Barking Up the Right Tree
by Pam Bonsper
Photos Courtesy of Robbie Ratliffe
“What don’t we do for our dogs? Some dog guardians come up with unbelievably imaginative (and well-deserved) indulgences for their canine companions. Take Robert Ratliff, for example. If you were his dog, you’d definitely be barking up the right tree.
When Robert Ratliff from Raleigh, North Carolina, took the extraordinary step of building his two dogs a tree house, the whole country took notice.
“When I was a kid, my friends and I built tree houses out of bent nails and scrap pieces of wood. We put the nails and wood together and put it in a tree, so I guess you could call it a tree house.”
Robert Ratliff, in a phone interview from his home in Raleigh, chuckled and continued, “Then, when my kids were six or seven, I built a two-story tree house for them.”
I asked Robert why he chose to build a tree house for his dogs.
“Well,” he said, in a slow southern drawl, “when the kids were growing up, I got a Golden Retriever named Rusty. When Rusty died, I fenced off a piece of the yard and called it ‘Rusty’s Place.’ When I got my little Jack Russell named Copper, I built a run for him and it went right past the old, long-leaf pine tree and on into Rusty’s Place. One day I looked at that tree in the middle of the run . . . and well, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll bet Copper would like for me to build him a tree house!’”
That was the beginning of Robert’s fame. The Tar Heel Traveler, Scott Mason, heard about Copper’s tree house and wrote and narrated a delightful piece for the local television station, WRAL, in 2008. The airing went viral, and Robert Ratliff and his dog, Copper, were an international hit.
“Copper would climb up as I was building it,” Robert explained. “I made a series of landings and finally ended up high in the tree. Then I thought, ‘Well, now I’ve got to make it so it’s safe.’”
As Robert described the tree house, it made me want to climb the stairway and cuddle up inside with a book. “Oh, no,” he said. “This is not for people, this is just for my dogs.”
“Dogs?” I asked.
“Yes. I got a friend for Copper. His name’s Moto. He was abused and needed a good home, and I thought Copper would like a little friend.”
Turns out the two hit it off immediately, even though they are polar opposites. Moto followed Copper right up the tree. Now they scamper down the run as Robert throws balls, and then race up the tree to catch them. They love to go to the top and see what’s happening on the other side of the fence.
“They can scout and see everything,” Robert laughs. “Yes, they surely do love their tree houses.”
Turns out, a couple of years after building the outdoor tree house, Robert decided to build an indoor tree house—as inside his house!
“My family thought, What in the world is he doing? But I just thought it would be nice for the dogs to have a tree house inside for when the weather’s bad.”
Now Copper and Moto have two tree houses and two videos that have gone viral. They sleep outside in the heated and air-conditioned outdoor house, which has been renovated with walls all around.
“Moto finds towels and things and drags them in there and makes up a bed for them. They snuggle up on top of each other . . . and well, they really are happy.”
I had to ask Robert if anyone has asked him to build a tree house for them.
“Oh, yes,” he answered, “but I have a job and just building my own is enough.” He paused. ”But I’ve heard that after seeing the video, many people all over the country are building tree houses for their dogs!”
At the end of our interview, I asked Robert if there was anything he wanted to add to this story.
“Well,” he said, “If I could just say, that sometimes people get so busy, their animals can get overlooked. Sometimes the animals don’t get enough attention. But there is some responsibility there, and you have to remember animals have feelings, too.“
My thoughts wandered to the big oak trees in my yard, stacks of lumber beside them, a saw in my husband’s hands, my ninety-pound dogs . . .
Robert must have been reading my mind. “But you don’t have to build a tree house,” he continued. “Anything you do will be appreciated. Even just taking the time to pet them.”
He must have heard my sigh of relief.
But after our conversation, I pulled up Scott Mason’s videos and took another good look. If we built a tree house for my big dogs . . . hmmmm . . . maybe I could even use it.
To see Scott’s tree-house video, go to: