How to find the best boarding kennel

Planning a trip to visit family or friends this festive season? Depending on how long you’ll be away, you may need to hire a pet sitter or board your companion at a boarding kennel.

Many people balk at the idea of leaving their dogs at a kennel, but if you choose the right facility, your companion can have a comfortable and enjoyable stay. The advantage of a good kennel is that he’ll never be alone, and may even make some new friends, both human and canine.

Finding the right kennel at the last minute amid all your other holiday preparations can be stressful, so give yourself a head start and begin looking around well in advance of your trip. It’s a good idea to check out several facilities before making a choice – and let your dog check them out too. The following suggestions will help ensure you select a kennel that will take good care of your best friend.

1. Make sure they’re willing to meet your needs

For an enjoyable stress-free stay, the kennel should be willing and able to meet the needs of your dog, advises Charlotte Biggs, owner of Stay N Play Pet Ranch near Austin, Texas. The facility should not be “one-size-fits-all”. What works for your cousin’s Lab or a neighbor’s golden won’t work for an older dachshund or Shih tzu.

For example, if your dog has trouble getting to his feet, or is prone to stress, ask if someone will be able to spend one-on-one time with him. “Ask how they handle stressed animals who may bark, whine or howl for long periods of time,” says Dr. Julies Benson, VP of Veterinary Services at Petplan. “Can you call in for an update while you’re away? Is there a webcam so you can see how he’s doing?” “At our facility, older animals or those with physical limitations are kept in a special area to help make their stay less stressful,” says Sharon West, owner of Westinn Kennels in Wentzville, Missouri.

“Catering to what humans want is what most facilities used to focus on,” adds Colleen Stafford, owner of Far Fetched Acres in New York City. “Dogs were suffering as a result. I opened my facility as luxury for dogs, not humans. The most important piece to finding a boarding facility right for your dog is to know what he likes. Social environments, like group play, are great only if your dog is already social.”

2. Take a tour of the facility

First, take a tour without your dog. Look for clean runs, no odors and happy dogs. Do the employees look like they’re having a good time with the dogs, or just putting in their eight hours? Accidents and messes should be cleaned up promptly. Ask how the kennel prevents the spread of germs or bacteria.

“Our kennel is climate-controlled and equipped with an air exchange system to help prevent the spread of airborne viruses and bacteria,” says Sharon. “The kennels are cleaned and sanitized each day and before every new occupant. Kennels feature a deck for dogs who want to be off the floor. In summer, most dogs prefer a cool place. In the winter, we provide fluffy bedding for them.”

If you opt for group play, be sure to ask what the ratio of workers to dogs is. Westinn has a 1:20 ratio. In case of a disagreement between dogs, have workers been trained to break up a fight?

3. Consider your budget

Budget is always a concern, but the lowest price isn’t always the best – as with all things, you get what you pay for. If you want your dog to have a good time, and not just sit in a run all day, you’ll probably have to pay more, but it’s worth it. Extra services and activities can range from nature walks and agility to massage and spa- like pampering. “Most people sign up for more exercise time and nail trims,” Sharon says.

Just watch out for hidden costs. Add ons can accumulate until your bill is higher than you’d planned. Extra charges can be added for dispensing medicines, special bedding for elderly dogs, feeding your own food instead of the kennel’s, group playtime, exercise outside the run, and even treats. While all these things are important, you want to find out how much extra they might cost beforehand so you won’t get any unexpected surprises when you’re handed the bill.

4. Find out about the facility’s emergency procedures

Make sure an evacuation plan is in place, not just for the dogs, but also for their information so that you can be notified where your companion has been taken in case of a natural disaster like a flood, a hurricane or wildfire. Stay N Play Pet Ranch has a reciprocal agreement with another kennel. If one is in need, the other will take in all the animals.

5. What if an accident happens?

Make sure there is someone on the premises at all times, to handle any problem at the facility or tend to a dog in distress. Most kennels will take a dog to his regular vet unless it’s a crisis situation, in which case they will head to the nearest emergency veterinary hospital. If your dog has a chronic ailment like epilepsy or diabetes, or is having treatment for cancer, make sure the kennel has a copy of his medical records and a way to contact both you and your vet for consultation.

It’s also advisable to leave a medical directive with the kennel so your dog doesn’t suffer needlessly while phone calls are made and returned. Areas to cover include:

• Should extreme measures be taken?

• What is your cost limit?

• Who should be called if you can’t be reached?

• What should the kennel do in an end-of-life situation?

6. Start slow

Once you’ve found a kennel you think is right, sign your dog up for a daycare visit to test it out. He’ll be reassured by your return at the end of the day. Assess his attitude when you take him home. Is he relaxed, happy and comfortably tired, or stressed and anxious? Most dogs do fine at a kennel, but more anxious types may not.

For example, a Bernese mountain dog named Lucy was taken back to a kennel for a second stay. As her person got her things out of the car, he felt a tug on the leash. Lucy had jumped on the trunk and then the roof of the car, and refused to come down. “Dogs never lie,” says Charlotte. “If they don’t want to go back, there’s a reason. Listen to your dog.”

When you’re ready to try an overnight visit, be sure to send along your dog’s bed and his own food. A sudden change of diet, especially in a strange environment, is not only stressful, but can lead to diarrhea and other digestive upsets.

7. Ask if they accept titer tests

Most kennels will ask for vaccination records. If you’re trying to reduce the number of vaccines your dog receives, ask if the kennel will accept titer tests from your veterinarian. This is becoming an acceptable practice as more is learned about the dangers of over-vaccination. “From a veterinary perspective, there’s no reason why a kennel couldn’t accept titers in lieu of an actual vaccine,” says veterinarian Dr. Bruce Silverman.

By following these seven tips, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your holiday trip, knowing that your dog will be well looked after while you’re gone.


Sandra Murphy lives in St Louis, Missouri. When she's not writing, she works as a pet sitter.