By Reggie Ellis

It was a birthday party like you had never seen.

Five dogs froliked around the fenced yard bouncing back and forth between two small plastic pools to cool off in the midday sun. Cone-shaped Scooby-Doo party hats were placed on their heads as they dug into a doggy bone-and-chow mix served from a tupperware cake plate. Gift bags containing chew toys, bacon treats and gnawing ropes were given to each dog in attendance. Gifts for the birthday girl, a one year old labrador retriever, were unwrapped.

Oren and Jennifer Hartley never thought they would be throwing such an elaborate birthday party for a dog when they opened their kennel two years ago.

"We treat the animals the way their owners would treat them," Jennifer said, which includes special requests by the pet owner. "We fall in love with quite a few of the dogs and treat them like our own."

The birthday girl was Connie Featherston's blonde lab, Sophie. Featherston is one of the Hartley's regular customers who drops off Sophie at the kennel during the day. The other dogs were Cathy Martin's black lab, Lua; Judy Davenport's blonde lab, Eliza; Shirley Curtis' blonde lab, Missy; and the Hartley's own Australia Shepherd, Sydney. All of the dogs are part of the growing list of happy customers at Hartley's Top Dog Kennel.

Oren first had the idea to open a kennel in Exeter about 10-15 years ago - until he found out someone else had beat him to it.

"Another great idea shot," Oren recalls saying. "You can't have two kennels in a town this size."

But several years ago, that kennel closed its doors and the Hartley's decided to open theirs. They moved to their current home on several acres on West Firebaugh Avenue near Elberta Avenue in October 2001. Oren spent much of the first year building the barn that would house the kennel. A barn only on the outside, the structure is completely air conditioned and heated. There are 10 kennel spaces for dogs and an office on the lower level, and 20 kennel spaces for cats on the second story. There are four large dog runs in the back of the building to allow the animals to exercise.

"We really like to interact with the dogs and allow them to play with other dogs here as well," Jennifer said. "We hand out treats, let them run around in the yard, things we would do for our own dog."

Oren and Jennifer have both been animal lovers their entire lives. While Oren mainly identifies with dogs, Jennifer said she had everything from tutles to rabbits to rats, cats and dogs.

"The last dog I had for 13 years," Jennifer said. "We show that kind of love to our customers pets."

Jennifer said their love of animals is what makes Hartley's so attractive to people leaving their dogs or cats for long periods of time. She said many kennels limit a dog's stay to two or three days. Hartley's allows owners to keep their dogs at the kennel for as long as they need to as long as they call ahead to make arrangements. Everything at Hartley's is done by appointment only, and their growing list of customers are already making plans for next year.

"As long as we have enough notice we can accommodate almost anything," Jennifer said.

One of the birthday presents for Sophie was a mug featuring her name and photograph and Hartley's Top Dog Kennel's name and information. Mugs are given out to each dog owner as a gift from the kennel. The mugs are made at Inspirations in Laser, owned by Stan and Shirley Curtis. Their dog, Missy, is just another satisfied customer.

"That's Missy's second home," Shirley said. "I am very happy with their kennel because they treat her like one of their own."

Hartley's Top Dog Kennel is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 4-6 p.m. on Sunday. Jennifer and Oren ask that anyone who wants to visit the kennel before leaving their dog there should come by on during Sunday hours. Hartley's charges $12 a day for dogs, $10 a day for cats and $10 a day for small caged animals, such as rabbits, hampsters or turtles. Everything is done by appointment only. Their phone number is 592-3914.

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