Imagine checking into a hotel and realizing it wasn’t what you expected. The room is dirty, the staff is rude, and the air conditioner is broken—what do you do? If you’re a human, you check out and find better accommodations. But if you’re a dog, well, your options are more limited.
Our pets rely on us to be their voices and advocates, which is why it’s extremely important to plan for their care if you’re going away this summer. In many states, the pet-care industry—which includes kennels, daycares, and groomers—is largely unregulated, so it’s up to owners to ensure that facilities meet their personal standards.
As the founder and executive director of the International Boarding & Pet Services Association (IBPSA), Carmen Rustenbeck has spent the past 15 years helping businesses deliver top-notch care to four-legged (and, in some cases, feathered and scaled) friends. Here, she shares her tips for identifying a quality boarding kennel, as well as how to best prepare your pet for a safe, comfortable stay.
Plan, Plan, Plan
Like the best hotels, the best kennels are frequently booked far in advance, especially during popular travel times. For the smoothest experience, you want to begin planning months—and maybe even a full year—in advance. “If you’re leaving tomorrow, today is not the time to be looking for a boarding facility,” says Rustenbeck. “I’m hearing from people who are already booked for the holiday season. For summer travel, depending on where you live, it’s ideal to look a year ahead.”
Most facilities will require proof of vaccinations and a clean bill of health, so also factor in time to bring your pet in for a vet visit. It’s likely that your dog will need a bordetella vaccine to protect against kennel cough, and your veterinarian may also suggest a canine-influenza vaccine.
Something to keep in mind: If your kennel doesn’t ask about your pet’s health, it likely didn’t ask about any pet’s health. Reconsider your reservation before putting your pet at risk of contagious diseases.
Take a Tour
The first time you visit the kennel shouldn’t be the day you’re leaving for vacation.
“First, plan to take a tour of the facility without your pet,” recommends Rustenbeck. “It’s important to get a good first impression and meet the staff while you’re not in a hurry.”
A bad boarding facility may give itself away before you even reach the front desk. “When you pull into the parking lot, is it clean? Does the reception area look clean, or does an odor hit you as soon as you walk through the door?” asks Rustenbeck. “There’s no reason for a facility to smell—that’s a giveaway you’re not somewhere you want to be.”
Come prepared with questions for the staff, and don’t be shy about appearing nosy or overly protective—remember, your pet can’t ask for himself. Is there an evacuation plan in the event of a flood, fire, or other emergency? Do they have a staffer trained in animal CPR and first aid? If your pet has any medication needs, is there someone prepared to handle them? Are the cleaning products allergen-free? (IBPSA provides a comprehensive list of questions for pet owners here.)
If your dog will interact in playgroups, make sure to tour that area as well as his kennel.
Another mark of a quality kennel? An educated staff and engaged management. A top-tier facility will require that their staff undergo training and will pursue third-party certification. Ask staff members what animal-care programs they’ve completed, and if the facility belongs to any professional associations, such as IBPSA.
Book a Trial Stay
After you’ve determined that a kennel meets your standards, it’s time to get your pet’s feedback. If you’re planning to board your dog for a weeklong vacation, first book him an overnight trial stay. When you pick him up the next day, pay careful attention to his body language.
“In my industry, the pet never lies—they don’t know how to,” says Rustenbeck. “I always tell owners, you really need to know your pet and be familiar with his body language. If you know your pet, you’ll know if he’s comfortable.”
If your pet seems relaxed, happy, clean, and healthy when you pick him up, schedule additional visits to the kennel to get him used to visiting and acclimated to its smells and sounds. The more often he visits with you—even if it’s just stopping by the lobby to say hello to the front desk staff—the better prepared he’ll be to stay for a longer trip.
Consider a Pet Sitter
Some pets aren’t good candidates for even the best of boarding facilities. If your pet has certain health or behavioral problems, or simply doesn’t take kindly to new environments, you might want to consider in-home care while you’re away.
When hiring a pet sitting service, it’s important to interview them as rigorously as a kennel—not only are they taking care of your family member, but they also have access to your home. “Pet sitters should be bonded, certified, and insured,” says Rustenbeck. “Ask for referrals, do your research on social media, and call the Better Business Bureau before making any reservations.”
Ideally, you'll want to schedule an in-person meet-and-greet with your sitter and pets before leaving for vacation. It’s also a good idea to check in with your homeowner’s insurance to verify that you’re covered for any type of emergency that might occur while someone else is in your home.
Once you’ve made the proper arrangements for your pet, it’s time to enjoy your vacation—you deserve it after all the work you put in for your four-legged friend.