Make-it-Work – how you can turn your lifestyle block into a business

Boarding kennels may not be the first thing that comes to mind as you consider a lifestyle block occupation, but for Sarah Hydes, it’s a job that suits her down to the ground.

Sarah’s Reigning Cats ‘N’ Dogs kennels (her parents handle the cat side of things) are 20 minutes out of Geraldine's. It’s a busy, popular establishment, and the day I spoke to her she was expecting to board 18 much-loved dogs over the weekend, which is an almost full house. The routine of cleaning the animals’ pens and furnishing them with fresh bedding is something she’s quite familiar with, having been operating her business for almost 17 years. But what was it that got her started in this full-on occupation?

“I was looking for a job and I happened to have seen a programme about boarding kennels on TV. It started me thinking that I could convert a building on my parents’ property which had originally been built in the early 70s as a piggery. It was a long concrete block shed with a concrete floor. The pig pens inside were made of concrete block walls about 1 m high so the first thing I had to do was to extend those walls up using cyclone gates and wire mesh to create enclosures. I have around 17 dog pens and they’re quite large (3.5 x 4 metres). This means that if a family has several dogs which they want to be housed together for company, I can accommodate 2 or 3 animals in each. I also have some pens outside which can be used to house more dogs over summer when it’s warmer.”

One of the advantages of using a building that had previously housed pigs was that the floor was gently sloping to assist with the clearance of animal waste. For anyone contemplating building indoor kennels from scratch, this kind of drainage is something Sarah would definitely recommend.

“It means you can wash out the pens with disinfectant and water, and everything drains into to a central sump. Solid waste is collected up and goes onto a compost pile.”

It is the installation of heat pumps that Sarah is especially pleased with.

“I installed two heat pumps, one at each end of the building. They keep the whole place cosy and comfortable. The dogs also have bedding. Most kennels ask owners to bring their own dog blankets but I have a lot of spare bedding which I keep in a separate storage shed along with a large domestic washing machine for laundering everything. [Bedding is changed after each animal’s stay.] I suggest people bring a blanket belonging to their dog, though, because it’s something familiar for the animal. In some of the pens, I also have a couch or chair that little dogs can lie on.”

Sarah is a great believer in plenty of exercise for the animals in her charge. She says it’s good for the dogs and good for her.

“Most kennels give their dogs 2 or 3 exercise periods a day but I like to take my boarders out 4-6 times. I grew up on a farm where dogs had plenty of space and weren’t confined so I know how they love to run. It’s a real stress buster for them, just as it is for humans. When dogs go into kennels it’s a stressful time for them but if you can provide a way for them to work off that stress and get rid of their pent up energy, they’re going to be much more settled and easy to handle. A content, happy dog won’t bark all the time or chew blankets or wood, and they’re going to be much more settled at night.”

Sarah provides two kinds of exercise for her boarders: time in an exercise area where the dogs can run free and chase a ball or a stick that she throws for them, and an opportunity to go for a walk with her.

“I take them walking along our road or anywhere on the farm where there’s no stock. There’s always the main group which consists of the most social dogs which know me really well and will just follow. New dogs always go on a leash at first, and I go like to go out with them on my own until they get to know me.”

Sarah can read dogs well and has only ever received one bite. It was from a foxie who mistook her for a dog it didn’t like as she lost her balance and leaned against its pen. She ended up with a nipped finger.

While Sarah has several vets within her area that she can call on if necessary, emergencies seldom arise. This is in part due to the care she takes with feeding.

“Some owners like to bring their dog’s own food from home but I usually provide it and I’m careful with what I feed. I don’t use vet-prescribed foods as it would simply be too expensive but I offer a variety of biscuits, big and small, and a quality pet roll from a local butcher. All my dogs like it and never get sick of whereas they quickly tire of supermarket rolls or don’t want to eat it from the start.”

Sometimes, Sarah is called on to provide medication to the animals in her charge, and has even injected diabetic dogs; something which she says wasn’t at all difficult. Dogs arriving at the kennels are required to be vaccinated against Parvovirus and kennel cough. While the latter isn’t life-threatening, it can spread very quickly and is the last thing Sarah wants to see in her kennels.

With all that’s required to keep her charges safe, healthy, and content, the work is relentless but Sarah finds it suits her down to the ground.

“You’re always on your feet and busy, and it’s absolutely full time, but for someone like me who loves being outdoors, moving about and exercising in any weather, it really suits – and I don’t have to commute to work. It suits our family lifestyle, too, because we have a farm and we’re not ones for taking holidays. You couldn’t hope to run kennels if you were always wanting to go away all the time.”

But that aside, Sarah sensibly builds breaks into her working year, and plans a long way ahead so she can take them.

“I close 2-3 times a year for 2 weeks at a time. Some of my regular customers even plan their holidays around me! They won’t go away from home unless I’m open. It’s something that astonishes me and is quite humbling. But you build up a good rapport with your customers and they keep returning and spreading the word. It’s something which has meant I’ve never really needed to advertise.”

Sarah’s Top Tips

  • Expect to be busiest in winter. It’s when people take their longest breaks as they head away for warmer weather.
  • A kennel owner needs stickability – breaks are few and far between.
  • You have to like all dogs, not just some.
  • You must be compassionate and have empathy for dogs no matter what stage of life they are at. Pups and elderly dogs will require more of your attention than others in your care.
  • Caring for someone else’s dog is a privilege and a responsibility. Treat your boarders as you would your own family pets.
  • Don’t expect to run kennels if you have close neighbours – dogs can be noisy, especially at night, and the more dogs you have, the noisier it will be.
  • Check with your council about the consent you will require to establish boarding kennels.
  • Familiarise yourself with minimum animal welfare codes.

Sarah’s kennel charges

Small dogs $18/night
Med $20
Big $22
Discount is offered for 2 dogs from one family or for dogs boarding for more than 2 weeks.

Where to look for further information
Kennel Cough
For boarding kennel codes of welfare, see:

All photos © Reigning Cats ‘N’ Dogs