Cozy canines: Elena Smith couldn’t find a dog boarding facility she liked, so she decided to build her own
By Katie Scarvey
TROUTMAN ó At K9 Cabins and Dog Trails, “kennel” is a bad word.
A client uses the word casually Friday morning, and owner Elena Smith pretends to be upset.
“A dollar in the cuss jar!” she tells the offender. “Do you see a kennel here?”
Elena has a point.
Her dog boarding facility in Troutman has very little in common with the typical kennel. There are no concrete floors or cramped crates here.
It feels more like a cross between a hotel, with its heated and air-conditioned rooms, and canine camp, with its trails and exercise areas outside.
What’s most noticeable is what’s missing, which is noise.
There is no cacophony of howling or barking.
Friday morning, the dogs here seem enthusiastically content, from the tiny Shih Tzu to the rambunctious bloodhound.
The facility consists of 20 cabins in all, each done in a different theme, such as golf or Margaritaville. The cabin area is 8 by 10 feet, and offers a door giving access to a private outdoor patio area of the same size.
Outside each door is a whiteboard informing staff about a dog’s personality traits or special needs.
But it’s not just the sweet digs that dog owners are drawn to. They also love the attention lavished on their dogs here, which includes plenty of exercise.
Outside are three penned areas where dogs get playtime. One is large enough that boisterous activity is possible ó like throwing and retrieving tennis balls and even doing some agility training. Dogs get taken out for outdoor playtime every two or three hours, with staff members as active participants.
Bruno and George, both Saint Bernards, are taking their turn outside Friday morning. By the time they’re ready to return to their shared cabin, Bruno ó all 196 pounds of him ó is breathing hard.
“Most dogs get more exercise here than they do at home,” Elena says.
Later, Alvin, Brutus and Zoe ó the pooches of NASCAR driver Reed Sorenson ó take their turn outside.
“They’ve been staying here since they were puppies,” says Elena, whose personal connection to racing is her husband, Pat Smith, a co-owner of K9 Cabins. Now retired from NASCAR, Pat, has worked as a crew chief for several different drivers, including Ricky Craven and Jeff Burton.
Beth Dixon, who’s worked at K9 Cabins for four years, is rubbing Sorenson’s Shar Pei.
“Alvin likes getting a massage,” she says.
Later, Spec and Miss T, Jack Russells owned by Hank and Judy Newman of Salisbury, go outside for some fresh air and fun ó while Hank and Judy are on the road to Florida. Since this is Spec and Miss T’s first time at K9 Cabins, they’re still getting the lay of the land, doing lots of sniffing and exploring. They check out the doggy Adirondack chairs
ó for dogs who need a little break from chasing after tennis balls or Frisbees.
Mac and Sasha, young Weimaraners, are also checking in Friday morning. Their humans, John and Angel Cahill of Charlotte, are looking forward to a dog-less weekend for a change.
“They can wear us down,” Angel says. “Sasha is full of vinegar and fizz.
They feel comfortable leaving their dogs with Elena. “This is the coolest place,” Angel says. “We are very impressed.”
Elena began the business six years ago. Before that, she was tenant coordinator for Concord Mills, for which she oversaw construction.
Before moving to North Carolina, she lived in California and worked in the construction industry. Although she was a dog-lover, her condo didn’t allow them, so she would help her neighbors out by taking their dogs for walks on the beach or dog-sitting for them.
It was after she met Pat at a race in Phoenix and moved to North Carolina that she began looking around for a place to board her own dog so that she could go to Bristol for the weekend to watch a race.
“There was no place I would leave her,” says Elena. Instead of going to the race, she stayed home.
She guessed that other dog-owners were facing the same problem, and so the idea to start her own boarding facility was born.
There were a few headaches along the way.
“Nobody would give us a loan,” she says. “Everybody thought I was crazy spending money on a dog boarding facility.”
So she and Pat financed the project, doing as much of the work themselves as they could.
Initially, Elena had wanted to build individual cabins with individual exercise areas. It soon became clear, however, that the property, spacious as it was, did not have enough room for that.
Instead, they built one large facility, with exercise areas that dogs could share throughout the day.
By the time they were done, Elena says, only $7 remained in their bank account.
“There was no room for failure,” she says.
Fortunately, the business has thrived. Elena has five employees now, and she stays busy, with no advertising at all other than her Web site and word of mouth.
Boarding a dog occupying a single cabin runs $34 a night. If two dogs are sharing a cabin, then the cost goes down to $27 per dog. For a third dog sharing a cabin, the discount is deeper.In the summer months, K9 Cabins is completely booked, Elena says. Winter months are a little slower, but they stay busy, particularly during the NASCAR season. They often have a waiting list.
Elena refers her overflow to the Randall Veterinary Clinic, which now features a “Paws in the Plaza” facility that gets Elena’s seal of approval.
Elena says that some of her clients wouldn’t dream of leaving their dogs anywhere else, like the couple from Pennsylvania who drives to Troutman to drop their dogs off at K9 Cabins before flying out of Charlotte.
Elena works 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily and returns every day at 9 p.m. to fluff the dogs’ beds and “give everybody a cookie” ó and take them outside one last time.
The attention to detail at K9 Cabins is noteworthy. There’s a kitchen on site with a dishwasher, where dog bowls are washed several times a day. A washer and dryer ensures that bedding is spanking clean. For an extra fee, dogs can be bathed before they check out ó there’s a specially designed raised bathing area for just that task.
You can buy special dog food here, and organic dog treats. For a modest fee, Elena will take cute photos of your dog ó sometimes dressed up according to whatever holiday is coming up ó and give you the CD.
It seems pretty obvious that this isn’t just a business for Elena. It’s her dream and her passion, and she enjoys it.
Penny Soares of Huntersville is dropping off her cockapoo, Pepper, who’s been here before. Penny is headed to Raleigh to see her granddaughter compete in a gymnastics meet.
The white board outside Pepper’s cabin reminds staff that this little bundle of energy likes to play ball.
“Mommy’s got to go,” Penny says.”You be good boy.” Pepper bounces around the stable-like hallway like a furry black pinball, greeting Elena and the other staff members. He’s thrilled to be back here.
He knows there are many tennis balls in his immediate future, thrown by people who know his name and care about his likes and dislikes.
He’ll get his own special treats from home because he has allergies. He might even have his picture taken, which will be fun because he’ll be the center of attention while it’s going on.
Because Pepper’s well cared-for and happy, Penny can have a relaxed, worry-free, guilt-free trip.
And for the folks at K9 Cabins, that is entirely the point.
If you’d like more information, check out the Web site: www.k9cabins.com. Or call 704-528-3517.
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