Boarding, pet-sitting or home-visiting: Finding the best care option for your dog while you're on vacation

(Photo via Thinkstock)
(Photo via Thinkstock)

The dogs were kept in a long cement corridor divided into side-by-side barred compartments; Finn Bannerman knew instantly that this was not where they wanted to leave Bruce, their one-and-a-half-year-old German shepherd, border collie mix.

"My clearest memory is just the noise,” Bannerman says. “There was a lot of barking. There did seem to be a lot of dogs in one room. They each had their own space but it was quite small."

Having travelled with Bruce from Toronto to Virginia to attend a friend's wedding, Bannerman was not able to visit the kennel prior to leaving him there and because of the hotel's no-dog policy they had no choice but to board him.

"I found a kennel [online] and it said that they let the dogs play outside quite a bit and it sounded like an okay place. We hadn't left him anywhere prior to this and upon getting to the kennel, we didn't really get to see much of the space."

They cringe when they recall picking him up the next day. "A concerning outcome after picking him up was that he did have at least three ticks that hadn't been noticed by anyone. They were quite enlarged so they'd been on him for some time. We were very unimpressed with that."

Leaving your fur-baby behind when you go on vacation can be a harrowing experience, even for the most seasoned pet owner. Very often it's just not feasible to bring Rover or Mittens along for the ride, but the rise of online pet-sitting services and home-style boarding facilities offer convenient alternatives to a traditional kennel environment.

Call it 'Airbnb for your dog'

Having formally launched in Canada this summer, Pawshake has already amassed a community of 1,000 pet-lovers across the country, all offering their services to owners looking for dog walking, home visits or overnight boarding.

Potential clients enter their postal code into the site or app to find the individuals in their neighbourhood who provide care. Insurance — both for the pet being minded and for the home of the sitter — is included in the price, which the sitter sets, and may range from a $15 dog walk to a $50 overnight.

Similar to other businesses thriving on a sharing economy, like Uber and Airbnb, the company relies on customer reviews to aid in the verification and vetting of service providers.

The system offers tremendous flexibility and cost savings to owners, but they are also strongly encouraged to take a proactive approach in ensuring the quality of the sitters by writing reviews of their experiences.

Michele-Marie Beer, who is the top-rated Pawshake sitter in the GTA, stresses the importance of a meet-and-greet beforehand, which is offered complimentary in order for all parties to sniff each other out prior to committing.

"I would always discuss meeting with them to make sure that you're comfortable with the person that you're leaving your pet with,” Beer says. “Be very clear about your expectations of a pet sitter. Some of my clients enjoy getting reports. I'd send a little picture with a little update everyday."

Dog care without the crate

If you're not quite ready to embrace this type of tech-guided pet-care transaction, you might feel more comfortable with companies like Toronto's A Leg Up, which has been providing crate-free lodging and qualified supervision for close to 14 years (that's about 100 in dog years says owner, Nigel Ryce).

With two locations, also offering daycare and dog walking, the company has three options for overnight boarding, which include: having your pet remain at your home while one of their 40 police-checked, bonded and certified pet-sitters stay over, having your dog stay at a staff’s house (with up to three other dogs), or having your canine companion chauffeured to A Leg Up North in Hockley Valley (a farm approximately an hour outside of Toronto), where they'll spend their time swimming, going on hikes and playing outdoors in the field with new friends — most likely forgetting about you altogether and not caring that you took 36 selfies in front of the Grand Canyon.

Caroline K. found out about the company from two dog owners in her neighbourhood and happily relies on it when she needs to leave Emma, her two-year-old golden lab-collie-retriever mix, for up to two weeks.

"Every time she gets picked up, she wags her tail, she runs to the door and sits and waits for her leash. She's excited to go, which makes me incredibly comfortable and I know that she's having a great experience."

How to narrow down your options

When deciding what boarding option is best for you, there are several factors to consider. Valerie Judge, a registered vet technician and the office manager of Woodbine Animal Clinic in Toronto's east end, stresses the importance of considering your pet's unique needs.

"Some dogs are great around other dogs. Other dogs no, not so much," she says. "Is the pet anxious, does the pet seem nervous when their owner goes out for the day? Sometimes in that case it's stressful for the animal to be away from home and it might be better to have somebody come into the home to do it."

The age and mobility of your pet might be another factor when deciding. Older animals are often more comfortable staying put and can benefit from a home-style service.

If your pet has fears or phobias, it's also important to let the sitter know and make them aware of any commands, medications or techniques that will help encourage your animal to relax.

At A Leg Up, Ryce recommends that pets get picked up from their home by staff before the boarding begins — instead of being driven to the farm or the house they'll be staying at — as, often when dogs get dropped off at a new place by their owner, they might wait hours for them to return; it takes the anxiety out of the equation, he says.

Referrals (from friends, neighbours or by your vet), reviews and a meet-and-greet are all key in determining where your pet should stay while you’re away.

"I would say that owners really need to understand what's going to happen to their dogs during the day and then also at night," advises Caroline K.

"Are the dogs just going to run free? Is there structured time? Do they run any exercises, for instance, are they taken on supervised walks? Are they kenneled at night, are they in a large room?”

Keeping your dog safe on his staycation

You should always let your veterinarian know when you're out of town and someone else is caring for your pet and for how long. Make sure whomever is pet sitting has your vet's name and address, as well. It is also smart to leave the number of a friend or family member, just in case cell service is spotty at your destination.

If you haven't already done so, micro-chipping your pet can provide backup in case they run away or get lost, especially if you can't be reached by the phone number on your animal's collar.

If your dog or cat is going to stay with others, Judge recommends asking if all animals have been treated with flea prevention — you want happy memories to be the only souvenir your pet brings home.

"Is your pet going to require additional vaccines?" she asks.   "Most boarding kennels require that your dog be vaccinated with a Bordetella vaccine, which is very important in preventing the spread of kennel cough."

A contingency plan benefits everyone; pack a day or two's worth of extra kibble— if not in its original bag then with the brand and dosage provided. Ensure that the correct kind can be purchased if it were to run out. This prevents your pet from being sick as a result of eating anything unfamiliar — also make the sitter aware of any food intolerances and allergies.

Of course, providing a way to reach you while you're on your trip is paramount, and vice versa. Do make requests to get updates via text or email — seeing a picture of your dog or cat enjoying their day can bring instant relief if you're feeling nervous about being apart.

And again, check referrals and qualifications, you should know in your gut if you're making the right decision. However, if you're still having trouble deciding, let your pet take the lead and see how comfortable they are with potential hires — while a handful of reviews are worth their weight in rawhide, enthusiastic tail wagging or audible purrs are priceless.