Is there life away from home when you live with a fearful dog?

Play time with other dogs can be a perk at a boarding facility.

Play time with other dogs can be a perk at a boarding facility.

Living with a dog with fear based behavior challenges impacts our lives in many ways and the freedom to be away from home for more than 8 hours can be among them.

A couple of the options available for our dogs’ care when we need to be away are; someone comes to our home and cares for them or they go somewhere for boarding. Your dog and the options available to you in your area, will determine which, if either, you choose to use. There are a variety of factors to take into consideration, and obviously your dog’s physical and emotional well-being top the list. It’s impossible for me to list all the considerations an individual pet owner needs to look at. Some guidelines to follow include:

1. Speak with a vet about medications or supplements that can lower a dog’s overall level of anxiety.

2. Create an environment in which the dog  feels safe and can retreat to if they need to.

3. Desensitize and counter condition a dog to basic handling.

4. Find and educate the person, or persons who will be providing care for your dog. 

In-home care is often best for many dogs, especially those with a range of fears. The challenge of finding appropriate care-givers and the expense will impact whether or not you choose this option. It’s helpful if you can set up an environment which facilitates easy management of your dog. Having a door which leads to a fenced in yard works well if your dog is able to respond to cues for going out and coming back in. A care-giver need only be a door opener and food deliverer. But if a dog is too scared to move for someone we have to come up with alternatives.

It may be necessary to create areas where a dog can urinate and defecate without going outside. It is not a given that a dog who does this will forget their housetraining skills. My own two fearful dogs were provided with papers or pads and used them early in their lives with us. Once they were given access to the outdoors they chose that area, and not inside the house, for toileting.

Giving a dog a few basic skills, and teaching a caregiver how to interact with your dog can allow them to get your dogs outside for toileting and exercise. Having a leash put on their collar or harness is one skill. Being able to walk with a long line attached to their collar or harness is another. Adding a short tag line (approx 12″) to a harness or collar with a loop or ring in the end can make it easier for a caregiver to leash up a dog without having to put as much pressure on a dog as grabbing a collar or harness will. I was able to instruct care-givers on how to put a leash on my dog, get him to follow them out of the house, and go for walks. I was very clear that my people-fearful dog did not need or want any social interactions in addition to feeding, leash walks and toileting. I made sure there was an ample supply of my dog’s favorite treats and care-givers were instructed on how to give them to him; no eye contact, no petting, no bending over the dog, no chatter.

There are professional pet and house sitters available. Be on the look out for anyone who assumes that all dogs will like and feel comfortable with them. These folks, good intentions aside, often try too hard to connect with a dog, a dog who may have no interest in connecting with them. They will need to be able to put their egos and anything they’ve learned in the past about dogs, aside. Some will be willing and able to do this, others will not. I had good success with a young woman who worked with cats at the local humane society. She was comfortable with dogs and able to understand that a fearful dog is not unlike a scared cat. Try as you like, you are not going to make a scared cat like you. Our neighbors were also a great help to us, and continue to be. Vet techs are another good population of possible candidates for pet care.

For some dogs being boarded away from home can be both a physically and emotionally safe, option for them. The understanding of fear based behaviors by the people handling your dog is crucial. A dog who is comfortable with other dogs may enjoy the opportunity to be with them during play time. A boarding kennel may be a safer place for a dog if you do not have a secure, fenced area at home. If you have more than one dog there is often the choice to have them share a kennel, providing them with the comfort and solace of a buddy. Look for kennels set up so that your dog does not require handling for cage cleaning or feeding. A safe space can be created, a crate to hide in or a barrier to hide behind for example, while cleaning occurs.

Staff who understand fearful dogs or are willing to follow instructions regarding how your dog should be handled and interacted with, is imperative. Large kennels may employ a collection of low skilled workers who may like dogs, but may have misguided ideas about them. People professionally involved with dogs can assume they know more about your dog than you do. I was surprised to hear one kennel owner tell me that she thought people gave too many drugs to dogs. When a dog I knew stayed at her kennel and was sent along with behavioral medications, she did not give them to the dog, despite the owner’s instructions. The kennel operator decided that the dog was fine without them. I was dumbstruck. There are medications which require a specific withdrawal protocol before they cease to be used. To abruptly stop their use can be dangerous. As for the dog appearing to fine, the medications may have been reason!

In-home boarding is popular and many pet owners assume a better option than a commercial facility. Whether this is the case will be depend on the people providing the care, your dog’s triggers, and the adequacy of fencing on the property. I offer in-home boarding and have turned away dogs and suggested a boarding kennel instead. Home life, especially a home with other unrestrained dogs, is unpredictable. A fearful dog may fare better with the predictable routines of a kennel, along with the isolation option it provides. I will not board a fearful dog who does not have a recall. Unlike a commercial kennel the opportunity to slip out an open door or find a way out of the fence yard exists. Most dogs don’t choose to leave me or my other dogs, but a fearful dog, once outside of the confines of my home or yard may be impossible to catch.

Every dog and every situation is going to be different. By giving a dog a foundation of basic skills, experimenting with medications to help relieve a dog’s anxiety, and researching both in and away from home options, it is possible to have a life away from your fearful dog.

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24 comments so far

  1. E. Foley on

    My fearful dog has three trusted friends (aka, folks she’ll wiggle her butt for!) who help us out when we need pet sitting. Thus far, we’ve been lucky enough to have two of them come live in our house while we were away and the third is my bf’s mom, who takes her to her apartment. I’m not sure what I’d do if she had to be boarded. There’s an excellent place around the corner that has doggy daycare and boarding. She’d LOVE the doggy part, but I don’t think the people would be able to get near her when it was time for the boarding part. :-(

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are always pieces to the ‘being cared for’ puzzle to work on, that’s for sure!

  2. sara, oreo and chewy on

    This is something I struggle with! In fact, I’ve only gone out of town once in the 6 years I’ve had my fearful dog, except for the times I was able to bring him along. That one time, I was able to have my parents, who Oreo can tolerate, take care of him, and rotisserie chicken rained from the sky the whole four days.

    I experimented with a petsitter, while I was at work, but I think she tried too hard to initiate interaction, and it was a disaster. Oreo would begin retreating to his hiding spot behind the toilet every day, regardless of if we were home, around the time of day when she made her visits. Now, I know I should have told her to ignore him altogether.

    Our behaviorist thinks keeping him at home, in his familiar environment, would be best, but I have yet to try again. Luckily, our vet has boarding facilities that I think he could handle, and they would provide him with his meds, so if I’m ever in a pinch I have an option.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sorry you saw negative feedback when in-home care was provided. It’s challenging finding someone who is able to interact appropriately with our kind of dog.

  3. jet on

    while our dogs aren’t the overly fearful type, Bender does have some noise phobias… we take them to a small kennel where the only staff are the husband and wife team who have been working with dogs since they were both kids… they now have a connection with the dogs as they go there every time we go away (once or twice a year), but it took a little while. I found it really hard to find an in-home carer who I could trust and who could handle Bender on leash walks if he freaks out.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It does require extra skill when we begin to add more pieces to the care and management puzzle.

  4. Bunter on

    A very good blog!

    My boy is *very* damaged. His has many fears, although is pretty much fine with me and getting there with my husband after 3 years. One of his problems is a huge negative associations with hands, making it nigh on impossible for anyone else to handle him.

    I trust no-one to be able to understand his fears, so do not leave him with anyone, nor board him. He *will* bolt if panicked, and no-one but me would be able to get him back, so I don’t leave him anywhere or with anyone else. He is cute and fluffy, so people just do not see that he needs his space to be respected, plus there are those who insist they are ‘good’ with dogs.

    Happily, he can be left in the house for a good few hours and also sees my fully kitted out dog van as one of his safe places, so I can take him with me to quiet places.

    We are getting there – slowly but surely :)

    • fearfuldogs on

      If we are headed in the right direction we at least have the chance of getting where we want to go. Wishing you continued success on your journey!

      • Bunter on

        Thank you :)

        It is due to him (Taffy) that I am now undertaking a degree in canine behaviour and training. I always thought I knew quite a lot about dogs, having lived with them for years and years, plus fostered a lot for a dog rescue. Taffy taught me that actually, I didn’t really know that much!

  5. fearfuldogs on

    With dogs, as with many things, the more we learn, the more we realize how much more there was for us to understand.

  6. heather on

    I am lucky to have a rehabilitation vet practice nearby who will board. Because of the special needs of the recovering surgical dogs, they really understand listening to what a dog needs. An additional perk is that they have fostered, so they have a sense of shy or awkward dogs. They expect this respect from their staff they hire.
    It costs more than my regular vet would, but so worth it.
    Maybe a similar option for others? Rehab or surgical folks may plan to do a liitle more specialized. Our place doesnt look or smell like “the vets office.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great idea Heather! I appreciate that you pointed out that it didn’t smell like a vet’s office. It may have been my own aversion to it, but a local vet here that offered boarding had the kennels in the back near the furnace where they incinerated bodies. It was also quite loud.

      • heather on

        This place has a five year plan that involves a great center for pet health. I’m hoping they create space for seminars. **HINT HINT*** (We’re in finger lakes wine country.)

  7. engineer chic on

    We are fortunate that our fearful dog is happiest with other dogs and takes his cues from them. And his daycare place does cage free boarding, so his overnite stays are at the same place he goes twice a week for playtime.

    It is still interesting to see him interact with new staff members. I’ve seen him barrel across the living room of the daycare to get to me, only to realize there is a new person in the room and he makes a big circle around them. They have a number of dogs there with “people issues” so no one pressures him and after several days of seeing other dogs interact with the new scary human he understands they are okay.

    Biggest miracle? I hear that he actually SNUGGLES with a couple of the staff members during the afternoon nap time. Apparently he has 2 favorites and if they have his “classroom” during nap time he will snuggle into them. He’s been there 3 years, so this is awesome :)

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is awesome and please pat yourself on the back for contributing to making it happen! Learning keeps happening. When we give a dog the gift of feeling good with one person, us, we lay the groundwork for the possibility that they will add more to their circle of ‘feel good friends’.

      This gave me an idea. How about a picture of your pup on a heart shaped locket or keychain, to give as a gift to the people who have earned his trust! Thanks for the inspiration, I might have to do this.

  8. Mel on

    Great advice. I admit I am extremely reluctant to leave my dogs to go on vacation, although I would very much love to go on one some day again. I am less worried about Cupcake and Jasper because I know that Minnesota Sheltie Rescue has experienced people who can take Cupcake and Jasper has stayed with my mom before with no issues. Daisy is the one I know would have the hardest time. She could stay at my mom’s house more easily than a boarding kennel.

    A pet sitter is something I have considered, since I used to be one. But, it would have to be exactly the right person. The well-meaning ones would not be my choice either.

    To be really honest, I hadn’t even really considered going on vacation again until after Daisy is no longer in my life. It would kill me to know she was afraid and scared and unsure. Maybe it’s a sacrifice, but it’s one I am okay with if it means Daisy would be okay.

    • Debbie on

      I don’t think your response is all that unusual Mel. I’ve heard from others that the just don’t go.

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  9. KellyK on

    Those are really fantastic tips. You are absolutely right about the importance of people being willing to listen and put aside their own egos. (I’m floored that someone took a dog off meds against the owner’s directions—that’s horribly negligent.)

    The only thing I would add is that you want to scope out places and people well before you have a trip planned and, if possible, do some short visits before you actually go away for a weekend or a week. Dropping a dog off for daycare for an afternoon or having the pet-sitter come over to give them a walk as if you were gone can be really helpful for acclimatizing.

    Another positive sign with boarding facilities is pictures. The kennel/daycare we use takes a ton of pictures of all the dogs every day and puts them up on Facebook. Not only does this give you a little window into how your dog is doing while you’re away, it also helps verify that they actually are getting the play and socialization that’s advertised. (It’s not a guarantee, but it’s a good sign.)

    • KellyK on

      Wait, no, I have one more thing to add. Well, one thing you covered that I want to expand on. The first time I left my dog home on a vacation, we had friends house-sit. We ended up having to come home early because Diamond was terrified. She had hidden in her crate, and the friend had gotten in the crate to get her out to go to the bathroom. No surprise, that was really scary and even now years later, she doesn’t trust that person fully.

      So now, I can’t stress enough with anyone who watches her that if she doesn’t want to go out, just let her be. Most of the time, she will go out if she really has to, but if she has an accident, it’s not a big deal. I like my dog a lot more than I like my floors, and it’s *way* easier to clean up pee than to repair a dog’s sense of safety.

      I really like your idea of having pee pads if needed, and I think that even if you think that a dog is going to be okay going outside with a caregiver, it’s still a good idea to have some on-hand, or at least to make it really clear to them that the possibility of the dog peeing on the floor is not an emergency and isn’t worth traumatizing them over.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Fabulous additions Kelly, every one of them. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the “worst” that can happen is that I need to clean up pee or poop. It sure wouldn’t be the first or last time.

        It makes sense that someone else would be worried about not doing a good job of what they were asked to do, if accidents occurred. But we have the perspective they might not.

        Good reminders.

  10. gingerspacedog on

    These are great comments to read for some ideas from more experienced folks. While we’ve only had our fellow for 5 months, we’ve been talking about where Ginger could go when we go on vacation in the future. We were planning on going away for the weekend in next month but have decided that we just can’t bring ourselves to leave him and we don’t think he would be happy going with us – like others who have commented, it is hard to go somewhere for fun and think of our littlest family member frightened and stressed. We are planning to talk about it again in 6 months to 1 year and see where things are at. Until then, we plan on staying close to home.

    In a pinch, We can see Ginger doing well at my in-laws. He took my wife’s mom right away. It is important for him to have an anchor person that he likes. Once he has this, he is able to cope better. After spending a few days at their house, Ginger would happy follow her outside/ around the house if she called him and loved to steal her house coat to nest in. For a longer trip, I think spending 12 hours for a drop-off/return and another 12 for a pick-up/return would be worth it (despite the several hundred dollars spent on renting a car and taking the car across on the ferry).

    He isn’t ready for this yet though. We left him there for 2 hours towards the end of a week long visit over the holidays. When we arrived back we found him sitting on my mother-in-laws lap watching Corry street. Apparently the first hour wasn’t pretty – When he was let out into the yard he didn’t want to go back in. Ginger tried to bolt and escape out a weak spot he discovered in the fence. After the first hour, he did much better. When we arrived, he wasn’t a wreck and after a relieved greeting, he went back to his normal behavior.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like with some management alterations, she’s not doing so bad. How about a harness with a long line attached & the fence weak spot repaired. Maybe a body wrap, a calming supplement like Composure, and a roasted chicken. She recovered. That hour of distress can decrease. Less time stressing, and a lower level of stress. A dog may need multiple experiences like this to ‘learn’ to be ok with them.

      • gingerspacedog on

        Those are great tips. They’ve fixed the fence since then – terriers are clever about fences. When we left him, we had him with some of his favorite treats, wearing a DAP collar and a thundershirt. I hadn’t heard of Composure, I will have to look into that.

        I think you are right, with more experiences like that, he will spend less and less time feeling distressed. It is encouraging that he does settle :I bet he would love roasted chicken.

  11. fearfuldogs on

    Once we’ve given a dog a decent foundation of trust with us and some positive, confidence building experiences, we can begin to expand their worlds. Take your cues from the dog. Complete meltdowns are not helpful but stress on/stress off scenarios can often be.


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