In bygone days, my husband and I would pay a college student or ask friends or my parents to care for our dogs when we went on vacation. This was when we had sound, healthy, well-socialized dogs with a good recall. But even when they stayed with my parents there were problems, such as when my mother allowed our smart, savvy golden retriever to carry her own leash across a heavily trafficked bridge (no dog should be trusted in that situation, no matter how responsible they are). Another time, when our girls were left with a friend, we returned home to find that our wonderful, mature, fastidious golden had pooped in the house. Sascha would never have done this except when under extreme stress, or from simply not being taken outside to do her business often enough.
Then we had Vera, our reactive German Shepherd. Before we realized the extent of her issues, we had a college student stay with her. A neighbor reported that among other things, Vera had jumped out a window and roamed the neighborhood–twice–while we were gone. This was not reported to us by the young woman taking care of her. (This is described in detail in my novel, “Finding Vera”.) Another time, we had a vet-tech, dog-trainer friend stay with her. I think things went all right, but in spite of begging the dog sitter to email us daily with a short report on this very difficult and troubled dog, the woman didn’t contact us until we had another friend ask her to send us an email. Our final attempt to leave Vera was to have a college-graduate, dog-savvy woman care for her when we went to the California Redwoods. The woman reported that Vera had diarrhea, climbed up to the window behind our bathtub on the second floor, and knocked over plants and vases due to her extreme stress. It took weeks for Vera to recover from our absence. After that, we didn’t travel for years unless we took her with us.
Now that we have Annie, our well-socialized, happy, sweet collie, we thought it would be easy to leave her. But from our past experience, we realized the seriousness of finding the right situation for her. When we head off to southern Utah in a few weeks, a good friend and dog trainer and her lovely dog, Uki, will be looking after Annie. But even though we’ve walked the dogs together at least once a week for over a year, even though we are both dog trainers and behavior-savvy, and even though these girls have stayed together twice before, these well-trained, well-socialized dog friends still have their challenges. Thankfully, I trust my friend to know exactly what to do to prevent conflicts from arising.
In short, in our thirty-plus years of dog parenting, Don and I have rarely found an ideal situation in which to leave our dogs when we are on vacation. Leaving our companions is a serious business, and one that requires thought and research well in advance of one’s trip.
TIPs to think about:
- Plan ahead. I would go so far as to say that you should find a safe, supportive place to leave your dog before you plan a trip.
- There are many options as to where you can leave your dog, such as with friends, family, dog sitters, doggie hotels, or kennels.
- Think about what your dog needs when trying to narrow down options. Does he have lots of energy and need exercise to feel comfortable? Does he like to socialize with people? With other dogs? Or does he just tolerate them? Is he older and therefore requires lots of down time and a quiet environment? Does he have separation anxiety?
- An active dog might do well staying with a friend who has a compatible dog his own age to play and hike with, while a quiet, lower-energy dog might do fine having a pet sitter or friend come by three to four times a day to snuggle, walk, and play with him.
- If your dog is worried about children or puppies, don’t leave your dog with a friend or family member who has kids or young dogs. He could be terrorized and make a mistake such as biting a child. It happens. Dogs who are not completely comfortable with children should not be around them.
- If your dog is worried about dogs, don’t leave him with someone who has dogs unless the dogs know each other well and are comfortable together.
- Ask for recommendations about safe, low stress facilities or excellent pet sitters from friends and family.
- Check references carefully. Don’t minimize the importance of this step.
- If you choose to leave your dog in a kennel or doggie hotel, tour the facility first. Make sure the kennels are clean and well maintained. Interview the staff, ask detailed questions about socialization time for to the dogs, and if siblings can be kenneled together. Ask about staff training, how they choose play groups, and if there is snuggle time each day. Ask if the dogs will be sheltered from rain and sunlight, and if there’s heating and/or air conditioning. Is calming music played (reduces anxiety in dogs), and what is done if the dog needs a vet? Don’t assume anything.
- If choosing a petsitter, ask for references and check them out. Interview the pet sitter regarding their past experience with dogs similar to your dog in size, age, and temperament. Ask about their knowledge of canine body language (will they know how to read your dog?), their philosophy on dog handling (do they use verbal and physical corrections?) and do they have any experience with behavior issues. Observe them interacting with your dog. Do they like your dog? Do they interact with him appropriately? Does your dog like them?
- Leave detailed advice for a pet sitter, friend, family member, or kennel staff, outlining diet, feeding schedule, daily schedule of activities, health issues and what signs to be alert for. Be clear about the freedoms your dog can be allowed such as leash restrictions (can your dog be off leash?) and being left out in the yard. Outline any behavioral idiosyncrasies.
- Try out whatever situation you choose before you go on your trip while there is still time to change your mind–starting with an afternoon or evening in the care of your chosen option, and if that goes well, an overnight stay. You can see how your dog fares, and also, your dog will know that you’ll be coming back.
- Leave items with your dog that he is familiar with (your dog’s bed, his bowl, his toys etc.), and something that is steeped in your scent such as a piece of your unlaundered clothing.
- Leaving our dogs is sometimes necessary, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If done with thought and care, you can minimize the stress your trip will cause both you and your dog.