In his more than a quarter century of operating Cottonwood Ranch & Kennel near Crawford, dog trainer Ted Hoff has handled thousands of dogs. He's worked with purebreds and mixed breeds from throughout western Colorado and the world, including Canada, South Africa, Venezuela and New Zealand. Among his most recent guests are a dog from New York City and another from Tanzania.
If there's one thing Hoff wants all dog owners to understand, it's that whether retrieving a bird, fetching a stick, or greeting customers at a Five Star hotel, "Every dog needs a good job."
In working with clients its his job to see that their dogs learn the skills necessary to do that job, whatever it may be, and to ensure that their owners learn the skills necessary to reinforce that training.
Hoff said he's been fortunate in his years at his job to meet just about every kind of breed. His training ranges from preparing specialized breeds for hunting trips to working with lap dogs that just need a few good manners. Among his more recent students are Finnley, a Stabyhoun -- considered one of the top 10 rarest breeds of dogs in the world, two golden retrievers, and Gracie, a bold Yorkshire terrier who hangs out in the house with the Hoffs and their two German shorthaired pointers, Wilbur and Cabela.
The ranch provides the perfect setting for a dog training facility. Situated on 400 acres with water rights, the property offers views of the Grand Mesa to the west and nearby Landsend Peak, Mount Guerrero, Saddle Mountain, the West Elk Wilderness and Needle Rock. While much of the 400 acres is used for grazing cattle, the Hoffs have also created a small wildlife sanctuary for deer and elk, birds and other native species.
The dogs might not care about the view or the conservation efforts, but they love to play in the ranch's many water features and run in the open spaces. The dogs are ensured a comfortable stay in indoor/outdoor heated kennels and are fed a good diet.
The facility averages about 30 dogs per day, and on a slow day, about 20. That may seem like a lot, said Hoff, but he doesn't do it alone, and the dogs get a lot of daily attention and exercise. Hoff's wife, Vanessa, is a runner and gives them a good workout. They also have one full-time employee.
The job comes with a lot of challenges, said Hoff. One of them is breaking bad habits, including some that the dogs have had for years. Dogs are very smart, and when they don't have a job, they get bored and tend to develop undesirable mannerisms like bolting, jumping on people, or constantly barking. For whatever reason, they've learned Option A, said Hoff. "Sometime you have to reel them in and teach them Option B."
Hoff takes weekly runs to the Roaring Fork Valley to drop off dogs and pick up new ones. Once at the ranch he figures out what they're good at and what motivates them. It helps to understand the particular breeds, he said. Hounds might be motivated by scent, hunting dogs like to point, and an Australian Shepherd or other cattle dog will want to herd everything that moves.
Training dogs is much like training horses, said Hoff. The first step is in developing trust. Successful training requires repetition, consistency and reinforcement, and that takes time. It's not uncommon for an owner to say he's going on a trip for a few days and wants to take his dog bird hunting when he gets back. "I say I can't train a dog in 10 days," he said. A solid training "is like sending your kids off to college." For the best results, he recommends a 30-day stay. And while he can't train a bird dog in a week, he can make a lot of headway in obedience training.
As part of the package, and perhaps the most important part of the training, when picking up their dogs, owners are asked to spend a few hours with Ted. Sometimes the entire family shows up. He teaches them how to reinforce training, provide consistency and avoid having their dogs return to their old habits.
Hoff worked several jobs before becoming a professional dog trainer; he and wife Vanessa both grew up in Aspen. He was a ski racer (he, Vanessa and the Hoff Family are in the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club Hall of Fame), and he hunted, mostly with bird dogs and a bow. At age 10 he trained his first dog, a black lab named Pearl Bailey, to hunt birds. "Pearl was a good dog," he said. It didn't take long to realize he liked working with dogs.
Hoff earned a degree in precious metals and mineral exploration and worked underground in the Sunnyside Mine at Silverton. He also worked in the seafood industry and in technology. In the late 1980s, when son David was born, he and Vanessa gave up their high-paying jobs and left the city for Crawford. The Hoffs raised David and daughter Lilly on the ranch, and Hoff spent 20 years on the board of the Cocker Kids Foundation.
When they purchased the ranch property in the 1990s it looked very different, said Hoff. Years and years of junk was scattered about the property, and many of the numerous outbuildings built over the decades were falling down. Ten years later they had cleared all the debris, built a new home and kennel, and even managed to save a few outbuildings, including an early 20th century work shop.
Hoff said that when he started his business he was "a lab guy" and only wanted to train bird dogs. Besides being what he knew best, "Back in the '90s those were the people willing to leave their dogs for a month," he said. Most of his clients came from local ski areas including Aspen and Telluride.
Business dropped way off after the 2008 recession and Hoff had to re-mold his business and market to a different clientele. A one-time owner of a technology business making CDs of medical publications before the internet took off, Hoff turned to social media. He established a website, www.cottonwoodranchand
kennel.com, where he posts photos of his guests.
In about 2010 he started making short training videos for his website, YouTube and Facebook, setting a goal of 100 videos. To date he's posted about 150 videos. Those videos have garnered about 2.5 million hits. "Imagine 2.5 million people checking out Crawford," said Hoff.
Today, the kennel is booked well into the future, and more and more of his business is local. And while Hoff still caters to some very wealthy clientele, he has another set of clients he enjoys working with: rescue dogs. Today about 20 percent of his charges are rescues. He works closely with rescue facilities to ensure that the dogs are more adoptable. Because some rescues have been passed from home to home or have lived a very unhappy life, rescues can be a challenge, said Hoff. It can take several days just to break through to them, but the rewards are tremendous.
Iris is a good example. She is a purebred chocolate Lab and rescue dog from New York that Hoff first met a year ago. She was obese, had gone through multiple owners, and had some bad habits, said Hoff. Her owners have put a lot of effort into her. She's now trim and fit and on her second stay to get some reinforcement training. On her second day back at the ranch, she was easily obeying commands and following Hoff closely, even off the leash. She watched his every move, stopped when he stopped, sat on command, and looked up to Hoff, waiting for the next command. Iris is a normal, happy dog.
About the only service Hoff doesn't provide is sheepdog training. The Hoffs have supported the Hotchkiss Sheep Camp Stock Dog Trial, held annually over the Mother's Day weekend for many years. But with so many good trainers and facilities in the area, he leaves that training to the locals.
Regardless of the breed he works with, training brings out the best in dogs and allows them to express themselves, said Hoff. "It's about building trust and a good foundation that the owners can take home with them."
Hoff admits that early on he was all about training labs and other hunting dogs. But after working with other dogs, he said, "I love them all."