NEW YORK -- ''I am not sure a vacation with pets is a vacation, but whatever," said my mother, who believes visiting New York with two dogs who love to run around off leash and bark like crazy is a disaster in the making.
Her idea of a trip to New York is five straight hours in the designer boutiques at Saks, followed by three hours at Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale's.
She doesn't know that dogs are welcome in some of New York's fine hotels and at Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf's. I didn't know it either, until a recent visit with my two Australian shepherds put the city in a whole new dog-friendly light.
I am an adoring ''mother" to Chloe, 2, and Duffy, 1, and my life has been transformed by raising them. I take them running, I boil rice and chicken when they're sick, I sometimes bake dog biscuits. I hate leaving them at home on weekends away. But New York with these two boisterous characters in tow? My favorite things in this pulse-quickening city -- eating at restaurants, attending Broadway plays, late-night clubbing -- have nothing to do with dogs.
Where sleeping dogs lieWe checked into the W hotel on Lexington Avenue late on a Friday night in September. With music playing and people lounging in the open bar, the dark lobby was like a nightclub downtown. Patrons who saw us come in asked how we managed to bring dogs to the W, one of New York's hot hotels when it opened in 1998.
In fact, the W hotels always accommodated dogs, but in August the rest of the Starwood chain, which includes the Sheraton and Westin hotels, followed suit, welcoming dogs and cats, and catering to them as never before.
''We want to make the pets happy, too, and make their stay just as luxurious as their owners'," said Jane Glastein, spokeswoman for the W New York hotels.
I had told a reservation clerk that my partner, Tina, and I planned to stay at the hotel with our dogs, who are about the size of border collies with the energy to match, and her only question was whether we needed dog beds. As we checked in and got our room keys, the staff offered pats and belly rubs to both dogs. A pair of brand-new leashes and collars were waiting on a new-looking dog bed in our room, along with a large water bowl and a bottle of spring water. The dogs also found a red rubber ball and a disc-shaped tug toy, which we hid from them immediately. (After five hours in the car, they would have turned the room topsy-turvy chasing and playing with their toys.)
I found out later that the toys, bowls, and leashes are on loan; like the bathrobe in your room, if you take it, you will get a bill.
We had reserved a ''spectacular suite" for $329 a night (plus $25 for the dogs), and the setup was large and comfortable, with 200-threadcount sheets, a comforter, and a feather bed on the queen-sized bed. There was a rip in the fabric of the sofa and a familiar-sized stain on the carpet in the bedroom, leading us to suspect that dogs had stayed in this room before.
Our only other experience with bringing a dog to a hotel had been a stay with Chloe at the Regency on Park Avenue, part of the Loews chain. (When I called to inquire, the reservation clerk declared, ''Loews loves dogs.")
The Regency, all polished oak walls and marble floors with a beautiful bookshelf-lined bar, was a big power-breakfast scene in the 1980s. It offers a separate room service menu for dogs with items like steak and Nathan's hot dogs.
The W has no special menu for pets but does stock dog food in case you run out. ''We can pretty much get you whatever you want," Glastein said. She was referring to the ''whatever/whenever" policy at the hotel: At the press of a button on your room's telephone, someone is available to cater to your needs, whatever they are and whenever they arise.
Even dog massages? ''New York W hotels do offer doggie massages by appointment, in your room," Glastein said. The masseuse just needs 24-hour notice.
I tried the button, but the woman who answered didn't know anything about dog massage and transferred me to the spa on the fourth floor, where the receptionist said it was not available. (I'm in big trouble if Chloe and Duffy find out there were dog massages and I didn't get them one.)
Taste of the townAfter a quiet night's sleep, the morning posed some tricky questions: How can dogs and people enjoy the city together? Will they get enough exercise? Will we find a balance between the things we want to do with the things they like to do? What if we want to take a taxi?
Like all dogs, Chloe and Duffy love to sniff new smells and meet new people, so walking around was as much an adventure for them as for us. The sidewalks can be hazardous, though: Pizza crusts, pretzel and bagel remnants, even restaurant leftovers appear in abundance, and the dogs are always the first to find them. If you run out of dog treats, walk over to the Four Seasons on East 57th Street, where doormen keep cookies on hand.
At Bloomingdale's, the guards at the front door just smiled as I walked in with Chloe. Dogs are allowed to browse with you as long as they stay on leash, which is wise anyway in a multilevel department store that covers a city block. Having her around did slow down my shopping, though; other customers wanted to say hello to her, and it was a little cozy in the changing room with Chloe there.
In warmer months, most restaurants with outdoor tables will let you sit down with your dogs. Not surprisingly, many are French or Italian restaurants. Strolling Seventh Avenue, we found a deli with tables outside where we could all rest in the shade and have bagels and smoked salmon for lunch. (By dinnertime it was too chilly for al fresco dining.)
Manhattan is a big place, and even my energetic Aussies get tired traversing many city blocks. Dogs are not allowed on the subway, but taxis did stop for us; dogs are allowed at the driver's discretion. We took a cab to the dog run at Carl Schurz Park on East End Avenue, where we found two fenced-in dog runs: one for smaller dogs, the other for larger ones. The smaller one was covered in tile and filled with Jack Russel and Yorkshire terriers, chihuahuas, dachshunds, and mutts. Chloe and Duffy were a little too tired and hot for the big dog run, but they were interested in watching a hyperactive Jack Russel puppy bark and chase other dogs.
A rogues' galleryWe found that we could wander into art galleries and shops and even Starbucks without raising an eyebrow, but that it was not much fun for the dogs. The William Secord Gallery was an exception. There, on the second floor of a nondescript building on the Upper East Side, dogs are welcome and pampered with fresh water and treats.
The reason to visit, however, is on the walls: oil and pastel portaits of dogs cover almost every inch of space, and terra cotta and bronze sculptures of dogs are on several tables.
In most of the paintings, dogs pose for solo portraits. In others, they are portrayed interacting with monkeys and other animals. Some of them date to the Victorian era, when pet portraiture came into vogue. Queen Victoria, an animal lover with many dogs, commissioned portraits of them, her court followed suit, and a genre was born.
Paintings of dogs hunting and portraits of champion breeds were the next genres to come about, according to Maritza Soto, the gallery's sales director. I saw a large oil of a Belgian Tervuran painted by Louise Lalande in 1883 for sale for $34,000.
Aside from including a beautiful dog, it was a beautiful picture of a bucolic setting. If collectible paintings of other people's dogs are not your thing, the gallery can arrange for a commissioned painting of your dog. Depending on the artist and the size of the portrait, you can spend anywhere from $2,500 to $18,000.
Not many dogs visit the gallery, Soto said. ''It's too bad. We'd love to see more dogs."
Central ParkThe vast grassy stretches, gleaming ponds, and fat squirrels almost seem to beckon dogs for an off-leash romp. But at the wrong time of day, Central Park will break your heart. Many fences have gone up to protect newly seeded grass, and signs everywhere read, ''Dogs must be on leash at all times." The ponds are fenced off too, and late on Saturday morning, park employees were out in force, scooting around in golf carts and casting a wary eye in our direction.
Dogs are allowed off leash in the park between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., according to several dog owners and walkers. I went back early Sunday morning to an open area of grass in the southernmost part of the park, behind Wollman Skating Rink, and, voila, here were the off-leash dogs. It was raining, and dogs of various sizes and breeds were having a blast splashing in puddles and rolling in mud -- mine included.
Someone offered me an umbrella, and amid the friendly chatter, people marveled aloud at the feats of each of the dogs; they were a convivial group, especially compared with dog owners I have met in Boston. An owner named Beth filled me in on other popular places for dogs in Central Park; just below the park's lake is Bethesda Fountain, where dogs jump in on hot mornings before 9, she said. She also goes to the Rambles to let her border collie mix off leash, because they can hide there from park rangers.
Stephanie Flatley, owner of Staffordshire terriers Maddie and Lexi, said she takes them to the fields next to the bridle path north of the Reservoir, where there's enough room for dogs to chase a ball as far as you can throw it. After 9 p.m., when the park is generally less safe, dogs and their owners congregate in the West Side corner closest to Columbus Circle, where the lights are bright.
One thing I learned all on my own is that carriage rides in Central Park take dogs, but at $40 for a 20-minute ride. A ride in an open carriage was a new experience for Chloe and Duffy, and one they didn't seem keen on. They often bark at horses and, I suspect, would much rather herd them.
Amy Graves can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.