In one of the most exclusive new clubs in London, Molly is getting a trim.
She eyes me snootily, as a woman with scissors carefully navigates her black curls. Molly looks thoroughly bored, eager to get back to the social club next door where other “it” girls are waiting. Jacuzzis line one wall of the spa, next to tropical treats and sustainable low-carbon fashion, in case you want to restyle yourself while you’re here. But this isn’t a spa or hotel, it is Urban Mutts, London’s most elite daycare centre for dogs. Molly is a poodle and the Jacuzzis are “hydra-baths” that emit just the right amount of bubbles.
In the UK, two in five UK households bought puppies in lockdown. Puppy love may have kept us going during the pandemic when life was on hold and we were working from home, but what do you do with your half-trained fluffball when you are at the office all day?
Frantic dog owners are calling packed canine daycare centres and paying above and beyond for places. Urban Mutts, where Molly is, starts at £50 a day and at Bark and Birch, which has branches across South London, 50 credits for weekday doggy care cost £1,650 and bookings have gone up 100 per cent post pandemic with a 15 dog waiting list every day.
“Please don’t name us as we can’t handle any more enquiries,” one company tells me, admitting that they’ve been so overwhelmed this summer that they’ve removed all their adverts from Google but still get five new owners a day trying to persuade them to take on their pup because they’ve had a word-of-mouth recommendation.
So what goes on inside these hotspots? Urban Mutts is based in Westfield Shepherd’s Bush and dogs are chauffeured in from Notting Hill and Kensington, but your dog doesn’t have to stay in London. Buddies transport dogs to Hertfordshire fields, while City Paws Club offers 16 acres of space near Fulham, complete with paddling pools and heated stables. Noah’s Bark, which also has branches across South London, boasts scent gardens and ball pools, with breakfast in bed for any hounds staying overnight.
Urban Mutts has several celebrity clients that founder Barry Karacostas is reluctant to name but likely include Elle Macpherson and Guy Ritchie, whose dogs he’s worked with for years. Alexandra Burke’s dogs come here, as do those of Strictly Come Dancing’s Oti Mabuse.
The on-site hotel has been fully-booked since June and they’re expecting another rush this month, when more people go back to the office and need help with their furry babies. In under a year, Urban Mutts gained 800 members.
For the dogs, it really is luxury, with the day starting with a massage (to check for cuts, bumps, matting or grass seed in their paws) and then arrival into the “social club” where the pack plays for most hours of the day, pausing for walks if the owners have approved them being taken out.
Some pets are too valuable or precious to be allowed to be walked, and I’m instructed not to take any pictures of or name the £5,000 chow-chow because theft is a huge risk for the breed. Its owner uses a more secretive back entrance to get a huge black pom-pom of a dog in and out each day.
Karacostas says they have gone for a hip, Shoreditch House-style vibe, rather than go down the posh hotel route. One woman carries a warmed roast chicken from M&S through the door when she drops off her pooch. “Bouji chicken,” as a handler describes it, adding that most of the others have kibble and the pups have chicken and rice but owners supply their own food, because “dogs have as many dietary and behavioural requirements as people these days”.
One company admits it is so overwhelmed it has removed its adverts from Google but still gets called all day
I get to see this when I arrive and a rampant fluffball called Basil is wreaking havoc. “Basil is a bit humpy today,” says one of the handlers. Like in all clubs, there are all sorts of social dynamics. Beagles, schnauzers and corgis scurry at your feet, barging, jumping up legs and tumbling over each other to see who the newcomer is. It is very much a pack. I am surrounded by 20-odd breeds and try not to trip over a Frenchie and land head-first in a pile of cockapoos. All dogs have to be vetted, showing they’ve had jabs for things including kennel cough (or “covid for dogs”), plus a trial to see if they fit in. After that, owners book slots, and remember what freedom felt like. What stands out is how well the handlers know and love their charges, each with their favourite, because of the way Herbie “puts his paws right on reception, like: ‘Hi, I’ve arrived’”.
At this point a speckly dachshund with wild blue eyes snaps his head off at me. Is this lockdown puppy syndrome right in front of my eyes? He’s a lockdown pup, one of many, says a handler. Barney is a three-month-old cocker spaniel so drained from the excitement he can barely keep his eyes open and needs to be persuaded to take a nap in his room.
At 5pm most owners return to pick up their babies but for those staying overnight, VIP treatment is just starting. Night guardians are in charge of room service and mood-music plays before lights out at 11pm with wake-up calls at 6am. Text or video updates are supplied to owners during a stay and usually updates can be read on each dog’s website profile, although that’s currently paused because they’re so busy.
“It has been an unprecedented time,” says Karacostas. “The challenge now is filling in the gaps left in lockdown with training, making up for your pet not having socialised a lot with other dogs because it’s been watching Netflix with you for a year, and the separation anxiety that all dogs are facing now we’re going back to work.”
There is no judgment, the clubs seem to really want to care for these dogs. The only problem is, when a place here has become so sought after and everyone in the office will be asking you which one you’re sending your little darling too, which VIP club can you get into?