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20 top dog people

When did this happen? HOW did it happen? This dog. Because we have nothing else on our plates. Oh hello dog worries. Stuff we never thought about. Stuff we didn’t know we could stress about. Like is he getting enough walks? Spending too much time home alone? Is townie dog sad about being dragged round dog-shit-park every day? Is country dog a loner and what if she kills a sheep (how much does a sheep cost)? Then there’s the food. Is the dried stuff really so bad? Maybe we should go raw like India Knight says in her brilliant book (The Goodness of Dogs, read it!). Wait. We are NOT going to spend our days braising chicken for the dog. What if it’s a maniac because we haven’t found time to train it? *adds dog training to list*. Dog shrink? Dog daycare? What if it runs onto the road or gets mauled by a Rottweiler and we can’t afford vets because we haven’t done the pet insurance, because of forms and time. If the dog dies before we’ve done the forms would we bury it in the garden? But we used up the garden to extend the kitchen.

Maybe we could do with a bit of help. So we’ve found all sorts of brilliant dog people. They’ll take your pooch for a walk, a day, the week, they’ll train it, feed it, comb it, sell it a neon puffer gilet… you name it. And they’re all recommended to us so we can say hand on heart they are quite honestly the dog’s bollocks.


One minute you’re having your own “FENTON!” moment, screaming banshee-like as your dog heads for the hills, the next you’re in the capable hands of Maxwell, striding across the fields feeling like Barbara Woodhouse. This man just gets dogs. What makes them tick, how to get them to tick, they’ll be eating out of his hand within minutes. He distils everything down to a few simple points so you leave feeling exhausted but not overwhelmed. He has the patience of a saint, which helps as this can be repetitive stuff. As well as basic puppy and dog training, Max does loads of behavioural work with problem dogs so if you thought your dog was beyond redemption, fear not, he’ll turn it around – there isn’t a dog he says he can’t help. He’s also a motivational speaker and history buff which makes for interesting chats as you stride across the heather.


One Midult has vivid memories of driving up to kennels every time they went on a family holiday. Leaving poor pup in a concrete yard of bare cages. ‘Byeeee, we’re off to America, hope you survive… prison.’ Sob. That horror is what drove Martin Saunders to set up Top Dog 13 years ago. It calls itself The Ritz and to be fair it is cushy. There are only 8 rooms (yes the dog gets its own heated room with actual walls and a door. No outdoor cage). Dogs love this place. Playing with other dogs all day, up to 6 walks, leather sofas in their rooms… and all for £25 a night. This man even cooks the dogs a full Christmas dinner (owners expect it he says, resignedly). It’s so popular Martin’s booked up for most of 2019 so get in early. They come from all over. Not just Leeds and Harrogate. We’re talking the north of Scotland. South coast. And you don’t have to worry about being demanding – regular clients’ needs include: daily videos, updates on pup’s bowel movements (sometimes at 3am in the morning from, say, Mexico. Yes, really). He admits he doesn’t have a life, but what’s Martin’s loss is your dog’s gain.


‘Mad dog woman’ is how Claire Watson describes herself but don’t believe it. She’s kind, loves dogs and knows how to run a top notch business. It all started when she had 9 dogs and had to cancel a big holiday she’d booked because she couldn’t find anywhere she wanted to leave them. So she set up a place herself. It’s not rocket science, she’s just giving you what your dog would get at home. Their own room with underfloor heating, sofas and lots of socialising. “Dogs love humans but they love playing with other dogs more,” she says firmly. She hears horror stories from her ‘girls’ about daycare where dogs spend up to 6 hours in a van or get shut in cages and never walked. There are 16 rooms here and she won’t go any bigger. But she’s in big demand. This August she had to turn down 1,500 dogs. “It’s mental,” she says, secretly pleased. They do daycare too but she won’t do pick-ups and drop-offs even though there’s a demand – all that time in a van isn’t good for the dogs, she says, but she’s open 12 hours a day which is longer than most daycare. Forget the dog, we’d trust this woman with our whole family.


Healthy Herbal Dog Teas. Goats Milk Pupachinos. And trendier leather sofas than you have at home. Only in West London. It all sounds a bit Park Avenue Poochie but these guys are the business. True, the place is Instagramably chi chi, with little tweed coats and beautiful leather leads adorning the walls, but speak to the staff and they’re a bunch of down-to-earth dog lovers who are charging amazing prices to look after your dog. Seriously, £30 for the whole day, you could spend that on parking and coffees in these parts. And for that they’ll have your dog the whole day, walk it in rolling Richmond Park, with little walks in nearby parks. The rest of the time they have the run of the adjoining salon (where the posh pups bit comes in) and the (fairly pokey) back garden complete with obstacle courses. There’s an assessment for the dog and you, so if your dog is psychotic it might not pass the test. The grooming salon side is a bonus so you can book them in for a basic wash, nail clip or whatever while they’re in daycare. What we love is that you can do a drop-off, Ikea-crèche style, for just an hour or two as well, if you have a meeting or you simply can’t be arsed to do a dog walk that day. Genius.


Furnace Wood. Unfortunate address for a crematorium. Nevertheless. Anyone who has memories of their Dad burying the family pet at the bottom of the garden in a worryingly shallow grave would do well to remember these guys, when the awful day comes. It’s been going since the 1970s and they’re a one-off family business. Sure your vet will offer to ‘dispose’ of your dead pet, but Chestnut Lodge will make a more meaningful moment of it. They’ll collect it (they tend to stay south of the river but they do do twice weekly trips to London) or you can bring it yourself. One of the advantages of cremation, they point out, is that when you move you’re not leaving your pet behind. You can keep your pet’s ashes with you. They’re a decent sort – while you can have all sorts of things done with your pet’s ashes, from having it made into a statue to something smaller (they’ve made a rat’s ashes into a pendant heart and put a dog’s ashes into a keepsake keyring), they’re sensitive, personal and won’t go in heavy trying to flog you lots of dead pet merch.


Sue is the wise, no-nonsense fairy godmother we all need. “Dogs,” she says, “need stability. Rules. Order. We don’t teach children manners anymore and we don’t teach dogs. That makes dogs unhappy. They don’t want to be in control, they want to be led.” And lead Sue does. More than 800 humans and their dogs a year. Group training, puppy classes, one-on-one training. With brilliant results, say our Midult. “We’re just a club in the park,” insists Sue. But don’t be fooled. Alpha is run by a handful of volunteers, in north London’s Finsbury Park. No booking system, you just pitch up, first come first served. And did we mention the cost? At Alpha you’ll pay £2.50 a session. And don’t believe that because it’s cheap it’s crap. Unlike a lot of trainers in this unregulated market, these chaps have been doing this for years – Sue has more than 45 years experience. She’s director of the ODTI, helps train instructors, instigated the accreditation scheme for instructors at the Kennel Club– the woman’s a pro. The Mary Poppins of the dog world.


Rightmove for property porn. ASOS for your fash fix. And for your pet… this. Pets Pyjamas is surprisingly seductive, crammed full of cool did-you-know pet nuggets, gift ideas, everything dog. There’s something for everyone here. So for every human drooling over the £260 dog stroller or £20 personalised dog Christmas cake, there’s another owner eye-rolling at these but panting over the gorgeous tweed dog beds or divine faux fur and fleece blankets. There’s a whole community on here, you can shop by your breed and the products go on and on. There’s a chat room (the social petwork), a magazine full of dog bringing-up articles, cool top 10s and solutions to dog dilemmas. Best of all the travel section is brill, packed full of gorgeous dog friendly holiday destinations and hotels, not only across the UK but worldwide. You can get gift vouchers for the website too, for products or hotel stays, which is a cool idea.


Another day, another dog lover entrepreneur. Richard set up Grove 8 years ago when they had three dogs and couldn’t find anywhere they were happy to leave them. “At most places people don’t seem to spend any time with the dogs and that’s reflected in the prices.” True. If you’re paying £15 a day do you really think some underpaid dude is snuggling down with Hector for hours on end? “When you’re looking at kennels for your dog,” says Richard, “make sure the living areas are well kept and cosy. But also find out how much time the staff spend with the dogs. If there are 80 dogs and 3 staff, you can bet your dog will be spending most of its time devoid of human contact.” Here there are 62 rooms and around 9 staff members so they have time to spend with the dogs every day. It’s seriously nice. Three large grassed paddocks and indoor play area, a large astroturf area and dogs play in all of them depending on the type of dog and the time of years. “We look after your dog the way most people look after dogs,” says Richard. You can get pick-ups from London but people also come from as far as Southampton and Glasgow. They even have a family from Alicante who fly to the UK, drop off the dog, before jetting abroad on their holiday. No wonder it’s getting booked up a year in advance.


After slogging away at Weetabix for 21 years Graeme Hall was planning to move into management consultancy when a dog trainer pointed out that his true calling was with the dogs. So he had a rethink and became… The Dogfather. And he’s a natural. So much so he’s just filmed his second TV series, Dogs Behaving Badly, where he’s flown into families with problematic (nightmare) dogs. But one-on-one training is still his bread and butter. Forget your go-along-every-Tuesday-at-8pm gigs, the Dogfather does one (true, rather juicy at £645) fee and one session which might last all day. “I explain how dogs work, so people can do it for themselves,” he says. “You don’t just fix the dogs you fix the people.” He’ll follow up on the phone as much as you need. But people often don’t need it. Around 5,000 dogs have passed through this man’s clutches. And he’s sorted pretty much all of them. “The big problem is that we tell off bad behaviour but we don’t reward good behaviour enough,” he says. That’s really common. He’ll travel anywhere, up to Oban, to Aberdeen, and down to Devon and Kent. If you’ll pay, he’ll come. He’s often the last resort for people who are contemplating giving their dog away so they’re willing to pay the fee. Any dog, any age, any problem, that’s his schtick.


A trip to the vet leaves us feeling anxious and a whole lot poorer. Come here, our Midult tells us, and you’ll leave with a spring in your step. It’s the vet’s surgery attached to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and works like any other vet’s practice, but most appointments involve trainee vets (final year vet students) assessing your pet. It’s an important part of their hands-on learning. Don’t panic about some nervous student having your pet’s life in their less experienced hands. They’re well-supervised, are at the end of many years of training and just look at it as four eyes in the room rather than two. Plus you might save a bob or two. They claim to be similar prices to mainstream vets but our Midult insists they’re cheaper. There’s no limit on where you come from, if you’re willing to bring your pet to them, they’ll treat it. It’s win win: the students really value their time at the hospital and clients love that their animal is helping to shape the future of veterinary science. Better still, new techniques are often pioneered here and proceeds go back into the practice.


The dogs on the website look VERY excited. But then so would we be, if we were bounding into a glistening lake with the bare-chested Mark Scott. It all looks a bit Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lucky dogs, they have a cracking time here (and not just due to the lakeside frolics). Most are picked up from Wimbledon and surrounding areas and driven to a field 20 minutes out of town where they spend the whole day. And it’s pretty action packed. They get walked, do treasure hunts, chill out in the sensory garden, have training, do agility courses and swim. Mark has no more than 16 dogs a day and 5 staff. He started out dog walking as part of a career change 10 years ago and saw how many dog care places had minimal staff, cages, no interaction, no screening. So he set up his own gig. The right mix is really important to him – he recently got rid of a puppy (in the nicest possible way) that was too nervous around the other dogs, so he told the owners it would be better off with a dog walker then try again in a few months. Other places would have kept the pup thinking that’s an extra £200 a week. It isn’t cheap – £45 a day for a puppy. But it’s worth it.


If you’re an old school, muddy Labrador in the back of a 4×4 type, look away now. This is a gorgeous Mecca of canine frippery and if you’ve a pooch you like to accessorise and groom, this is your place. Remember the pet shops when you were little, all straw on the floor, tubs of weird dried bones and half dead rabbits? Worlds apart. The walls are white, the shelves are simple and the products range from gorgeous to frankly ridiculous. Biker jacket anyone? Bumble bee raincoat? Knitted bobble hat? (How do you even GET a bobble hat on a dog?) We were a bit sniffy but our Midult swears by the eau de parfum Parisian. Beats wet dog or fish breath, she says. They have a lot of stock and it feels like a human shop, no smell of rabbit crap. They’ve just set up a grooming salon which, being based in Covent Garden, offers up some seriously impressive treatments… like the thalassotherapy mud bath. The dog perfume girl was so bamboozled by the sight of her coiffed pooch she actually didn’t recognise her.


One Midult describes smuggling a dog into a Premier Inn as the most stressful holiday experience ever (the hound was hiding in the bathroom and sprung at the cleaner who took it badly). She now has a handful of hotels in which your dog can walk into head held high (rather than being rammed into a sports bag). The trick, she points out, is to find a hotel you’d love to stay at regardless of the dog thing, rather than some themed dog hotel thing. Understood. First up, the stunning Hotel Du Vin, Tunbridge Wells. It has three dog rooms, you must book ahead and they’ll give you a dog bed. Dogs can’t be bigger than 30kg and there are various other rules like no dogs on beds but, on the plus side, none of the dog rooms are standard rooms so you’ll need to upgrade. (Pity, huh?)

Then there’s The Crown and Castle, a gorgeous hotel in Orford Suffolk, where you can have up to 2 dogs per room, you get a dog blanket ‘in case they want to sleep on the bed’ and there’s a dog friendly table at the restaurant you can book.

Further north, there’s Trigony House Hotel, a beautifully grand Scottish Country House in lovely grounds. Dogs are welcome in all rooms, you get a dog bed, blankets, a place to wash muddy dogs down, they can be in the bar while you eat, there’s even dog sitting. Oh and if you opt for a reiki massage, the guy who does it can give your dog one too!


Not everyone looking for a dog on here is part of the shooting fishing brigade. But whereas the Kennel Club website is UK wide and extensive with thousands of breeders and endless breeds you didn’t even know existed, the appeal here is that there will only be a few pups for sale at any given time. The breeds tend to be Labs, Retrievers, Cockers, Springers, Setters and so on, so not the place for a Chihuahua or a Staffie. As well as the most divine pups there’s also a regular stream of slightly older dogs for sale, many of whom didn’t make the grade when it came to retrieving game. Which might not be a bother to you if its daily beat is going to be the local play park. Sometimes you’ll luck out and find a fully-trained dog for sale here. The thing we like about this website is that it’s free, set up by a couple who are passionate about gun dogs, so it tends to attract a less commercial class of breeder. Particularly good for country folk.


The ultimate dog entrepreneur success story. Tom worked as a police dog handler with Lancashire Police so his dog training credentials are impressive. He left the police a few years back, moved to London and started walking a couple of dogs to get some money. He started out with £80 which he used to buy an old bike and some flyers. In time, he saved and got a scooter. Then a van. Expanding steadily. Then he added dog daycare. So he bought a field in Hertfordshire. Today they look after 180 dogs a day. It might sound overwhelming and a bit pile-em-high-ish but Buddies has a good rep and they seem to pull it off. The field (16 acres in all) is divided into five areas, so puppies together, massive breeds together. These guys pride themselves on the personal touch – as we’re talking, he laughs as an elderly terrier has an umbrella held over him while he pees. There are over 20 full-time members of staff here and Tom has spent over £1 million on the set up, which include a play barn for puppies and heated log cabins for the older dogs. Tom’s energetic, enthusiastic and a great businessman too. Lancashire Police’s loss is the dog world’s gain. Plus they have the best Instagram page, taking over 100 pictures and tagging their humans.


It might look gag-worthy but when the guy at Nutriment lists the ingredients that go into this dog food, it sounds bloody nice. Restaurant grade veg, superfoods like seeds, salmon oil, coconut oil, spirulina. It’s even carb free – dogs get their energy from protein and fats, apparently. Do you eat this well? “That’s the point,” says Nutri-man. “Over the past few years we’ve been looking at what’s in our food more, so naturally people are starting to do the same with their dogs.” This is all the brainchild of Suzanne who never planned to run her own show but reckoned she had a solution to rubbish dog food. So she got a bank loan, put some recipes together, the bank pulled out, she put everything she owned against the business… and it’s worked. We know people who are passionate about this stuff: if they ran out and had to feed their dog anything else they’d weep. The joy is that the food is top quality but you’re not cooking meat every day. It’s raw. You take it out of the freezer, defrost it overnight, job done. Owners say it curbs dog farts, dog breath and leaves them calmer because they’re not as full of preservatives. True, it’s not as cheap as those huge no-brand tins mum used to buy, but it’s not as painful as you’d think. Nutri-man quotes us £1.60 a day for a pup – less than the crap cup of coffee we bought this morning. They do next day delivery or it’s on sale at 600 pet shops across the UK. Oh, and Ocado deliver.


Our not-so-doggy Midult loves Borrow My Doggy. Every time the cries of ‘We want a puppyyyyyyyyy!’ become too gut wrenching, she grabs her phone and books in a session with one of a clutch of local dogs. You get the fun bits but you can always send them home. Hard woman, yes, but it works. Its founder was inspired by her experience of looking after a neighbour’s dog because she didn’t have her own. She realised countless people must be in the same boat. And many owners would love their pet to get a bit more TLC from a doting dog lover. Connect them and bingo you’ve a thriving business on your hands. True, people are concerned about strangers getting their hands on their dog but it’s not like a stranger appears on the doorstep with a Cruella de Vil glint in her eye and marches off with pup. They suggest meeting up a few times to build up a friendship with them first. The glory with the thing is how flexible it is. The Borrow my Doggy lass we spoke to looks after someone’s dog every Friday, she walks some Alsatians one weekend a month and has another dog for 3 weeks every year while the family’s on holiday. And she isn’t tied down by having a dog full-time.


You can’t go wrong coming here. “Total loveliness, truly a wonderful place,” says our Midult. It’s a refuge and working vet clinic so prices being cheap and you’re supporting a really worthwhile charity by coming here. As well as rehoming pets their aim is to try and keep an animal and their owners together. So they’ll find care for pets whose owners are in rehab or in hospital. They do free or low cost neutering and vaccinations plus all the usual vet stuff like micro chipping, worm treatment and so on. “Anyone can use these services, though people tend to come from across north west London,” they say. They also run a pet therapy programme called TheraPaws which matches volunteers and dogs with people who need companionship in hospices, care homes and daycare centres. So any money you spend here is going to go back into a really good cause rather than to some big corporate vet group. Which so many vet practices are now part of.


Kevin’s mum found an old Victorian kiln in the garden so she did the obvious thing. Used it to kick start the pet cremation business they’d been talking about. In fact, when his dad, a fashion agent, came back from work one day, she’d already done her first cremation. That was back in the 1970s (of course it was) and Kevin’s now at the helm and doing a sterling job. His big thing is giving grieving pet owners a really personal experience. “The biggest issue people face,” he says, “is when their pet dies and they’re forced to make a hasty decision by the vet. Some force you to pay a large fee for disposing the body (with a ton of other animal corpses) before they even end your pet’s life. And charge double what I charge.” (£160 a pet plus £20 collection) A dog lover, Kevin will listen to people’s stories, talk through their options, give them as much one-on-one time as they need. He’s won awards for his ethics-driven values and believes in letting people say goodbye to their pets in the way they want. If you want paw prints taken or ashes going into pendants he can do all that, he’ll even scatter YOUR ashes if you want. When the time comes. Which doesn’t sound a bad plan as this place is beautiful, far nicer than any human crematorium we’ve seen.


Another why-didn’t-I-think-of-it gig. How do all these entrepreneurs do it? Meet the aptly named Richard Setterwall who, yes you guessed it, couldn’t find anyone to look after his dog when he had to head off on work travels. Somewhere that didn’t resemble a detention centre. So he had the brainwave, think of all the people out there who’d love a dog on a short-term, part-time, free-returns basis? And of all the owners who’d far rather their beloved four-legged buddy lived in a sitting petroom with a happy human rather than the whole cage set up. That was in 2013 and he’s grown the thing into Europe’s leading service for connecting owners with sitters. It’s basically home boarding, dog daycare, dog walking all rolled into one. The Midult who raves about Dog Buddy used to drive her dog across the country to her increasingly resentful mum so terrified was she of leaving it in kennels even for the night. Now she has a handful of local people she relies on who are far nicer to the dog than her mum ever was. And to her, actually.

By Alexandra Borthwick, @alexandraborthwick

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