Hotel for pets, and people too

A California spa that even your dog will love

Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Finding a pet-friendly hotel isn’t the hassle it once was. A lot of hotels do accept pets. The gamble is, what will the room be like? Sometimes, it feels like pet owners are the new smokers. You can check in, but you’ll be sleeping in the smelly room across from the ice machine on the ground floor. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for instance, our pet-friendly hotel room had tufts of fur on the pillowcase when I turned down the bedspread. I called the front desk to complain, and we got moved to a new room where our cat disappeared into a hole in the drywall behind the toilet.

So it was nice last week to check into a dog-friendly hotel that had none of these problems. Retired veterinarian Dr. Paula Terifaj owns and operates the DogSpa Resort and Wellness Center in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. The DogSpa isn’t a spa for dogs, as the name suggests, but rather a hotel where dogs of all sizes and breeds may stay unattended in the room, run in the private off-leash dog park or roam the main lounge while their humans eat breakfast. But what had enticed me there were the website photos. In one shot, a cute dog is paddling in the hotel pool. In another, a woman luxuriates with a glass of wine while a large hunting dog nuzzles her in the hot tub.

Two days later, we arrived with our golden retriever. “You have the place to yourself,” said innkeeper Bob, who offered us our choice of rooms. We picked a corner suite with a comfy king-size bed, a cozy kitchenette and a door leading out to the swimming pool.

The pool was a big draw because Desert Hot Springs is legendary for its soothing mineral waters. The city sits on a branch of the San Andreas Fault, and is one of few places known to have both hot and cold subterranean water basins. Its cold spring water wins international tasting contests for best tap water. The mineral-rich hot water and allure of a desert hideaway attracted Al Capone to the area in the 1920s, and continues to be a magnet for celebrities from Los Angeles, an hour and 45 minutes away. The naturally heated water in the hotel’s hot tub is pumped from a backyard well, and maintains a year-round temperature of 40° C.

In our room, we watched the TV news: orange farmers were worried that the cold snap would ruin crops. In spite of the freezing wind, I stepped outside in bare feet and bathing suit with the dog behind me. “Jump in,” I told her. At home on Vancouver Island, our dog’s favourite pastime is fetching balls from the ocean. Now, though, she looked at me nervously, tucked her tail between her legs and cowered at the water’s edge, staring at the steam, the bubbles, the flashing lights.

The next morning, I expressed my disappointment to Terifaj that our waterdog wouldn’t go in the water. “Oh, that’s a myth that dogs want to go in the swimming pool,” she said. After breakfast, she joined me in the lounge, where I met her rescued pit bull mix named Brad Pitt. Like any other dog at DogSpa, the mild-mannered Brad Pitt was off-leash, hopping about freely on three legs due to a bad knee.

Terifaj said that her frustration with other hotels led her to open DogSpa: “Here, pet-friendly means you don’t pay anything extra for your dog, and you’re not relegated to certain rooms.” She didn’t like being judged by other guests. “Have you ever been there when people are giving you the eye because your dog is peeing and pooing? I thought we needed a place where we could just go relax with our dogs, and not feel like an outsider.”

She’s certainly in the right spot. In nearby Palm Springs, hotel guidebooks provide lists of dog-friendly restaurants. And when a waitress at Davey’s Hideaway Restaurant saw me stop to read the menu outside, she invited me to bring my dog in for dinner. When we showed up later without the dog, she scolded me, “Why didn’t you bring your dog? I told you to bring the dog!”

Back at the hotel, I thought dog lovers should know about this place. The owner might consider changing the name, though. It’s not a spa for dogs. She should find something that says “People spa, dogs welcome, vet on site.”

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