidence has improved considerably.

“When Maggie started here, she was extremely timid,” her trainer noted. “Those insecurities can make life hard for a dog.”

The manager nodded happily. “That’s my favorite part of working here,” he said. “Being able to see dogs like that break out of their shells.”

At a little after noon, Maggie had a midday walk, giving us the opportunity for a more personal interview. She was alert but dignified as she came into the lobby with her walker, Steve McNalley.

“I like the one-on-one walks the most,” he said as we sauntered toward the park. He stopped to let Maggie sniff at a tree pit. “Some people get annoyed with a dog sniffing, but to them it’s like telegraphing messages. They think the dog wants to get to the park, but this is often their favorite part of the walk.”

Maggie is most in her element when walking on West End Avenue—both Bebe and Mr. McNalley say that she is “adored” in the neighborhood, partly owing to her unique coloring. Maggie has a white body with a splattering of black spots that would look more appropriate on a Dalmatian. Technically, this type of marking is called piebald, a recessive trait in dachshunds. Practically, this means that Maggie is a rare sight on the sidewalks and is fawned over accordingly. She is often stopped by German tourists who ask to take her picture.

Of course, she also loves the Park, but as we entered the greensward she seemed distracted. She strolled, sniffed a patch clover somewhat mechanically, then coming to a sunny expanse of grass sat down for a moment, regarding the scene calmly.

Under the influence of the warm sun and the gentle breeze, something seemed to loosen inside of her and she rolled over onto her back and gave herself over to several minutes of delighted wriggling. She finally righted herself and at Mr. McNalley’s urging, they chased a squirrel together. But Maggie’s heart wasn’t in it and as soon as the squirrel went up a tree, she gave up the charade.

One may be under the impression that Maggie lives a charmed life. And yet it is not without its difficulties. Chief among them is grooming. Lifted onto the metal table in Spot’s salon, Maggie’s confidence abandoned her and she began to shake. She shook as her nails were clipped. She shook as her ears were cleaned, and she shook as her short hair was lathered with hypoallergenic oatmeal shampoo. And of course she shook as her anal glands were expressed (one of the groomer’s less savory tasks). The quivering continued as Maggie’s short hair was blow-dried and brushed, but, by the time her dried fur started whirling in the air, Maggie seemed to sense that the end was near.

When it was finally over, Maggie was left to collect herself and wait for Bebe’s arrival, which, due to traffic delays, came slightly later than expected. But when Maggie saw Bebe standing in the lobby, she nearly tripped over her leash running to her. Bebe laughed, and Maggie let out an excited bark that caused at least two staff members to turn in alarm. Bebe said Maggie’s name in a stern tone that carried with it an undertone of indulgent delight. Maggie took advantage of the implied permissiveness to push her luck a bit more, barking again and straining toward the bowl of beef snacks.

As for Maggie’s evening plans, Bebe thought that it would most likely be a quiet night at home.

“She’s tired, so we’ll just chill,” she said. “There are some neighborhood dogs we might play with, but most likely we’ll just go straight home.”

 

 
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