Doggie treat

Not playing dead, just totally blissed out: Olivia on the luxury bedding at Essex Resort & Spa.
Not playing dead, just totally blissed out: Olivia on the luxury bedding at Essex Resort & Spa. (AMY WORDEN / Staff)

At Top Dog Spa Weekend at a Vermont resort, pooches of all sizes are in the lap of luxury.

Posted: September 09, 2013

My best gal pal Olivia and I had just arrived at our Vermont spa destination late one spring evening after a nine-hour drive from central Pennsylvania.

I set up my laptop to check my e-mail and Olivia jumped on the queen-size bed and sprawled out on the starched white duvet cover.

It was hard to believe that just three months earlier this delightful little Jack Russell terrier mix, whom I had adopted, had been sitting on death row in a Tennessee animal shelter.

But here we were in the lap of luxury at the Essex Resort & Spa, ready to start our parent/puppy renewal weekend.

Time was when dogs were as welcome at posh hotels as bedbugs.

But times have changed. Dogs have gone from banished to pampered guests even at the fanciest hotels and resorts. Where hotel chains once feared carpet accidents, they now lay out the red carpet for four-footed guests.

The Essex, an 18-acre resort in the Champlain Valley southeast of Burlington that features a full-service spa, cooking classes, outdoor sports, and fine dining, is one such place.

The management lets human guests know just who is the favored client by putting out a plate of freshly baked organic dog biscuits at the check-in desk.

By sheer coincidence, I was visiting the spa for a massage with a friend in March when I received an e-mail about the resort's inaugural Top Dog Spa Weekend.

The next day, I picked up Olivia from a dog rescue over the Massachusetts border.

It was fate.

Who knew at the time that I would be able to travel to a destination spa with my new BFF? We were in.

The weekend was designed to appeal to dog lovers for whom a vacation is not a vacation unless their four-pawed family member is with them.

Olivia and I were still getting to know each other when we set off on our first long journey since the traumatic trek from Jacks Galore, a Jack Russell rescue in western Massachusetts, to my home near Gettysburg.

She had clearly suffered trauma in her two-years of life, and traveled hundreds of miles to safety.

By May, Olivia was comfortable with me, but taking a long car trip in a heat wave makes you realize that for all the progress with hotels, the same cannot be said for highway rest stops, which are noisy, congested places filled with loud people, even louder trucks, and nary a patch of grass for relief - anything but restful for anxious dogs.

We arrived at the Essex too late for Yappy Hour - which offered drink specials for humans and doggie treats for the star guests - so we ordered room service and settled into our spacious room.

I had brought Olivia's dog bed, along with her food, travel bowl, and favorite stuffed toy, but it was only a matter of minutes before she found a nice comfortable spot on the duvet cover to curl up on.

We explored the spacious grounds the next morning, wandering past a hiking trail, tennis courts, swimming pool, and rock-climbing wall. Olivia enjoyed poking around a pond, and we met some early-morning cyclists and joggers before I headed to cooking class.

The resort, once a degree-granting culinary school, now offers guests cooking classes with world-class chefs. In our case, it was not Introduction to Indian Cooking for us, but Canine Culinary class for, well, you know who.

We were to learn how to make three kinds of dog biscuits - a basic biscuit, one with oatmeal, and an applesauce-peanut butter gluten-free variety. Yes, a gluten-free version for dogs.

And why not? Americans spent $55 billion on their pets last year. And no small part of that was food - expensive food. We no longer settle for cheap kibble. We want the best ingredients, real meat and vegetables - not filler and by-products.

At the same time, more people fully expect to bring pets along on vacation as members of the family, mused one of my fellow pet parents, Larry Olmsted, a Vermont-based international travel and food writer.

Olmsted and his wife Allison try to take their 9-year-old golden retriever Sundance wherever they go within driving range.

Olmsted says he has seen resorts go from mildly pet-friendly to pet-focused, with pet-themed events and goodies - even Las Vegas hotels are offering doggie deals.

As we donned our aprons to tackle the dough-making, the resort's executive sous chef Christine Frost, also a dog lover, advised us that it was OK if we made a mistake.

"Will anyone care?" Frost asked. "After all, they eat poop." There were snickers all around. It was probably the first time she'd made that joke in her demonstration kitchen.

We left with big bags of cookies in the shapes of dogs and bones. (Olivia preferred the peanut butter.)

Then it was off to Mills Riverside Park, in nearby Jericho, for a hike with Greg Doremus of Vermont Guided Tours. Doremus, a Vermont native who retired early after 30 years in the insurance industry, had just launched a tour company geared toward low-impact activities at area parks, wineries, and maple syrup- and cheesemaking operations with an insider's perspective.

Our small group headed to the off-leash area of the expansive community park and strolled through a meadow under a blazing sun, with Greg pointing out features of Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak, stretching skyward before us.

Then we headed into the cool woods for a little hill climb. After the short hike there was a chance for our companions to plunge in a pond. The big dogs, Sundance and a Lab named Layla, bounded in. Olivia, a little apprehensive about the whole water thing, daintily stuck her paws in by the pond's bank.

Dinner at the Tavern, one of the resort's three restaurants, which features locally sourced products and vegetables from their own organic garden, was an outstanding bowl of mussels steamed in microbrewed Rookie's root beer.

The only downside was that the resort does not make accommodations for pets on the outdoor patio, as restaurants in many cities do.

Later, Olivia and I dropped by the nightly campfire with marshmallows and music.

The next morning the dogs received their spa treatment from Joanne Farrell and her stylists from Doggie Styles, an area grooming salon that brought its equipment to us.

Olivia had her nails trimmed and her wire coat de-shedded by hand by two groomers using a technique known as "stripping" - like a four-handed massage - that sent her into a trancelike state.

And afterward we said goodbye to our fellow pets and their parents and packed up our Top Dog swag: a disc toy, bags of dog biscuits, and a collapsible water dish. As we turned the car south with Mount Mansfield in the rearview mirror, Olivia stretched out on the backseat. I thought about our special bonding weekend as we embarked on our new life together.

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or or @inkyamy on Twitter.

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