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Dog treadmills and fake fire hydrants: How hotels host Westminster show dogs

Cash, a mastiff from Youngstown, Ohio, sits with other dogs and their owners in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. (Rima Brindamour for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — In the basement of the Hotel Pennsylvania, a long-faced borzoi stood calmly in a bathtub as he was scrubbed with whitening shampoo. Three dogs trotted on treadmills. An English springer spaniel named Timothy, his head covered by a gold sheath to keep his ears clean, eyed a standard poodle urinating near a red plastic hydrant planted amid pine and aspen shavings.

“Isn’t she pretty?” Heidi Hubert, the human on the other end of the leash, asked Timothy.

Each February, this dull conference room transforms into what the hotel calls a “dog s’paw” for competitors in the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which started Monday. The 24-hour pee area, whose sawdust is freshened hourly, costs a one-time fee of $20 per dog. Grooming tables, which must be reserved, go for upward of $150.

Follow Jerry Grymek, the official doggie concierge of Hotel Pennsylvania, as he gives a tour of the accommodations enjoyed by the hundreds of dogs staying there for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

The nearly 3,000 show dogs that descend on Manhattan for Westminster need to stay somewhere, and hotels near the venue have realized that pooches are good business. That’s not terribly surprising: Seventy-five percent of U.S. hotels now accept pets, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. But the Hotel Pennsylvania and others nearby go above and beyond, temporarily turning their facilities into what feel like a mash-up of the movies “Best in Show” and “Hotel for Dogs.”

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The Stewart Hotel converts a rooftop area into a parklike spot for dogs “to, you know, do their business,” front office agent Andrew Dailey said. The Wyndham New Yorker offers regular shuttles to one show venue and a “canine club” for dog ablutions and exercise. But nowhere else does it quite like the Penn, a 1,700-room establishment that is hosting about 500 dogs this year and has so embraced Westminster that it has a full-time employee dedicated to welcoming the doggy crowd.

On Sunday, toy dogs in rhinestone collars trotted about the hotel’s cavernous lobby as a 190-pound Neapolitan mastiff with paws the size of salad plates waited in a check-in line. Jerry Grymek, the Penn’s official “doggy concierge,” handed bone-shaped dog cookies dipped in white frosting and rainbow sprinkles to new arrivals.

About one-third of what comes out of Grymek’s mouth is a dog pun. He says he is in charge of “pooch relations and barketing,” as well as managing the “pupparazzi” for this “five-paw hotel.” He’s had the job for about 10 years, but “in dog years, it’s much longer.” In more wintry Februaries, Westminster entrants sometimes go outside to make “a snowdog angel.”

Wordplay aside, Grymek said he takes his job very seriously, catering to even the most idiosyncratic guest. Once, he recalled, he rolled out a literal red carpet for an arriving dog. Another time he hired an opera singer to perform for a pooch — which, Grymek added, “barked for an encore.” He said this kind of work demands lots of energy drinks and protein bars.

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Similar stamina is required of the owners, handlers and dogs, who spend much of the year on the road traveling to shows. In the Penn’s basement spa, Tom Isherwood spent the better part of Sunday afternoon bathing, blow-drying and styling the white fur of Jason, a 3-year-old standard poodle who had flown in from England. The dog, its head on a pillow under the gust of hot air, appeared to be in a state of zoned-out bliss.

Jason eats a raw meat diet back home, so he initially was perturbed by the packaged dog dinners his entourage had packed, Isherwood said. His crew has since picked up organic, free-range meat, which — like pretty much all the Westminster dogs — Jason washes down with bottled water to avoid digestive reactions. Now the issue was getting Jason back to the Stewart Hotel, where he was staying, without letting the wet weather outside sully his coat.

“We’re going to have to carry him,” Isherwood said. “Then he’ll chill out. He’ll sleep on the bed.”

The hotels, naturally, charge extra cleaning fees for dogs and put them on separate floors from pet-free guests. Nevertheless, in Room 1554, Jane Bright had taken steps to keep the six Shetland sheepdogs, collies and border collies with her from soiling the carpet, spreading sheets under the crates and forbidding the pups’ use of the beds.

Her room, also shared with her daughter and a friend, was packed with not just the dogs, but also their stuff. The lotion and purple nail polish on the nightstand: for humans. The sliced white bread and caddies full of beauty supplies, including Big Sexy Hair brand hair spray: for dogs.

“Big Sexy Hair I only use at Westminster. It’s too expensive the rest of the year,” said Bright, a wiry North Carolina resident who was a fan favorite on “Survivor: Nicaragua” in 2010. And the bread? “I don’t want anyone getting diarrhea, and bread’s pretty good at tightening up stools.”

Back down on the main floor, James Morrissey, a ponytailed social worker and professional pet photographer, blew on a whooshing dog toy to get the attention of Whizz, a fluffy Finnish spitz who was posing for portraits. Morrissey, a seven-year veteran of this gig, said he loves it so much that he takes a week of vacation each year to do it. 

“Who would not enjoy photographing dogs and occasionally their humans?” he asked.

The lobby outside his makeshift studio was cacophonous, but only partly because of barking. Crowds of non-dog-show tourists mingled, and the four-legged guests just sort of blended in. Grymek, the doggy concierge, said the temporary onslaught of dogs has never really caused much strife.

“They’re show dogs; they’re on their best behavior,” Grymek said. “I joke around that they’re better behaved than our two-legged guests.”

Hints of that human tension were occasionally evident Sunday. When Bright and her daughter tried to enter a lobby elevator with their dogs, a woman turned them away by saying that the dog with her was a male. After the doors closed, Bright grumbled that dogs that can’t commingle should stay home.

And near the check-in line, a fidgety man in an overcoat slugged a non-Westminster guest in the arm after she blew a kiss at his crated Schnauzer.

“I said no,” he told her.

But there was also much delight in the dogs, who genially posed for photo after photo with the general tourists. A 10-year-old Florida girl, accompanying her father on a business trip, practically melted at the sight of a Bernese mountain dog named Tag, who promptly enveloped the child in his 115 pounds of fur and flesh.

“I’m studying to be a veterinarian!” the girl said, nearly shaking with giddiness after rolling on the floor with Tag. “I didn’t even know there was a dog show happening!”

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