In a shady yard, pug Eric is raising dust and giving his mates hell.
The little black-faced blighter with the squiggly tail is playing chasey like a bank robber with his bum on fire. His gang mates just can't keep up, they collapse with tongues lolling, but Eric the battery boy won't give in. He's a pug on a mission — to create havoc.
“Eric!" Vanessa Scadden's voice shrieks across the yard to no effect whatsoever. The little golden furball keeps on pushing the bark button.
We are at Nathalia Boarding Kennels and Cattery two weeks before Christmas, and things are getting busy.
Two years ago Vanessa and her mum and dad David and Fay bought the business from founder and much-loved pet person Madeleine Keil who came up with the idea of creating a boarding kennels as a social holiday for dogs more than 20 years ago.
Madeleine's dog philosophy is a simple one.
“A happy dog is a tired dog — not a tied dog,” she says.
“I slept here for 18 years and the only barking I heard at night came from dogs on chains on nearby farms,” Madeleine says.
So the Nathalia kennel dogs are out of their kennels first thing in the morning and they return muscle-sore and panting before nightfall. They spend their day chasing balls, chewing toys, lazing around, sniffing backsides or — in Eric's case — going bananas.
They are sorted out according to age, temperament or size and put into separate pens to socialise or not — as they choose.
Vanessa, who began work at the kennels 13 years ago as a school work experience student, divides her boarders into personality types, based on their breeds.
There's the tiggy-chasey dogs which are usually herding workers like border collies.
Then there are the rugby players such as Labradors who enjoy a good physical romp.
Senior citizens, large and small, like to lie around and watch the others exhaust themselves.
Loners like to be with other dogs, but don't care to socialise too much.
At the moment Vanessa has 28 fenced pens with up to six dogs in each.
“Most kennels don't socialise dogs like we do. The dogs stay in their own kennels. But here they are out all day and we provide as much mental and physical stimulation as possible — with toys, balls, sand pits, sprinklers and splash pools,” she says.
They even run a Doggy Day Out service where dogs are collected from Nathalia, Shepparton and Echuca for a day of socialising — NBKC-style.
Not surprisingly, the kennels are booked out at Christmas. Vanessa says some people book five years ahead, and some travel from Melbourne.
Two years ago, Madeleine retired to downtown Nathalia, but she still pays regular visits.
She says she got the idea of allowing dogs to socialise and play together from an SBS program she watched in the 1990s.
“I just felt there was a different way we could do boarding kennels. The old model was penning a dog all day with just 15 minutes’ exercise.
“Then I saw this documentary on the war in Bosnia where an autistic man who strongly related to children and dogs made it his mission to collect and protect all the stray dogs around his town.
“He ended up with 500 dogs on an acre — they lived in tin huts and he had no other option but to let them mix with each other, and guess what? They all got on with each other. He fed them porridge every day, and there was no fighting.
“I believe that if you leave dogs to get on with things, they sort it out. It's people who get in the way.”
To keep things happy, there are strict admission rules at NBKC. All boarders must be de-sexed, and no aggressive dogs allowed.
In the cattery, things are a bit different.
There's an atmosphere of dignified calm as residents come and go through the cat flaps or sleep on cushions in their individual multi-storey airconditioned pens.
They blink at visitors like pampered pharaohs.
Outside in dog-world, Morgan, a chocolate Labrador, won't give up his ball. He's being chased around in circles by four other jealous mates.
He stands his ground and gives the ball a teasing chew.
Then he sets off again like a child with the only ice-cream in town, shaking his head and leaving a spray of slobber, water and mud behind him.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the property, Eric is still giving his pen-mates hell. If their yaps were human they would be the squeals of laughing children.
“We just let dogs be dogs. But they do get a bath before they go home,” Vanessa says.