Outfitted with soft beds instead of seats, a bright red van makes its way south on the Garden State Parkway. A joyful summertime journey made by countless visitors to the Jersey shore is different for this particular vehicle in one significant way: its eight excited passengers are dogs. The purpose of their journey is a vacation, of course, and their destination is Cape May. Some of these privileged pooches have vacationed in our town before, and their excitement builds in the final miles of the trip. Taking turns through the two open side windows of the van, each furry head pokes out and looks forward, tongues flapping in the warm headwind like tiny pink pennants to sample a taste of the pervading salt air. Their playfulness puts smiles on the faces of those in passing cars, some of whom snap pictures and give a friendly wave or a honk of their horn.
Their chauffeur is Bobby Barbagallo, a human, and a dog whisperer extraordinaire. For 12 years, Bobby has been the sole proprietor of “Who’s Your Doggie?”—a daily boarding and training service for dogs based in Edgewater, New Jersey.
A former stage and screen actor who has appeared in Sex and the City II and in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Bobby got the idea for his business while dog sitting for a friend who was in nursing school. “I was looking to earn money and have some flexibility while taking care of my elderly parents,” Bobby said. As the business grew and Bobby established a close connection with the dogs he trained, he decided to take short-term boarding to the next level, and now offers a three-day seaside vacation, charging $650.00 per dog. A reasonable fee, he reminds people, when compared to kennel boarding fees, and keeping in mind all the luxurious perks and indulgences that are included.
“Either I or one of my four employees will pick up all the dogs on a Saturday night,” Bobby said of his monthly doggie jaunts to Cape May. “At 4:00 in the morning, I give them their exercise, feed them, and then we’re on the way to Cape May. Some of them know where they are going and are so excited that I can’t get them to relieve themselves when we make a pit stop along the way.”
Their Sunday morning arrival is much like that of any vacationing family, with the typical down-the-shore check-in ritual. “We check in at Billmae Cottage, and then head to the beach for a few hours,” Bobby said. Snacks and water are packed along with toys and towels, and then it’s off to the beach. “They love Higbee Beach,” Bobby said of the dog-permissible bayside beach. “I take their leashes off and let them have fun.” An obvious concern one might have in herding a bunch of dogs around is that of them running off. “First of all, dogs are pack animals and they stay together,” Bobby explained. “Secondly, I have food for them, and they’re not going far when you have food. Also, I’ve trained many of these dogs from the time they were puppies. I know these dogs and their personalities, and would not allow a dog to come on vacation if I thought there was any risk with them.”
Billmae Cottage’s requirement for guests returning from the beach is a familiar one to all who visit the shore: wash off all sand before entering. This golden rule of all seaside guest houses makes for Bobby’s first big chore while “on vacation.” For most Billmae guests, washing two or more dogs can be a challenge. It’s daunting to the average person, but Bobby happily takes on this task for eight dogs. It’s one of the things that makes him the sought-after professional he is. When Cape May Magazine met with him, his pack included English sheepdogs and bearded collies, whose long, wet fur can hold several pounds of sand.
Once cleaned, the dogs are free to frolic in the fenced-in yard or to lie on the wraparound porch while Bobby relaxes with a book.
Since 2001, innkeepers Bob and Linda Steenrod have hosted the island’s most lively and contented visitors at Billmae Cottage, one of the first in an increasing number of dog-friendly guest accommodations in Cape May. “We get the finest guests of any place in Cape May…and they bring nice people with them too,” Linda said of her visitors.
“When Bobby first came with the dogs,” Linda said, “I was surprised how well he knows the dogs’ personalities, and how well they behave for him. Our favorite part of their visit is getting doggy kisses from the dogs when they jump out of the van.”
A highlight of their stay at Billmae is the cookout. Barbecued chicken kabobs are the favorite item on the menu when Bobby takes on the role of grill master. Going out for ice cream after a summertime cookout? Bobby spoils the doggies with that vacation tradition too! “I take them down along Beach Drive,” Bobby said of one of his favorite outdoor ice cream vendors. “I order some vanilla ice cream and divide it up into cups for each of them.” It is during these heartwarming activities that Bobby and his doggies have the most interaction with the public. “People always ask me if I own all the dogs,” Bobby said. “It’s the most common reaction I get from people. I tell them that I don’t, but that I’m taking them on vacation. They love the idea, but they all laugh.”
The laughter and amusement from non-Americans, however, seems to be rooted in bewilderment. On a recent vacation in Cape May, Bobby sent a video postcard of Gemma, an English sheepdog who joins him on each trip, to her owner, Ellen Feldman, who was attending a Versace fashion show in Capri, Italy. Ellen then shared with her companions in Capri the video postcard of Gemma relaxing on the beach. “They thought it was odd that Americans would give this sort of attention to their pets,” Bobby said. “It’s very clear that we Americans have a different regard for our pets than many Europeans.”
Ellen, the wife of a Manhattan jeweler, remembers the moment well. “The people in Capri thought it was unbelievable that Americans send their dogs on vacation,” Ellen said. “Basically, they thought I was nuts.”
The care and attention that Bobby has shown Gemma has led Ellen to consider him as one of her family’s closest and most trusted friends. “He is so good to the babies,” Ellen said. “I trust him so completely. I’ve never been to Cape May, but if he says it’s a great place and the dogs love it, then I’m perfectly fine with it.”
Ellen and her husband also know of Gemma’s fondness for her frequent jaunts to the Jersey Shore. “Gemma loves her trips to Cape May,” Ellen said. “If she could talk, she would say that she feels free and loved. She loves her vacation at the beach with her friends.”
Video postcards aren’t the only mementos the owners get. After all, no shore getaway would be complete without gifts to take home to the family. This final vacation ritual of souvenir shopping is done in high style with a visit to Cape May Winery, where the dogs are free to walk with Bobby through the lush vineyard before he purchases a bottle of Cape May’s finest wine for each doggy to present to the sponsors of his or her seaside holiday.
Like all summer vacations, the end of this one seems to come too quickly. Contented and carefree, the doggies spend their final moments on Billmae’s shady porch as Bobby packs the van for their journey home. No long faces nor dragging feet are found with this group’s departure. Bob and Linda Steenrod are there for their goodbye kisses and know that Gemma will return with Bobby on next month’s vacation, along with some of her friends. In Gemma’s own words (well…as her owner has told us), their vacation, as in most facets of a cherished dog’s life, is one of freedom and love but above all, that most treasured of canine traits: companionship.