My name is Lizz (hi Lizz) and I am the pet parent of a reactive dog.
My journey with Greta, the anxious rescued American Bully, has been a learning experience from start to finish. One of the hiccups I became aware of early on was just how difficult it can be to travel when you have a highly-sensitive dog on your hands. And if you're anything like me, exploring the world was something I simply could not give up. That means I had to get creative and figure out how to leave my dog in the best of hands while still enjoying some time away.
If you're seeking to understand how exactly to board or find a dog sitter for your reactive dog, you've come to the right place.
Finding a dog sitter who can handle a reactive dog
Step one: find a licensed, bonded, and insured individual or service. If there is any chance your dog may bite another animal or person, it's extremely important to ensure your sitter is covered and that you're protected from liability.
Licensed, bonded, insured
So what do these terms mean? The Pet Sitter Compendium defines each below:
Licensed - When a pet sitter is licensed, it means they are registered with the secretary of state, or they have obtained a privilege license to do business in their local municipality, or both.
Bonded - Bonds are different than insurance but may be provided with an insurance policy... they're a pledge to provide contracted services when the pet sitter is unable to do so. A bond may also compensate an owner’s loss in the event there is a theft by a pet sitter’s employee. The dog owner that uses a bonded pet sitter will be compensated whether the employee is convicted or not.
Insured - Insurance for pet sitters covers the costs of damage or injury incurred while the sitter is in charge of the client’s pet. Insurance is different than a bond because there are only two parties (the insurer and the insured) in the deal. Also, if the costs of the damage or injury exceed the premiums paid, the insurance company covers these losses.
These qualifications are important for a number of reasons. Number one, they help verify the legitimacy of a sitting service or business. You're entrusting someone to watch one of the most precious beings in your life. It's vital to make sure you're doing the research and keeping them from harm.
Additionally, if anything goes awry while you're gone - from your beloved cat scratching your sitter, to your dog biting someone on a walk, or even your sitter injuring themselves using your oven - you will be financially covered. When it comes to living with a reactive dog, these precautions become even more important.
What steps should I take to find the right sitter?
The following method helped me find an incredible sitting service my dog is comfortable with and that I trust to handle her while I'm gone:
1. Google "dog-sitting services in [insert your city]" and then visit each service's "about" page to find information on their insurance and bonding policies.
2. Send some outreach emails to all the services that fit your needs. Describe your dog and his/her issues in great detail and candidly ask if their service has experience with reactive dogs. You may also want to ask for customers to reach out to if they allow that.
3. Set up a meet and greet - this is absolutely essential for your dog to get comfortable with anyone who will be staying with them. You can ask if they'll come by for several weeks and walk your dog or come sit with them and feed them treats. You'll want to avoid surprising your dog with a new sitter the day you leave for your trip. That's a recipe for disaster and many reactive dogs need time to properly warm up.
4. Demonstrate to your sitter exactly how you walk your dog, feed them, etc. Change can be a big trigger for reactive dogs so you'll want to minimize how much there will be. If you have a particular way you like to train your dog on walks - with treats, certain commands, etc. show the sitter those too!
5. A good sitter for reactive dogs will approach them at their own pace. Anyone who forces affection or proximity with an unsure dog should be a red flag. Consider it a good sign if they allow your dog to warm up to their presence and show signs of being fully comfortable before engaging. I used to tell potential sitters to avoid looking Greta in the eye, sit down on the couch, and toss treats in her direction until she decompressed a bit, and that seemed to work well.
6. It was important that I went with a service that would stay the night with my dog, not just come walk her during the day. So be sure that you clarify how much time will be spent with your dog while you're away.
Seek out advice
One of the greatest features of social media is the ability to crowdsource recommendations from pet parents near you. I joined a few local neighborhood dog parent groups on Facebook and asked for pet-sitting recommendations, and was upfront about my dog's issues.
Luckily, as the number of dogs suffering with reactivity grows, the number of pet parents dealing with similar issues increases as well. You never know who might have a great contact for a sitter or service who is incredible with anxious or highly-sensitive dogs.
What about services like Wag, etc?
I strongly caution against using services like Wag if you are the parent of a reactive dog. There are horror stories online even for those without reactive pups, but I don't doubt that some awesome sitters exist on these platforms.
The danger comes from the fact that sitters on these sites are not properly vetted, and may be wholly unprepared and inexperienced when it comes to watching your anxious dog. And as many pet parents have reported, getting assistance from these services when things go wrong is extremely difficult.
Can I board a reactive dog?
It is possible to board a reactive dog if you're careful about the facility and are honest about your pet's issues. Some places have designated areas for dogs who are not dog or people-friendly - where contact is limited or they get solo time in the play yard. Like finding a sitter, it's important to ask for testimonials, do meet and greets, and even better, webcams that allow you to keep an eye on your dog's treatment while you're gone.
Some boarding facilities have housing for dogs who absolutely cannot be around strangers by offering remote-operated doors that allow for potty breaks and outside access, without the stress of unfamiliar people and dogs. If this is important to you, be sure to include this in your search.
Please be fully honest with any facility you choose to book. In the end, you're only harming yourself and your pet if you gloss over their reactivity issues. Legal action or injury can easily result if you're not transparent.
I'd also recommend avoiding boarding facilities that purport to train your dog out of their reactivity. Not only do these places have a reputation for being rough, aggressive, and even deadly to the dogs in their care, but most of the progress of training is achieved through working on the trust and relationship between you and your dog, not the trainer alone. If you're leaving your pet to go on vacation, do not put them in a potentially traumatic situation under the guise of fixing their issues while you're gone.
Sometimes, your dog is so distrustful of humans that having a stranger watch them is just not possible. That's okay. If you are instead going the route of a friend or family member - one that your dog is fully comfortable with - I highly recommend finding renters or homeowners insurance that will cover any bodily injury by your dog, as well as a good pet insurance policy that will cover injury, accidents, or illnesses that might occur to your pet while you're gone.
State Farm sets itself apart from the rest when it comes to home insurance. They don't discriminate by breed, meaning that even if you own a reactive bully breed, they will offer financial protection should your pet injure your dog sitter or someone else while you're gone. The same cannot be said for many other large insurance providers who refuse coverage for particular breeds.
For pet insurance, of course, we would be remiss to not recommend Figo for our flexibility and robust coverage. However, we believe so strongly that insuring your pet is the way to go, that we'll wholeheartedly recommend you go with whatever provider is right for you.
Should anything happen to your pet while you're gone, you can rest assured that your sitter can get them right into the vet and that you will have some sort of financial protection for applicable conditions.
Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.