Starting to travel again? As our country gradually opens up, the question of what to do with our pets if we don’t take them with us arises. I’m curious what choice you make, and what advice you have for others, about whether to kennel a dog or get a house sitter. Of course, both have costs and benefits. Sitters allow your animals to stay in a familiar place and in a familiar routine. If you’re lucky, there are neighbors who can help out if there’s a problem. However, sitters can sometimes be hard to find, and some are more reliable than others. Boarding kennels have systems in place to keep pets safe, but they can be noisy and stressful in some cases. Some dogs adore going to ” summer camp,” some dogs come back exhausted.
I’ll make some comments here, but I’m especially interested in opening up the conversation to you all. Sitter? Kennel? Never leave the dogs ever?
My perspective is limited, because I’ve never kenneled any of my dogs. I’ve always had people come here and pet sit since I moved to the farm in the early 1980’s. It turns out that there aren’t any kennels nearby that take a flock of sheep, so making the choice to get someone to come in was pretty simple. I will say that I never had a “sitter” who just came during the day and didn’t spend the night. I’m far too cautious for that. What if something happened in the middle of the night? (You might ask what that “something” might be–all I can say is that, if you have a brain like mine, it wouldn’t be good.)
I’ve had great luck with house sitters (although you’ll note an exception below, see #5). Often they are veterinary students or experienced dog trainers, so that is a huge plus that not everyone can manage. The biggest downsides are finding them, having to write out detailed notes, and cleaning up the house before you go. (But then, how else does one get motivated to clean out the frig?) Once you have one you trust, they are like gold. I pay them well, often leave them yummy food, and thank them extravagantly when I get home.
I do have some thoughts about how to choose a kennel though, which I’ll add after repeating a post I wrote in 2018 about how I prepare for a dog sitter. Here’s what I wrote:
1. Put a big-lettered note by the phone that says YOU ARE HERE and give the address and phone number of your home. House sitters rarely can spit out your address in a crisis, and that’s when they need it the most.
2. Also by the phone, leave EMERGENCY phone numbers for your usual vet (who you’ve called to approve any charges in advance) and if need be, an Emergency Vet Clinic that you trust. My experience with Emergency clinics has been mixed, so do due diligence if you can before you leave a number. I also leave the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Hotline Number, which is 888 426-4435.
3. Leave TWO copies of a list of all contact numbers: your cell, where you’re staying and a full itinerary, close neighbors to call in an emergency, plumbers, electricians, heating cooling service. I tell the sitter to put one copy in her car–if she gets stranded away from the house, (storm? accident?) she needs the phone number of neighbors to call to help with the animals.
4. Leave a copy of your will, or at least the part that specifies what is to happen to your animals. If you don’t have a formal will (you should, honest), download a simple one from the internet and get it signed by 2 witnesses. Keep it simple, and say where your pets should go. I freaked out one house sitter by leaving an envelope labeled “In the Event of My Death” under the sitting instructions, so now I’ll leave it in an easily accessible but less intimidating place. None of us want to think about this happening, but I feel much better knowing that I wouldn’t take my last breath heartsick over not knowing what would happen to all my animals.
5. If the sitter isn’t there when you leave, have her call and leave a message at your destination right away when she arrives. (I’m going to use a generic ‘she’ just to save space. Apologies to all male house sitters.) I never can relax until I know that the sitter is at the house, and always breath a huge sigh of relief when we connect. Ideally, the sitter is there when I leave the house, but that can’t always happen. I don’t make this suggestion lightly: I have friends who had a sitter who never showed up, and yes, the dogs all died, and yes, it was as horrible as you could imagine. I’m amazed at the number of people I’ve talked to who don’t even call the house to check in with the sitter, or do so 4 or 5 days after they left. I also strongly advise calling often if you have a new sitter. I once had a sitter who never answered the phone at the farm, but always was on her cell phone “just leaving” or “just arriving” including one night at one in the morning. When I got back, there was no garbage… nothing, not a piece of paper, after a 10 day trip, to suggest that she had stayed the night.
Also, arrange to call your sitter once you are back at the house if she will have already left. What if your plane is delayed? What if you were in a car accident on the way home from the airport? All my sitters are “on call” if for some reason they don’t hear from me. They have a list of my flights, both in and out, and know when I should be returning. If they don’t hear from me by X hour, they’ll drive back to the farm or call a neighbor.
6. Less is not more. I leave incredibly detailed notes, including not just what everyone eats and when and where, but also a long “diary” of a “day in the life.” I describe our daily routine, including that my dogs and I spoon every night before we go upstairs and that’s one of our favorite times. I write out a description of each animal, their behavioral quirks, health issues, things to watch for, things I’m working on, what they “know,” what they like and don’t like, what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do. It might seem a bit compulsive and frankly it takes me forever, but I’ve never heard a sitter complain about too much information. On the other hand, I’ve heard LOTS of complaints about too little from sitters who work with others.
7. If necessary, desensitize your animals to suitcases. If your pets get anxious when they see you preparing to leave, try leaving suitcases out when you’re not going anywhere, going through your ‘leaving’ routine without actually going anywhere. Pack up, and then go watch TV. You can also sneak the suitcase into the car when you actually go away, but if you travel a lot, your dog or cat will react long before you are ready to actually are ready to leave. If your dog or cat really does have Separation Anxiety, get a copy of I’ll Be Home Soon and go through the steps, adapting it for packing and for travel.
8. And then, once you leave the house . . . give it up. I don’t enjoy writing the notes, making the preparations, because I worry I’ll forget something and end up causing trouble. And I hate driving away. Like a dog with separation anxiety, I practically start to shake, pace, and sweat through my paws, although I do my best to remain cheerful as I’m leaving. I am happy to report I have never been known to drool, but my eyes can get pretty wet as the car pulls away from the house and the farm disappears behind a forest of oak and hickory trees. And then, finally, once I’m on the plane it’s better. Once I’ve talked to the sitter it’s much better. By the next day I’m okay, I am where I am, secure in the knowledge that I’ve done everything I can to make life good for my animals, and with gratitude for the wonderful person with whom I’ve trusted my life, my loves, my precious animals who will be there, eyes catching the light, bodies wagging from the shoulders back, tongues lapping all over me, to welcome me home.
Okay, that’s house sitting. But what about boarding kennels? Here’s are some of the things I would look for in a boarding kennel for dogs:
Noise Levels: The biggest downside to me in many kennels are the noise levels. Constant barking bouncing off cement walls and floors is a serious stressor for many dogs. Of course there’s going to be barking, but some kennels are much better than others at managing it.
People Time: How much time is your dog going to get with the staff? Most of our dogs are used to lots and lots of time with us, whether it’s belly rubs on the couch while you watch TV, or even just lying at your feet while you work on your computer. Lots of good kennels have programs in which you can pay extra to have staff come in and pet, walk or just hang out with your dog. I’d be adding that in a minute.
Exercise/Out of Kennel Time: What’s the schedule for letting your dog out? What does “out” look like? Is it a small, fenced piece of grass, or would your dog have a chance to walk, off leash in a huge, fenced wooded area like they could at one kennel I talked to in my area? What time are the dogs let out to potty in the morning and at night? Is someone on the grounds at night? Will someone sleep in the kennel with my dog all night long? (Oh, okay, maybe that’s a too big an ask?)
Safety Around Other Dogs: When we first got Skip we were leaving to go to Africa in a week, I wasn’t sure that the sitter was willing to handle an adult male dog who had never been in a house before. (Talk about a big ask. She did take care of Skip–Janna, you rock!) I spent some time looking at kennels, and found one close by that looked like a good prospect. When I went to visit I watched one dog terrorize another in the exercise yard, while the staff person was completely oblivious. Eeeps.
Staff: How well-trained are the staff? How do they handled your dog? If I had to take the dogs to a kennel, I’d take my dogs there before I made a reservation and watch them with my dogs.
Any complaints?: If you’re as
neurotic cautious as I am, you might check to see if any formal complaints have been filed about the company. But then, that’s just me.
I’m sure there’s more to think about, which is why I’m looking forward to what you all have to say. Just do not let Maggie hear you say the “kennel” word, because even if she’s never heard it before, she’ll put on The Face of Tragedy.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Rain!!!! Finally, finally, finally, we got 2.75 inches on Friday morning, and another 3/4 inch on Sunday afternoon. I say this with deep compassion for those suffering in the Southwest from a horrific drought/heat wave, and those suffering from floods in the Southeast. Looks like we are being reminded that our big, impressive brains are insignificant when it comes to larger forces, like climate and weather.
The lilies in the garden are starting to open up, and the butterfly population has increased. Here’s a Fritillary on one of the newly opened lilies.
I added the balance board to Maggie’s physical therapy exercises, because she seems to be improving. (PT appt this Friday, cross your paws.) Since Skip isn’t playing with Maggie twice a day anymore, he is losing condition too, so I also did some exercises with him on the board. Here’s a good reminder that what looks simple to us actually takes a lot of energy. (FYI, Maggie isn’t allowed to jump off the couch without an assist, so I had to take a photo while holding out a hand in a “stay” signal.)
May you too have some time to relax this week. And please chime in about how you handle pet care if/when you travel without your four-legged family members.