Does Boarding Your Pet Bring You Worry and Concern?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Becker interviews Elizabeth Miller, owner and operator of Your Dog’s Inn, a holistic doggy daycare, boarding and grooming facility in Newburgh, Maine. Elizabeth’s philosophy is that the dogs in her care should live as Mother Nature intended. She provides daily activities to stimulate body and mind, rest periods, obedience training, and lots of outdoor exercise on her 90-acre farm.
  • Elizabeth’s inspiration to open her own doggy daycare and boarding facility began while she was on a cruise vacation and was absolutely miserable because she wasn’t sure how her dog back home was faring. It took another 10 years and considerable angst before Elizabeth was able to begin a new mid-life career doing something she felt passionate about – providing holistic doggy daycare and boarding services for pet owners who want their pet to receive the best care available in their absence.
  • Elizabeth’s motto is “It’s all about the dog.” That’s why her operation is holistically oriented. She’s all about giving dogs the opportunity to live as Mother Nature intended. She doesn’t believe in keeping dogs in “jail cells” while their owners are away. That’s why guests at Your Dog’s Inn spend their days playing outside, going on off-leash nature walks, and when weather permits, swimming in Elizabeth’s pool. She believes her guests should be fed their normal diets while they are in her care, and she even provides a Facebook page where clients can see pictures and videos of their pet’s daily adventures.
  • At Your Dog’s Inn, the environment is very structured, which provides tremendous benefits for the dogs. Elizabeth insists that new dogs receive repeated exposure to her and the facility before they are boarded. Daycare is a good way to acclimate a dog to the environment. She encourages new clients to plan ahead if they will be taking a trip, as she needs ample time to insure their dog will have an optimum boarding experience.
  • Elizabeth believes doggy daycare can play a significant role in providing puppies with socialization skills. The dogs also learn basic obedience commands like wait, stay and come. That’s how she is able to take 8 or 10 dogs on regular off-leash pack walks. Daycare can be very valuable in helping dogs develop independence and self-confidence when they’re away from home. They also learn how to build trust and relationships with other dogs.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I’m delighted to be interviewing Elizabeth Miller. Elizabeth left the field of neurology to build and operate Your Dog’s Inn, which is a holistic canine daycare that also offers boarding and grooming. Your Dog’s Inn, which is in Newburgh, Maine, specializes in daycare combined with obedience training for all dogs.

Elizabeth built her facility based on what she believes Mother Nature intended for dogs, including daily activities that stimulate the body and mind, rest with other dogs, some obedience training, and exercise in the great outdoors. Boarders at Your Dog’s Inn aren’t left in crates all day -- they’re out and about with Elizabeth. She spends time with the dogs in her care, day in and day out.

Your Dog’s Inn is located on 90 acres of land. Dogs enjoy daily nature walks off-leash, and they also spend time in Elizabeth’s swimming pool, which is great exercise for them. Elizabeth says that if she were a dog, this would be exactly what she would want for herself!

I met Elizabeth when she consulted me about a problem with her dog, Eleanor.

Elizabeth has a Springer Spaniel named Eleanor who has hormone-induced urinary incontinence. Elizabeth consulted with me on how to help her dog stop dribbling urine, which is how we found each other. So first I wanted to know how Eleanor is doing.

Elizabeth replied that Eleanor is doing wonderfully after struggling for two years with her incontinence. Elizabeth also has two dogs in her daycare that are now following the same protocol I suggested for Eleanor. Elizabeth says she’s thrilled that Eleanor is no longer taking Proin. Proin is a drug veterinarians prescribe for management of urinary incontinence. The active ingredient in Proin is phenylpropanolamine, which in some dogs can help tighten the bladder sphincter muscle to better control urine leakage. Known side effects are restlessness, irritability, increased heart rate and blood pressure, loss of appetite, and allergic reactions.

In Eleanor’s case, the Proin wasn’t effective, but she did experience some of the side effects of the drug. The natural protocol she’s now taking highlights the fact that holistic medicine often works when traditional drug-based therapy does not, and/or when the negative side effects of a drug cause suffering. Needless to say, I’m thrilled Eleanor is doing well on a natural protocol for her incontinence.

Elizabeth’s inspiration to open her facility? A miserable vacation…

I asked Elizabeth to explain what inspired her to create and operate her own holistic boarding service. She answered that her original career was in traditional Western medicine, which is entirely different from holistic medicine. She was in that career for 22 years and has a pretty good idea of the differences between the two approaches.

About 16 years ago, Elizabeth took a vacation, and she had someone she describes as “a little shady” pet sit her dog at the time, Millie. Elizabeth took a cruise for her vacation, and she was miserable the whole time because she knew in her gut that she hadn’t taken the necessary precautions to insure Millie would be well taken care of. She says she learned quite a lesson from that experience. If you’re planning to be away on vacation, a business trip, or for any other reason, you have a responsibility to insure that your pet will be comfortable and well-nourished while you’re gone. You have to do your homework before you leave.

Spurred on by that experience, Elizabeth began to ask herself, “What do I want to do with my life that will fill up my soul and make me feel good about what I’m contributing to the world?” She realized that being involved in her Western medicine career wasn’t making her feel very good about what she was doing for the world, and that being around animals and taking care of dogs made her feel much better.

So that’s how it all started, but it took another 10 years for Elizabeth to really get onboard with the idea and arrive at a place where she could make her dream come true by building Your Dog’s Inn.

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Elizabeth’s Mission Statement: “It’s All About the Dog”

Next, I asked Elizabeth how she came up with her vision for a holistic boarding facility. Actually, Your Dog’s Inn is more like a home away from home than a boarding facility.

She replied that her business revolves around her belief that “It’s all about the dog.” When people she’s never met call her and say, “Hey, I want to board my dog tomorrow,” Elizabeth tells them that she doesn’t operate that way. She explains that she first needs to do a safety assessment on their pet. She has to make sure their dog is safe around other dogs, because she refuses to put new boarders in a “jail cell,” meaning that unlike most boarding facilities, she doesn’t believe in simply kenneling dogs until their owners return.

Elizabeth explains to callers that their dog will be with other dogs, and will be exercising outside. This means she has to be able to trust the dog, and the dog must trust her. As you might guess, many people are very surprised to learn of Elizabeth’s approach to boarding. They assume every facility is the same.

And Elizabeth always encourages people to first try to find a friend, family member, or other pet sitter they trust, who can be there for their dog and provide the same daily routine. She feels routine is very important, meaning the same eating schedule, the same exercise schedule, and so on. Elizabeth says pets feel much more secure in their own skin when they are provided with a routine they can depend on. They think to themselves, “Mom and dad may be gone, but I’m eating my same diet at the same time. I’m sleeping in the same crate,” and that goes a long way toward insuring dogs don’t refuse to eat, for example, or develop digestive issues while their owner is away.

How Elizabeth determines which dogs (and owners) are a good fit for Your Dog’s Inn.

I asked Elizabeth to describe sort of the “drill” when she meets a new dog owner client for the first time.

She replied that she can always read people who come into her facility and don’t want to take the time required for Elizabeth to get to know their dog. The first thing that needs to be done is a safety assessment, which she describes as an hour-long “getting to know you” assessment. It’s during the safety assessment that Elizabeth gets a sense of both the dog and the owner, to determine whether they’re a good fit for a holistic facility like hers.

She explains that the difference between a holistic and a traditional doggy daycare and boarding facility is that at Your Dog’s Inn, the focus is on keeping things as close to Mother Nature as possible within margins of safety. When dogs arrive to be boarded, it’s important that they know Elizabeth’s voice, that she has control over them, that they’re safe, and that they have some familiarity with her facility.

Elizabeth maintains a very structured environment for the dogs. They are made to wait for their food, for example. And they must wait to go into and come out of the kennel. Elizabeth finds that all the structure she builds in gives dogs the sense that they don’t have to worry about what’s coming next.

So potential clients need to be open-minded about her approach, and they have to be willing to bring their dog to her at least a few weeks before they are going away. For example, an adult dog can come three times a week, starting two weeks before his owner goes on vacation. This “preview” makes for a successful stay when the dog comes in for boarding. He gets familiar with Elizabeth -- her smell, her voice, and the structure and routine of the place before he actually comes for a stay.

Elizabeth explains that she doesn’t tolerate any aggression because the environment is open. The only time the dogs are individually kenneled is for rest and meals. They get two hours of kenneling to eat and rest, and then they’re back out in the open environment again. As Elizabeth points out, “Mother Nature never intended dogs to be in a kennel all day.”

Guests at Your Dog’s Inn get to swim in an in-ground pool (weather permitting). They get to play ball, so resource guarding isn’t tolerated. They go on nature runs, again, weather permitting and providing ticks aren’t a huge problem. Elizabeth goes out of her way to make sure the dogs are enjoying themselves and getting to be dogs in the way Mother Nature intended.

By the time a dog is dropped off for boarding, it’s as if they’re going for a visit with their favorite Auntie Elizabeth.

It seems to me that the dogs enjoy a vacation while their owners are on vacation! Elizabeth’s facility sits on 90 acres, so the dogs get to have outdoor adventures they may not get at home. I’m thinking there may be dogs that while happy to see their guardians return, aren’t happy to be leaving all the fun they’ve been having!

Elizabeth tells a cute story of an experience she had recently with a dog named Olive. Olive came to daycare at seven months of age, and her owner brought her in a crate. The puppy didn’t know anything about daycare, of course, but Elizabeth believes daycare is a great tool for introducing dogs to the experience of being boarded. Anyway, Olive’s parents brought her to daycare every week in her crate, and then they recently took a trip to Chicago and left her with Elizabeth for boarding.

Olive was just fine, of course, because she was familiar with Elizabeth and the facility. So as her owners were leaving she seemed to be thinking, “Well, see you when you get back.” When her mom came to get her upon her return from Chicago, Olive went calmly into her crate and began gnawing on her bone.

It’s almost like getting to stay with your favorite Auntie Elizabeth – she’s like an extended family member! It’s the kind of experience most of us would certainly like to rely on when we travel and must leave our pets behind.

At full capacity, Elizabeth boards about 20 dogs. She feels this is the maximum number for a pack. In nature, you don’t find 35 or 40 dogs running around together. That’s a recipe for dog aggression, not a well-mannered dog pack.

Elizabeth is providing such a valuable service. I’ve lost count of the number of clients I know who haven’t left their home in years because they don’t have a person or facility they can trust with the beloved four-legged members of their family.

Elizabeth’s daycare program helps to socialize puppies. Dogs also receive basic obedience training and learn how to have positive dog-to-dog interactions.

Elizabeth believes that doggy daycare can play a role in providing puppies with those all-important socialization skills, even if they come once every other week.

The dogs get to know Elizabeth, they get to know the facility, and they learn basic commands like wait, stay, and come. That’s how she is able to take 8 or 10 dogs on off-leash pack walks, and no one has ever gotten lost. There are some great videos of pack walks and other activities at Elizabeth’s website, Your Dog's Inn.

I think Elizabeth is helping dog guardians understand that it’s important to get dogs used to being away from them early in the socialization period. Doggy daycare can be very valuable in helping dogs develop independence, self-confidence, and self-esteem, away from their home environment and with strangers. They also learn how to build trust and relationships with other dogs.

That can only happen when a dog owner decides that they want their young pet to have such experiences. I’ve had clients ask, “Why do you want me to send my dog to daycare when I’m a stay-at-home mom?” It’s kind of like sending a child to pre-school. You send them for the social experience, not because you’re not doing a good job at home. It’s a similar principle when it comes to doggy daycare. Dogs need a variety of experiences in order to be well-socialized and well-balanced.

Elizabeth says that what she tells her clients is that she doesn’t do anything magical. It’s the pack that teaches each dog very subtle clues about how to get along. A pack of good-natured, sweet dogs with no aggression issues or bad habits is a great influence on a young puppy.

And, of course, dogs speak fluent dog. Humans speak a little dog, but we’re not fluent in their language. Elizabeth observes how dogs learn, and believes they learn by routine. When they feel secure, they do very well, even during long stays. They spend a lot of time outside being dogs. They don’t have to potty in their kennels, which is the sad state of affairs in many boarding facilities.

I worked at an animal hospital very early in my career that also provided boarding facilities. That’s when I started encouraging people who traveled and had to leave a pet behind to find someone trustworthy to stay in their home with their dog or cat. It’s also why I follow a rule of thumb when it comes to boarding facilities – if you call a boarding kennel to tell them you’re on your way over for a visit, or you pay a surprise visit to a facility you’re thinking about using, and they tell you to schedule an appointment to see the place, just keep walking. They’re hiding something.

Elizabeth agrees and says that anyone who walks into Your Dog’s Inn can see everything that’s going on. The kennels are all lined up against a wall. You can see the pool outside. Everything is visible. It’s an open environment. But again, she lets new visitors know that if they are thinking about boarding their dog with her, they need to start the process several weeks before their trip with a safety assessment and daycare.

Guests at Your Dog’s Inn eat their normal diet, and the environment Elizabeth provides erases most of the stress and anxiety pets feel when they are away from home and their owners.

A question I get regularly from clients is whether they should switch their raw-fed pet to kibble the day before they go in to be boarded. I always tell them NOT to do that, because they’ll give the poor animal diarrhea while he’s being boarded. I asked Elizabeth to talk about some of the tips she gives her clients prior to boarding their dogs.

Elizabeth explained that she sells only frozen raw dog food at her facility, but she realizes that type of diet isn’t everyone’s choice. She asks clients to bring along the food their dogs normally eat. She has a refrigerator, a freezer, and a special pantry where she keeps each dog’s food. She also keeps a supply of a high-quality pet probiotic on hand for dogs who may need it.

She reassures clients about how much she’ll be feeding their dog and how often, and that she’ll keep their food separate and carefully maintained. Elizabeth says she has no problems in the dog diet department because she takes great care in refrigerating perishable food and insures that each dog gets only what he’s supposed to get. If a dog is overweight or shedding quite a bit, she may recommend some high-quality coconut oil to the owner

Elizabeth says she has several clients that are willing to feed raw, and she has never had a bad experience with it. And she absolutely believes it’s the best diet for dogs, because it’s the food prescribed by Mother Nature.

Because Elizabeth operates Your Dog’s Inn in a holistic manner, which includes getting dogs familiar with her and her facility well before they are boarded, she is able to reduce much of the stress and anxiety dogs feel in boarding situations. As a result, she doesn’t see a lot of diarrhea or other stress-related issues.

While she’s performing the initial safety assessment on a new dog -- which should ideally occur at least two months before the owner plans to be away – and she sees that a dog falls into the “high anxiety” category, she will suggest several days of daycare prior to the owner’s planned trip. When the owner is agreeable, the boarding experience usually goes off without a hitch.

Dog parents keep an eye on their furry family members by visiting the Your Dog’s Inn Facebook page.

Both the daycare and boarding experience at Your Dog’s Inn is sort of like canine summer camp. And every dog has a different personality, so for example, while some dogs can go on nature walks, others aren’t a good fit. And some dogs are simply too excitable around other dogs, so they have to be managed differently.

Elizabeth believes it takes an experienced dog person to sort out all the personalities and decide what’s best for each dog. And unfortunately, this isn’t an area where a lot of boarding facilities excel. She suggests when you walk into a boarding facility that you listen to your gut. Take note of things like the smell of the place – it should smell clean. The owner should be there to greet you.

She also encourages dog owners to make whatever sacrifices are needed to investigate potential daycare and boarding facilities, because it will definitely pay off. While you’re on the beach in Mexico, you want to be able to relax.

I agree and I think almost every caring pet owner can remember a time while on vacation when they wished they’d just stayed home because the stress of leaving their pet was so overwhelming. Elizabeth is able to provide an option for people that allows them to truly relax when they are away, knowing their dog is in excellent hands and having a great time.

I asked Elizabeth if her clients call or email on a daily basis to check in on their pet. She answered that indeed they do, which is why she has a Facebook page. She posts pictures and videos of her doggy guests so their owners can catch up on their latest adventures via the Internet.

Elizabeth realizes that being away from your dog is anxiety-producing, whether you’re on vacation or on long-term deployment. So clients really appreciate being able to look at a picture of their dog on Facebook and know they’re okay. “They’re not with me, but they’re okay. They’re being loved and cared for.”

Elizabeth’s favorite clients are those who want their dogs really well taken care of. And she goes to the nth degree to meet the needs of those owners and their pets. If a potential client comes in and doesn’t seem to really care or has an attitude of “Look, I just want to board my dog,” Elizabeth turns them away. It’s not about the money for her.

Elizabeth’s personal story and her business venture with Your Dog’s Inn are inspirational. It’s important for people to realize that daycare and boarding facilities for pets can and should be much more than the traditional kenneling approach.

One of the reasons I wanted to interview Elizabeth is because her approach to running a doggy daycare and boarding facility is somewhat unique and very exciting. And I know many of you watching and reading here today will think, “This is wonderful. This woman is amazing! She’s probably the only one in the country.” To be fair, there are probably other daycare and boarding facilities with a similar approach, but I doubt there are many.

By talking with Elizabeth today, I hope to help more people realize that daycare and boarding facilities for pets need to be well thought-out and well-planned. There are ways to help reduce animals’ anxiety around the experience, for example, introducing them ahead of time to the humans they’ll be spending time with, and getting them familiar with the facility before they actually spend the night.

I don’t think there are many people out there doing things the way Elizabeth does them, and if you find one, you may have to drive a good distance to get there. But if you can’t find a trusted person to come to your home to stay with your pet, the next best thing would be to find a facility like (or at least somewhat like) Elizabeth’s within reasonable driving distance.

I also wanted to feature Elizabeth because it’s important for pet lovers to know there are people out there like her. And there are also people out there who may be interested in a career change, and find Elizabeth’s story inspirational and motivating.

Elizabeth makes the point that an interesting thing happens to many people at mid-life. They have to make a choice. They have to decide if the second half of their life is going to be about integrity, authenticity, and pursuing their life’s passion -- the direction their spirit is leading them in.

Elizabeth says it’s not an easy transition. Going from a high-income career to a fairly low-income position is not something everyone can do. Fortunately, Elizabeth’s husband has been very supportive and she is also blessed to live on a huge farm.

Elizabeth wants to remind dog owners not to leave arrangements for the care of their precious pet until the last minute.

Elizabeth reminds pet owners that it’s just so important to think ahead about your pet when you’re planning a trip. It should never be one of those last-minute thoughts like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got to get somebody to take care of my dogs.”

Often people get so wrapped up in planning and preparing themselves for vacation that they don’t give enough thought to the pet they love so dearly. They don’t stop to think “I need to prepare for my dog’s care just like I prepared for this vacation.” And that preparation should begin months ahead of time.

Our pets are our responsibility. Elizabeth says she has seen some horrific sickly dogs come out of boarding facilities. They haven’t eaten in days and had barely anything to drink. There are kennel operators that have no real medical expertise. They can’t spot a dehydrated dog, or one that isn’t eating enough. In a kennel housing 45 or 50 dogs, it’s impossible to provide good quality care and comfort to each dog.

Elizabeth has given us some great insight today into what it takes to run a high quality, holistic daycare and boarding facility. She gave us a very fresh perspective on an alternative to traditional boarding that many pet owners have probably never even thought about. Elizabeth and others like her out there don’t have huge advertising budgets or chain locations, so pet owners will have to do some legwork to find really unique options of the kind Elizabeth provides. But they are out there, and she is one of them.

Hopefully, this discussion has inspired those of you watching and reading here today to pursue other avenues for daycare or boarding for your pet.

I want to thank Elizabeth Miller so much for her time today. I really appreciate her unique facility and how much fun she’s having running it. She provides a tremendous service for people who must be away from their pets and want peace of mind that they are being loved and well cared for.