This is what happiness looks like — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Last spring, my husband and I started researching spa resorts because we needed a break from the craziness of the world. They all looked good – it's hard to go wrong with massages, yoga and healthy meals that someone else prepares for you – and we were having trouble deciding which one to pick.
But then, as we were checking out classes and activities, we noticed two words on the Sunrise Springs website that we hadn't seen anywhere else: canine cuddling.
We booked our flights.
It's a scientific fact that just petting a dog helps reduce stress. The interaction alone can increase levels of oxytocin (a good hormone often referred to as the "love drug") and decrease the production of cortisol (a bad hormone which activates the stress-response system, disrupting the body's natural processes).
Of course, I immediately went into stress mode, convinced that the puppy classes would all be booked and that we wouldn't get to spend enough time with them.
And that unwarranted anxiety was exactly why I needed to be heading there.
Sunrise Springs, Santa Fe's only destination spa, is all about wellness and nurturing so it's no wonder they came up with something as innovative and appealing as the Puppy Program.
The program began when the owners of Sunrise Springs approached Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW) founder Jill Felice and CEO Linda Milanesi about a partnership. They wanted to offer a canine module to their guests and, as conversations proceeded, it became apparent that this would be a win-win for both the humans and the puppies.
"It takes enormous time and commitment to shape and create a truly successful working dog, whether for service to an individual with a disability or medical need, or a facility dog working in the judicial system with a special victim advocate or as a crisis response canine at a mass casualty event," explained Milanesi. "Each dog receives 18 to 24 months of training, learns at least 90 cues and is highly socialized to understand many different environments."
Their time at Sunrise Springs helps provide that much-needed socialization. Each day, about 20 guests interact with the puppies in classes like Upbeat Canine Play and Puppy Preschool. The pure joy on guests' faces shows why this is the resort's most popular program.
How will I ever go to a spa resort without puppies again? — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
"Cuddling puppies provides therapeutic benefits such as lower heart rate and lower blood pressure," said Milanesi. "People, in their everyday lives, rarely get to snuggle with a litter of puppies. It's novel and it's just plain fun."
"Fun" is definitely an understatement. We so looked forward to our time with the puppies each day, and we talked about it round the clock. You could feel the excitement in the air outside the Puppy Enrichment Center before every class as guests washed their hands, removed their shoes and prepared to immerse themselves in puppy paradise.
When the door opened and we caught sight of the puppies (and their mom and grandma), there was "ooh"-ing and "ah"-ing and so much grinning. You could feel shoulders relax and blood pressure drop as everyone descended to the floor to pick up the puppies, snuggle with them and let them explore as they flopped over legs and climbed into laps. There were toys to play with and lots of best-medicine laughter all around.
It's easy to see why the Puppy Program at Sunrise Springs is so popular — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Currently, there are eight puppies at Sunrise Springs. They're 11 weeks old and, when they move on, a new litter will take their place.
Whereas a typical day for guests involves stimulating activities and plenty of time for relaxation and pampering, the same holds true for the puppies.
Their day starts with early morning feedings. When we were there, guests taking a yoga class were giggling because they could hear the puppies barking for their breakfast. After eating, the dogs have playtime in the yard with enrichment items, followed by morning classes with guests, supervised by ADW professionals.
Make a new furry friend at these innovative hotels
Make a new furry friend at these innovative hotels
Afternoons are spent with volunteers who are also fluent with the enrichment protocols. The puppies have more playtime as well as more rest time in their pen. When they're old enough, they go for walks on the property and learn tasks that they'll use in their service work. After dinner, they again have class time with guests and then it's time to sleep.
There's nothing more therapeutic than playing with puppies! — Photo courtesy of Sunrise Springs Spa Resort
"The puppies actually put themselves to bed when they're tired, and sometimes that happens before class is finished," laughed Milanesi. "One of them, Humphry, was known to go to bed every evening at 8:30 instead of 8:45 when class is officially over."
Although the puppies themselves are often unintentionally hilarious, many guests' stories about them are really moving.
"One fellow's girlfriend was doing a seminar at the Spa and he was so impressed by her talking about the puppies that he drove across the country to be with the puppies each day," said Milanesi. "He had recently experienced a traumatic brain injury. There are so many touching stories."
Mara Bouvier, General Manager of Sunrise Springs, appreciates this and understands that, for guests, the value of the Puppy Program goes so much deeper than the canines' cuteness. "We are grateful for the opportunity to have the puppies here and to support such an important program," she said. "Our guests rave about their experience, no matter what age the puppies are. To see them from newborns to six months old, in all stages of development and learning, is often the highlight of their stay."
Despite blissful and indulgent days filled with spa treatments, open-air soaks in a private pool, art classes and the freshest food, it was the highlight of our stay as well.
In fact, the only time we experienced any sign of stress was when we realized it was time to leave.