'Who let the dogs out?' That's one cry I hope I won't be hearing today. I'm off to Bermondsey, south-east London, to Cats, Dogs & Peace of Mind, a canine creche.
Yep, you read that right. Dogs get dropped off here to pass the day sniffing their peers' rears, while their 'masters' go off to earn enough to keep their hounds in Boneos. Such a concept may sound barking mad, but business is booming. CDPoM has been doing home pet visits since 1999, opened the creche last year, and now plays host to as many as 20 dogs - charging from £24 a day per dog. Staff salaries start at £15,000, rising to £35,000 for an experienced hand.
I walk into an open-plan room: one side is the office (where a woman sits processing invoices next to a massive German Shepherd in a muzzle), the other half is a gated wood-floored area where the dogs play. In a regular nursery this would be strewn with toy cars and tea sets, and pictures the kids had produced. Here, there's a knotted rope and a squeaky toy, and a trail of wee a dog has produced (quickly mopped, I hasten to add).
Opening the gate, I get my first lesson: don't walk in holding a hot coffee. Whenever someone new enters the pen, it all kicks off and I'm suddenly surrounded by seven barking beasts jostling for a whiff of this latest wonder. A terrier leaps at my crotch and I recoil, accidentally pouring steaming liquid on its head.
My first task is to join CDPoM stalwarts Natascha and Peter in taking this lot for walkies, through the housing estates of Bermondsey to Southwark Park. Natascha tells me the first rule of dog club: never leave the creche without poo bags. Other rules: keep the leads short, and don't let them play near the road. As the new boy, I'm given the terrier and a dachshund called Hercules. Natascha tells me she once had to handle a Great Dane from Sri Lanka that had just come out of quarantine. It was built like a horse. Even with a muzzle, two leads and a harness it was still too much.
Peter is a Hungarian dog-lover, now five months into his first job in the UK. 'The dogs really come to love you and even cry when they have to leave,' he says. 'It's a really big compliment.' Unlike having to collect their turds, something I do several times before we leave the park.
Back at the creche, the job is just like looking after a group of kids - you soon get an idea of their characters and how they all relate. But it's less stressful, as dogs don't have opposable thumbs and can't grab anything. Your only concern is what's going on at each end - either chewing each others' faces or expelling waste. There's a sign saying: 'To all dogs: please don't piss on the carpet.' But they often ignore it.
Soon CDPoM founder Louise Wilshire turns up, dishing out a hail of hugs and kisses to all her charges. Louise started the business in 1999 when she realised there was a demand for home visits to feed and water pets whose owners went out to work.
Now she's an absolute authority on all things hound-related. 'I absolutely love looking after dogs,' she says, 'but everything else gives me grey hairs.' She lists VAT, insurance and unscrupulous rivals as her main bugbears.
But it's not all a big love-in. The diminutive Hercules gets into a tussle with one of a pair of chained-up Staffies and lets out a blood-curdling yelp. Peter immediately grabs the dachshund, only for Louise to tell him off. She orders Herc down and gives him a stern shove with her foot, telling Peter that the mutt was only yelping to get his attention.
'I get lots of people applying here thinking it'll be easy money, but training lasts two weeks. If they don't have the right skills - reliability, common sense, and an unsentimental love of dogs, I'll turn them away.' They're also fully insured, registered with the National Association of Registered Pet Sitters, and even CRB-checked.
Louise and her staff love these animals like their own, but, to be honest, it's not for me. Walking quickly loses its appeal, as does all the mind-numbing doggy baby-talk. But, for the dogs, it seems to be a joy. After a day at the creche, Hercules is so tired he simply goes home, scoffs a massive meal and hits the hay. And that, it seems, is a dog's life.