The open spin $s$ XXZ model with non-diagonal boundaries is considered. Within the algebraic Bethe ansatz framework and in the spirit of earlier works we derive suitable reference states. The derivation of the reference state is the crucial point in this investigation, and it involves the solution of sets of difference equations. For the spin $s$ representation, expressed in terms of difference operators, the pseudo-vacuum is identified in terms of $q$-hypergeometric series. Having specified such states we then build the Bethe states and also identify the spectrum of the model for generic values of the anisotropy parameter $q$.