In the rolling Texas Hill Country a few miles northeast of Austin is a 15-acre ranch with a devoted following. Though by Texas standards, DogBoy’s Dog Ranch is modest, its reputation is substantial. When it was founded almost 25 years ago by Bart Emken, it was the first of its kind. No artificial turf, concrete play areas or high-schoolage employees with squirt bottles here. Rather, dogs have access to dozens of large, grassy play areas; trees; kiddie pools; and a huge pond out back. Top it off with a team of passionate dog lovers and you’ve described dog heaven.
In the early 1990s, Bart, then a recent University of Texas, Austin, grad with a degree in communications, was unhappy in the advertising world and looking for a change. Back on campus to explore other career options, he witnessed a seeing-eye dog prevent her handler from falling down a flight of stairs. That day, he decided on his future career: training dogs to help humans. Bart—who quickly picked up the nickname DogBoy —earned CPDT-KA accreditation and established himself as a certified dog trainer. Then, in 1995, he and his wife Courtney opened the first pet-care facility in Texas (and possibly in the U.S.) that allowed canine free-play. Today, with the help of 30-plus employees, DogBoy’s Dog Ranch cares for and trains thousands of dogs each year; running, playing and swimming are also on the agenda at the ranch.
Five years after the ranch opened, DogBoy’s put in place another regional first that continues to be enforced: unless a veterinarian provides a reason to the contrary, all dogs older than six months must be altered before being boarded or attending daycare. Though the Emkens were told they’d lose at least half their clientele, that didn’t prove to be the case. Courtney says this wasn’t an across-the-board stand against breeding. “We were against breeding for the wrong reasons, a problem that was and still is rampant in the U.S. This is why partnerships with local rescue groups and shelters were, and still are, so important to us.” The local humane society often asks them for help in evaluating dogs and facilitating matches with potential adopters.
The program at DogBoy’s Dog Ranch reflects the Emkens’ philosophy and values. Positivereinforcement, reward-based training is the standard and has been since the facility opened. “Our trainers never use choke chains or pinch or shock collars,” explains Courtney. “It’s all about building a mutually respectful relationship between the owner and their dog.”
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Client dogs are evaluated prior to boarding or daycare visits. During the evaluation, the dog’s temperament is assessed and he or she is assigned a specific colorcoded run card that guides staff in choosing the best play areas. Dogs who play well with most other dogs get hours of playtime, while those who are more particular about their friends or have higher anxiety levels are placed in smaller groups with calm, low-key dogs. Dogs who don’t play well with others go out on their own. This system ensures that all dogs get outside time in a safe, spacious environment.
DogBoy’s also customizes the care of each dog, including training plans if needed, and offers special add-on services such as solo hikes and tuck-ins (complete with cookie), a gentle massage and story time.
The Emkens care for their staff as well, running their business in open-book management mode. During weekly staff meetings (called huddles), employees learn how the business is running, how profits are made and what adds to expenses. As goals are met, they share in the profits, which inspires feelings of ownership and empowers them to dream of running their own businesses one day.
As the ranch approaches its silver anniversary, the Emkens are focused on creating a legacy. “We want DogBoy’s to continue far past our retirement. Our customers depend on us,” says Bart. Never afraid of competition, the couple teaches others and spreads the message that dogs deserve the love they give. Their son, Mason, is a CDT in training and hopes to carry on the business in the future, and Gabby, their daughter, also works at the ranch.
Of course, the ranch’s resident dogs get preferential treatment. Rebel, a Dane/Lab mix, was taken in by the Emkens 13 years ago when they caught someone dumping him on their road. And Noodle, a 12-year-old Chiweenie, invited himself to the ranch as a puppy and never looked back. Can you blame him?
Learn more about the Emkens and their “ranch work” at dogboys.com.