Tonia Whilden had a problem. Her rescue dog, Beauregard, got anxious around people and other dogs, and couldn’t be boarded at any of Houston’s existing kennels. So Whilden, a professional dog trainer, decided to start her own boarding business; one that would cater to “difficult” dogs like her own.
“As I looked around Houston, I didn’t see any good choices,” she recalled. “So I started brainstorming about what a dog like Beauregard would need to successfully board, and that’s how this place came about.”
“This place” is the Houston Dog Ranch, a wooded five-acre property in Spring Branch, where dogs are treated like VIP guests at a luxury hotel. Whilden and her husband spent two years scouting around Houston for the right place before settling on Spring Branch. “At first I was a little hesitant because I wasn’t familiar with the area,” Whilden said. “But as soon as I drove over here, I was like, this is the place. There were so many trees, and you felt like you were in the country, even though you were in the middle of the city.”
At the Houston Dog Ranch, each dog gets its own miniature cabin equipped with A/C and a flatscreen TV. The cabin has access to either an outdoor or indoor porch where they can see their neighboring dogs, allowing them to choose whether to be inside or outside, alone or in a sociable environment.
“A lot of the problems you see with most boarding facilities is that the dogs are leaving their home environment, their standard routine and familiar people, and they go to a place where they’re walked maybe two or three times a day,” Whilden said. “It takes their choices away, which creates stress and anxiety.”
Dogs staying at the ranch are taken outside at least once every three hours for potty breaks, in addition to time spent in communal play and large outside areas where they can roam free. The property features a pool, a splash pad, and numerous air-conditioned indoor areas used during the summer to keep the dogs from getting heat stroke.
But the biggest difference between the ranch and a standard kennel is the staff. Each employee gets three to six months of training, during which they learn how to understand and care for dogs, and how to read a dog’s body language. Most of the staff have been at the ranch for years, and they take their job seriously. “My employees will text me to say, ‘How is Bella doing?’ They’re so invested, even after they get off work,” Whilden said.
In addition to its overnight boarding program, the ranch offers a daycare program and dog training classes. But there are limits: dogs can only be boarded up to 21 days, after which Whilden said they start to get anxious. On holiday weekends they take up to 90 dogs, below the ranch’s capacity, because Whilden mandates a maximum dog-to-employee ratio.
“One of the biggest difference between us and our competitors is that they’ll take their max capacity,” she said. “Everything about us is smaller. Our daycare program is smaller; our training classes are smaller. We believe there’s a right number of dogs a person can safely care for.”
Everything the ranch does is guided by a simple philosophy: “Every dog here, I think of as my dog,” Whilden said. “What would I do for my dog? What would I want a stranger to do for my dog? That’s our mission.”
Houston Dog Ranch. 9602 Dalecrest Dr. 713-465-2275. houstondogranch.com