Whenever I leave town, I ask myself who is going to take care of my mutt Ace.

Friends and family are a good option, but only if they are reliable enough and they actually want to take my dog for a week.

For many dog owners, boarding is the best and sometimes the only option. There are a lot of really bad kennels out there. Trust me, I worked at one. That’s the very reason I started pet sitting through my dog walking business.

I worked at a boarding facility near Minneapolis while I was in high school and college. It was a very popular and busy kennel, but the owner was very good at sucking money from his customers, and the dogs suffered because of it.

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Since this week is a busy travel time, and many people are looking at dog-boarding options, I wanted to share some tips for you to think about when choosing a kennel for your dog.

Questions to ask before boarding your dog

1. Ask if you can tour the dog boarding facility.

Never leave your dog anywhere without touring the facility. If the staff will not allow you to see where your dog will be, that is a really bad sign. They have something to hide.

The kennel I worked at eventually stopped giving tours because if anyone saw it, they would not leave their dog there.

If the kennel you are interested in does not allow you to see the full facility, this might mean the cages are too small, the building is unclean or rundown, or maybe more than one dog is crammed into one kennel. I have seen this happen.

Usually the kennel manager will use an excuse such as, “We can’t let you back there for insurance reasons.” That’s bullshit. If you can’t see where your dog will be, find another kennel. The owner should be excited to show off his or her business.

Just because a staff member tells you the facility holds 40 dogs, don’t believe it unless you see it. The business owner could be cramming 200 dogs in a small area, just to make more money. Trust me, I’ve seen this too.

If the staff member lists certain hours when tours are given, that is fine. It makes sense that they would want to tidy up a bit and have you visit during quieter hours.

But ideally you should be able to stop by anytime and someone should be happy to show off their great business. By seeing where your dog will be, you will instantly have a feeling of whether or not you are comfortable leaving your dog there.

Trust your first reactions!

On your tour, here are some questions to keep in mind:

2. How clean is the dog kennel?

An area with several dogs in it is never going to smell good, or be totally clean. But are the staff members making an effort to pick up all visible dog poop? Is the ground dry?

Are there any abnormal odors, other than what you’d expect? If the ground is wet, is it because the area was recently cleaned? Does it seem like there is proper ventilation or is it wet all the time?

3. How many dogs are at the kennel?

Ask the staff member how many dogs the facility can hold, and then count for yourself how many are actually there. If most or all the kennels hold two or more dogs, you should immediately ask why.

The staff member might tell you that dogs from multi-dog families are boarded together. But they can’t all be from multi-dog families, can they?

4. How are the dogs identified?

The dogs should be identified in some way, maybe with a card and photo on their kennel, or with a labeled collar.

You know what your black Lab looks like, but with nine other black labs, do you think someone could get her mixed up with another dog? The answer is yes. Again, I’ve seen it happen!

You don’t want to pay for extra treats or playtime sessions, only to have them go to another dog that looks just like yours. And you don’t want your dog to get sick from eating the wrong food or receiving the wrong medications.

5. Is there a play area at the kennel?

Don’t believe there is a play area unless you see it. And don’t believe the dogs actually play in it unless you see dogs playing in it.

Ask how often the dog will be let out, and if there is any extra cost. The kennel I worked at charged an extra $4 per 15-minute play session. But because of our limited staff, there was no time to actually follow through with these “play sessions.”

Guess what? The dog owners were still charged, and they had no idea their dogs sat in a kennel all week other than to get out to go to the bathroom. The owner of the facility would flat out lie to the customers, and they believed him.

6. How many staff members are on site?

Ideally, you want to have at least one staff member for every 10 dogs or so, in my opinion.

If there are less than that, it is not a good sign. It is not possible for one person to properly care for more animals than that. You want your dog to receive as much attention as possible.

If a fight were to break out between two or more dogs, it would not necessarily be easy for one person to break it up. There should be enough staff members so the place remains clean and the dogs get plenty of exercise and affection.

7. What is the cost per day to board my dog, and what does that price include?

If the kennel charges $30 a day, ask what this includes.

Most will charge extra for food, baths, playtime and treats. Don’t assume that the fixed rate covers everything or anything extra at all.

Ask if you can bring your dog’s own food. A good kennel will encourage you to bring your dog’s regular food to keep her schedule as close to her typical routine as possible.

Just make sure you know what you are paying for. The charges add up fast, and you don’t want to come home from vacation and receive a kennel bill higher than you expected.

It’s a good idea to ask what the total will be beforehand so you know.

8. What will happen in an emergency situation?

What will happen if your dog gets sick? Will you be contacted? Which vet will see him? Is there a vet on site? Will you be responsible for all the costs?

Is there any circumstance where your dog would be euthanized without your approval first? Dogs do get sick. Dogs do get into fights. Things do happen.

9. Ask all the questions you can.

If there’s something on your mind, ask it. You have every right to get the answers you want. You are trusting strangers with your pet, and you deserve to know everything you can.

You should leave your dog feeling comfortable that she is in a safe place and well taken care of. If you have any doubts, move on to another boarding facility.

10. Tip the kennel staff.

You want your dog to get the best treatment, right? Well, why not slip the staff member an extra $10? This will go a long way. He or she will remember you tipped, and will likely give your dog a little extra attention, whether it’s a few minutes of ear scratching or some extra time in the play area.

It wouldn’t hurt to tip again when you pick up your dog. Yes, it is a bit of a bribe 🙂

If you feel awkward tipping the staff, you could also do something nice like bring them a box of cookies or donuts when you drop off your dog. People remember nice gestures.

Have you ever taken your dog to a boarding kennel? What did you think of that kennel, and how did you choose it?