[Updated May 23, 2018]
So, you’re leaving town for a few days. What ARE you going to do with Fido? Experts agree that the best situation for your dog’s health and happiness would be to have someone stay in your home, maintaining the dog’s regular diet and exercise, and preserving his comfort and sense of security, but this is not always possible. And while we know people who haven’t taken a dog-less vacation for the life of their dogs, we think this is a little extreme.
Only parents who have had to find safe, stimulating daycare for their small children will fully understand what is so difficult about finding a safe, enjoyable boarding kennel for your dog. You worry about abuse, poor hygiene and threat of transmittable disease, and the general stress of the whole situation. If your dog is something like ours – without “current” vaccinations, on a partly or wholly fresh foods diet, and accustomed to a lot of personal attention and exercise – your requirements for a suitable boarding facility may eliminate most kennels from your list of candidates!
Good news: Boarding kennels that feature enlightened dog care are on the rise. They may be expensive, and fully booked weeks in advance, but they exist. The trick is in weeding out the inferior facilities.
We asked several operators of top-quality facilities to tell us how they would choose a boarding kennel. Each emphasized the importance of taking a complete tour, visiting the facility more than once before your dog’s proposed stay, and asking a LOT of questions. We’ll discuss each of their suggested questions individually.
Questions to Ask Prospective Boarding Kennels
1. How do you keep the place clean?
Good basic hygiene is the first and foremost requirement of any kind of kennel. The operators simply must have a good system and adequate personnel to guarantee that feces is picked up promptly and urine is absorbed or washed away. Also, while it is critical that the facilities look and smell fresh, it’s also important that the chemicals used to clean the kennels, crates, or runs are nontoxic. Ask the operators how the facility is kept so clean, and specifically ask about their disinfectants. Look for the use of safe, natural disinfectants, like citrus-based products.
Also, the facility should have a method of disposing the dogs’ feces on a daily basis, whether it is a well-built and maintained composting system, a septic system, or access to a sewer system. Storage of feces on the property invites flies and other pests.
2. How safe and secure is the facility?
Every kennel should have a fencing and cross-fencing system, so that a dog who slips out of one enclosure can’t escape directly to a busy street or a wide-open prairie. The fences should be in good repair.
3. What accommodations are available?
Kennels vary widely, and you have to choose a place that has the sort of accommodations that your dog will be comfortable in. Some dogs can spend a weekend in a cage, with occasional potty breaks, without much stress or discomfort, while the same environment could practically kill other dogs. Some dogs can cheerfully handle life in a run, while others would have a nervous breakdown in any situation that didn’t resemble a home. You have to know your dog, and allow him to sample some different environments, before you commit him to a weekend stay.
Some facilities offer boarding in their own homes. Bart Emken, owner of DogBoy’s Positive Power Kennels, located in Pflugerville, Texas, has kennels with indoor beds for 30 or so “outside” dogs, but also offers “in-house” boarding for a small, select type of dog: “Elderly, small in stature, calm, and completely house-trained.”
4. How many people are on staff? Are the dogs checked after hours?
Some facilities are open only from 9 am until 5 p.m., after which the employees turn out the lights and go home for the night. As every pet “parent” knows, dogs can get sick at night, and the promptness of medical attention can make the difference between life and death. Choosing a facility that has caretakers within hearing range of the dogs at night is recommended, and a place that provides all night supervision (a caretaker who is awake and who occasionally checks on the dogs) is ideal.
5. How are your staffers qualified? What sort of training do they have in canine behavior or veterinary care?
It’s critical that all the people who have the opportunity to handle your dog be experienced and trained in proper dog handling. Jill Breitner, co-owner of Kindred Tails Bed & Biscuit, a boarding facility located in Valley Ford, California, and her partner are both licensed veterinary technicians, and both have studied with canine behaviorists; Breitner suggests that all kennel operators have these credentials as a minimum.
“Your dog can be traumatized by a single incident with an inexperienced person,” she warns. “Say a cleaner goes into a cage with a pooper-scooper, and the dog has never seen that sort of implement before. He gets scared and nips at the cleaner, who gets scared and shouts and hits the dog. I guarantee you that your dog will now be afraid of anyone with a long stick. The simplest things can cause major problems with dogs that have never been kenneled before.”
It’s also important that all the staff members be trained in gentle dog handling techniques, which is one of the primary attractions at DogBoy’s Positive Power Kennels. “We don’t believe in using choke chains, pinch collars, or even the word ‘NO’ in our training,” says owner Bart Emken. For this reason, “boarding and training” is a popular option among his clients.
When you set an appointment to inspect the facility, ask how many people they have on staff, and ask if you can meet several of them. If you don’t like the staff members, go somewhere else!
It’s also helpful if the facility has a veterinary health technician on staff, or at least, someone who is experienced enough to recognize early signs of illness in your dog.
Some veterinarians offer boarding, and there is one giant advantage and several disadvantages to this. Obviously, a vet’s staff is best suited to providing extensive medical care and supervision, if your dog needs that. But few veterinarians have overnight supervision; if your dog has a health crisis in the middle of the night, they might not know until it’s too late. Few vets’ offices have runs; often, the dogs stay in cages. And, finally, vets’ kennels also house sick dogs, potentially exposing your dog to disease.
6. How much exercise do the dogs get? How are they exercised?
Ask how long each dog gets out for, and whether anyone plays with the dog to ensure that it runs around and gets some exercise. At some facilities, the dogs are walked on leash, rather than turned out. This makes the handlers’ training even more important. You don’t want your dog being yanked around while you’re gone.
At The Common Dog, a daycare and vacation boarding facility located in Everett, Massachusetts, about 10 minutes from Boston Commons, the “daycare supervisors” are always present and interacting with the dogs out on the 5,000 square-foot dog play yard, giving tummy rubs, throwing a ball, and playing tug-of-war.
7. Do you offer any socializing? How is this accomplished?
Few boarding kennels offer or allow much socializing; many operators are afraid the dogs will hurt themselves or each other. However, if your dog regularly enjoys playtime with other dogs, socializing at the kennel can transform your dog’s stay from a sad endurance event into a fun-filled dog party. But the staff overseeing the socializing needs experience.
Breitner says all staffers at a socialized boarding facility should have some training in canine behavior. “The employees must be educated about canine behavior – individual dog behavior and pack behavior. Look for supervisors who have worked with a behavioral specialist,” she suggests.
Also, all dogs should be “interviewed” before they are permitted to board at a socialized kennel. Most managers of socialized boarding facilities first “pre-qualify” a candidate in a phone interview with the owner, asking whether the dog jumps fences, digs, or exhibits any other kind of escape behavior. They also ask whether the owner takes the dog to dog parks or other social situations, and whether the dog is used to playing with lots of other strange dogs. “Just because their dog regularly plays with one or two other dogs doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a friendly dog,” Breitner comments.
If all answers on the phone check out, the managers then invite the owner to bring the dog to the facility for an in-person interview. During the interview, Breitner uses her own well-socialized, “assertive, but not aggressive” dogs to test the candidates “getting along skills.” If the dog shows aggression, tries to escape the facility, or runs in terror from the other dogs, Breitner lets the owner know the animal is not a good candidate for socialized boarding facility.
8. What vaccinations do you require?
The only vaccination that is legally required of all dogs is rabies. However, many facilities require that a dog be current on every possible disease (and some even offer to vaccinate your dogs for a fee – a “favor” most of us would rather avoid). If you are trying to reduce the vaccinations your dog receives, or using titer tests to monitor your dog’s level of protection from disease, look for like-minded facilities.
9. Will you feed my dog the way I do?
Keeping any dog on the same diet as he is accustomed to is very important, especially while he is under stress. However, some kennel operators may be unwilling to prepare raw and/or fresh food diets. Discuss your dog’s diet in detail with the managers, and make sure they understand all the ramifications of feeding such a diet; don’t assume they know they must wash the dog’s bowls out with soap and hot water after each feeding of raw meat, for instance.
10. What sort of flea-control do you use?
Most kennels require dogs to be flea-free when they arrive, and many insist on giving a dog (and charging its owner) a flea bath if it arrives with so much as a single flea on it. Other facilities require the use of Advantage or some other topical toxins. If your dog is sensitive to these chemicals, or if you are simply trying to keep his exposure to them to a minimum (as WDJ recommends) discuss this with the kennel manager. Ask what sort of insecticides they use at the kennel.
11. What are your rates? What do you charge extra for?
These questions are important if your dog requires daily supplements, medication, acupressure, or other treatment. Prices for care may vary from as little as $12 per day to $40 a day or more, especially if your dog requires extra care for his coat or diet. But most facilities will be very specific about these charges, if you know to ask. For instance, at Best Friends Bed & Biscuit, a boarding facility located in Greensboro, North Carolina, each dog receives one daily playtime or a relaxing massage at no additional charge, with additional sessions available at a very reasonable $3.50 per session.
12. Can I see your boarding agreement?
Again, it’s best to see what sorts of requirements and expectations the operators have before you are due at the airport. While your line of questioning should be fairly exhaustive, you don’t want to be surprised by some odd requirement at the last moment.
As you have seen, it is difficult to make sure that you have satisfied yourself about every detail of your dog’s care. But remember, the goal is for you and your dog to go and have separate, but equally enjoyable vacations.