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Choosing the Right Kennel for your Labrador

It is easier said than done! Boarding kennels are necessary evils for those of us who have dogs. Both good and bad kennels exist. There are always some dangers and pleasures associated with use of kennels; in this article, we will explore both.


Kinds of Kennels


Kennel operations vary tremendously. Many are outgrowths of a show or hunting hobby kennel with excess capacity, or someone seeking to make a dog hobby pay its way. At these kennels, you will find dog people and generally friendly reception. Other kennels are outgrowths of grooming or veterinary hospital facilities.


While both authors have more affinity with the show/hobby people, we have both separately concluded that groomers tend to have a way with dogs, large and small, rough or gentle. We tend to lean a little in their direction as kennel operators. We have also seen exceptional kennels run by retired veterinarians who missed their clients.





The scope of kennel operations also varies. A full-service kennel serves as a feed and supply store, and as a kennel involved in boarding, grooming and training. Such kennels are hard to find, but when you do find them, they are often the local center of dog activities in the area.
Most important ingredient


Staff! Let us say it again, Staff! Without a good staff, it matters little what physical plant, plain or grand, or even the policies that a boarding kennel might have. The staff makes or breaks a boarding kennel. We would rather take our dogs to a humble kennel in the middle of nowhere if the staff are good, than to the plushest canine resort kennel if the staff are poor.


Check to see if the staff are pickup day laborers, or properly trained permanent staff. It is easy for dog people to recognize dog people, so talk to the owner and to some of the staff. You will soon find out which are which. We have been pleasantly surprised at times in some kennels to find a high ratio of animal health technicians, or animal husbandry certified staff in charge of kennel work shifts.


Talk "dog" with the staff. Neither author has been to a good kennel where the owner, operator and staff did not want to talk "dog." Swap a few yarns, and listen attentively to the yarns coming back. It will pay off in the care your animal receives. Most dog people can make friends rather quickly with most dogs; there are exceptions of course. When both you and your dog make friends with the staff, the better are the chances for a good stay. One should also be aware that you as an owner may be required to present references, usually one from your veterinarian or a kennel club officer will suffice. This procedure safeguards the kennel from 'dog dumping'. A deposit may also be requested if you are not personally known to the kennel managers.




The most serious consideration when picking a boarding kennel is safety for your dog. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Nothing could be further from the truth. We are talking about safety from climactic extremes, other dogs, self- injury, illness, escape, intentional injury and theft. All the conditions you provide at home to safeguard your dog are required also of a boarding kennel. Safety is a combination of staff training, properly designed runs, operating procedures and common sense. Safety probably starts with health.


Inoculations and preventatives - do not trust your dog to a kennel that does not require proof of inoculation. At a minimum they should require, rabies, parvo, distemper and bordatella. Lyme disease has become prominent in some areas of the country, and it is possible that other dogs boarded at the facility might be infected and could serve as a reservoir from which ticks may vector the disease to your dog. We recommend you vaccinate against Lyme disease before taking your dog to a kennel. If you are in a heartworm area, certainly a heartworm preventative makes sense ; however, we have not seen kennels require it. Some of the heartworm preventatives also do an admirable job on various other worms.


Kennels, like show grounds, can be repositories for fleas, but this is no longer necessary with the advent of the new flea control technologies. Some kennels, especially those that are outgrowths of grooming facilities, require a flea dip, or use of one of the new flea control products as a condition for boarding. Such kennels are usually quick to advertise that they are a "no- flea environment." We think this is a nice touch and you should patronize such facilities.


Disease control - Check to see if the kennel actively screens dogs and cats for good health in addition to inoculations. We have been pleasantly surprised by some kennels, that have animal health technicians as shift leaders, insisting on a quick health check documented in writing and requiring the ownerís concurrence.


Some kennels maintain "quarantine" areas for any animals that might develop signs and symptoms of disease while boarded. These common-sense precautions are not frequently seen in the boarding kennel industry. Few kennels are designed with isolation areas. Some kennels, for what it is worth in disease prevention, require visitors to walk through bleach baths; much like we all used to do when parvo first hit the dog scene. This procedure does reduce, to some extent, transmission of viruses and microbes susceptible to chlorine bleach. Do not expect bleach baths to do much to control aerosol transmitted disease.


A large part of disease control is routine checks of the animals boarded. While few kennels like to be burdened with additional record keeping, many kennels have computerized and will record times and amounts of feeding, responses of the dogs during kennel rounds, and general condition at every observation. We think this is a step in the right direction, because it formalizes the kinds of procedures you would use at home with your own dogs. One of the more important observations is quantity and quality of stool sample. We have seen this record keeping procedure in research facilities, but in very few boarding kennels.


Dominant dogs--Author Cargill has an imposing 3 year old male Akita, which, although a conformation champion and currently being worked in obedience, has a tendency to be a dominant ìgrowly boyî if the opportunity presents itself. Such an animal is a test of a boarding kennel staff. If the staff are afraid of your dog, there is potential for mishap. If you have a large dog blessed with ìattitude,î it is good form to drop by the kennel several times before you are to board the dog, just so that the staff can become familiar with your dog. This can pay off handsomely. When your dog becomes a friend with the staff, it will get the attention you would like it to get. This is just human/canine nature. Call it insurance if you will, but having your dog acquainted with the kennel staff and visa versa, prevents a lot of confrontation problems. We suggest this approach especially for breeds noted for being intensely devoted to their families, like Akitas, Chows, Airedale Terriers, and most of the working breeds. If you have a potentially people- or dog-aggressive animal, warn the staff.


Shy or nervous dogs - If you have a shy or nervous dog, the staff can, if they know about it, go out of their way to make your dog feel at home and help it through an anxious period. Many kennels keep separate areas for shy dogs, where there is less activity and less interface with the other dogs. This may be just what you need. As with the aggressive or dominant dog, it is a good practice to bring shy dogs by the kennel several times before they are to be boarded. The goal is to make boarding a pleasurable social experience, and experience the dog looks forward to in the future. Boarding kennels can be corrective situations for shyness. We have found animals afraid of their own shadows that ìcame outî after several boarding experiences. It is possible with the right staff, to make boarding pleasurable "vacation experience"for your dog.


Physical Plant


Let's talk about the physical plant of a boarding kennel. Little or nothing is required in the mild climate of coastal Southern California, but more than a lot is required in the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of Colorado, within the ìlake effectî of the Great Lakes region, the frozen regions of upstate New York or the hinterlands of Montana and the Dakotas. The requirements are basicótemperature control, shade, shelter from rain, snow, sun and wind. In West Texas, that might also include shelter from sandstorms. Shelter requirements vary with the season and the severity of climate. For a commercial kennel, climates like summer Tucson dictate air conditioning, especially if you bring in an out-of-town Samoyed from 7,000-ft. elevation in the Rockies to midsummer Arizona. Yes! People from the Colorado mountains to make the Tuscon-Phoenix show circuit and board dogs while visiting relatives or friends. It can happenóit is not beyond the realm of possibility.


Runs - We feel the ideal boarding kennel setup includes both concrete and gravel covered indoor-outdoor runs. Size and activity level of the dog being boarded should dictate the size of the run assigned. In hot climates, the indoor portion of the run should be air-conditioned or cooled; in cold climates it should be warmed. Cooling systems vary. In humid Florida, air conditioning for some dogs is a must. In Arizona, swamp coolers are often more than adequate because of their tremendous efficiency in conditions of low humidity. Some kennels use automatic misters, others water buckets. As long as they are kept clean and are scrubbed and bleached after each guest, there should be no real preference. Many kennels will reserve run assignments, so if you have a preference for your dog, it pays to schedule in advance. This is especially useful if you have two dogs used to each other that are being boarded at the same time.


Kennel runs should be easy to clean. To this end, many designs call for side gutters into which feces, urine and spilled food can be washed and hosed to the front of the kennel for subsequent disposal. In some parts of the country, mosquitoes, horse flies and gnats are real problems.


Insect control around runs is important, not only for flies, fleas, mosquitoes and gnats, but also for Fire Ants if they are common in your area.
We recommend those kennels use netting to reduce the opportunity for insect bites. Imagine boarding a show dog only to find ear sores caused by insect bites after just two or three days. Many kennels are located in rural or "horsey" settings and we know of horror stories where it has taken months to regrow hair on badly bitten ears.


Containment areas - it is important that if a dog leaves its run, either by "diddling the lock" or by pushing past one of the state, it is not in direct contact with other dogs. Some dogs delight in working locks. Author Cargill once shipped an American akita from Okinawa, Japan, to California to a professional handler without warning the handler of the ìHoudiniî instincts of this particular dog. After a few days, the akita was found out of his run, out of a containment area around the runs, and with the padlock to the off- premises gate in his mouth! Had there not been two concentric containment areas, this dog would have been long gone. Concentric containment areas are a great barrier to escape, and only the most wily of dogs will figure them out. One boarding kennel of our experience even went as far as to put a second latch high on the doors of each run and has yet to lose a dog from this form of containment.


Fence fighting - even the most docile of dogs may learn to fence fight when given the opportunity. Look for a kennel that has space between the runs, rather than a single layer of chain link fabric. Such spacing allows for screening between the runs to provide visual isolation as necessary. We have seen few boarding kennels that have this separated run feature, and generally, it is not a problem except at peak periods when the kennel is full.


Exercise yards - Most dogs settle quickly into a kennel routine, especially if there are exercise yards, and they can anticipate being out of their run once or twice a day. If you have two or more dogs you are boarding that run well together, ask the kennel to exercise them together. There are boarding kennels that have taken a lesson from the greyhound folks. If you run concentric rings of runs, the dogs will self-exercise running against each other. This is appropriate only for the dogs that will not fence fight.


Music - some kennel operators swear by it. When the sound system goes down, they say the dogs are more restless. We have found several kennels that have televisions to entertain the dogs and to keep boredom at bay. Yes! The authors'respective northern breed dogs do watch television, especially the animal programs where bears are fighting, etc., but we do not feel there is enough data to support demanding that the kennel you patronize install televisions for the dogs.




We have alluded to the fact that common sense makes or breaks a kennel. Safety and consistent observant care requires a formalization of procedures. The better kennels have a staff manual specifying times of rounds, when to clean, when to exercise, when to feed, what to do in given situations, etc. At a minimum, each kennel should have a set of emergency instructions for handling such occurrences should they arise. Operating procedures generally should include the following considerations:


Registration information:


a) one, preferably two local names to call in an emergency, preferred veterinarian, release to use another veterinarian should those of your preference not be immediately available and it is judged by the kennel staff that the medical emergency cannot wait.


b) medical history = o include vaccinations, etc. c) special instructions for feeding, housing, exercising, etc. d) how to reach youóyour itinerary. You may wish to call in to the kennel while traveling just to make sure there is nothing requiring your attention or presence.


e) what to do with the dogs in the event something happens to you. This would include a point of contact with written instructions from you to act as your agent should you wind up hospitalized or worse


Check in/out - Few kennels operate 24 hours per day and allow around-the- clock check-in or checkout. Most kennels will establish check-in and ñout during times convenient for their clients. In suburban and metropolitan settings, this means the kennel should receive and discharge during the commuting hours. In New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, this may very well be as early at 5:00 a.m. for check-in and as late as 7:00 p.m. for checkout. For holiday travelers, it may be important, especially on the long weekends, to be able to drop off a dog before you go out of town and pick it up when you come back. Many kennels have a surcharge for holiday operations, however, there are competitive kennels that feel this is their market niche and will treat holidays as routine without surcharges.




Be aware that shipping dogs as live freight rather than as accompanied baggage usually costs considerably more. You may wish to arrange for a kennel to have a dog waiting for you at the airport when you come back through so that it will be accompanied baggage for the next leg of your trip.
Special conveniences - Many of us while showing may take a few days off for sightseeing before the next show, or the next leg of a trip. It is convenient to be able to leave instructions to board the dog for several days, then have it transported to the airport for a flight to your next destination. Boarding kennels near major airports are more likely to provide these services than are kennels in smaller metropolitan areas. If your trip includes making some shows, missing others, and visiting between shows in places where it might be inconvenient to take your dog(s), a kennel that can accomplish the forwarding may be just what you need.


Picking a boarding kennel is not a simple matter. Concerns for safety and desire for special conveniences sometimes conflict. Most boarding kennels do a good job, however, we feel it is worth the extra effort to find one with which both you are your dog are comfortable. Boarding kennels need not be traumatic experiences. A good boarding kennel can provide your dog with an enjoyable doggie social experience as well as a vacation from the demands and pressures of the job of being your dog. Such a kennel can also provide you with peace of mind while your dogs are out of your personal care.