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TORONTO HOTELS OPEN DOORS TO FOUR-LEGGED GUESTS

Canada's largest city has long prided itself on its cosmopolitan nature. For years Toronto has welcomed immigrants from around the globe adding to its rich ethnic diversity. The city has also extended the welcome mat to a wide array of visitors of all backgrounds.

Up until recently the vast majority of the millions of visitors have been of the two- legged variety. But Toronto is now very welcoming to four-legged visitors. In fact, it is one of the most dog-friendly cities in all of North America.

The Celebrate Pets Weekend Gala will be April 30 and May 1. During this weekend, Canadian pets who have saved lives and demonstrated remarkable courage will be inducted into the Purina Animal Hall of Fame Tribute Wall in the Holiday Inn on King, one of the city's many dog-friendly hotels.

A number of the city's premier hotels have developed canine programs with dog treats, beds, dishes and an especially hospitable attitude from staff.

To test the hotel programs and the general ease of canine travel I enlisted Bart, our Labrador retriever, to check out two of my favorite Toronto hotels. He is a country boy at heart, living on 63 acres. How would he adapt to the big city full of crowds and strange smells and sounds? He's a mellow fellow, well behaved and very adaptable by nature so we expected a good weekend. It was a smashing success.

Bart was greeted at the Royal York Hotel with a Doggie Welcome Kit that included gourmet dog biscuits, a temporary ID tag, massage oil, toothpaste, toothbrush, plastic bags for clean-up, spring water, information about nearby parks, dog dishes and a hand-made blanket.

The Royal York's dog policy allows dogs to remain alone in the room but they must be confined when alone. Since Bart is accustomed to his kennel, he was happy to oblige. We had a large room with plenty of space for all. I dog-proofed the room by placing the mini-bar basket of expensive human treats in the top of the closet.

Now that the room was safe, Bart and I went to find a nearby park. There was one a couple of blocks down Front Street. It took longer than expected to walk the few blocks because people stopped us along the way to pet Bart and talk about dogs in general. Traveling with a dog is a great method to meet people.

After Bart had his dinner he was happy to take a nap while his humans dined at one of the city's wonderful downtown restaurants. Like most labs, Bart is a real "chowhound" but he missed out on Doggie Room Service and stayed on his regular diet (well, almost).

After Bart's last walk later in the evening, we returned to the hotel's elegant lobby where a pianist was playing show tunes. Bart seemed to enjoy the music and attentions of a visiting family whose children were fascinated by him.

The next day Bart could have gone for a ride on a subway, bus or trolley which all allow dogs (as long as they are leashed or in container). Instead, he rode 15 minutes in the car to the Beaches, a laid-back Lake Ontario waterfront community. It is a most popular place year-round for dog owners. Of course, the beach and water were nirvana for a retriever who bounded across the beach to the water's edge where he waited for sticks and balls to retrieve.

There were lots of dogs to meet and greet including Bailey, a golden retriever, who lives nearby.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to realize that I'm really living in Canada's largest city," mused Emily Gates, Bailey's owner and a long-time Beaches resident. "We are so close to downtown but it is really another world here."

Although dogs are not allowed in the city's restaurants, they often sit with their owners at outside patios. Whitlock's Restaurant on Queen Street East is a longtime Beaches favorite and well-mannered dogs sit outside the fence surrounding the dining patio while their owners dine. Many shops and restaurants along Queen Street offer bowls of cool water for dogs.

Time to check out a new hotel -- the Westin Harbour Castle. Their dog kit includes a Frisbee, leash, I.D. tag and plastic bags. Alas, for Bart, no eatable treats. The room overlooking Lake Ontario came equipped with dog bowls and a signature Westin dog bed.

This hotel did not require that the dog be confined if left alone, but Bart went in his portable kennel whenever he was alone. He felt comfortable and we felt secure that he would be safe. We also put a hotel supplied "pet in room" tag on the door to spare maids extra heartbeats.

The Harbour Castle is next door to the Toronto Ferries that travel year-round to the Toronto Islands, another perfect destination for retrievers or other active dogs. Dogs ride free on the boat as long as they are on a leash.

A group of businessmen from China were taking a ride on our ferry and Bart immediately became a subject for their video cameras. I decided that Bart should show his stuff for the laughing visitors so I put him through his paces -- sit, stay, shake hands and dance, one of his favorite activities. I imagined friends and family back in China gathering to watch this video and enjoying Bart's antics.

Since it was off-season, we went to Ward's Island, home to a number of year-round residents who enjoy the city's distinctive skyline from a secluded, protected island. Bart ran free along the beach and soon had a pack of new friends. It seemed as if everyone was out with a dog or two or three.

Toronto with Bart showed the city in a whole new light -- full of friendly, dog-loving people. I've been visiting the city regularly for years but never before have I met so many people. Of course, I know they really wanted to meet Bart.

If you go

For more information: Visit the Toronto web site at www.torontotourism.com or call (800) 363-1990.

For the Royal York Hotel, call (866) 540-4489 or visit www.royalyorkhotel.com. For the Harbour Castle Hotel, call (416) 869-1600 or visit www.starwood.com.

Other dog-friendly Toronto hotels include Ambler Hotel Airport, Crowne Plaza Toronto Don Valley, Delta Toronto Airport West, Delta Chelsea Toronto and Sheraton Centre Toronto.

Travel tips

* Keep your dog confined while in a car. Bart uses a kennel but dogs could use a crate, gate or harness system. As soon as your dog becomes used to confinement everyone will be happier and safer.

* Bring your dog's food and maintain the same feeding schedule he is used to at home.

* Keep your dog on a leash in all situations unless there is a safe area. Even the most well-trained dog can get spooked in a strange situation.

* Always clean up after your dog.

* Be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise each day.

* Stop every two hours while driving to allow your dog to take a walk.

* Bring along your dog's toys.

* If you will be leaving your dog alone in a hotel room confine him and give him a treat such as a hard rubber toy stuffed with dog treats.

* When leaving your dog, put a "Do not Disturb" sign on the door and put the television set on to ease separation anxiety.

* Put an I.D. tag on your dog with the phone number of your hotel destination and your cell phone number. If the worse should happen and your dog gets away, people will be able to contact you.

* Bring proof of rabies vaccination.

* Bring towels to dry your dog and old sheets to cover any hotel furniture that your dog might to decide to nap on.

* If traveling in the warm weather never leave your dog in the car. Temperatures can get dangerously high very fast.