Britain’s poshest pooch hotel
By Debora Robertson. As featured in the Daily Mail.
We have a weekend routine, my dog Barney and I. We enjoy a trip to the park followed by breakfast in a local cafe.
I clip his lead around a table leg to prevent him running into London traffic, or taking off in vocal pursuit of his mortal enemy: the skateboarder.
We might go to lunch with friends, both human and canine, potter in the garden or cosy up and watch a film.
On Sunday mornings we head to a flower market, where a stallholder might share a bit of bacon sandwich or biscuit with him, before we wander among the flower buckets and in and out of the chi-chi boutiques.
After ten years together, we rub along happily. He’s mostly good and I’m mostly grateful. Sure, he can acquire selective terrier deafness when I try to call him away from something utterly mesmerising, such as a darting squirrel or the rotting remains of a rat, but even the happiest of marriages have their moments.
But this weekend promises to be unlike the others — no cafes, boutiques or exotic blooms. It’s Friday night and we’re winding along the lanes of Carmarthenshire, South-West Wales. We splash across a ford and along a riverbank blowsy with gunnera leaves. We’re a long way from London, Toto.
Just when I think we might have taken a wrong turn, I see a cream farmhouse nestled in the valley, the smoke from its chimney mingling with the mist. This is it. One of the most exclusive dog hotels in the world.
Except it’s NOT a dog hotel. This is soon made very clear to me by Mark and Gillian Thompson, who came here in 1994 to create their dream: an activity holiday and education centre for some of the luckiest dogs on the planet. And also, for one weekend only, Barney the slightly wayward terrier from North London.
Just as with all A-list resorts, its charming owners are ferocious about protecting the privacy of their guests, but they count among their number footballers, television presenters, Michelin-starred chefs, actors, aristocrats, models and moguls.
Nothing is too good for their darlings — a sentiment shared by many of us. According to a recent survey, 40 per cent of dog owners let their pet snuggle in bed with them at night, around a fifth of owners kiss their pet on the mouth, and a third refer to themselves as their ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ — a reminder of just how deep affection for dogs can run.
No wonder, then, that people drive from as far away as the Shetlands and the South of France to drop their darlings off in Wales.
Though some don’t drive there at all. They get someone else to do it. If you’re in West London on a Thursday, there’s every chance you’ll see Mark and his state-of-the-art dogmobile — all climate controlled compartments, blankets, toys, and classical music to calm nervous travellers — collecting the latest charges for their trip to The Dog House.
And then there are the ‘chopper dogs’ — the ones who come by helicopter. Mark describes one very privileged pooch who landed at The Dog House with butler and chauffeur in tow. ‘They’re the ones who probably take care of him most of the time, so they needed lessons too,’ he says.
We walk into the house and the hallway resembles the entrance of many country houses: stone flagged floors, antique sideboards filled with family photographs, portraits of dogs, pegs heavy with fleeces and waxed coats, muddy wellies lined up against the wall.
On the floor are half a dozen tweed dog beds, each with a little piece of antler in front of it — a better class of dog chew.
Over dinner, Mark explains how he was an events organiser in the Nineties, but when work was slow he’d walk his own dog and eventually others — seeing how perfectly behaved his hound was, owners asked him to walk theirs, too.
He soon became quite the sight in London parks, exercising a dozen or more well-behaved dogs off the lead at once. His reputation as a dog whisperer spread.
When he met Gillian, who was working for Sotheby’s, they knew they wanted a different life outside London, and so the idea of The Dog House was born.
Early the next morning, I wake with a start. The tranquillity of the valley is pierced by ferocious barking and squawking. Oh hell. My husband has taken Barney out and he has had his first encounter with peacocks. It didn’t go well.
At breakfast, Mark’s flawless good manners (‘When you take the toy from the dog, you must say “Thank you”’) remain unruffled, but his jaw tightens slightly when he asks if it was Barney who sent these most raffinée of birds up into the trees. It’s clear we all have our work cut out for us.
We take a walk around the grounds, a nirvana of ponds, waterfalls, hillside walks, meadows and fenced fields for recall and agility training.
No wonder some guests, who have only ever been walked around smart squares in Chelsea, are transformed by the freedom of trotting along with a happy pack here.
We visit the kennels — or more accurately, little chalets, with underfloor heating, blinds so the dogs aren’t woken too early, and classical music playing in the background.
Astonishingly, given that there are 18 dogs in residence at that moment (up to 60 in high season), everything is quiet. If there were such a thing as a Buddhist retreat for dogs, this may be it.
We wander into the food room, stocked with every kind of dog food you could imagine, including The Dog House’s own range devised with chef Michel Roux, a customer who became a friend.
Their tin of Random Rewards includes ostrich and cherry, seaweed and orange, and venison and blueberry treats. The calming Bedtime Biscuits are made from sweet potato, pumpkin seeds and chamomile.
There’s a grooming salon with more bottles of shampoo than a Knightsbridge hairdressers’ and a puppy room which houses an industrial washing machine for the dozens of fleeces and blankets they go through each day.
The swooshing of the machine helps puppies get used to the sounds they’ll meet in everyday life. Here, they pride themselves on training dogs to face everything with equanimity.
The staff don fancy dress and run tapes ranging from quiet sounds to crashing, banging, fireworks and gunfire. There is even a desensitisation course for dogs who fly a lot, to get them used to the feeling of being in a plane.
We interrupt our tour for the morning ritual of the dogs being let out into the field with ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. They walk peacefully through them. Many are here for gun dog training, so it’s essential they’re calm around birds. I feel Barney’s Peacock Shame more keenly.
This level of attention to detail doesn’t come cheap. Three weeks’ puppy training costs £1,365; six weeks’ companion dog training is £2,730; and eight weeks’ gun dog training is £3,640. And it’s not just as simple as paying up. Like the most exclusive boarding schools, getting in at all is quite the challenge.
There is an extensive application form, they don’t take new dogs during busy periods in case their behaviour adversely affects the balance, and personal recommendation helps. Gillian says, ‘A woman called to say she’d heard that one of our regular dogs has to die before we allow another one in, which is nonsense. But it’s true that 90 per cent of our business is repeat customers.’
It’s time for us to get to work. I’d explained to Mark that though Barney is generally good, it’s impossible to take a toy from him if he doesn’t want to give it up, and I worry that he suffers from separation anxiety when I’m not there.
We go into the barn. A fire burns in the grate. It’s easy to get lost in the glitter of it all — helicopters and gourmet treats, classical music and tweed baskets. But we have a job to do, and Mark takes that very seriously indeed.
In minutes, he’s shown me how to play tug with Barney without either of us losing the will to live, or at least play — something I’ve struggled with for ten years.
He is calm and kind and patient and, like all people who are good at something, he makes it look simple. He shows me how to manipulate the tug toy to lure Barney in, swishing it around my legs in a figure of eight and letting him bite onto it.
Barney makes yelps of joy out of the side of his mouth, never letting go of the ball part.
Mark shows me how to let the rope part go slack, to take the excitement out of the game, and then how to get Barney to release the ball by gently raising him up on his back paws by a few centimetres. Barney lets go of the toy. ‘Say, “Thank you!”’ says Mark. I say ‘Thank you’. I mean it.
Regarding separation anxiety, Mark explains it’s important that me walking through the door isn’t the most exciting thing in Barney’s life. (I’m not going to lie, who doesn’t love that about their dog?)
‘When you walk in, ignore him,’ he says. ‘I know it’s difficult — this is one thing that most people find virtually impossible — until the dog is calm. Then have a calmish greeting.
‘If he jumps up, recoil and wait two minutes, 20 seconds, whatever, until he’s calm, then call him over for a kiss and a cuddle for as long as you want, but just not when he demands it.’
Mark recommends food puzzle toys for when I’m out, the canine equivalent of a cryptic crossword. Then he talks about using varying rewards to get your dog to do exactly what you want. It could be affection, a game, food, the occasional jackpot treat.
‘You want to turn them into compulsive gamblers, so they’re addicted to running back to you. However strong the distraction, when you call your dog, he needs to believe he might get something better by running to you.’
I ask if he sometimes feels the attention is at the wrong end of the lead — that they put so much care into their charges and might then send them back to owners who won’t keep up the work.
‘Yes, it’s sometimes difficult when dogs come back six months later on holiday and the owners haven’t put in the effort. It can be dispiriting for the staff.’
But the strong friendships he and Gillian have made with former customers (some made them godparents to their children) indicate the Dog House treatment can be transformative for both dogs and humans.
Natalie the groomer then takes Barney off for a tidy-up and sends him back smelling of apples, saying that he was very well behaved. This, to me at least, made up for The Disgrace of the Peacocks. You’re good at being groomed, you massive London tart.
In the week since leaving dog heaven, I’ve kept up with Mark’s training and used their app (it’s only £4.99, easy to use and fills you with confidence that what you thought were entrenched problems probably aren’t).
Barney and I have had fun, it’s put a spring in both of our steps, and I am heartened that it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks — whichever end of the lead that old dog might be.