Finding The Best Boarding Option for Your Dog
Today, there are many dog-friendly options to old-fashioned caged care.
by Shannon Wilkinson
The winter holiday season is approaching, a time when many people travel to see family and friends. While making arrangements for yourself, don’t forget your four-legged family members. You need to plan in advance, particularly if your dog has received less than a full complement of vaccines, or eats a home-prepared diet.
When deciding what to do with your dog while you are out of town, be honest with yourself about his or her personality. Does she have special needs, such as health concerns, exercise requirements, or behavioral issues?
How does she handle change? How does she react to strangers? How important is her daily routine? You also need to consider the kind of diet you feed your dog, whether or not you vaccinate or check titer levels, and how you feel about your dog being treated with or subjected to different kinds of chemicals.
By factoring in the answers to all of these questions, you can determine which situation will work best for all of you when it’s time for you to travel. Here’s a rundown on the pluses and minuses of the most common options.
Traditional boarding kennels
Conventional boarding kennels usually have an area for each dog with an attached run or a separate exercise area. The area where the dog spends most of his time may be a roomy area, or something more akin to a crate.
Some kennels have heated or air-conditioned areas where the dogs spend most of their time. This is particularly important in parts of the country where temperatures can be extreme, if your dog is older, or has certain health concerns.
For exercise, the dogs will have an attached run, be walked during the day, or are allowed to play in an exercise area. Usually, at least one such exercise period is included with the boarding fee, sometimes more. It may be an option to pay for extra exercise time if your dog is particularly active. Dogs are generally kept apart from one another, often separated by fencing, unless the facility has a group kennel specifically for dogs from the same household.
At Oakshadows Kennel Plus, in Dover, Ohio, owner Gail Burket likes the dogs to have the best of both worlds. Each kennel area has a four by five foot area that is heated or air-conditioned (as the season demands), plus a 10 to 12 foot attached run. The runs are covered, with large garage doors that are opened to allow fresh air to circulate, weather permitting. In addition, the dogs are exercised daily in yards that are half a football field long.
The owners of the Canine Campus Pet Resort, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, like to make sure boarding dogs have the benefits of the indoors, outdoors, and a few other perks besides. Each six by eight foot “suite” has an outside window, a toddler bed, and entertainment – stereos in the basic suites and televisions in the deluxe suites.
The suites are heated with a hydronic heat system in the floor. The system is set up so that half the room is warmer than the other half, so even the most temperature-sensitive dog will find an area that is comfortable.
There are private pea gravel areas outside each suite for potty breaks four to five times per day. Plus, once each day for the basic plan, and twice for the deluxe, dogs are exercised in large yards that are half grass and half pea gravel. If dogs are good with one another, they may be exercised together. “Even the old dogs get out and rock and roll,” says co-owner Marge Wappler. Canine Campus now boasts an Aqua Paws Canine Underwater Treadmill to provide an exercise option, at an additional charge.
Wappler and co-owner Marianne Giuffre designed Canine Campus Pet Resort to be a place they would take their dogs for boarding, and they do! They have so much confidence in their staff, and the facility has enough pampering and activity for their dogs, that their own dogs stay at the kennel when they must leave them behind.
These situations can run the gamut from places like Bed & Biscuit of Saugerties, New York, where owner Shelley Davis opens her home to up to six friendly dogs and specializes in “country boarding for city dogs,” or, Howliday Inn, a Portland, Oregon, Doggie Day Care, that offers, in addition to day care, “stress-free sleepovers.”
At Bed & Biscuit, dogs have the full run of the large, fenced backyard and the whole house, where they can run, dig, roll, and play, something not often available to Davis’ urban clientele. She wants the dogs to feel like Bed & Biscuit is their home away from home. “They even get to watch Oprah with me,” she says.
Many of the dogs come with their own beds, blankets, and crates — if they are used to them. In addition, Davis has dog beds and quilts everywhere so the dogs have plenty of choices for daytime and nighttime sleeping. Most dogs aren’t contained at night, the primary exception being puppies. They are usually crated or tethered until they are reliably housetrained.
Play time for the dogs is important to Daniel Eels and Pam Webb, co-owners of Howliday Inn. Eels and Webb originally boarded dogs in their home for several years, then opened Howliday Inn in the spring of 2000. The large indoor loft space features six private rooms for boarders at nighttime and a fully contained rooftop patio. The dogs have plenty of room to romp and play, sun themselves, or simply nap. They also get plenty of interaction with Eels, Webb, and their employees, who use lots of positive reinforcement to improve dogs’ social skills and basic obedience.
While most dogs enjoy all the activity, it can be an overwhelming environment for a shy or older dog, who is used to lots of time alone to nap and relax. The owners of both businesses carefully screen dogs to ensure that all guests are well-socialized and non-aggressive.
Some dogs do best when they stay in their own homes. If this is the case with your dog, then a pet sitter is a good option to investigate. The other benefits of a pet sitter include having someone to bring in the mail, water the plants, and generally help your house appear lived-in.
Most pet sitters visit your home one or more times per day, although there are professional pet sitters who do overnight stays. Charges are usually assessed per visit rather than per dog, although there may be a per dog charge if the visits include walks or specific amounts of exercise. On her visits, professional pet sitter Judith Sookne, of The Paw Connection in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, routinely includes brief grooming, positive training, quiet time, and play sessions during her pet-sitting visits.
Pet sitting may be the most cost-effective situation for people with multiple pets, particularly if they are of different species. With a pet sitter, one person can care for the dog, cat, fish, and reptiles. In addition, you generally don’t have to worry about whether your preferences regarding your pets’ diet, vaccinations, or chemicals can be accommodated. The disadvantage is that your dogs are unsupervised for periods of time throughout the day and at night, which might not be satisfactory for some people.
“Most professional pet sitters I know have a written service contract, which contains provisions that protect both the pet sitter and the pet owner, and spells out the responsibilities of each,” says Sookne. She also gets detailed profiles on each animal and has the clients sign various permission forms. She spends about 45 minutes on a typical interview, meeting the humans and pets, and filling out all the forms.
Things to ask about
When it comes time to visit some facilities and interview caregivers, there are a number of things to keep in mind. It’s a good idea to write down a list of questions and the information that is most crucial to you and your dog.
Feeding: The business owners interviewed for this article prefer that you bring your dog’s regular food from home. The more continuity you can provide, the less stress on your dog’s system. Several facilities offer different kinds of food for sale; some even offer commercially prepared frozen, raw diets.
If your dog eats a home-prepared diet, whether raw or cooked, do as much preparation in advance as you can. The fewer steps for the caregiver the more likely your dog will be fed as you wish. You also need to be sure the kennel has adequate and appropriate storage facilities for the fresh or frozen meals.
“I think packaging the food is the most important thing,” says Ann Daugherty, of Sparks, Nevada. When she boards her dogs, she prepares two large resealable plastic bags for each dog, one for morning meals and one for evening meals. Each large bag is filled with smaller sealed bags containing food, supplements, and medications for one meal.
Alternatively, supplements and/or medications can be organized in pillboxes or small resealable plastic bags to be given with each meal or at other times, as needed. It is very important to clearly mark each container with the name of your dog and any other pertinent information, such as morning or evening. Provide a separate list of the contents of all containers.
Vaccinations/Titers: You are most likely to find stringent vaccination requirements at traditional boarding kennels. In fact, the leading industry association, the American Boarding Kennel Association, recommends all boarded dogs be immunized against rabies, distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus (these six are usually given as a combination shot called DHLPP), and bordetella. But this is changing.
At Oakshadows Kennel Plus in Dover, Ohio, owner Gail Burket allows boarded dogs to show proof of adequate titers instead of current vaccination records. “I’m concerned about vaccines,” she says, “I think dogs are over-vaccinated and vaccinated too late in life.”
Howliday Inn has an even more flexible policy. The only required vaccinations are parvo and distemper for dogs under one year of age. All other dogs may or may not be vaccinated according to the policy of the dog’s vet and the wishes of the animal’s guardian. In addition, dogs should be licensed, which translates to a rabies vaccination every one or three years, depending on the requirements of the dog’s home state.
If your kennel or caregiver of choice doesn’t currently accept titers in lieu of vaccinations, phone around and see if another kennel or two in your area does. Then let the first facility know. Some kennels will alter their policy, rather than lose a client.
Flea or other parasite control: Some kennels have strict policies that all animals be on a regular regimen of chemical flea control products. If your animal hasn’t recently been treated, they may dose him and bill you for it. Other facilities simply ask that your dog be flea-free when coming to board. It is important for you to know the policy of the kennel where your dog will be staying. If you are opposed to chemical treatments, and the kennel is okay with that, be sure that information is included clearly in your dog’s file.
Cleanliness: In addition to your eyes, use your nose when visiting a boarding facility. It should not have an offensive odor from unsanitary conditions, but it also shouldn’t smell of harsh cleaners or chemicals.
At Bed & Biscuit, Davis uses only vinegar to thoroughly clean her home. She avoids harsh and potentially toxic cleaners and other products that might have a negative effect on the dogs. Be sure to ask what kinds of cleansers, disinfectants, deodorizers, and other products are used at the facility and around the dogs.
Safety: When touring the facility look for safe fencing, double gates, and other features that will help keep your dog contained during his stay. If you are having a pet sitter come to your home, be sure he is aware of any possible hazards in your home. It’s also important to make sure that he enters and exits the home in a safe fashion, preventing one of your pets from slipping out.
When dogs are being kept in strange lodgings, or even staying at your house under the care of a stop-in pet sitter, they may make extraordinary efforts to escape in an effort to “go home” or to find you. For this reason, your dog should always wear a collar with an identification device securely fixed to it. The ID should provide contact information for the person who is caring for the dog while you are away, your veterinarian, and your home and vacation contact numbers. An identifying tattoo or implanted microchip can add further levels of security. (See “What a Good ID!” WDJ October 2001 and “Your Lost Dog’s Ticket Home,” November 1998.)
Medical and behavioral concerns: It may take you a little longer to find a caregiver if your dog has special health or behavioral issues. The Howliday Inn deals with a variety of health situations. Numerous canine clients require injections or medications. One of its clients, Max the Dachshund, is paralyzed in his rear end and uses a mobility cart. “As long as it doesn’t upset the other dogs we will try to accommodate any situation,” says Eels.
If your dog has any medical problems, it is a good idea to provide the temporary caregiver with a short medical history, list of current medications and/or supplements. Include dosages and schedules, as well as complete contact information for your veterinarian and any other healthcare practitioners.
Make sure you are very clear about any healthcare preferences. Daugherty makes sure that her dogs’ files state very clearly that they are not to be vaccinated under any circumstances, they are not to receive any topical flea or tick preventives, and no “just in case” antibiotics if a dog gets a cut or has a bout of diarrhea.
Also, make sure you know what the caregiver considers an illness or injury that should be seen by the vet. If your dog tends to have loose stools, runny eyes, or some other chronic, but not life-threatening health condition, make sure that the caregiver is aware of this, and that you do not consider it a health problem requiring veterinary attention.
Likewise, it is a good idea to convey the same level of detail about potential or past behavioral quirks or problems. If your dog has reacted aggressively in certain circumstances, be open and honest about it. Caregivers know that any dog can bite, but it is helpful for them to know if particular situations scare or provoke your dog, so they can avoid them. Don’t forget to share details about more innocuous habits too, like toileting preferences and food or water bowl placement.
Staff: You may love the owners of a boarding kennel and have complete confidence in them, but what about their staff? If possible, try to meet the people who actually will be watching your dog each day, in addition to the owners, when you visit. Burket says that all employees of Oakshadows are certified pet care technicians with the American Boarding Kennel Association. They often have animals of their own. “They aren’t just shoveling,” she says.
It also is beneficial to have a dog-friendly trainer on site, or someone well versed in canine socialization and behavior, if the facility allows socialization between the dogs.
Best for you and your dog
When looking for caregivers, whether a boarding kennel or pet sitter, ask around. Ask your friends and staff at your local pet supply store, your vet’s office, the dog park, and doggie day care. A personal recommendation is the best kind of referral.
Regardless of how you learn about a facility, always make a personal visit. Many kennels also require an evaluation of your dog, in addition to a visit by you, to ensure a successful stay for everyone involved. Read over the contract carefully and have a complete understanding of what is included in the fee and what is extra.
Make sure you honestly assess your dog’s personality and needs when you explore different options. It can also be helpful to have a test visit of one or two nights before taking an extended trip. This can help you see if the situation you think will work best is really a good one for your dog.
Contact information for the boarding facilities mentioned in this article can be found in "Resources."
-Shannon Wilkinson is a TTouch practitioner who lives with two dogs, two cats, and a husband in Portland, Oregon. For contact information, see "Resources."