[Updated May 23, 2018]
A couple of years ago, I was informed that the dog boarding facility I trusted – the one and only place where I felt comfortable leaving my own dog – was closing its doors indefinitely because the owner had fallen seriously ill. Obviously, my family was first and foremost very concerned for the owner. True, we relied heavily on her services, but she had also become a personal friend over the years. (The story does have a happy ending, as she has since fully recovered and is in excellent health.) While she was experiencing a very serious personal challenge, we – and all of her regular clients – were also suddenly faced with some significant inconveniences: Who would watch our dogs?
It can seem like a trite question, given the circumstances, but for a family like mine, whose members travel frequently for work, arranging for our dog’s care during our absence ranks very high on our list of priorities when making travel plans. If the one person we trust to take care of our dog is not available, we don’t seek to make other arrangements for our dog. Instead, we change our travel dates, or we don’t go. Period.
So while our friend and dog sitter recovered, we rearranged our lives in order to ensure someone could be home to care for our dog. This lasted 15 months!
During this time, I was approached by many of the kennel’s clients seeking guidance on where else in the area they could board their dogs. Several had been clients of my training business, and they wanted to know my recommendations. “Where would you go?” they’d ask. They were looking for someone they could trust implicitly, and they knew my standards would be high.
I had no answer for them. I was in the same boat as they were, and told them I was also searching for another boarding facility. They asked me, “How do you choose? How do you know a good place from a not-so-good place?”
This got me thinking about what criteria a dog-sitting operation should meet. What features should we look for? What are the deal-breakers? What features or services might be okay to live without?
What follows is a list of questions to ask a boarding facility before agreeing to leave your dog in their care during your absence. “Boarding facility” can also include those businesses that offer dog-sitting services in their private home. (Note that while some businesses offer pet-sitting services that include visiting your own home to care for your dog while you are away, this article specifically addresses facilities where your dog goes to stay. )
If a boarding facility operator refuses to answer a question, or indicates that she shouldn’t need to answer these questions at all, that is an excellent cue for you to walk away and look elsewhere. If I were offering to care for someone else’s dog, I would expect them to ask me these same questions. They are perfectly reasonable.
1. How Clean is the Facility?
Obviously, this is one question you’ll want to answer for yourself. Visit the premises. Ask to see where your dog will spend most of his time. The verdict is out on whether you should call ahead of time to arrange for a visit, or if you should show up unannounced to see the place “in action.”
I think it’s courteous to call ahead and arrange a time that is most convenient for the owner of the facility. Operating a kennel requires a lot of skillful time management and there are many tasks to accomplish in a systematic way. Keep in mind that disrupting the operators’ schedule will directly affect the dogs currently in their care. While it is tempting to make a surprise visit to see “what really goes on when no one is looking,” at some point you have to trust that your questions will be answered honestly and will provide the information you’re seeking.
Use your senses while you’re there: Does it look clean? Does it smell clean? Is it heated or air-conditioned? Visit more than once if you’d like to verify if the conditions you observe are consistent.
2. Is Drinking Water Readily Available?
This is a question you won’t want to skip. Some boarding operators prefer to withhold water during certain times of the day in order to minimize the number of times a dog needs to pee. I personally find this unacceptable. Dogs should have access to clean drinking water at all times, especially if they are experiencing stress, like many dogs do while away from home.
Note: Dogs of certain breeds and body types (deep-chested dogs, large-breed dogs over seven years old, large breed male dogs who are more than seven years old) are more prone to bloat than others. If you limit your dog’s water intake immediately before and after eating, or follow other protocols recommended by your veterinarian to prevent bloat, make sure the boarding kennel operator will also follow these protocols, and that she knows why you have requested them.
3. Does Each Dog Have Free Access to a Private Outdoor Run?
Depending on the design of the facility, some indoor kennel runs have a doggie-door that leads to an outdoor run and can be left open during the day (climate permitting), allowing the dog to move in and out as he pleases.
If there is no doggie-door, ask how often the dog is taken out of his enclosure during the day, and for how long. Does he just get to pee and then is returned immediately to his kennel? Or does he get to sniff around a bit, or go for a walk?
Ideally, check to ensure that your dog is let out of his enclosure for a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes at a time, at least twice a day.
If you see that a kennel facility can house 40 dogs during peak season, and that there are only two staff members on duty at any given time, you can probably do the math for yourself to figure out whether it’s possible for each dog to receive personal attention outside of his enclosure.
For example, in a 12-hour day, is it humanly possible for one employee to let 20 dogs out of their enclosures, individually, for 15 minutes, twice? Well, yes, it’s possible. However, there would be very little time remaining to handle all of the other tasks like cleaning and meal preparations, not to mention time for the staff member’s own bathroom and meal breaks! Make sure the boarding facility is adequately staffed.
4. How Secure is the Facility?
If the door to your dog’s enclosure is opened and he slips out and squeezes past the kennel staff, how far can he get? Is the building door kept securely shut? Is there a fence or a gate stopping him from running off the property or into the road?
5. What Separates the Enclosures?
Solid walls, sometimes made of concrete or wood, separate some enclosures; others are simple chain-link fencing, either with or without a canvas or vinyl tarp covering the fencing. This is an important consideration if you have a dog who isn’t at ease in the presence of other dogs. A visual barrier is often best to keep the peace and to reduce the stress level. Dogs should never be able to make physical contact between enclosures, like through spaces beneath or above the separating walls.
6. What Happens if Your Dog Has a Health Emergency?
You’ll want to ensure that the person or people taking care of your dog know what to do in a medical emergency. Are staff members certified in pet first aid? Is there transportation available at all times to take your dog to the vet in case of an emergency? Ultimately, you will also have established in writing what medical decisions the kennel operator can make on your behalf, and which ones must be made by you.
7. Do Dogs Interact with Each Other?
Whether or not dogs get to interact with each other brings up a whole other series of questions. Some businesses allow dog-dog interactions (and in fact, promote them), while others prohibit them at all times. Some dogs do very well in the company of other dogs, and a certain amount of well managed, well supervised interaction can be healthy.
Some dogs, however, are best kept apart from other dogs for various reasons. They may be fearful or aggressive around other dogs, or they might not be physically well enough to engage in direct contact (like if they’re elderly, injured, or recovering from surgery). If dog-dog interaction is allowed, you’ll want to ask the following questions:
A) How large is the play area? According to the ASPCA, each play area should include 75 to 100 square feet of space per dog, and each group shouldn’t consist of more than 10 to 15 dogs, with at least one supervisor per 15 dogs. Personally, I find this ratio entirely too high and would prefer much smaller groups of dogs for each human supervisor – like four to six dogs per one supervisor.
B) How would your dog’s playmates be selected? Based on size or play style?
C) What kind of training have staff members received? Are they qualified to read dog body language to recognize stress, discomfort, or volatile situations? What kind of handling skills do they have?
D) What if you prefer that your dog not play with other dogs – will they respect your wishes? You know your dog best, and the decisions you make about your dog’s well being should be honored.
8. How Do They Handle Certain Behaviors?
Ask what exactly will happen to your dog if he barks excessively. Will they spray him with water? Will they use a special collar of any type to try to control the barking? What exactly do they do about barking dogs? Ask them to be specific. Any type of “correction” is unacceptable.
What about a dog who growls at staff members or at another dog? How do they respond to this? Staff members should be qualified enough to recognize that a growling dog in an unfamiliar environment is most likely expressing fear or discomfort. Measures should be taken to help the dog feel more at ease. As with barking, any type of “correction” for growling is also unacceptable.
In any given scenario, your dog should be handled with kindness and patience. Ask specifically if staff members apply any physical corrections that are meant to startle or frighten your dog (like poking, jerking on the leash, “alpha rolling,” pinning your dog to the ground, shouting, etc.) or tools that are meant to be aversive to your dog, such as choke, prong, or collars that emit a shock, vibration, or citronella. None of these handling methods or tools are acceptable, and no qualified kennel operator who is knowledgeable about dog behavior would use them to manage the dogs in their care.
9. What are the Kennel’s Health Requirements?
Most kennels will require that your dog’s vaccinations are “up-to-date,” but you’ll want to find out what they mean by this. Would a positive vaccine titer test suffice? Or does the kennel require prospective boarders to have been vaccinated within the past three years, or one year? What about the Bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine? No matter what your personal feelings might be towards immunization protocols, you’ll probably need to meet the boarding facility’s requirements in order to use their services.
10. How is Feeding Handled?
Find out if the kennel staff is willing and able to maintain the diet you specified for your dog. Will they honor your instructions to refrain from feeding a particular food item to your dog? If you bring a week’s worth of stuffed Kongs and special treats for your dog, will they arrange to give them to your dog as requested? If you feed a raw diet, do they have the necessary freezers and refrigerators to store the food? Are they okay with handling raw food? Are they willing to take the time to mix and prepare dehydrated food?
11. Is There a Night Shift?
One of the reasons I chose the facility I use is because it is on the owner’s property, next to her house, so there is always someone present at night, all night. But some kennels do not have staff members on site overnight. Ask if anyone stays behind with the boarders. If the dogs are left alone overnight, it’s a deal-breaker for me. I want someone to be at least within earshot of the kennels at all times.
Conduct Further Kennel Research
In the end, a boarding facility’s reputation says a lot about its operation. Don’t rely on advertising or a great-looking website. Get references from people who use their services. Ask local vet clinic staff about them.
Personally, security is my primary concern when choosing a boarding facility. I want to be able to leave my dog in the care of someone I trust, and not worry about her safety.
Also, I choose not to allow my dog to interact with other dogs while she is boarded (the boarding facility I use does not permit dogs to come into contact with each other). She is not a socially confident dog, and I insist on supervising all dog-dog interactions that she engages in. That is my personal choice, and I need to know that the facility operator won’t disregard it.
I prepare tons of interactive food toys in advance and pack them with my dog’s belongings to ease the boredom of time spent at a boarding facility. I rationalize that if the worst thing that can happen to my dog is that she is bored while I’m away, that’s fine with me! I would prefer “bored” over “traumatized,” “hurt” (by another dog), or “punished,” “corrected,” or “disciplined” by a stranger.
Nancy Tucker, CPDT-KA, is a full-time trainer, behavior consultant, and seminar presenter in Quebec. She writes about dog behavior for several Quebec publications, focusing on life with the imperfect family dog.