One of the issues readers have asked me to address is how to help a dog feel comfortable when being left at a kennel or a friend’s while they are away on a trip. It’s a great question, and is especially relevant now that the GREAT ROLLER COASTER OF HOLIDAYS is looming ahead of us. (You do have your Thanksgiving dinner made and all your Christmas presents purchased and wrapped, yes?)
I’m going to expand my answer to include teaching dogs in a variety of contexts that they are not being abandoned because their owner has to leave them in an unfamiliar place. This seems like a reasonable fear, although perhaps not in the sense of “my owner is deserting me” but rather “My owner just walked away and I have no idea what is going to happen next”. How would an adult dog dropped off at a boarding kennel know that you would be coming back? How would a puppy left for the first time in a crate know what is going to happen after you leave the room? Of course, we’ve often been told that dogs “are accepting” and don’t (or can’t) worry about the future. But we don’t know what they worry about, really, do we? Certainly any sentient creature can worry about what is happening to it, and what might happen in the very near future. We can only speculate about what they might be thinking when left in an unfamiliar place, but we know that sometimes their behavior–barking, howling, whining, chewing, pacing–suggests that they are distressed about being left alone in a strange place. But there are three relatively simple things we can do, well before the holidays arrive, to help dogs be comfortable if we have to leave them.
1. Teach your dog to expect your return by leaving for only a few seconds at first. I’ve advised clients to drive their dog to the boarding kennel at least a week before they are leaving. Hand your dog to a kennel worker, or take them to their kennel space and give them a chew treat. Walk out of sight for only a second or two, return and let your dog out. You might even take away the chew treat if that works for you and your dog. Repeat, and go out of sight for a little longer, returning before you dog can begin to fuss. Try one more time, leaving for a minute or so, and then retrieve your dog and go home. If it’s convenient, or you’re helping a dog settle into a new place in your house (crate for example), you can repeat this every day, leaving for longer and longer periods.
2. Make the “unfamiliar place” familiar. You can do this a number of ways. At a boarding kennel, ask what area your dog will be in, and sit in there with your dog for awhile. When you are leaving on your trip, bring along familiar items, even the dog’s crate if he or she is comfortable in it. Best are things that smell familiar, because dogs surely must be overwhelmed with unfamiliar scents when they are left in a new place. When we travel to sheepdog events I always take the towel or blanket from the dog’s car crates and put them on the floor in the motel. Willie doesn’t pay much attention to them any more, but he used to, and Maggie only settles if I put the towel down beside my side of the bed and show her it’s there.
3. Keep them busy while you leave. Baby sitters tell parents all the time that the squalling child they walked away from settled down within minutes after they left. Transitions are tough for all of us, and usually get better once we’ve settled into the new normal. I despise leaving our dogs and cats when going on a trip. I am simply miserable as we drive away, but I feel better after a few minutes and I can turn my thoughts forward. I still miss the animals terribly while we are gone, and begin to ache for them if we’re away more than a day or two, but I don’t feel that desperate sense of my heart being ripped out of my chest. So give your dog the best chew toy in the world, whether it’s a Kong stuffed with frozen food or a beef horn or whatever is safe for your dog that you know he or she loves. The idea is to keep them busy while you walk away. If you’ve also done a few sessions of Step One, your dog will already have been conditioned to the sequence of events and be even more comfortable. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered if dogs know how long we’ve been gone, check out this post from 2011.)
I first used these three steps years ago when I arrived in San Francisco to tape Pet Line for Animal Planet with my Border Collies Luke and Lassie. The producers had promised I’d have time to get my dogs used to the studio before I got swept off behind the cameras, but when I arrived I was told I had to be on camera in five minutes. “Put your dogs somewhere and follow me” I was told in no uncertain terms. Oh. “Give me 10 minutes,” I said. Luckily I had lugged their crates with me when I entered the studio. (Fun in the city: Drive to unknown destination in downtown San Francisco, walk 3 blocks carrying two folded crates while walking two farm dogs to the studio. Thank heaven, the dogs were fantastic.) I put up their crates in the quietest room I could find, asked them to “crate up,” gave them a chew treat and walked out the door. I returned in two seconds, if even that, and let them out.
“Crate Up!” I said again, and the dogs happily ran into their crates. I gave them a treat, walked out of the room and count off five seconds. I walked back in, let them out without making a big fuss, and then repeated the exercise. Except this time I stayed away for an entire minute before I returned. And then I was whisked away for several hours. When I returned, the dogs were sound asleep in their crates.
However, this was an “unfamiliar place” and yet it was not. The dogs were well familiar with their crates, but had never been in a television studio in downtown San Francisco before. So there was a lot new for them. But if you have to leave your dog in a boarding kennel for the first time, you might try a similar approach.
Do these steps really help most dogs? I honestly can’t say, because I’ve seen no research comparing these steps with any kind of a control. But it makes sense that it would help, at least to decrease behaviors that correlate with emotional distress, like chewing, whining or barking. It appears to have helped many of my client’s dogs, and I’d love to hear if something like this has helped yours.
MEANWHILE back on the farm: Busy weekend. Maggie and I played hookey on Thursday and soaked in wisdom from Gordon Watt at a great sheepdog clinic at Heatherhope Farm in Illinois. On Saturday morning I was delighted to speak to the Madison Civics Club about The Education of Will. I am especially grateful that Mare Chapman, M.S., counselor extraordinaire spoke also, and we all loved meeting Capitol K9 Boris and his handler, Officer Henry Wilson. After that it’s pretty much been all about getting ready for New York (and seeing Hamilton in Chicago first, can’t wait), keeping Maggie’s “return to fitness program” going, resting up Willie (gimpy left foreleg), providing infinite cuddling for Tootsie, giving the cats some serious head rubs, and doing all I can to get the garden into shape for the winter. It’s the garden that is the focus of the photographs today.
We finished the Lasagna garden! Layers = thick cardboard, thick layer of old hay, old mulch/almost soil, thinner layer of old hay, aged manure from the barn, thick layer of new mulch (double shredded oak). I’ll let you know how it goes next summer.
A neighbor with a Bobcat was going to move the manure pile for us, but we ran out of time, so Jim and I did a lot of shoveling into lawn trailers, onto wheelbarrows and eventually onto the garden. After that, lots and lots of barrows of mulch. (If you came into our house Sunday evening you’d be overwhelmed with the scent of menthol from the Biofreeze slathered all over our backs.)
Nellie thought it was great fun to visit while I was finishing up spreading the mulch and trying to take my “ready to serve” lasagna garden photo. Here’s just one of many photos that Nellie photo bombed.
After a lot of petting, she decided she might like Parmesan. She’ll have to wait until the garden is all cooked this spring I guess.
Here’s a recent addition to the farm–George the ATV, 4-wheeler, or whatever you call it where you live. We live at the bottom of a long, steep hill, which we climb one to five times a day. Jim and I are about to turn 69, and we are damned if we are going to stop being active farmers and country dwellers for many years to come. But after watching just about every neighbor we have jump onto their ATV and throttle away, we decided it wouldn’t hurt to have way to get up the hill that didn’t involve a long slog. Granted, walking up is great for keeping us in shape, but well, sometimes… The name George comes from the brand Foreman. I was thinking “Big Red” for UW-Madison, but Jim liked the name George. After loading ridiculously heavy, old railroad ties into the big trailer (don’t do this, see below), sawing them into pieces, lugging them to the garden and then taking them out for me because I discovered after the fact how incredibly toxic old railroad ties are, I’d say he gets to name the ATV whatever the hell he wants. (I am abashed I was not aware how toxic old railroad ties are—how could I not have known that? How could they be sold at garden stores when they are full of carcinogenic chemicals? And there are lots of alternatives. Sigh.) But I digress… George is a wonderful addition to the farm. So glad he’s here. Eeee Hah.
Downstay Team says
Another excellent article on a topic that seems simple but can be daunting for many! Even if you take your pooch with you, getting them to relax in their crate in a new setting (i.e. Grandma’s house) can be a not-so-nice holiday surprise. Ow-ow-ow-wow!
Also, love the kitty-tail photobomb!
You put me to shame – I have failed yet again this week to start getting my pocket handkerchief of a garden into some kind of shape for the winter. It is either too wet, or I refuse to waste the rare bright days working so take the dogs out instead!
When I had to leave the dogs for a week in the summer a lovely friend who lives nearby not only offered to have them to stay, but also helped with weeks of preparation. We visited, went on walks together, shared treats with her dog, sat in the garden chatting, and generally established her house as a Happy Place for Dogs. When I picked them up a week later they were so busy with their evening chews they didn’t even notice my arrival – this from Poppy, who can usually barely let me out of her sight when we are away from home. It all took quite a lot of organising, but was more than worth it to see them so relaxed.
Vicki in Michigan says
With you all the way that it’s so good for our dogs if we can help them deal with weird situations ahead of time…………..
With my most recent dogs, I’ve been telling them in words what will happen when I leave. “I’ll be right back” means something really short, like taking the garbage can to the curb. (Or going upstairs for a minute, while leaving the old dog downstairs, so I don’t have to carry him up — and down– in the next few minutes.) “I’ll be back soon” means a bit longer, like a trip to the grocery store. “I’m going to work” is “gone for the day.” Then come the longer trips….. I say “I’m going away for a long time, but Cathy [for example] is coming to take care of you, and you will be just fine.”
Of course no research has been done, but I think they are better with this information.
It may just be that *I* am more comfortable (no — well, less — heart-wrenching), and so they are more calm….. But I believe they have been more calm and excepting since I’ve started to do this, and I do believe they eventually learn the difference in what I’m saying, and have some clue what I mean. (I use exactly the same words in the same situation.)
I figure everybody likes to know what’s going to happen, and that I’ll offer them every chance to know what that’s going to be…….
Lane Fisher says
For those socializing young pups, I’m a fan of sleepovers, first with and later without the primary guardian. It makes a lovely difference in a dog’s ability to adapt to strange sounds, smells, and handlers.
And, yes, home, sweet crate…
Kudos for getting two dogs + two crates down a city sidewalk without assault charges!
I’ve been so fortunate that I have had to leave a dog in a boarding kennel only once. Since then they have stayed home with a pet sitter or my adult daughter when I have had to leave them.
I have three German Shepherd Dogs, none of whom has separation anxiety. I brought them home when they were six months old (my oldest) and eight weeks (the younger two). They were all crate trained although they haven’t been in a crate in a very long time. No need.
They usually know whether or not they are coming with me by the shoes I put on. When I walk out the door and am not bringing one or more with me I say, “Bye, bye.” Two of them get that but the youngest still jambs his head in the doorway. Too cute.
Please be careful with George… they flip easier than one might expect them to.
Thanks for a great reminder and article! Luckily, my dog is familiar with the two families with whom she stays. We are at their homes frequently, and their dog at ours. Still the dogs are anxious when the owner (us or theirs) leaves, but settles within a few minutes. Oh yes…now it’s this routine! (Tricks and biscuits always help.)
My previous pup was always anxious and leaving was terrible. I wish I’d known these “tricks” with her. It could have relieved some of her anxiety.
Was very pleased to see this post! I offer home boarding for dogs and am licensed by my local council in England and fully insured. The Homeboarding licence stipulates a good minimum standard of care for dog guests including health and safety (both for the dogs and humans). Part of this includes a good understanding of what the Home board is able to offer in terms of experience, environment and care. A visit to the premises, unhurried and offering a chance to look around and talk about your dog’s needs is invaluable and reassuring for both parties. As someone who is fascinated by every aspect of dogs’ lives I really enjoy the meet and greet part of the process. A written, signed agreement between the owners and carers is just as important. In these days of instant communication it is not usually too difficult to keep owners updated with photos and feedback on how their family members are getting on in their absence. Of course when dog guests are repeat visitors, their excitement on returning for their next visit is the most reassuring endorsement for their owners.
Barb Byer says
I am fortunate to have a friend who has a small farm in the country and a small boarding kennel. If I get a new dog, we go out to the farm for a few hours just to play and get familiar with the place before they have to stay overnight. It’s also where i teach them to be around horses calmly without going ballistic.
One of the two dogs I have now gets stressed away from home, so she lets them board in the same run or in runs directly across the walkway from each other. They are also let out into the fenced yard to run together several times a day.
George looks like a blast! Er- I mean, what a useful and practical piece of farm equipment destined for nothing but years of serious, staid, and responsible use 😉 I love the image of the lasagna garden, too.
I apologize for being so radio-silent of late, but the day I hoped (impossibly) would never come, did, and about three weeks ago we had to put Otis down. The end came suddenly, sort of. He struggled with worsening arthritis in his spine this past year, and after a decade of better health than a Great Dane owner dared hope for, he was generally in a slow decline. But in the kind of near-mystic bizarre twist so characteristic of his remarkable life, lymphoma took him as suddenly as a stooping hawk. That in itself may be nothing too remarkable, but The near-mystic bit is that his best dog friend died exactly a week prior, after spending the summer battling cancer.
The night Jaks died, Otis refused his dinner. The next morning, his glands were swollen, and exactly a week later, he was gone. He’d had clear blood work as recently as July, but his cancer was so aggressive that by the time he showed symptoms, he was within days of death, and we had to let him go exactly one week after the death of his lifelong friend and companion.
It’s taken me a little while to be ready to talk dogs- in general or in particular, and I have to be honest, the loss is still raw. Peeking through the ache, however, I feel tremendously grateful for all the humor, support, intellectual challenge, and fascination that I have found here over the years (and hope to find for years to come).
I do feel lucky, in a way- Otis enjoyed his life almost to the very, very end. He took some comfort from palliative care, and there was never a day when he lost control of his bodily functions or couldn’t manage the stairs. He spent his last day in the cool October sunshine eating quiche and steak and ice cream. Sandy, too, is a tremendous comfort to me. I can’t reasonably ask for more. It’s just hard to be reasonable, sometimes.
Otis was one of the purest, brightest joys of my life, and I am also immeasurably grateful for the countless ways our lives together were enriched by taking part in this discussion community.
I am sorry to veer so far off- topic. On the subject of boarding, I have always found routine to be one of the most comforting factors to a dog. Any way to set up a predictable sequence- this happens and then that happens and then that happens, seems to take the anxiety way, way down.
Em, I’ll write more when I can see through my tears. Thank you for sharing Otis with us, we will miss him as if he was in our own living rooms. My heart goes out to you, take care of yourself. Sorry not more eloquent, too soppy eyed right now.
Elizabeth Lynn says
We seemed to get it ‘right’ for boarding kennels more by accident than design but will use the same process for any future dogs that we get. Got Max as a 7 year old rescue who had been in kennels for a while prior to us adopting him so not a new environment to him. We hadn’t originally intended on going away for quite a while after we got him however we had looked round some local boarding kennels and decided which one we preferred to use. They also fortunately do day boarding too. A couple of unexpected meetings meant that we needed to do two short day boards within about a fortnight of each other a few months after we go him as we didn’t want to leave less than year old -not brilliantly trained at that point dog- alone at home for too long. We then followed that up with a couple of weekend boards again about 6 weeks apart. This seemed to reinforce that the kennel is a fun place to do for a few days and we come back for him and he loves it. He squeaks in excitement when we take the road leading the kennel and drags us on the lead into the kennel block in his haste to get there. We also bump into one of the kennel staff occasionally on our longer walks and Max invariably greets her with great joy. We have kept up the pattern of a weekend break there relatively regularly so it never goes more than around 3-4 months without a stay in kennels. Compared to friends who have one big trip a year when they board their dog – Max seems very happy with the regular short breaks. We also bring his blanket, few toys and his own food so keeping as much similar as possible.
Elizabeth Lynn says
Sorry – previous comment should have read 7 month old rescue.
Oh, Em. I am so sorry. I missed your voice during the last few months. There are few words to comfort or express. There are stories and that is what I can offer you.
We are in the process of moving (one word for those who are considering a move: DON’T).
As we’re cleaning out the closets and bookshelves, we agreed that we would take all three dogs, who have watched over us from their respective containers over these many years and many moves, and take a little ash from each to save in a special jar and then sprinkle each dog in her favorite place before we moved. In the moment of simplifying, it felt like the right idea.
We’re now about to move out of the house, and we realized that the dogs will come with us as they always have. It’s been more than twenty-five years since our first one died from osteosarcoma.
Having known them so deeply and truly was a gift of the highest value. And, while we know they will always live in our stories and in our hearts, we needed them to stay with us now — it’s where they belong.
Thank you for sharing and big hugs. LisaW
Oh Em, I’m sorry about Otis. I’ve loved hearing about him and will miss the stories.
He was a good boy.
So, so, sorry Em…
For em: I’m so sorry to hear about Otis. Thank you for sharing him with us. He sounded like a wise and thoughtful dog, and he was so lucky to have you as his owner, to appreciate and encourage his unique ways. I’ve always enjoyed your thoughtful and compassionate posts.
Re: boarding. As first-time dog owners with a fear reactive dog with separation anxiety, we didn’t have contacts we felt could handle our dog, and not enough money for an in-house pet sitter. So Pupper went to boarding in kennels. I don’t think she liked it (compared to home), but I know she was cared for. Once, on a hot day, while on a hike with us, she stopped and stared at a community swimming pool and started to whine. I’m sure she was remembering the pool at the boarding kennel — so at least there was one good thing about it!
Em – So sorry to hear about Otis. I feel like he is a good friend I never met. The one comfort I can offer about departed dogs is that their stories and memories live on. Sometimes their stories even get better over time. 😉
Trisha, your “three steps” are extremely useful when we travel with our dogs and need to leave them in a hotel room for a short time, or when we have holiday guests who are not comfortable around dogs.
We boarded the dogs once, many years and many dogs ago, and vowed never to do that again. The kennel was highly recommended but very noisy. When we returned after a week the dogs were clearly stressed. Two of three dogs had chewed or licked holes in their paws and the third dog just shut down.
Since then we have been fortunate to have friends or neighbors willing to dog sit when we travel. Some stay at the house; some stop by twice daily. We usually offer to pay folks for dog sitting (some accept, some refuse) and stock the house with beer or food (“Oh, you better eat that pulled pork; it won’t be any good when we get back”).
The dogs are much more comfortable at home.
Two families always compete to watch the Pug when we go out of town, so sometimes we split up the dogs to make it easier on the sitter.
em: I don’t know if you remember me. I am a fellow Great Dane guardian, and I used to comment on this site a lot. I don’t come here very often any more, but I just happened to be here today and saw your post about Otis. My heart goes out to you. I too started crying reading your post.
There are a lot of hard parts to sharing our lives with dogs, but I’ve decided that the shorter life span is the hardest part. So sorry about your loss.
For anyone who remembers me and may be scared to ask (as most of my friends are these days), Duke is still with me. At almost 14 years old, Duke’s got his share of health issues, including some incontinence, no longer being able to do stairs, etc.
However, Duke still has a great interest in life, including curiosity in new things, a joy of sniffing, enjoying going out around town, drools for treats, and does what I call an ‘old man pounce’ (as opposed to a puppy pounce) on his Treat Stik when it is time for dinner. Duke is my first dog, and I’m finding this process to be extremely difficult. I may be finding it tougher than Duke. When I’m with Duke, though, I work to put the future out-of-mind and just appreciate and enjoy life with him so that I don’t spoil our remaining time together.
I hope everyone else is doing well too.
Alice R. says
I’m so sorry, Em. Otis was a gift to us too through you. Please be kind to yourself.
Chris from Boise says
em – thank you for letting us know what happened. I grieve with you for Otis. What a joy it has been to glimpse some parts of your remarkable life together over the years. So glad Sandy is there to ease the rawness a bit. Big hugs from Boise to all of you.
I am so sorry, Em. Your love for Otis, and your pride in him, shone through your posts. I hope that once the first devastating grief begins to pass there will be comfort in the many, many good memories you made together.
(I’m typing on a mobile device at LaGuardia, so please excuse any and all typos). To em—I have thought about you, and the intensity of our love for dogs, ever since reading your email. First, let me say that I am so, so sorry. It astounds me how much pain the human animal can feel while grieving. I have come to see the story of The Garden of Eden as a metaphor not about sin, but about how the knowledge facilitated by our wide, deep and complicated brains comes with an ability to feel pain in ways no other animal can. Do remember (I say to all of us,myself included) that grief is perceived in the brain in the same place as physical pain. Losing a dog like Otis is the equivalent of having major surgery. Please know I am sending you virtual flowers, and if there was any way I could, I would go into the kitchen and cook you lasagna and cinnamon rolls and apple pie and butternut squash soup. em, you have added so much to our conversations over the years, and I am so glad you are back, and sad to the bone about why you’ve been quiet. Hugs.
Carol Skalky says
I can’t believe you’re going to be 69!
Oh, and yes, love the advice on helping our animals feel more comfortable when we have to leave them. Telling ourselves that dogs live in the moment and that they don’t worry when we leave them someplace new does a disservice to their complex emotional lives.
em, so sorry for your loss. Loved reading about Otis and even in your sorrow, ‘peaking through the grief’ your ability to articulate emotion is truly a gift. I will miss him even through I never met him.
JJ – I remember you and have missed you around here. Great your dogs are still going strong.
Thank you so much, to Trisha and to everyone. I am touched beyond measure at your thoughtfulness and compassion, and sad as I am at his passing, it lights another little candle in my heart every time I learn that the joy of Otis’ life touched not just my husband and I, but many more people than he would ever meet. It comforts me to think that while the lake of life may be large, the little ripples we create, human and non-human alike, travel further than we even know.
Thanks Nic1! Nice to hear from you. 🙂
Em, I am so sorry about Otis – it takes a long time to get used to that hole in your life. He sounded like a wonderful dog and he certainly had a full rich life with you.
I properly got Daisy used to a kennel when she was small, since it was clear from the start she was anxious by nature. But after her complete meltdown on the first day of hunting season when she was two (I had acclimatised her to gunshots but it was to no avail) she got more and more anxious about everything and evevtually the kennel owners – who had by then known and loved her for more than five years, said she was just too anxious there. When Daisy hears somehing that scares her, she needs to go inside right away, and they couldn’t deal with her properly. I was lucky to eventually find a woman who takes a few dogs into her home, and who has no problem with dogs coming in whenever they want. She loves Daisy and Daisy is happy there (and ecstatic when we return). Rosa goes to a different kennel, where she can play boisterously with other dogs to her heart’s content, and where she is greeted by happy cries of “Rosa!!” when she arrives. It’s worth having to spend over two hours driving to get them both to and from their respective kennels. But it’s certainly true that different dogs need different environments at times.
PAMELA Zuckerman says
I’m new to this site. I have huge leash behavior problem while walking my wolfhound age 8 if we meet another dog…so I have hired a dog walker to walk er for me. How did I fail? I had a puppy trainer at about age 6 months.
I need tips how to walk my big STRONG DOG…She LUNGES when we meet a dog on a leash.,.and she too is on leash.🐾🐾🐶🐾🐾👩🏻
Chloe De Segonzac says
Hello, pet sitter here. This is what I know.
I have the usual forms to try to get as much info as possible on my meet and greet and I always do a meet and greet as it gives me a lot of time to observe how the dog’s peep relate to the dog.
A dangerous sentence: “oh I know it seems complicated, but really it takes no time” 😒
So the key to a peaceful successful Housesit is to get a note after the people are home that says” it was as if we never left, Fido was so relaxed”. I have found over the years that the key is to listen listen listen. What is the routine, WHAT DOES THE DOG EXPECT, how can I replicate that. That is the key. A comfortable dog is a happy relaxed dog. How do I get there.
My important questions are: how long do you leave your dog during day. What is your routine before you leave dog ie how much exercise what is the set up for a puppy, is the dog comfortable in the car, where does he she like to sleep at night.
Usually people will tell me all I need plus a lot more.
Small lap dogs are very different in their comfort level than say. Three year old Lab. I often take the small dogs with me during my regular work days as a dog walker instead of leaving them home. They need to be warmer than larger dogs they hate the rain they love to be cuddles some and that is very important get assistance about almost everything from their people so they have not learned to get what they need and depend on me.
Larger breeds I find a good hour outing in am goes a long way.
For me it’s: who are you and what do you need.
I pick up dog with anxiety issues before their people leave for trip. Sometimes the night before. The last thing I want is start a Housesit with a totally panicked dog.
There’s a lot more of course. The best reward is to have the dog on the next trip jump right in my car. No worries.