Protecting your Prized Pet: What to do before entrusting your pet to another

[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant, pet trainer and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs.]

By now most of you have seen or heard of the viral video of a woman beating a dog with a plastic bat. It took Facebook by storm last week, but I’m not going to post it here. I want to take the toxicity seen in that video and use it to make a positive change.

Like most everyone else, the video made me question who I could trust and wonder what I would do if I had to put one of my animals into another person’s care. Over the course of a pet’s lifetime there are many reasons to have someone else in charge –  for as little as a few hours or as long as a few weeks.

How can we know that person is trustworthy?

I decided to ask another local trainer/behavior counselor Hera Minkove – owner of New Pawspective Dog Training for her take on what the video showed and what questions to ask of those who might become a temporary guardian for your pooch. We sat down for a chat on a hot day in my dining room, watching Hummingbirds feed and while my dog Bee acted like a fool in front of her new friend.

At first it was difficult to know where to begin with this issue. Hera and I are both positive dog trainers and aside from some minor style differences, we both abide by ethics that emphasize positive relationships between people and dogs using positive reinforcement. We work hard to debunk the myth of dominance theory and try to understand the canine experience from the dog’s point of view.  Positive training uses no fear, no force and no pain. You get to decide how you want your pet to be treated.

We don’t know at this point if the owner of the dog in the video knew what was going on in those training sessions. It’s possible that they did. Some people do not object to the compulsion method of training. However, even if that method was in line with their dog training philosophy, what was shown was abusive. Explains Hera:

Even if the trainer was using compulsion methods she would have been actively responding to the dog’s body language and releasing her force in response to the efforts of the dog to back down.”

Sadly, this did not happen. I believe punishment-based training can stop a behavior, but fails to replace it with a desired behavior – leaving a kind of “Behavioral Vacuum.” The dog never learns what is right or what is expected of him. It can increase anxiety and defensive aggression, putting everyone (especially children) who comes into contact with the dog in danger. The animals can habituate to punishment and need stronger and stronger corrections to behave. 

So, using our personal philosophies as our guideline for how we’d want our dogs to be treated, we decided to tackle how to choose a professional to board, pet sit, walk and/or provide a daycare for your pet. In addition, given the awful video circulating,  how to choose a facility or individual if you choose to board and train:

  • Research – Go online, research what’s available in your area and start reading reviews. Don’t rely on just one source; use different sites. There is Yelp, Angie’s List, the BBB, Facebook, Foursquare or just do a basic internet search- Name of Company-reviews.
  • Referrals – Says Hera- “I have 3 dogs, and although I am a trainer and do behavior counseling, I too seek help with my dogs to further their education. I don’t teach herding and agility training so I use outside facilities to work my dogs.” In fact, when Hera was looking for that agility trainer, I referred her to the fabulous Ali Peace of Kinship Dog Training in North Bend. Ask people you trust and who have knowledge of that particular area who they would hire. Yeah, it’s great if 12 people on Facebook say they’ve been somewhere, but a personal recommendation is one step better.
  • Visit – Never hire a pet professional blind. Go see the facility or if they’ll be coming to your house have a nose to snout meet and greet. The good ones will ask for that initial meeting. The excellent ones will require it. I personally would find it odd if someone agreed to walk or board my dog without meeting her first. One must know what they’re getting into with the Bee-st.
  • Observe –  If you can go to the business unannounced, absolutely do it. Look “under their hood” on the down low. Is it clean? Do the animals look well cared for? Do the employees look happy?  Are they professional and helpful? If you have your dog with you, do they show interest in your pup? Ask to see where the animals are kept, they should be happy to show off their facilities. Sniff the air, accidents can happen but there is no reason it should smell bad. There should be proper light and ventilation. Do the outdoor areas look adequate? Hera adds “Does the temperature seem right for the season? I ask this because a boarding facility in a different state lost power to their dog housing area and all the dogs died of heat exhaustion overnight” If you’re hiring someone to come into your home see how they interact with your pet. Is their response to how your pet behaves in line with your philosophy? For instance, Bee may bark at newcomers, perhaps even jump up a little bit (Hey, I’m working on it) if someones natural instinct was to knee her or yell at her, they’re off my list.
  • Questions you ask – Ask what the training philosophy of the facility is, even if its only for boarding. What will happen if your dog misbehaves or does not comply with commands? I had a client go to a local playgroup and her dog didn’t want to go into a kennel. The dog was manhandled and bit someone. You want to know how your pet will be dealt with in every circumstance. Find out the ratio of staff to dog at any given time, especially during playgroups. If they are transporting your animal how do they do it? Does the facility have someone trained in pet first aid on site at all times? Better yet is there a human on site at all times? Is there an emergency plan in place in case of a disaster? What vaccinations do they require? How do clients prove they’ve complied with those requirements? Are playgroups divided by size and temperament? Find out how much experience and training the staff has and if continuing education is a requirement. Is it licensed, bonded and insured?
  • Questions asked of you – Personally, my red flag goes up if the right questions aren’t asked of me. You should be asked for emergency contacts, for a veterinary release, what to do in the case of your death, if your animal is friendly to other animals on and off the leash, for a health history, if your dog is prone to separation anxiety, is an escape artist, an aggressive chewer and would I like daily updates? YES, OF COURSE I DO! Some places even have webcams so you can see your dog any time you want.
  • Trial – Personally I would schedule a short trial before I went ahead and planned that three-week vacation or signed up for a month of board and train. Do a day or two and then observe your dog’s demeanor afterwards. A dog shouldn’t behave drastically differently upon returning home. If you notice that your dog seems off, don’t hesitate to call and inquire about it. I have a pet sitter who is worth her weight in gold (No, you may NOT have her name or number…she’s MINE!) If you find your own, feel very lucky.

Finding the perfect place for your pet can be a difficult process but the right one can put your mind at ease in those times when you need to be away from your pet parenting responsibilities. You can’t completely eliminate risk but taking the time to find one that suits your needs as well as your pets needs will pay off in the long run and make everyone happier and healthier.

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