In the rolling Texas Hill Country, a few miles northeast of Austin, is a 15 acre ranch with a loyal following. While DogBoy’s Dog Ranch is humble by Texan standards, its reputation is formidable. When it was founded by Bart Emken almost 25 years ago, it was the first of its kind. There is no artificial turf, no concrete playgrounds or high school staff with squirt bottles. Rather, dogs have access to dozens of large, grassy play areas. Trees; Children’s pools; and a huge pond back. Top it off with a team of passionate dog lovers and you have described dog heaven.
In the early 1990s, Bart, then a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in communications, was unhappy in the advertising world and was looking for a change. Back on campus to explore other career opportunities, he saw a guide dog stop their handler from falling down a flight of stairs. It was on this day that he decided on his future career: training dogs to help people. Quickly nicknamed DogBoy, Bart earned CPDT-KA accreditation and established himself as a certified dog trainer. In 1995, he and his wife Courtney opened the first pet care facility in Texas (and possibly the US) where dogs could play freely. Today DogBoys Dog Ranch takes care of and trains thousands of dogs every year with the help of more than 30 employees. Running, playing and swimming are also on the program at the ranch.
Five years after the ranch opened, DogBoy has introduced another regional premiere that continues to be enforced: Unless a veterinarian provides a reason to the contrary, all dogs older than six months must be changed before boarding or attending daycare . Although the Emkens were told that they would lose at least half of their clientele, this was not the case. Courtney says this is not a general position against breeding. “We were against breeding for the wrong reasons, a problem that was and is widespread in the US. That is why partnerships with local rescue groups and animal shelters have been and are so important to us.” The local humane society often turns to her for help with evaluating dogs and facilitating matches with potential adopters.
The program at DogBoys Dog Ranch reflects the philosophy and values of Emkens. Positive, reward-based training is the standard and has been conducted since the facility opened. “Our trainers never use choke chains, crush collars, or shock absorber collars,” explains Courtney. “It’s about building a respectful relationship between the owner and his dog.”
Client dogs are rated before boarding or in daycare. During the evaluation, the dog’s temperament is assessed and assigned a specific color-coded running card to help staff select the best play areas. Dogs that play well with most other dogs have hours of playtime, while those who care more about their friends or have higher levels of anxiety are divided into smaller groups of calm, reserved dogs. Dogs that don’t play well with others go out alone. This system ensures that all dogs are in a safe, spacious environment out of time.
DogBoys also tailors grooming for each dog, including training plans if required, and offers special perks like solo hikes and tuck-ins (complete with cookie), a gentle massage, and a story time.
The Emkens also take care of their employees and run their business in open book management mode. During weekly employee meetings (so-called huddles), employees learn how business is going, how profits are made and what increases costs. When goals are met, they share the profits, which creates a sense of ownership and enables them to dream of running their own business one day.
As the ranch nears its silver anniversary, the Emkens are focused on creating a legacy. “We want DogBoys to continue well beyond our retirement. Our customers depend on us,” says Bart. The couple are not afraid of competition, they educate others and spread the message that dogs deserve the love they give Son Mason is a CDT in training and hopes to continue running the business in the future, and Gabby, their daughter, also works on the ranch.
Of course, the dogs resident on the ranch are given preferential treatment. A cross between a Dane and a laboratory, Rebel was taken in by the Emkens 13 years ago when they caught someone throwing him on their street. And Noodle, a 12-year-old Chiweenie, invited herself to the ranch as a puppy and never looked back. Can you blame him
Find out more about the Emkens and their “ranch work” on dogboys.com.