It’s (gasp) closing in on the Holiday Season! If you’re a dog owner and want to travel, you now have to figure out where your dog will stay while you were gone (if you can’t bring him with you, anyway.)
Gone are the days when your one and only option was to leave your dog in a metal kennel run in a big professional kennel building. Now there are tons of choices. There’s in-home pet-sitting, where someone stays at your house while you’re gone. Drop-in pet sitting, where the dog gets multiple visits per day but is alone overnight. Board-and-train, where the dog receives training every day during his stay in either a kennel or at the trainer’s home. In-home boarding, where the pet sitter will bring your dog home with them. Overnight daycare, where the dog plays all day with other dogs in a daycare setting and then sleeps in a kennel at the location overnight. Daycare with in-home boarding, where the dog attends daycare during the day and spends the night at a staff member’s house.
So many options! Which one’s best for your dog?
For a dog who’s nervous and shy, I’d lean towards an in-home pet sitter. This person will stay at your house and can provide your dog with a schedule as close to normal as possible. It will be especially helpful if you can arrange for your dog to spend some time with the sitter beforehand, accompanying them on a walk together or sending them into the backyard to play. You should feel confident that your in-home sitter will respect your home and belongings, as well as any instructions you have about the care of your dog.
For the dog who’s happy-go-lucky and loves everybody and has lots of energy and loves to play, a daycare with overnight boarding option can be a very good one. He will probably have a thoroughly good time while you’re gone, playing all day long with other dogs and interacting with the kennel staff. Inspect the kennel runs to make sure they’re clean and safe, but honestly your dog will probably be sleeping so hard all night that he won’t even notice. Your confident dog will probably do fine with in-home boarding, too – if he’s very high-energy, try to pick a sitter who owns a dog he can play with.
For a dog who has serious behavior or medical problems, you will want to go with a professional kennel. If your dogs behavior issues involve aggression towards other dogs, you will need to seek out a kennel that has private “suites”, or rooms with solid walls and doors and no physical or visual access to other dogs.
Board-and-train is usually wildly expensive, and I don’t usually recommend it for novice owners (who are likely to receive a well-started dog back, and then have no idea how to maintain or continue the training, so the dog usually reverts back to how it was) but sometimes it can be a good choice. If you have to spend the money to board your dog anyway, then paying extra for training might be a good idea; it will also benefit your dog by giving him something to do during the day and providing mental and physical stimulation. The main caveat with board-and-train though, is to make sure that you have a thorough understanding of what the training methods are going to be and what exactly the trainer is going to do with the dog. Good training takes time, and many of the “Cure Aggression in Two Weeks!” and other quick-fix or boot camp type programs involve a huge amount of e-collar, pinch and prong collar, treadmills and flooding, and other heavy-handed and aversive methods. If you are not very careful in selecting your program you may get a shell-shocked, vacant version of your dog back, and there can be very serious long-term side effects from this kind of training. Best advice is to only consider board-and-train if you really, really trust the trainer and are clear on how exactly the dog will be trained.
If your dog has medical needs, many vet offices offer boarding services. If your vet doesn’t, ask for a referral to a clinic that does.
If you do decide to go with the pet-sitter, instead of a traditional kennel, now you’ll have to screen your sitter. Here are some things to think about:
I would not choose a pet-sitter who does not have a car. In the event of an emergency, how would she transport my dog to the vet?
If my dog was big and strong, I’d try to choose a sitter who is big and strong. Even if my dog walks nicely on the leash for me, that might not translate to walking nicely on the leash for someone else. Obviously, there’s leash skills you can use so that you can still manage and control a large dog, even if you’re a tiny person. But unless I’m positive that my sitter has those leash skills and has good enough timing and coordination to use them, I’m going to pick a sturdy person. Also, if my dog were to jump up on someone, I’d prefer the person not actually get knocked down.
You want your sitter to know a lot about dogs, but the true test of somebody who’s knowledgeable about dogs is for them to admit that they don’t know everything about dogs. Professionals learn something new from every dog. Nobody will ever know “everything” about dogs. Be wary and steer clear of the person who “knows it all.” A sitter who believes that she does everything better than you and can handle any dog or dog-related situation better than you is one who’s likely to override and ignore your instructions.
Find out their experience. Some sitters “love dogs” and may have had a dog or two in the past. Just because your sitter maybe owns a dog or several dogs and has trained them, does not necessarily mean that she has the skills to handle and care for unknown dogs. Maybe the sitter’s dogs are friendly to everybody and always come when called; this will be a disaster if she expects the same behavior from every dog. I would very much prefer somebody who had actual professional dog handling experience. Groomers, vet techs and shelter or daycare employees in particular will have good experience in handling a wide variety of dogs who are often nervous, overexcited, or confused at being separated from the owner.
Your sitter should absolutely definitely carry insurance coverage. If this is just a family friend or relative that you know, who’s doing you a favor, then you can let this slide, but if this is someone you don’t know or someone who claims to be a professional, then you will want them to have insurance coverage.
Most sitters will come over (for free) to do a meet-and-greet and for everyone to determine if this will be a good match. Observe how your candidate sitter interacts with dogs. The sitter shouldn’t encourage your dog to jump up in greeting, but shouldn’t react violently (kneeing the dog in the chest or stomping the dog’s back toes) if it does so – he or she should just step aside. If your dog is showing any nervousness, your sitter should not move in with outstretched hands to try and “make friends.” In fact, if your sitter temporarily ignores the shy dog and speaks with and looks only at you, this could actually be a good sign – this sitter is remaining neutral towards the dog to establish that he or she is not a threat. As the visit goes on, the dog should warm up visibly to the sitter and at that point the sitter might pet and interact more with it.
The sitter should be willing to follow your household rules for interaction with the dog. He or she shouldn’t sit down and immediately invite the dog up onto the sofa, for example, unless you’ve made it clear that the dog is allowed on the sofa. But if your dog is allowed on your sofa, then the sitter shouldn’t force it off. (Your house, your rules.) It is also okay to request that the sitter does not invite others (friends, etc) into your home. Each additional person coming into the house represents more risk to your dog and to your property. If the dog will be staying at the sitter’s house, find out who else lives there and if it’s a quieter house or one where many people are coming and going.
When you are gone, it’s advisable to ask the sitter never to let the dog run loose or off it’s leash, and think very carefully before you let an unknown person take it to a dog park. No matter how well your dog is trained, it doesn’t have a training history with the sitter, and your sitter might not use the right cues or might act in a way that your dog isn’t familiar with. Remember that you know your dog in a very deep, subtle way and it took your relationship a long time to get to the point where it is today. Your sitter however, will be a stranger to your dog. They’ll develop history together as they go, but for now don’t expect the dog to behave exactly the same with your sitter as he does for you. Expect and prepare for some training regressions.
Before you leave, double-check the fence and all other security measures you have for your dog. Double-check the leash and collar to make sure that there’s no frays or tears, and make sure that all identification tags are secure. It’s always a good idea to hide an extra key in case the sitter ends up locked out somehow.
Finally, be perfectly honest with your sitter. If your dog has shown aggression in a specific situation before, such as if you approach him while he’s eating, the sitter needs to know so he or she can avoid that specific trigger – or even turn down the gig altogether. If your dog is “sometimes” friendly with other dogs, but sometimes not, then be honest with the sitter and let her know that his behavior can be unpredictable so best would be if the walks did not involve greeting strange dogs. You are not doing your sitter any favors if you downplay any issues that your dog has. But if you very clearly explain them, as well as how to avoid any potential triggers (avoiding triggers altogether is a better and safer bet for sitters than trying to train through them, even if you are currently in training with your dog.)