I would never have sent my German shepherd, Bella, to a dog boarding service. She was my baby, my child before I had an actual child, and the thought of leaving her with a stranger was akin to leaving a baby with strangers. If I went out of town on a road trip, Bella came with me. If I flew somewhere, I asked trusted friends to come over to our house and care for her twice a day. I’d pay them as much as I could and relax in the knowledge that Bella was safe in our yard with our covered porch and her oversized Kirkland dog bed for company, and that worked for Bella’s entire life.
Now that we have Eira, things are different. We got Eira in November of 2018 and before we brought her home, we set up care for her with our neighbors while we were gone for Christmas. She was too young to go to a boarder because she was too young for her rabies shot, so this felt like our only option. Two days into our vacation, I got a text from my friend saying she could no longer care for Eira. According to her, Eira was jumping up on the stove and turning on the gas (something she’d never done at home). Eira was howling all night (that, I believed). Eira had chewed her husband’s glasses (we paid them to replace the glasses).
Our neighbors don’t have a fenced yard so they couldn’t just put her outside when they got sick of her. She was in their tiny house with them all day and all night, and no one was getting any sleep.
I arranged an emergency pickup from another friend with small dogs, who kept her overnight and then transferred her to yet another friend of mine who races dogs in the Iditarod. There, Eira still howled at night but she bonded with the other house dogs and eventually calmed down. She stayed there for the rest of our Christmas vacation and I happily paid my friend for caring for her in a pinch.
Still, the whole process was a nightmare. Now that Eira is one year old, she is current on all her vaccines. She’s spayed. She’s more or less friendly with other dogs — maybe a little too friendly — which is hugely different from Bella, who only tolerated one or two other specific dogs in her entire life. (That was another reason we never boarded her.)
Bella (pointy ears) with one of the only dogs she ever tolerated: Sheeba, a friendly Boxer. Bella and Sheeba loved this canoe trip in Missouri!
Because my family decided to take a short Thanksgiving-time vacation to Talkeetna, Alaska, we decided to board Eira for the first time at AK Living the Dream Ranch. Here’s where my first tip comes in.
Tip #1: Book Well in Advance of Your Vacation
I booked Eira’s two-night stay at AK Living the Dream Ranch in August. We took the trip in late November. That’s three months in advance! In October, I tried to book with the same kennel for our upcoming two-week Christmastime trip, but the kennel was already full. In October! I called four different kennels in my entire valley and they were ALL sold out for Christmastime by early October.
Finally, the last one I called (which is twenty miles from my house) had TWO spots left. So I booked with them and now we have somewhere for Eira to stay during our Christmas trip.
If you know what your Christmas and Thanksgiving plans are well in advance, and your summer and spring break plans for that matter, don’t delay in finding a kennel to board your dog. Call three months in advance, or even six, and if your top choices are full, ask to get a spot on the wait list. You never know — something might open up.
I should clarify that I only called boarding services with good reviews on Yelp and Google. I wouldn’t put Eira anywhere with fewer than four out of five stars, so it’s possible those locations had open spots, but I didn’t check because I didn’t consider putting Eira in them.
This brings me to my next tip.
Tip #2: Read Reviews Carefully Before Choosing a Boarding Service
Review and rating systems aren’t perfect, but they do give you a good idea of the care your dog will receive. If one-star reviews mention things like the dog coming home stinky, scratched up, and still wearing a harness or clothing item you specifically asked be taken off, head somewhere else. You don’t want your pup to suffer while you’re gone.
Similarly, watch out for kennels who don’t maintain clean or professional businesses. Look for photographs of the kennels if there are any or ask to tour the place if you’re on the fence about whether to leave your dog there.
While they preferred I didn’t photograph their business, AK Living the Dream Ranch had a spacious barn-like building with large kennels, plus a huge enclosed outdoor area for play. Everything smelled clean…well, as clean as it can when you’ve got dogs running around everywhere! The one thing I didn’t love is that I came out with Eira and was told to go back to my car to wait until six dogs had left the facility. The woman running the kennel said she usually has people wait until the cars in the driveway clear out (the cars in the driveway apparently signal that people are picking up pets).
She didn’t want it to get too wild with that many dogs in the reception area at once, which I totally understand. Still, it would’ve been nice to know about this process beforehand. But in all our communication it never got conveyed.
So here’s my third tip.
Tip #3: Ask About Dropoff and Pickup Procedures
Do they want you to wait in the car? Would they rather you came to the office without your dog and then go and get the dog once you’ve checked in with the owner? Find out ahead of time what the dropoff and pickup procedures are in order to avoid any confusion that could cause frustration or delay. Also figure out what payment methods the kennel takes so that you’re not thrown off if they don’t accept the method of payment you were planning to use.
If you get a good kennel, they’ll tell you what to bring, so my fourth tip is…
Tip #4: Pack a Nice Bag for Your Dog
At the kennel we used, all we needed to bring for Eira was a bag of her food and a blanket or bed for her to sleep on if she had a preferred one.
Eira and her bag of food get ready for Eira’s first-ever dog boarding experience. While Eira used to eat the Kirkland brand of dog food, I bought her some Rachael Ray Nutrish when I didn’t feel like driving an hour to Costco to get her Kirkland food (Amazon doesn’t ship dog food to Alaska). Turns out she ADORES the Nutrish food! She’s never once turned it down. I even gave her a few pieces of kibble as a treat after taking this photo and she gobbled them right up — usually she wants real treats, not just her kibble.
I was in such a rush the morning we dropped Eira off that I forgot to bring her a blanket. She sleeps on the rug in the house when she’s home, and it’s a huge rug so I couldn’t bring that. She has a history of chewing up dog beds, so when she’s outside we use straw, and when she’s inside she has her choice of four rugs.
Thankfully, the boarding service owner provided Eira with a dog food dish, a water dish, a leash, and a blanket for her stay. Since it’s Alaska, the floors are heated in the kennels — a huge plus! When you reserve a kennel, ask what type of temperature control they have for the dogs. If it’s cold out, do they provide heated spaces? If it’s warm or hot, what’s the air conditioning system like?
It’s important to know these details before you reserve!
Now back to the dog bag. We love this bag from Amazon, which helps you pack food, dishes, a leash, your dog’s favorite toys, a blanket, and any other supplies your pup might need during her stay.
Your pup will feel cozy and loved when you drop her off with her travel bag, and the kennel staff will thank you for making their job easy.
Speaking of kennel staff, here’s my next tip.
Tip #5: Pay Attention to How They Treat Your Dog
This almost goes without saying, but here’s the thing: the best way to know how well your dog will do at the kennel is to have her meet the staff or owner beforehand, if possible. See how the owner interacts with and loves on your dog. Does your dog reciprocate? Is she comfortable with the new person once she meets them? If not, you may want to consider taking your dog elsewhere. If you plan a visit like this well ahead of time, you might still be able to find an alternate option.
I confess that I did not plan a visit ahead of time with Eira. I chose to trust the rave reviews, and I watched carefully when the owner introduced herself to my pup. She was kind, warm, and caring. Eira loved her from the start. She took the time to listen to my concerns about Eira: namely, that she can be a super-energetic player. She doesn’t fight other dogs, but she also would love it if a dog would play with her 24/7.
Eira loves to “play” with other dogs, by which she means tire other dogs out completely!
When we picked Eira up, the kennel owner told us that she was indeed an intense player. “I had her in with a puppy and she wanted to play with him constantly, and the other dog was just worn out. So I gave her her own kennel for a little while!”
Ah, Eira. So happy for company. I joked that maybe she would calm down in a few years, but the lady said, “She’s malamute and German shepherd. It might be awhile!” and she laughed, adding that Eira was fine in every other way. She was very vocal, which the owner knew made sense since she’s part malamute. Eira doesn’t bark much but she “talks” a ton! But it wasn’t a problem at the kennel, thankfully. She ate her Rachael Ray Nutrish food and drank plenty of water and had no issues, and the best part?
She came home happy, still clean from the bath I’d given her at the dog wash the day before, and scratch- and injury-free.
The owner made it clear that Eira is welcome back to the kennel — phew! Even though I already have reservations with another boarding service for Christmas, it’s a relief to know that Eira’s first-ever stay in a boarding kennel went well. Since the Christmas stay is much longer than the stay Eira had this last weekend, it’s important to know what challenges she faced so I can tell them to the next kennel owner.
This brings me to my next tip.
Tip #6: If You’ve Never Boarded Your Dog Before, Do a Practice Run
It worked out well for us, timing-wise, to do a 2-night stay for Eira before her upcoming 17-night stay. Now that I know how she did during a short trip, I’ll be able to go on vacation with some peace of mind that she’ll be okay in a kennel. She didn’t have any separation issues (like howling all night, as she did when she was a puppy), was overly energetic with other dogs, ate all her food. I’ll be able to tell the next dog sitter that she will probably be intense for other dogs to play with at first, but might calm down once she’s been there more than two days.
If you’re extra nervous about leaving your cherished pup behind for an extended period of time, ask the owners of the kennel how they’ll stay in touch with you. Via Facebook? Text? If your dog is gone more than a few days, will they provide quick updates? What’s their procedure for emergencies? If your dog has to go to the hospital, will they call you promptly and give a thorough explanation of what happened?
Some kennels are better at reporting injuries both minor and major than others. When you’re reading those reviews, check for complaints of dogs with cuts, scratches, or illnesses like kennel cough. Also check to see what other patrons thought of the emergency care and communication with dog parents about any issues arising with their dogs.
Tip #7: You’ve Chosen a Great Kennel. Now Relax and Enjoy Your Vacation!
To be honest, if Bella had stayed in a kennel at any point in her life, I would probably have stressed the whole time. What if she nipped someone? What if she got in a fight with another dog? But I didn’t worry too much about Eira, largely because I knew she was in good hands.
That’s the sweet reward of taking the time to research and choose the best kennel your wallet can handle. (And honestly, even great kennels aren’t terribly pricey. Most range from $20-40 a night. If you have a real diva of a dog, you can often rent a luxury suite at a pet hotel, complete with a TV, for up to $100 a night!)
Some dogs get to stay in luxury suites with human-sized beds, TVs, and pools!
When your dog gets home, make sure to inspect her for any scratches or cuts. Assess her temperament. Does she seem happy? Clean? The same weight she was before?
If so, you’re good to go for next time. If no, it’s time to talk to the owner and figure out what happened. No explanation? Time to find a new boarding service. Some kennels in bigger cities will often have webcams you can get access to so you can see how your pup is doing at any time of the day.
Have you ever used a boarding service for your dog? What did you love and hate the most about it? Let us know in the comments!
Laura Ojeda Melchor grew up with two beloved German shepherd dogs—Clancy and her daughter, Bella. From the time her family brought Clancy home, Laura took on the duty of pooper-scooper and potty trainer. As a teenager Laura helped her mother care for Clancy during her pregnancy. She still remembers fondly the exciting, frigid winter night when the seven special puppies were born. Laura kept the youngest puppy—Bella—and potty trained her, too. She taught Bella important commands, took her for long walks, and spent hours throwing tennis balls for her.
In November, Laura brought home a sweet new puppy, Eira Violet. Eira is half Alaskan malamute and half German shepherd, and Laura loves her deeply. She chose not to use a crate to potty train Eira and was pleasantly surprised at the results. She now has a sweet, energetic dog who always uses the potty outside, plays well with Laura’s toddler, and enjoys long family walks in beautiful Alaska. If you were to meet Eira, she’d bound up to you with a wagging tail and get you running around the yard with her in no time.