Feature - Daily mail
The place has all the requirements of a top health farm: personal fitness trainers, daily swims, monitored diets and comfortable log chalets with views over rambling fields and streams.
But to book in you need to make sure all your vaccinations are up to date……and that you don’t bite. Welcome to Britain’s first health farm for dogs.
Nestling among the hills of rural Wales, The Dog House must rival any human holiday destination. If you want your dog to lose a bit of weight, get fit and relax among beautiful surroundings, this is the place. Set in 300 acres, the house is surrounded by fields full of bluebells which lead to a frothing river.
The idea is the brainchild of Mark Thompson, 37, a former events organiser and stepson of the late Tim Walker, who was chairman of the Worldwide Fund of Nature. Raised in Wiltshire, he started training dogs when he was just 10 years old.
Later, mainly as a hobby, he expanded his skills studying under leading animal behaviourist John Rogerson, at the Northern Centre for Animal Behaviour.
From his London home he set up a sideline exercising and training dogs. It was only when one delighted owner presented him with a large cheque – and told him his vet was astounded at the dog’s complete transformation – that Mark considered going into the dog business full-time.
With his fiancée Gillian Quek, 26, whom he will marry next year, Mark decided to buy a farm in Wales and convert it into a health farm for dogs. They take around 35 at a time, but there are facilities to cater for more than 45.
‘I wanted something a bit different. There are two extremes; dog hotels where the pets are pampered to the hilt with everything the want, including champagne and caviar; and kennels which cater for a large number of dogs where they don’t have time for individual care.
We wanted the dogs to have the freedom to roam around in the fields, which is something you don’t find in other kennels. Much of our land is secured carefully with high fences to prevent even the most determined dog from escaping.
Our idea was to combine a fitness and training programme with comfort, so when you return looking wonderful from a fortnight’s holiday in the Caribbean, your dog looks like it’s been there too.’
But there’s no time for lazing around at this canine retreat. As with human health farms, there’s a strict timetable.
Breakfast is served between 8am and 9am outside a white washed barn. On arrival each dog is weighed and carefully assessed for overall fitness and to see if there are any health problems.
Then an eating and exercise programme is drawn up to make sure they leave in tip top condition. After a light breakfast of Hill’s Science Plan nutritional dog food, it’s time for the first run of the day across the meadows. One blow on the whistle and the command ‘All dogs’, and they come running.
After the run they face the first endurance test of the day; the assault course. All dogs are given personal tuition to do various jumps, run through tyres and weave in and out of post to improve their dexterity. Mark and Gillian, along with Danny, their assistant animal trainer, take it in turns to give their dog’s one to one tuition.
After a drink, the dogs are taken to the river for a swim. But it’s not all fun and games – next comes the obedience training.
‘I never teach dogs by compulsion but by using a reward system,’ said Mark. ‘If they do what they are told, they get treats and heaps of praise. It works. There’s no need to be confrontational with dogs.’
Dogs brought for training are required to stay six weeks, but if it’s just a vacation, any time from a week onwards is acceptable.
In the afternoon the dogs often scramble into the £40,000 specially adapted Dog Bus, complete with piped music, individual ‘dog homes’ – they can hardly be described as kennels – and specially monitored heating and ventilation. Destination; the white expanses of sandy beach until 30 minutes away on the picturesque West Wales coastline. This is a dog heaven.
Sometimes, they will be taken up to the hills to learn to socialise with other animals. Gillian and Mark own 50 sheep so the dogs are taught to get used to them. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the dogs obey Mark and simply observe the animals, never chasing after them. Even the naughtiest dogs are brought under control. If a dog looks as if it wants to chase, one technique Mark uses to distract it with a particularly intriguing toy.
At around 4pm it’s time for supper. In the summer this is taken in the yard overlooking the hills. In the winter it’s eaten inside the converted barn.
Then follows the grooming session. The muddy dogs have the full works; shampoo, conditioner and a blow dry. Their claws are clipped and their teeth de-scaled, then they are brushed and ready to relax.
Some curl up in the converted barn, with sofa’s and log fire, to watch television. Others with any energy left can run in the neighbouring field.
At 10pm they are taken for the final run of the day and exhausted, are put to bed with a biscuit in their temperature controlled wooden chalets.
A selection of music from a tape recorder is available in the chalets – special requests are, of course, accepted.
Outside are little wooden kennels containing another, smaller bed where the dogs can rest in the shade during hot weather. At this time of year, many an overheated hound can be found having a midday snooze there away from the sun. So what does such luxury cost? Daily rates are £29, but if you require the training programme it increases to £37 a day.
For owners who live in London, The Dog Bus (£70 return) picks up from Hammersmith on a Friday morning and drops off again on a Thursday night.
The dogs are certainly happy – it’s Mark and Gillian who are left feeling in need of a health farm!