As featured in Open Skies – Emirates Inflight Magazine
Top chef Michel Roux and former UK cabinet minister Robin Cook are among the many clients who are happy to £250 a week to board their canine friends at The Dog House. Then again, this is no ordinary kennel.
Mark Thompson has always had a way with animals. His mother, father and grandfather had a collection of zoo creatures, including tapirs, camels and zebras.
‘I was lucky enough to have quite an extended family, as a result of which there were animals everywhere,’ said Mark. ‘I was in seventh heaven. At weekends and during school holidays, I spent most of my time outside, returning home only for meals and peanut butter sandwiches!’
Most of Mark’s teenage years were spent working on farms. Later, while living and working in London, he began walking other people’s dogs to help pay his bills. Work soon spread and Mark could calm and train even the most difficult of dogs.
‘One day I had a call from a local vet who asked if I could help sort out a troublesome dog that had been here, there and everywhere. After spending about an hour a day with the dog for three or four days during a period of about a month. I had managed to transform its behaviour and duly received a whopping cheque from its owner. It was then that I began thinking that looking after and training dogs was possibly a better way of earning a living rather than killing myself providing equipment to event organisers.’
After going on a variety of courses and attending seminar, Mark launched a commercial dog walking and training service. But the business grew so rapidly, that before long he was struggling to cope.
‘I remember once walking into his London and seeing dogs everywhere,’ said Gillian – then his girlfriend, now his wife. At times he was looking after 35 dogs and staying up until two in the morning just to keep on top of the paperwork. His business was in complete chaos.’
Gillian offered to work for Mark for two months to help put his affairs back on an even keel. ‘Things then happened very quickly indeed. By the end of the two month period, we had decided to move out of London and into the countryside. A month after that, we had found the ideal property from which to run a new type of dog business where the emphasis would mainly be on health, exercise, games and education.’
Mark and Gillian initially thought they would end up somewhere in the Home Counties within easy reach of the M25.
But all the houses they viewed around the capital were in development areas or close to noisy bypasses and roundabouts. ‘We wanted a peaceful place that could potentially be our home for the rest of our lives, so we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.’
Gillian then began toying with the idea of the two of them moving well away from the Home Counties – to somewhere as far west as Wales. ‘Mark was horrified at the prospect at first.’ laughed Gillian, he had never been to Wales and half believed we needed a passport to get there!’
Eventually, Gillian persuaded Mark to spend a weekend in the principality, viewing six properties. ‘After seeing the third property on the first day, we both knew it was the place for us. The owners were out when we visited, so we couldn’t go inside. But that didn’t matter. As far as we were concerned, location was the key thing. You can change buildings, but you can’t change a setting.’
The couple bought idyllic Dinas Farm in Talog, Carmarthenshire, in early 1997 and now own and run a highly successful canine activity holiday centre and health farm called The Dog House. ‘A lot of our friends thought we were absolutely bananas – that we were completely out of our minds to contemplate moving to Wales.’
Gillian, who used to work for Sotheby’s, says: ‘My uncle had a bet with my dad that I would be back in Bond Street within six months to buy new shoes. But he lost, I don’t think I have been to a clothes shop of any description for about three years, I just don’t have that feeling of ‘want anymore.’
Moving to Wales was ‘a huge risk’, Gillian admitted. ‘In fact, we were so nervous of people thinking that Wales was too far away, that we printed the address of my old London flat on our business cards. But we needn’t have worried. In fact, our London clients liked the idea of their dogs having a real holiday in the depths of the countryside rather than in a field on the outskirts of the city.’
The couple started with just 30 acres but now own 110. What’s more, they have the use of a further 300 acres. ‘It’s a beautiful area,’ enthused Mark, ‘with a bit of everything – hills, valleys, woodland, marshy areas, streams, ponds and carpets of bluebells in the spring.’
Dogs stay at Dinas Farm from as little as one week to one or more years, living in twos and threes in heated chalets. ‘Most of our regular customers board their dog with us for several weeks during the school holidays,’ Gillian explained. ‘Two dogs owned by a diplomat that were supposed to be with us for six months ended up staying two and a half years! The owners always knew he would return to the UK, but was never sure quite when,’
Footballers, actors, actresses, models, pop singers are among the many famous people on The Dog House’s book, but Mark and Gillian are reluctant to name names on privacy grounds.
They did confirm however, that top chef Michel Roux and former UK cabinet minister Robin Cook are among their clients.
We also look after many dogs belonging to people who are anything but rich,’ continued Gillian. ‘What you have to appreciate is that to many people, a dog is an integral part of the family – as important as their own children. In fact, to some people’s dog are their children.’
The key difference between The Dog House and an ‘ordinary’ kennel, ‘is that we interact with the dogs throughout the day, from taking them for a walk in the morning and evening as a group to playing with them individually during the day,’ explained Mark.
‘We exercise their brains as well as their muscles.’
As soon as a dog arrives at Dinas Farm, it is given the proverbial once over. This involves carefully examining every part of its body to ascertain its condition. It is also weighed and put on a Hill’s Science Plan measured diet, according to its size and level of activity.
‘Some dogs are extremely active and require more food, but a fair number come here overweight, so they are put on a gentle diet,’ explains Gillian. ‘Certain owners send their dogs to us accompanied by the most fantastic hampers of beautifully packed steaks. We tactfully explain to them that their dog will be converted to a proper diet over a period of five days.’
If owners are not prepared to accept the rules and regulations of the Dog House, their animal is not accepted. It’s as simple as that,’ said Gillian. ‘We do what is best for a dog, not for its owner. We have to be firm in the interests of animal welfare. Despite this, people come back to us again and again.’
Every person who sends their dog to Dinas Farm is required to complete a detailed questionnaire covering such things as food, exercise, general behaviour, grooming and medical history.
Mark says: ‘We treat a dog as a dog, not as a person, and give it clear commands so that it regards and respects each handler as a higher ranking creature than itself. If a dog is called to heel, it immediately responds.
‘The difference in a dog can be profound in as little as two weeks. Many owners have told us that their animal is not so boisterous and no longer jumps up at people – that it is calmer, more settled and generally better behaved and more responsive.’
Every dog returns home clean, fit and healthy, accompanied by a behavioural report spotlighting anything requiring attention. Nails are clipped and ear and teeth cleaned. A full wash and blow dry is also given. ‘It’s wonderful when an owner rings up afterwards and says their dog is now a completely different animal,’ beamed Gillian.
It costs around £350 per week to board a dog at Dinas Farm. Every Thursday throughout the year, Mark and Gillian do a weekly run to central London, returning one batch of dogs and picking up another in a customised Mercedes van called the Hill’s Dog Bus.
Dogs are also picked up at various stopping points on or just off the M4. Owners who live further a field make their own transport arrangements. ‘We have clients all across the UK,’ said Gillian, ‘the most distant living in North Uist.’
Mark and Gillian have had many amusing experiences through the years. ‘Once, when I was doing the weekly run to London, I pointed out to a chauffeur that he had left the engine of his employer’s Bentley running,’ said Mark. ‘He told me that was because of the owner’s standard Poodle had ripped through the electrics under the steering wheel while he had nipped out for a newspaper. The chauffeur didn’t want to turn off the Bentley’s engine in case he couldn’t get it started again!’
According to Gillian: We have never regretted coming to this beautiful part of Wales. Dinas Farm is our home and our business and we plan to stay here for the rest of our lives.’