Great Expectations

Aug 19, 2021 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild, Pet Guardians

By Rachel Brix 

dog in paddling pool
Depending on the area you are looking in, there may be a variety of boarding facilities to choose from, so it can be a daunting task to try to figure out which one is the best place for your dog to stay. Budget is, of course, always a consideration, but beyond that how do you choose? In my experience, there are a number of factors to think about, and also some red flags to look out for.

Personality: Selecting a boarding facility should be as much about your dog as possible: after all, she’s the one who must spend the time there, so what would she want? A good place to start is by taking inventory of your dog’s personality. What does she like to do for fun? And just as important, what doesn’t she like to do? For example, does your dog like to play fetch until she drops? Does she really like playing with the dogs at the dog park, or would she rather be off on her own sniffing everything instead? Does she delight in time spent with humans, or does she prefer the company of other dogs?

Boarding Together: If you have more than one dog to board, should they board together? It would seem dogs who live together should board together, but that’s sometimes not the case. For example, if you’ve got an incredibly young and exuberant dog and a senior mostly chill dog, then it could be stressful to combine them in the same space, especially if those spaces are small: the older dog has no way to escape the boisterousness of the puppy and stress can result.

At our facility, we have many housemates who don’t board together for various reasons: sometimes it’s resource guarding, some involve incompatible energy levels, and sometimes it’s arousal levels. For example, we board two young Great Dane males who cohabitate well together at home but who are not used to wide open spaces to run, romp and play. When seeing the younger one engaged in running or playing, the older becomes so aroused he tends to want to subdue the younger one, thus preventing him from exploring and playing.

Since we’ve been boarding them separately (although they have adjacent patio space) they have both flourished. We’ve been able to work with the younger dog on boosting confidence and discovering new activities he likes to do, and the older dog has become much less wary of people in general because of our consistent one-on-one time and work with him as well. And we’ve discovered a myriad of toys they like, all much to their human’s delight.

Individual Needs: It’s a good idea to take note of your dog’s needs for feeding, medication, and comfortable sleep. Make sure they allow for you to bring your dog’s food, as an abrupt switch to a dog’s diet can make for terribly upset tummies. Will the facility refrigerate your homecooked food and feed two meals a day at the times your pooch is used to eating? Give her morning and bedtime snacks on schedule? Does the facility have staff trained to give your dog’s insulin injections? Does the facility provide beds/bedding, or do you need to bring it?

The Right Place

Once you’ve got an idea of what your dog’s needs are, then it’s time to get serious about choosing the right place for him to stay.

Recommendations: Check with people you know who have boarded their dogs. Arguably the best and most trusted recommendation you can get is from friends and family.

If you’re searching online, check out potential business’s websites. The site should have much more than pricing information and a few pictures. Who runs the business? Are they experienced? Knowledgeable? Credentialed? What types of amenities and options are available? What do the dogs do all day? Are there add-on options to customize your dog’s stay? What are their requirements? Steer clear of a facility that doesn’t have vaccine requirements.

Reviews: Once you’ve decided it’s possibly a good fit for your dog, check out its Facebook page posts and online reviews. Most businesses have a few less-than-stellar reviews, but overall, the ratings should be high. So, it looks like a good place and the reviews are great. Now what?

Take a Tour: Is the place clean? It should be clean and have no smell; cleaning smells and perfumy smells can be unpleasant or even overwhelming for dogs and may be trying to mask odors.

Make mental notes while you’re there. Are the dogs having fun and engaged in play or an activity or are they simply laying around (or worse, cowering in the corner)? Are they all clamoring for the attention of one person or are they interacting positively with several staff? Speaking of staff, are they friendly with humans, too? Taking a tour is a prime time to ask questions.

Playgroups: If the facility offers playgroups, there are several considerations. First, does your dog like to play with other dogs? We often assume the answer is yes, but for many dogs the answer is maybe, sometimes, or even no. It’s important to know your pet and what they prefer. As with caretakers at boarding facilities, guardians should be versed in canine body language, so we understand our pet’s play preferences.

Staff: Ask about the staff’s training. An overwhelming number of boarding facility staff may have experience, but no formal education. While experience is valuable, if it’s not the right kind of experience, or bad habits or information are passed on and adopted as policy, it’s even worse.

For example, I knew a daycare worker who’d been working for the same facility for 10 years. She insisted humping was a normal part of play and said she sees it day in and day out and her facility’s staff does not intervene. But this isn’t necessarily the case: humping is often an inappropriate attempt at play by an undersocialized dog, an expression of discomfort by an anxious dog, or a stress signal (among other things). Not to mention its effect on the dog who’s being humped!

In my experience in touring boarding facilities, staff members (especially in franchises or chains) may have only had a few hours of video training, or no formal training or education at all. Of course, this may not be true in all cases, so it’s best to ask.

Two women near me recently sold a boarding business they built from the ground up, and it had been successful for many years. They offered to stay on for a few weeks to help the new owners, who had no background, education, or experience with dogs (other than their own pets), transition into operating the business. The new owners declined and within the first week there was a small dog fatality at the paws of a larger dog in a playgroup. The business closed permanently less than a year later.

It’s critical playgroups are a manageable size (10 or less per staff member is recommended) and safely monitored by someone well-versed in dog body language and what appropriate play looks like.

Training Methods: Many boarding facility staff members I’ve talked to are not trained in positive reinforcement or the humane hierarchy, so when it comes time for intervention, interruptions in play might be harsh (yelling, loud noises, shaker cans, air horns). So ask what happens to dogs who behave in ways staff find inappropriate. This single question is a great gauge for whether their approach gels with your expectations.

Ideally, staff is temperament testing playgroup dogs, trained in how to diffuse potentially escalating situations and overall versed in rewards-based humane and effective handling.

Resting: The facility should also have a plan for downtime, meaning time to rest the dogs individually throughout the day to keep them calm and balanced. Where do the dogs spend downtime and sleep time? You’ll want to check out the digs for yourself. Will your dog be comfortable there? Look at it through your dog’s eyes.

Enrichment: It’s important for dogs to have other types of enrichment besides social groups. Like us, they don’t necessarily like to do the same thing day after day – especially if your dog isn’t uber-social and will need other stimulation during her stay besides playgroups. I recommend you ask what else is available for the dogs to do besides play with other dogs, as this can be stressful day in and day out for a week straight, even for dog-social dogs.

Protocols: Be sure to ask what protocols are in place if your dog gets nervous or becomes distressed. Again, this comes down to staff training in behavior. Can the facility try a different accommodation? Add or subtract something from the space to make her more comfortable? Spend some one-on-one time?

We regularly board a Dutch shepherd whose human really wanted her to stay in our private penthouse suite with the big bed and TV her first visit. We obliged, but after a short time we could tell she was increasingly agitated, almost to the point of distress. So, we moved her to our bunk house where there were other dogs around, more action and a big personal patio. Not long afterward, her demeanor had changed; she was eating treats, engaging in play and her stress was almost nonexistent. She’s stayed in our bunk house ever since and loves it!

Emergency: What if an emergency happens while your dog is in the boarding facility? Do they have a vet on duty or on call? What if there’s a natural disaster, or power outage happens? Does the facility have an Emergency Preparedness Plan? An alarm system? Backup power? Is the facility staffed 24 hours? If not, how is the building monitored overnight?

And while we’re on the topic of emergencies, we should all have someone our dog’s caregivers can call to care for them in the unfortunate circumstance we’re unable to come get them. Planes and cars crash. Accidents happen. Who can your pet count on to care for him if you never come home from your trip? My blog post Planning for your Pet’s Future (without you in it) goes into more detail about why this is a critical component of all pet guardian’s travel plans (and really, life in general).

Test Visit: Perhaps the most important test once you’ve found “the” place is to arrange to have your dog visit for the day ahead of boarding. Note her body language upon visiting and at pick up but remember that it’s normal for her to feel a little uneasy at first. After all, it’s a new place with new people and new smells, and for many dogs that can be a bit overwhelming. How the staff acclimates your dog to their routine is important to note.

Overall, there are many great facilities out there that have incredible amenities and superior staff. But there are also a lot of facilities that don’t. Where you leave your dog and with whom is a big decision; not only for his well-being, but also for your peace of mind so you can enjoy your vacation! While our instincts may not be as good as our dogs’, trusting your gut is always a good benchmark too.

Brix, R. (2020). Planning for your Pet’s Future (without you in it) 

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp.26-29. Read the full article Great Expectations.

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