The scoop behind Minnesota's Top Dog Country Club
by Scott Rose
George Bernard Shaw once said: "Ladies and gentleman are permitted to have friends in the kennel, but not in the kitchen." His skewering of hypocrisy might have been spot on as far as the humans of his time went, yet he failed to mention a dog's basic right to a friend in both the kennel and the kitchen. To her canine guests at the Top Dog Country Club (www.topdogcountryclub.com) in New Germany, Minnesota, Jean Beuning is a Lady in the truest sense of the word. Indeed, the facilities and attention she offers those guests have everybody calling Top Dog "the un-kennel." And the un-kennel is equipped with a kitchen, where Jean bakes fresh apple-cinnamon-oatmeal treats for her friends daily. Read my interview with her to learn more about why we wish most every doggy boarding establishment were more like the Top Dog Country Club.
I've seen those marvelous videos of dogs frolicking in the Top Dog Country Club's pool, and the dogs all look like they are spontaneously enjoying themselves. I wonder, for dogs that might be hesitant to swim, do you provide special supervision and encouragement?
Yes, we have taught many dogs to swim... or actually just helped them to figure out that they already can swim. I had a two-year old yellow lab guest that had never been exposed to water. He was afraid of it, only because it was new to him. We got in the pool with him, put a dog life jacket on, and supported him as he swam until he got comfortable. Once he realized he could swim, we couldn't get him out of the pool. The key is that we swim with them, and so even dogs that would never just go in on their own will go in with us.
Occasionally, in speaking about upscale dog care facilities, reporters and even some alleged experts will say that the amenities are for the dogs' people, not for the dogs. Would you like to see one of those experts cramped into a nasty little kennel space, all alone, for ten days, with no special attention?
The great thing about Top Dog Country Club is that "It is all about the dogs". They are my number one priority. Every decision I make is first and foremost about the dogs. Their owners are my second client. Sometimes people think that because we are upscale, we must do frivolous things that impress the owners but really do nothing to benefit the dogs. Once you visit Top Dog Country Club and see how the dogs spend their days, you realize that it really is "all about the dogs". The dogs can't wait to get here, and often don't want to go home. That makes their owners very happy.
What is your sense of the upscale dog boarding industry nationwide?
The upscale boarding industry is still growing rapidly, but facilities vary greatly in their quality and operation. A place that looks nice might not really have a great program for the dogs. Seeing is believing, and I encourage people to visit any place they are considering taking their dogs. Unfortunately, money is driving some of the growth and that may not be great for the dogs.
When you founded the Top Dog Country Club, were you inspired by similar facilities elsewhere, or did you think "There's something that doesn't exist, but should."?
I had a bad kennel experience 13 years ago that gave birth to a fabulous idea for a vacation club for dogs... a place dogs can't wait to get to... and don't want to leave! After 10 years of development and a lot of work, this idea became reality. I opened Top Dog Country Club October 14, 2000. I tried to find some inspiration out there, but after many visits to facilities that only brought disappointment, I decided to quit looking. I knew what I wanted and what I did not want, and everything I saw out there fit into the "didn't want" category. My 4 Shelties; Jazz, Mckenna, Picasso & Kiwi were my inspiration. If it passed their test, it was included. I'm a former vice president and 14-year veteran with Marriott hotels, so it made sense to me to combine my years of hospitality expertise with my passion in life... dogs. I run Top Dog with the same quality and attention to detail and professionalism that I learned at Marriott. And actually, the businesses are so similar. It's just that my guests are 4-legged and furry now, and so easy to please.
What standards do you have for dog shampoos and conditioners used for baths at Top Dog?
I am very conscientious about what I put in and on my dogs. I like to stick to organic and natural products free of chemicals and toxins.
Are there flavor options for the Yappy Hour biscuits, or is apple-cinnamon-oatmeal served exclusively?
There are options, but we keep coming back to apple-cinnamon oatmeal as the favorite... plus the entire building takes on that wonderful aroma in the afternoons. We will do special treats for birthdays and holidays as well.
Please describe how frequently a dog would typically use your property's wooded trail during a week-long stay.
The trail is used daily, mostly for those dogs that cannot participate in the 5-6 hours of adult-supervised group play time... maybe they are post or pre-surgery, or have some kind of injury. Or, they just may be a dog that does not socialize well with other dogs. They love the trail with lots of trees and wildlife and great scents to take in. The best part of Top Dog Country Club, of course, is all that group playtime. We offer 18,000 sq ft, and 3 separate yards of Astroturf play. One of the yards has a 34-ft. in-ground, heated swimming pool. There are sun umbrellas, kiddie pools, and lots of toys. We have taken dogs that were not social when they first started vacationing with us, and have created very social dogs. Playtime is more than just running around. Dogs learn how to play well in a group, how to work out differences, acceptable and not acceptable behavior, and that a "time-out" may be the consequence of their actions. I have many clients who compliment us and tell us that because of Top Dog Country Club their dogs are so much better behaved and much more social with strange dogs that visit or that they meet on walks. Some clients ask for trail walks in addition to all that play, and we are happy to do that. At the end of the day, the dogs are very happy and very tired.
How much time do the guest dogs spend out of doors on a typical winter's day?
The dogs have our full attention from 5:45 am until 9:00 pm every day. They spend a total of about 6 1/2 hours outside daily, adjusted for weather. We are a small facility with a very customized approach so some dogs have abbreviated play schedules at their owner's request. We also have an indoor play room for inclement weather and those dogs that enjoy indoor play. Many of our clients bring coats and we have doggy parkas for sale as well. Our rule is "as long as the dogs want to be out... we are out"!
What are the special accommodations you have for older dogs and puppies?
The approach with each dog, actually, is a customized one. We provide all dogs with a custom-made wrought-iron dog bed with an orthopedic mattress and tapestry cover. They stay in suites with stone heated floors, fully air conditioned, and air purified. Most suites have windows, the lighting is incandescent and there is music piped in 24-hours a day. For both puppies and geriatrics, the extras are in terms of service. They may have an abbreviated play schedule and extra naps. They have additional potty breaks immediately following both meals, and potty priority morning and evening. They also spend many staff lunch and dinner breaks hanging out with staff in the apartment.
When you have a full house, how many dog guests are there, and how many employees attend to them?
Top Dog Country Club is a relatively small facility by design. We have 46 suites, 7 of which are family suites. We also enjoy a 99% occupancy rate. That means we average about 50-55 dogs per day. Holidays, and with more families, we can get as many as 75-80 dogs ? that usually means the Sheltie guests join me and my 9 at the house, "The Ritz" as my staff calls it. I have 4 full-time managers in addition to me. My staff to dog ratio is 1 staff to every 5-8 dogs.
Who provides massage and dog grooming services at the Top Dog Country Club?
All of my staff are trained to massage the dogs. I have two staff that are professionally trained groomers, so we are able to offer grooming 7 days a week. Keeping the dogs looking great begins with great nutrition and is maintained between grooming with regular brushing and keeping those paws trimmed and nails short.
If a person wanted, would you e-mail them a photo of their dog during his stay at Top Dog?
Most of my work is spontaneous and out in play, so I have some wonderful action shots. I do a lot of work at the request of my clients, with proof sheets available at check-out. Email is difficult because I take very high resolution photos. The size of the files tends to bog down email but it can be done. We also encourage calls or emails from clients during their stay. We can update them on favorite play buddies, and often have great stories to tell them.
Are there times of the year when if people haven't reserved in advance, they aren't likely to find an opening for their dogs at Top Dog?
For all major holidays and Spring Break, we usually sell out 5-6 months in advance. Summer weekends usually sell out 4-6 weeks before. I do have a lot of business traveler clients who can usually get in last minute outside of those major holidays. Best practice is to call as soon as you have plans made. Many of my clients will call me to check availability and then schedule their travel plans accordingly.
We draw clients from a long distance away, because Top Dog is so unique. There really is no other facility that does what we do. I had a client from New York City coming to vacation in Northern Minnesota last summer. She refused to board her two rescue dogs any place in New York. She found Top Dog on the internet and called to book a reservation. Instead of flying to Minnesota, she loaded up her two dogs and drove across country for her vacation.
Please tell me about your plans for the Top Dog Foundation Sanctuary, scheduled to open in 2008.
Top Dog Foundation: the Sanctuary is actually the original dream. 22 years ago I graduated from college, and was already asking myself the question, "what am I going to do with my life that some day will really mean something?" I have loved dogs since I can remember, and have a real soft spot for the old guys. I had this dream of building a sanctuary for dogs - the old ones, who, when they are given up by their owners, don't have a chance for adoption because they are too old or have health issues. When I had a bad kennel experience, the light bulb went off in my entrepreneurial head, and I realized that if I could build this really great country club for dogs, and make it a success, that would be my opportunity to achieve my dream. Now that Top Dog is up and running and very successful, I have the opportunity to turn some of my energy toward that original dream,Top Dog Foundation: the Sanctuary. People can make donations to the foundation, including memorial gifts to honor the memory of a beloved dog or other animal companion