Welcome to the world of posh pets.
One Tuesday morning in November, at Meola Reef Dog Park, a strange dog appeared among the pack during the lunchtime exercise run of the exclusive Herne Bay dog walking service Pets and Pats.
The dog was squat and waddly and proudly carried beneath him an excellent set of testicles. He immediately approached and began sniffing around the anus of a black miniature schnauzer called Jett, one of about 15 dogs in the Pets and Pats group that day.
"So, this dog’s entire," said Angela Beer, the owner of Pets and Pats, euphemising gently in the direction of its balls. "We need to be a bit careful." She hovered close to the intruder, never taking her eyes off him.
Jett’s owner stood a few paces away, watching the scene with a lack of concern, maybe even a bit of pride.
"Jett’s got this thing about him that dogs want to root him," she said.
"Yeah, he does," Beer said. "He exudes a pheromone."
She watched for a few more seconds, then, although the other dog’s owner was standing only a metre or so away, she grabbed him firmly by the collar and pulled him away from Jett’s anus. She is paid good money to look after these dogs and, wherever possible, she won’t have them rooted in front of their owners.
The owner of the other dog, a man in his early 30s, got the message and led his dog silently away, its testicles wobbling sadly beneath it. The dog park is generally a friendly world, but somebody has to take charge.
Jo Williams and partner Paris Bauer send Jett and his brother Fox to Pets and Pats up to four times a week. Since they bought the dogs on TradeMe nearly two years ago, they have lavished love and expense on them, at a rate that currently stands at about $350 a week.
They live together in a hip, light-filled, two-storey apartment on the top floor of a Queen St corner building, which is otherwise populated mostly by foreign language schools. From the enormous wraparound balcony they can look between neighbouring buildings across the harbour to Rangitoto and in the other direction across the city to the Harbour Bridge.
Williams and Bauer are open about the fact that the dogs fill a gap in their lives many other people might fill with children. They are part of a demographic that Angela Beer calls HIPOs — high-involvement pet owners — and around whom Beer and people like her have built the sort of thriving businesses that might cause some people to say, "Back in my day we never had anything like that, and our dogs were fine."
And maybe their dogs were fine, but they probably weren’t as fine as Fox and Jett.
Jo Williams and Paris Bauer with Jett and Fox.
At their $138 three-monthly groom at Stardogs in Mt Albert just before Christmas, Fox and Jett were washed, dried, brushed with two kinds of brushes and a comb, put in a glass-fronted cage dryer heated to 26.6 degrees Celsius and 35 per cent humidity, and then groomed simultaneously by senior groomers Nobu and Toku.
The women trimmed precisely and rapidly with scissors, particularly around the eyebrows and the beard. The dogs sat quietly on the tables, hardly moving, as if in awe of what was being done to them.
Stardogs’ senior groomers have all received multi-year educations at Japanese grooming schools and have worked for years developing their skills around the world. Pictures of them hugging various client dogs adorn the walls of the grooming room.
On a cabinet just above a table stacked with file cards, ultra- thick, fragrance-free baby wipes, and a half-eaten packet of Cookie Bear Hundreds and Thousands biscuits, a large sheet of brown paper lists the names of their favourite dogs.
Nobu has been especially prolific, with about 25 entries on her list. She has drawn love hearts next to several of the dogs, including Eddie, the dog at the top of the list, about whom she has written "my love" and surrounded that with a circle. She loves working with dogs, she said, because they never lie to you, and because they make her happy and smiley.
"They look amazing!" Williams said, coming back to collect Fox and Jett three hours after dropping them off. "Oh, the beards! Paris will be thrilled."
She picked up a couple of hard, bacon-coloured pigs’ ears from an impulse bar in reception and threw them on the counter. "Oh, I’ll get a couple of the WashBars too," she said. WashBars are a specialty dog soap made from tea tree oil and the leaf and oil of the neem, a plant best known for its use in Ayurvedic medicine.
"Paris loves these as well," she said of the WashBars. "Smell them. They smell great." They smelled of lemon.
"I’ll throw the pigs’ ears in," Stardogs’ co-owner Adrienne Owen-Jones said, ringing up the sale
When Williams took Fox and Jett to The Strand Veterinarian for their regular checkup recently, the dogs walked in freely and without any apparent apprehension. Inside, they were greeted by name by the black-uniformed staff. For a long time, Williams and the staff just chatted in the reception area. It resembled nothing so much as a meeting of well-to-do friends in a stylish Parisian atelier down a sun-dappled lane during a late spring afternoon on which everybody had taken ecstasy.
Eventually, they moved through into a private room with a dark cocoa and cream colour scheme, and tasteful minimalist furnishings, the highlight of which was a leather examination table. "It’s actually not real leather, it’s faux," Strand owner and veterinarian Megan Alderson said.
She served the dogs treats from wooden-topped glass jars. "We do use a lot of treats in here. If they do have intolerances, we’ve got deer venison, which tends to be okay."
After a bit, and almost as an afterthought, she got the dogs up on the faux leather table. She looked at Jett’s teeth and found one that needed attention.
Another vet came into the room. "It’s Erin’s first year out," Alderson said. "She approached me because she wanted to work in this job in this clinic and this clinic only.
"I’d seen it," Erin said. "I’d heard everything about it and I just wanted to be here."
The Strand Vet uses aromatherapy to "calm the nerves and restore health and wellbeing" to its "patients". They are one of the few places in the country to have a pet physiotherapist for rehabilitation. They have just bought a laser.
Alderson puts a heavy focus on preventive medicine, particularly through diet. Jett had regular ear infections as a young dog, until they identified his allergies to beef and chicken.
"If I get anyone that’s less than a year with an ear infection, it’s just about the first thing I do. Wheat, corn, gluten, soy, beef, chicken — that’s what I take them off, and 90 per cent of them come right.
At her Christmas party in November, "Christmas in the Bark", Alderson choked up a little as she spoke to the 100 or so gathered people and their dogs.
"Welcome to the little clinic with the big heart," she said. "When we opened, we used to say that as a joke, because we only had 56 square metres. But I’ve realised my vision and here’s my big heart here in front of me. Tears," she said, pausing briefly.
A miniature pinscher with legs seemingly too small even to support its tiny body wandered around wearing a coat that read, "Reindeer in training."
Angela Beer had a career as a successful marketing executive, which she left to set up a business called Hello Dolly selling tools to women, which then got funded on Dragons’ Den. Her products ended up being sold in Harrods.
She said: "I went from having the perfect life that looked so perfect on the outside and yet when it came down to it, I was on my own, and everything looked perfect but it wasn’t. And the dogs helped put me back together."
She has been trying for a baby, so far without success. She has two dogs, Dunhill and Georgie, that she said have helped satisfy that maternal longing. She said she feels like, with her exclusive group of customers from Pets and Pats, she is now part of their families. She has access to their homes.
It is her aim now, with Pets and Pats, to deliver a level of sophistication that the doggy market in this country has not yet seen.
"It’s why we have VW Transporters and not Toyota Hiaces," she said. The VW Transporters used to belong to Zambesi. Her business has around $300,000 tied up in vehicles. She has recently been dabbling with buying a $4 million character building.
At Meola Reef Dog Park, a woman in her late 20s approached Beer while her team led some dogs through an agility course.
"Just wondering if you guys have got a card?" she asked.
Krista Strong at Barkley Manor.
"Yes, of course," Angela said. "Hey, does anyone have a card?" she called to her staff. "Where are you based?" she asked the young woman.
"We mainly do Herne Bay and Ponsonby," Angela said. "But your first meet and greet is free and your first session."
"And is it just like you guys do stuff like this?"
"Yes. So we do outings. So they’re out for between three and four hours. We’ve got the pickup. So we pick up, up to six little doggies, and then we give them a guaranteed 90 minutes of park time and then we drop them off."
She spoke with the woman for a few moments, then introduced her to me.
"Lucy’s a parent [Beer often says ‘parent’ instead of ‘owner’ and ‘kids’ instead of ‘dogs’] who just said she doesn’t want her dog to get so lonely during the day."
"I’m studying," Lucy said. "I’m not gone really long hours but even then I don’t always get time, cause I want her to socialise at least once a week. We exercise her every day, but it’s just really nice to have variety.
"We just want her to be more comfortable with other dogs and more comfortable in a range of environments."
I told her that many of the Pets and Pats clients spend a lot of money on their dogs.
"I’m not like that," she said. "I’m from out west. Everybody has pit bulls or staffies out there, which is part of why I got her. Out there it’s for guard dogs, as well as… you know… but… I don’t know… I never got fussed over, but I got lots of love. Not spoilt and not… umm… yeah. We give her very good dog food. That’s my thing. Hill’s Science or whatever it is. I’ve done quite a lot of research on staffies. She’s a high-prey breed so I do activities with her that use her brain as well.
"I look stuff up online," she said. "I read up lots of articles. Although I don’t spend lots of money on her. The Hill’s Science costs us $7.60 a week to feed her. I know about raw meat and all that. It’s what we can afford and we also believe…" She hesitated. "She’s a dog, y’know."
The television programme 3rd Degree did a story earlier this year on Barkley Manor, the doggy day care centre on Great North Rd where around 200 dogs are cared for at a casual rate of $40 per day in an enormous park-like indoor facility, where the sign outside says, "Praise Be to Dog."
At the end of the item, presenter Duncan Garner said: "I’m not a dog owner. I’m not a dog lover. I reckon it’s a waste of money."
Guyon Espiner, leaning casually on something just behind Garner, said: "I reckon it’s a waste of money too and I reckon if you took the money, the $3500 you’re spending a year on dog care and put it into a charity like feeding your kids, you’d go a long way to solving that problem."
Almost without fail, people who spend a lot of money or lavish a lot of attention on their dogs compare them to children.
"My core client group do not have kids," Angela Beer says. "These are the children substitute."
"This is the age of the fur baby," vet Megan Alderson says.
A middle-aged man who has two children arrived at Barkley Manor one weekday lunchtime to pick up his retrodoodle and said: "Without a dog, the house is not a home. It’s just a structure."
Garner and Espiner no doubt get some pretty sweet coin. It seems a fair guess to speculate there are some things they spend $3500 a year on, other than children’s charities. Flashy dinners, maybe? Zumba classes?
Sure, freewheeling ad libs from light current affairs programmes might be the softest of straw men, but we’ve all got our peccadilloes. Maybe we all need to be a bit careful telling others they should give up something expensive that’s important to them just because it’s not so important to us.
Williams and Bauer are in a happy civil union. They have a big social circle. They are successful business owners, with Madame Jojo’s Food Store in Remuera and the recently launched dogglehq.com website — which is already getting a name as the website of choice for the high-involvement pet owner.
But they wanted something more. They discussed having kids. They were both in their early 40s. They decided against it. They got dogs.
Williams had been a long-term dog owner, but it was relatively new to Bauer. She was surprised by the way it hit her.
"It was the same feeling as when I got my first niece," Bauer said. "And of course it was the same because it was the same hormone that was functioning, which was the oxytocin. Oxytocin doesn’t go, ‘This is dog oxytocin and this is baby oxytocin.’ It just goes, ‘This is fucking oxytocin and you’re going to feel really fucking good,’ so it was exactly the same feeling. Exactly the same feeling. No different."
"They changed our lives," she said.
"She’s less angry," Williams said.
"I’m more chilled out. Totally. I count to 10. I used to count to one."
"I concur," Williams said. "It’s been remarkable actually."
"They completely evened out a lot of emotional creases for me," Bauer said. "Dogs do that, man. It’s why they have therapy dogs, dude. Some people need Prozac, some people need lithium or whatever the fuck it is you need to make your life straight. And some people have dogs. And I never knew a dog was going to iron out those creases.
"But to say that someone who humanises their pets loses a grip on the situation or loses a grip on the fact they’re only a dog is bullshit. The loss that I would suffer if I lost one of my dogs is not as big as if I lost my niece. And there it is right there. I love the fucking shit out of my dogs, but I would grieve and get on with it, whereas I would feel an ongoing enormous despair at the loss of my niece."
"What I’m saying is, they are becoming more and more a part of your family and they are the only kids I will ever know, but I still know that they’re dogs."
Photographs by Vicki Leopold.