If all dogs go to heaven, let’s hope it looks like Villa de Perros. There’s grass, a baby pool, a slide, and plenty of fresh air. Dogs can stretch their legs all day, chasing balls and roughhousing. When Dr. Vivian Conejo opened her animal daycare service a few years ago, she converted her own backyard into a canine playground. On a normal day, she cares for 15 to 20 dogs at a time, but she can host 50 to 55 during the holidays.
“Sometimes I can hear them barking from the street,” Conejo says. “They are so excited to come here.”
For Ticos and expats who travel frequently, pet hotels have become increasingly popular in Costa Rica. Taking a dog or cat on the road can be aggravating, as can finding a dependable pet-sitter. Unlike an old-fashioned kennel, a true hotel de mascotas is spacious and well maintained. Animals can roam free, eat regularly, and receive quality medical attention.
“A dog hotel is a place where the dog will go on vacation and enjoy himself, at the same time that the owner goes on their vacation,” says Jory Freimann, owner of Pets Paradise in Guácima, Alajuela, north of the capital.
But Freimann takes this definition a step further: He also leads courses in canine obedience, and he trains dogs in “flyball” and “agility” – competitive sports that build canine athleticism. Freimann learned to work with dogs during his service in the Israeli military, where trainers used aggressive techniques. When he moved to Costa Rica 13 years ago, Freimann focused on positive reinforcement; instead of shaping behavior through punishment, he encourages good behavior through reward.
Freimann’s guests are treated to 10,000 square meters of grassy landscape. “[Pets Paradise] is a chance for dogs to get an education,” he says. “It’s not a bad idea to put your dog in a dog hotel, if you have the space and it is supervised.”
Both Freimann and Conejo are critical of “crating” dogs, and Freimann is particularly skeptical that all pet hotels are created equally.
“We started 10 years ago, and [pet hotels] were not very popular back then,” recalls Freimann. “Now, on every corner, they call themselves a pet hotel. People think that it is an easy way of making a living. You see places that call themselves pet hotels, and they put their dogs in crates.” Freimann says he often takes clients who have endured grim experiences at lesser facilities.
Part of the business is providing expert service. After 25 years as a veterinarian, Conejo found herself caring for more and more dogs. She hires a professional groomer and even bathes every hound that comes through her door. Ticks are removed the moment they are spotted. “It is one of my requirements that they leave here clean,” she says.
Each dog is given its own plastic doghouse, but units are unassigned. The dogs independently organize their sleeping arrangements, giving new meaning to the term “free range.”
Today, pet stores are everywhere, and many of them do triple-duty as veterinaries and daycares. Some pet hotels are housed inside of urban buildings, such as Medipet in Sabana Sur, or La Vete in Escazú. Others are built in suburban or rural settings, like Isabel’s Friends in Tamarindo, on the Pacific coast. In all cases, the staff has a background in animal health and provides a variety of services – a level of caretaking that was somewhat unknown a decade ago.
“This is part of what we do [at Pets Paradise],” Freimann says. “We try to teach people that dogs are more than just another piece of furniture. It’s an animal, which has needs – much more than food and space. People don’t understand how a dog thinks and how they act.”
At Villa de Perros, only a quarter of Conejo’s clients are Tico. Most pet-owners hail from Europe, South America and the United States, and they are obligated to bring their own food and vaccination records. They pay ₡6,500-₡10,000 ($13-20) per day, depending on the animal’s needs. Conejo also welcomes cats, which use a special doorway to pass between two separate rooms. Like Freimann, she maintains a regular website, but most of her clients find her through Facebook.
Since Conejo moved to the southwestern San José suburb of Santa Ana 45 years ago, the veterinary community has exploded: She says there were only two or three local clinics back then, but now there are dozens. Like an increasing number of Ticos, Conejo’s philosophy is that pets should be treated with the same care and affection as human children.
“They don’t like to be in a cramped apartment,” she says. “They don’t know they are animals.”