Rub Rover, rub Rover, rub Rover all over


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 10:02 p.m.
SARASOTA - Austin ricochets around the Ritz-Carlton hotel room, bouncing from bed to chair and leaping high to lick the face of his personal masseuse.
He's an energetic 4-year-old pug, so there is a lot of wriggling as his ''privileged pup'' pet massage begins. But soon his eyelids droop and his tiny muscles relax under the soothing touch of Darlene Davison, the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota's spa director.
''OK, sweetheart, OK. There you go,'' coos Davison, creator of the luxury hotel chain's latest indulgence - the $130 dog massage.
Figure in the hotel's 20-pound weight limit and the additional $125 nonrefundable pet fee and the ''privileged pup'' plan comes out to a minimum of $12.75 a pound. And that's the basic package.
For another $220, the Ritz throws in gourmet dog biscuits, an in-room pet massage, a choice of nail buffing or nail polish, a souvenir photo, a brisk walk over Sarasota's scenic Ringling Bridge and a gourmet meal of organic stew and designer water served on a silver tray.
Americans spend about $38.4 billion on their pets annually, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturer's Association. Spending on pets increased an average of $2.3 billion a year since the association started tracking numbers in 1997.
''The trend, in the last year especially, is people enjoying things they can do with their pet,'' said Charlotte Reed, the New York-based author of the upcoming book ''Miss Fido Manners Complete Book of Dog Etiquette.'' Reed has four dogs, three cats and several birds.
''People take their dogs to baseball games,'' Reed said. ''People are going to fashion shows with their pets. People are going to benefits and art shows with their pets. You all dress nicely, put on your big diamonds and put on your pet's boa, or tuxedo shirt if it's a boy.''
The platinum and pocket pup set are definitely the Ritz's target demographic.
The Ritz packages remain a budget buster for the average pet owner. An hour on the massage table at the Ritz equals an average year's worth of dog grooming and treats.
Davison said the blow is softened a bit by the obligatory massage lesson. Florida law says veterinary procedures - including massages - must be done in a vet's office unless it is for educational purposes. So Davison and five other dog-certified spa employees use the hour to demonstrate Swedish, sports or relaxation massage techniques to dog owners.
The lesson sold Austin's owners, Larry and Deborah Colton of Oldsmar. The couple drove about an hour to the Sarasota Ritz to celebrate Larry Colton's 59th birthday and do some shopping. They brought their pugs, Austin and 2-year-old Phoenix.
Deborah Colton said she wanted to learn pet massage for her 11-year-old Lab mix, Kalua, who has arthritis. Kalua is too big to stay at the Ritz, so Austin got the massage.
''Massage is very important,'' Colton said. ''I tend to do for my pets what I do for myself. I know the wonderful effects of massage so that's why I wanted to do this.''
The Sarasota Ritz dog massage program is a pilot program for the whole chain, Davison said. She began offering services about three months ago and said business has varied from a peak of three canine customers in a week to no takers for several weeks in a row.
The hotel is working on more owner-pet pampering packages, although the human indulgences are being planned for the Ritz's luxury spa. No dogs allowed.
That rubs Reed the wrong way.
''I would spend $250 to get us both rubbed down . . . so I can look over and smiling adoringly at my pet enjoying herself,'' Reed said. ''That would be fun for me.''

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