Dog Boy’s Dog Ranch: Pet Care Pioneers
By Kathy Hosler
a person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity.
When Bart (DogBoy) and Courtney (DogGirl) Emken began their careers in the pet care industry, they didn’t set out to be pioneers—they just had their own ideas about how to run a pet care facility. Some of the procedures and new programs they implemented in their business were unheard of 25 years ago, but are commonplace in the industry now.
In 1995 the Emkens purchased a house and 15 acres of property near Austin, Texas. They put up 10 outdoor runs, fenced in their backyard, and opened for boarding, daycare and training. The business office was in the kitchen of their home.
Bart was a dog trainer and had worked for other facilities before opening DogBoy’s Dog Ranch. He saw the effects of boarding dogs 24/7 in kennels; incessant barking, constant pacing and other self-destructive behaviors. He thought the dogs would be happier and enjoy their stay more if they got to interact with other dogs and had an outlet for their pent–up energy. So Bart began to allow his boarding dogs to socialize together in play groups and he would take them for daily group hikes on the property.
“In 1995, people said I was crazy to allow dogs that didn’t know each other to play together,” says Bart. “Now, it is the norm. To my knowledge, we were the first facility in Texas to offer group play with dogs.”
DogBoy’s Dog Ranch grew from just a few clients to over 200 in just two years. They built their first indoor/outdoor kennel, and by 1999 they had grown to more than 2,000 clients.
In 2000, Courtney and Bart built their second kennel building, and added an office and retail center. The couple decided to implement another new policy at their facility. They began to require that all the dogs they accepted for boarding and daycare be spayed or neutered. Again, people told them they were crazy, and that they would lose customers over this policy. Now, spay and neuter requirements are standard policy at most pet care facilities.
A 2,400 sq. ft. training and wellness center was built on-site in 2010 to further their mission of insisting on only reward-based, force-free, positive reinforcement dog training. Positive training existed back then but was definitely not a focus for other pet care facilities.
“Our entire facility was designed for the comfort and safety of the dogs,” says Courtney. “Every time we added a building, we did it on a shoestring. But, we never compromised on quality and safety.”
DogBoy’s can accommodate upwards of 100 dogs on the property. Daycare varies based on the number of boarding dogs, as compatible boarding dogs also get to enjoy daycare activities. In addition, there are many add-on services such as handmade treats, night walks and tuck-in services.
There are 25 different play areas on the property with lots of space to run and play. Their daycare is not just run, run, run all day long, however, as each day includes structured rest times.
“We realize that dogs need more than just a physical experience,” says Courtney.
DogBoy’s has introduced innovative programs like their ELSA (Enrichment & Life Skills Academy) daycare training program. The ELSA academy is the next generation of training-focused daycare. It is designed to meet all of a dog’s needs; mental enrichment, socialization, play, training and rest.
“ELSA is a form of enrichment daycare,” says Bart. “The day is split into a time to run and play, a time for mental enrichment, structured rest times, and using brain and body to learn life skills and manners such as walking on leash, waiting at a door, and other behaviors that benefit dog owners.”
In the beginning, boarding made up the most of their business, but in the last five to ten years, daycare and training have really grown.
“Interest in training has really taken off,” says Bart. “From the beginning, our goal was to use only force-free, positive training. Now, we have five amazing certified trainers on staff. We offer private and group classes for basic obedience, canine good citizen, puppy classes, board and train, training-related daycare, and more.”
DogBoy’s has a new program called ‘reverse board and train’. “It is where we go to the client’s home and train their dog while the owner is at work,” says Bart. “At the end of each week, we meet with the owners, go over everything the dog has worked on, and show them how to maintain the new skills their dog has learned.”
Every dog has to go through a full-day evaluation before it can board or be accepted into daycare at the Ranch.
“From the very beginning, we started a color-coded behavior designation for every dog according to what we determined during its evaluation. We have green, orange, and red cards. For example, green card dogs get along with most dogs and with people and can go in most playgroups of the same size and temperament. Orange card dogs may be more particular about their friends or have handling issues with people. Red card dogs can be human or dog aggressive, or may be at risk for getting injured and are usually not put with other dogs. A secondary silver card color indicates dogs who need more rest due to health issues or age,” explains Bart.
This color-coded system helps to guide the staff when assigning the dogs to their playgroups. Assigning colors to dogs’ behavior is a system that is widely used in other facilities today.
Another special perk available to DogBoy’s clients is the private dog park. “We wanted to create a place for our clients where they could feel confident bringing their dogs,” says Bart. “It’s ‘members only’ on weekends, and only certain green card dogs are permitted. During the week, customers can reserve the park privately. Weekend members have formed a ‘Breakfast Club’ that regularly gathers to let their dogs play.”
“Our website, www.dogboys.com, is critical to our success. One of the first comments people make is how nice, easy to navigate, and professional it is. It really sets us apart,” says Bart. “We have a great web designer and content manager who both work hard to keep it fresh. The more information you give people, the more likely they are to use your business. We do video blogs and visitors can take a virtual tour of the ranch.”
“We’re pretty active on social media, too,” says Courtney. “We have two Facebook pages. One is exclusively where we post client pup ‘shout outs’. It’s a really popular add-on service. We used to offer it for free, but the demand got too high. Now we charge $5 per day to post a few pictures or a video of a client’s dog. Our clients love to see pictures of their pups having fun.”
It takes 30-35 staff members to keep things running smoothly at DogBoy’s Dog Ranch.
“Our team works so hard. I tell everyone who wants to work here that it’s the hardest ‘easy job’ you will ever have,” says Bart with a hearty chuckle. “We stress teamwork, integrity, knowledge, caring, respect and passion. These vare our core values. We also use open-book management; teaching our team about how the business runs. Our staff knows when we are doing well financially or when our bottom line needs a boost. As a team we come up with great ideas to build income.”
“We promote entrepreneurship,” says Courtney. “Bart and I often consult with people who want to open their own business, or who want to make their facility better. Over the years we have helped foster over a dozen new businesses.”
“The reason we are successful is because we care, and we are not afraid to try something new,” share Courtney and Bart. “We were one of the very first to offer group play, to require pups be spayed or neutered, and to focus on all positive training procedures. Our hope is that we were the very first ‘Dog Ranch’ too!
“At DogBoy’s Dog Ranch we are always innovating. It’s fun to be a pioneer!”