What To Do With Your Pets When You Go On Vacation

We love our pets. They are part of the family. But sometimes, you just need to get away from it all. You need to take a vacation. What if that vacation doesn’t include your pets? Pet sitters and boarding each have their unique upsides. No matter which route you decide to take, boarders and sitters all stress the same goal—you want to be able to leave your pets with someone you trust and someone your pet feels comfortable with, too.

Daycare and boarding
“It’s such a good feeling to know that your pet is safe and sound,” says Marcia Humphrey, owner of Eddie and Barkus canine daycare, grooming, and hotel in Fargo. The daycare provides a place for dogs to play during an owner’s workday, while boarding, called “the hotel” at Eddie and Barkus, provides a place to stay for longer periods of time.

“There is no time limit—we’ve had dogs for a day or two months,” says Eddie and Barkus manager Alyssa Vistad. If you’re looking for a doggie daycare or boarding, she recommends touring first to get a feel for the place. Look around and ask questions. Is it clean? Well-organized? What will a day be like for your dog or cat? What is included in their stay?

Both Eddie and Barkus and Rover’s Playhouse, also in Fargo, feature webcams on their websites where you can watch the dogs play live. Owners enjoy checking them out to get a real-time update on how their dog is doing.

I took a tour on a recent afternoon of Eddie and Barkus’ polished new space. It certainly reminded me more of a spa than any preconceived notions of what a “kennel” might be like. The space has a top-of-the-line feel and is equipped with several state-of-the-art features including a pressure-washer system throughout—used to keep the environment squeaky clean—and radio systems in every room where tunes can be adjusted to the dogs’ mood.

“We like to start the day with some Sinatra—just soothing, calming music that the dogs really love, and then we pump it up later in the day,” says Vistad.

In the hotel, the dogs eat and sleep, each in their own room. There are 66 rooms, or “runs,” which are 5’ by 5’ each. Smaller runs are available if a smaller dog prefers it. Each room includes a cot that is about 3’ by 2’, but owners can bring what they want for their dog.

“We say, especially with first-time dogs, to bring something from home with your scent on it to help them acclimate, maybe a T-shirt you’ve slept in a few nights,” Vistad adds.

Next steps
A meet and greet or screening is the next step in choosing a place to board, which is an evaluation of your dog to see if he or she will be a good fit. Owners fill out a form with details about their pet, which helps to give a good picture of your pet’s needs and personality.

“In the evaluation, we’re looking for dogs that are cautious and curious,” says Vistad.

Jacky Kummer, office manager at Rover’s Playhouse in Fargo, which also offers canine daycare and boarding, adds, “You have to think like a dog.” She says they look for signs such as the tail being up, which indicates they are feeling playful and not threatened.

Vistad says this is also when aggressive behaviors over food or toys would be discovered, which could mean the dog might not be a good fit for daycare or boarding. In this case, consider keeping your dog at home and having a pet sitter or dog walker come by.

“Most dogs do well in a pack, but the pack isn’t for every dog,” Kummer says.

Rover’s Playhouse, which averages about 50 dogs a day, has a cozy, home-like atmosphere. It is sunny and airy inside, and sections or zones in the indoor play area are cordoned off with white picket fencing. In the summer, the outdoor play area has a pool for the dogs to play in.

“They are wet, but they are happy,” says Kummer with a smile.

After being accepted for daycare or boarding at Rover’s, the next step is to introduce the new dog to the group by way of a “greeter” dog. This also avoids the new dog being swarmed all at once, which can be very overwhelming. The new dog then plays in an area next to, but separate from, the rest of the dogs until they are accepted into the group.

“It’s like cliques on a playground,” Kummer says. “You have different dogs and different personalities. Not everyone likes everyone.”

She points out a Husky on his first day of daycare that is outside socializing with the other dogs. His tail is up and he is displaying playful behavior—good signs he is acclimating to the new environment. Some dogs are just observers and don’t interact much with the other dogs, such as an English Pointer named Annie.

“She’s a very calm lady, a sweetheart. She just observes—dog-watches—kind of like people-watching. Even though she doesn’t interact, she still gets something out of being with other dogs,” Kummer says.

Daycare and boarding dogs are put into a play zone based on their energy level. At Eddie and Barkus, for instance, dogs are separated into high-energy and low-energy zones. Senior and special needs dogs have their own areas as well.

“Dogs don’t have an off switch to tell you when they are done playing,” adds Vistad, so zones help keep like-minded dogs playing together at a healthy level.

Energy levels aren’t always based on size, Kummer says as she points out a smaller dog, a Shiba Inu, playing with other, much larger dogs.

“This is an example of a little dog that thinks like a big dog,” she says.

Watching over all of this are employees who keep a close eye on socialization and behavior and, when necessary, give dogs time-outs for a minute or two if they are being naughty.

“The girls who watch over the dogs work very hard. The college students have been a big asset to us,” Kummer says. “You’d be surprised how many similarities there are between child daycare and dog daycare,” she adds.

Starting out young at the daycare (maybe one or two days a week) is a good way to make it easier for a dog to adjust if they might be in daycare or boarding later on, Kummer says.

What about cats?
Cats also have a place at Rover’s Playhouse, Kummer says, and in fact, they board right in her office. Some might bring their cat in for daycare if they are having work done at home and don’t want the cat to get stressed or try to sneak out.

“Cats pretend they don’t need people, but they do. I let them out in my office and they climb all over my desk,” Kummer says. She also takes photos and sends them to their owners for an update. “It’s just a bit of added comfort for the owners,” she says.

Natural Pet Center in Fargo offers boarding exclusively to cats.

“Boarding space varies with cats up for adoption, so when we have space open, we take cats, too,” says Michelle Smith, owner. “We have three cats boarding with us right now. There’s no time limit, and our longest boarding cat has stayed with us for four months. As long as we have the space, we will take them up to the period of time they are looking for.”

Smith says Natural Pet Center will provide what is needed—food, litter, toys, a scratching post, blankets or a bed—but owners are certainly welcome to bring what they like, whether it is the current food they are eating or a blanket or article of clothing with the owner’s scent on it.

They take all of the cat’s information down and dispense any medications, which is included in the boarding fee. Also included are cuddles.

“Friendly cats get picked up multiple times a day,” Smith says. “Other cats are scared and would rather not be handled, so we respect that and keep our distance.”

Tips for using daycare/boarding:
• Visit and ask lots of questions; get a feel for different places.
• Set up a screening/meet and greet and see if it is good fit for your dog.
• Ask about long-term discounts.
• Ask if they offer private walks, which give dogs a change of pace.
• Start your dog off with daycare once or twice a week at a young age, so they are more accustomed to the environment.
• Leave an item of clothing that you’ve worn, or another item with your scent on it, to help them adjust to their new environment.

Pet sitters and dog walkers
Pet sitter Anna Burns went to sleep on the couch one night, but when she woke up, she couldn’t turn over—the cats she was caring for had planted themselves all over her upper body, and a dog was asleep on her legs. Her first thought was that she didn’t want to move because it was adorable, but then she was overcome by the urge to sneeze—loudly. The cats then used her stomach and ribs as launching pads, and both of the dogs of the house began to bark until she was able to calm them down.

It’s this personalized attention that a pet sitter can provide if you’re going on vacation. Many pets will experience less anxiety and stress when kept in their familiar home environment. If you do choose to leave your pets at home and hire a pet sitter or friend to come in and care for them, it’s important that the caregiver is comfortable around your pets.

“One of the dogs I watched is such a sweetheart, but he is very intimidating,” Burns says. “I know that if I hadn’t worked with dogs before that, I would not have felt comfortable being there.”

Lindsay Stordahl offers an alternative to daycare or boarding with her business, Run That Mutt, which offers dog walking, running, and pet sitting in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“It’s primarily dog walking and running,” Stordahl says. “Usually the owner is at work, so it’s kind of an alternative to dog daycare with a 30- or 60-minute walk. With pet sitting, usually most people have me visit their pets three times a day, and that 30-minute visit could include a walk or hanging out on the couch. Most owners will ask for a morning visit, afternoon, and bedtime.”

Stordahl begins with a meet and greet and a form to fill out to get a complete picture of the pets she’ll be looking after, including things the owner might not always remember to bring up.

“I want to know everything I can—are they afraid of thunderstorms? Are there things that bring out aggression in their dog, like food or toys? That initial meeting helps us talk about those things. It’s really helpful for the owner to tell you everything they know about their dog,” Stordahl says.

It helps if they explain the dog’s schedule, and then she tries to keep everything as normal as possible.
Stordahl makes sure to keep in touch with pet owners every day, and she posts photos daily on her website www.runthatmutt.com, under the section “your mutt.” If a dog were to get sick on her watch and it wasn’t an emergency, she would consult with the owner about what course to take.

“I can take the dog to the vet if needed, which hasn’t happened. But if there is something minor, like if a dog cuts their paw on the ice, then I tell them and it usually isn’t a big deal,” she says.

Stordahl is quick to point out that there are benefits to daycare/boarding and pet sitting, and it just depends on your individual dog. Some dogs love to hang out with other dogs, but for others it’s very stressful and they just want to be at home. More aggressive dogs do better at home, and some daycare/boarding businesses will not allow Pit Bulls for insurance reasons. But Stordahl does not turn any breed away.

“I love taking care of Pit Bulls,” Stordahl adds. “So cute and friendly and wiggly and wagging their tails. So happy to see you even though you just saw them.”

Despite being bitten in the past (but nothing serious), Stordahl says she has never turned away a dog for aggression. Some dogs are unsure about her, so she relies on patience, dog treats, and a “high, happy voice” to win them over. Still, some are tough cases to crack.

“There was a 16-year-old Springer Spaniel that was aggressive every time I came over,” she says. “When you’re around dogs a lot, you start to notice their warning signs. Usually they don’t just snap.”

Many of Stordahl’s customers are larger breeds that need more exercise. One is an Australian Shepherd named Ruby.
“She knows a lot of tricks and is smart, so she’ll get bored if she’s alone for a long time,” Stordahl says.

Because she offers running, Stordahl sees a lot of Labs, Pit Bulls, Border Collies, Golden Retrievers, and Springer Spaniels. She usually runs with them on their leash in the neighborhood, to the park, or on a bike trail.

“I try to judge each dog on a dog-by-dog individual basis, but some breeds are going to have more energy typically,” she says.

Stordahl doesn’t mind even the coldest days, as she prefers to run with dogs in the winter.

“In the summer the dogs and I get so hot; I worry about them in the heat more than I do about the cold. As long as we’re moving (in cold weather), the dogs are usually fine. Some have little dog boots that they wear. On those extremely cold days, we might just go for 15 minutes,” she says.

Stopping at several houses a day, Stordahl is bound to bring the scent of other dogs to the next house she is visiting, which brings on an excited curiosity in her customers.

“They run up to me like ‘Where have you been?!’ The smell just makes them more excited than anything.”

Though Run That Mutt typically caters to dogs, Stordahl has cared for an array of different pets, including cats, ferrets, birds, and fish. Usually the owner has dogs, and they ask that she feed their fish, too. One woman had three ferrets, and Stordahl just stopped by to clean their cage every day.

The most unusual request she’s had was to watch one man’s alligators.

“At first I was wondering if it was a joke, but then he kind of went on about the details. I was booked anyway that weekend,” she says.

Would she have taken care of them if she weren’t already booked?

“I don’t think so. I carry pet-sitting insurance, but I don’t know if it would cover alligators.”

Tips for using a pet sitter:
• Set up a meet and greet, and see if the sitter is a good fit for your dog.
• Ask questions; ask for references.
• Invite the sitter over before you leave to go over everything and answer any questions they might have. “It’s extremely important to have good communication with your sitter,” says pet sitter Anna Burns. She says that if the animal sticks to their regular routine—the time they eat, go on walks, do their business, etc., they will be less likely to misbehave.
• To avoid any confusion, you may want to jot things down in writing if the pet sitter doesn’t require any paperwork, including an emergency number where you can be reached. “However small the issue or detail may seem, the more the sitter knows about the pet, the smoother the experience will go,” Burns says.
• It helps if the owner acts like it’s not a big deal when they leave, says Lindsay Stordahl of Run That Mutt. “If they feel guilty about leaving for a week before they leave, the dog will feel it too, or it gives a reason for the dog to believe something is wrong.”
• Be sure to compensate your pet sitter, friend, or relative fairly. Ask around for acceptable rates, and consider how often they’ll be visiting your home. If they refuse payment, offer to take them out to dinner.

Whether they worked at a daycare or visited homes to care for pets, it was apparent the people I met all shared a love for animals and a genuine enjoyment of their jobs. They also had a keen sense of how important they are to owners and their pets alike.

“I feel really lucky. There are so many dogs in town. There are dog daycares, kennels, plenty of dogs for all of us,” says Stordahl. “The dogs are just so happy, and some are so happy they will cry. It’s nice to be that appreciated.”

Heidi Tetzman Roepke is a freelance writer and copy editor/page designer at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. She lives in Fargo with her husband, Dave, and their cat, Sahara.

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