How to Know if Board and Train is Right for Your Dog and Selecting the Best Program
It may come as a surprise to people, but I unsell board and trains more frequently than I accept new clients. This is because I refuse to take money from clients whom I do not believe I can help, and my board and train program simply isn’t right for all dogs or all people. While each board and train program is a little different, let’s look at some things that board and train can and cannot do.
Board and Train May be Right for You if…
Your dog is a tough behavior case. They might be a really fast and pushy dog, a severe leash puller/lunger, or a reactivity/aggression case that needs a skilled professional to get their foot in the door because your skills are not yet sufficient to meet the dog where they are at. Let’s face it. While the human absolutely needs to learn alongside their dog, training some dogs simply requires more skill than the average pet owner has, and attempting to learn with your own dog is like attempting to learn calculus before you’ve mastered basic addition and subtraction. You can get to calculus if you are motivated, but you’ll need to start at the beginning, and that won’t help your dog. But a professional should be able to give your dog some new skills, desensitize and countercondition to triggers, and essentially make your dog easier to work with. Simultaneously, they will help you improve your skills so that, by the time your dog goes home, you can meet somewhere in the middle… maybe with basic algebra.
You are deeply invested in your dog’s training, but you have a trip you wish to take. You’d love for your dog to learn some great skills and have ample enrichment in a safe environment while you are gone. Perhaps your dog hasn’t been able to safely board with anyone because of the behavior issues you’ve been dealing with. Once you know your dog is settled into their board and train program, you plan to make your trip, return, and work with the trainer to catch up on everything your dog has learned during their stay. After all, you understand that training your dog is dependent upon you learning how to create the best environment for behavior change at home.
You have a young puppy, and you’ve realized the socialization and exposure needs of your puppy are more than you have time for. With the socialization window closing at 16 weeks, you know your puppy needs to see so many things in such a short amount of time, and it’s all you can do to keep up with the puppy’s eating, playing, and chewing needs. What’s more is that your puppy needs all this exposure in a hurry without rushing your puppy and causing negative experiences. How is this even possible??? A qualified, reinforcement-based board and train with a behavior professional may be the answer. And your puppy will likely learn some really useful and fun “obedience”-type behaviors while they are there.
Your dog is afraid of harnessing, nail trims, grooming, vet visits, restraint, etc. There is a whole lot that can be done in a board and train to teach cooperative care skills and desensitize and countercondition to handling. An owner will still need to learn how best to support their dog and to continue the training once the dog leaves the board and train, but a skilled trainer can make a huge amount of progress on these issues before your dog heads back home.
Board and Train Is Not Right for You if…
Your dog has any level of separation anxiety or distress. Your dog will already be undergoing some very stressful changes when you drop them off at a strange place surrounded by strange people, dogs, and sounds and a new routine. And unless your trainer is able to keep your dog with them 100% of the time throughout the board and train, a dog with merely separation distress will likely develop clinical separation anxiety during the board and train, and a dog that already has separation anxiety will immediately experience extreme trauma. Not only is this unfair to the trainer who will potentially lose a tremendous amount of money due to the resulting property destruction as the dog panics and the need to send the dog home and possibly offer a refund, but it is inhumane to keep a dog in an environment that elicits frequent panic. The dog may self-harm during attempts at escape or even from behaviors intended to self-soothe (chewing feet, excessive licking, excessive scratching, fur pulling, etc.), and the level of psychological distress they experience will not only be miserable but also leave them susceptible to a host of bacterial and viral infections due to the inhibited immune system resulting from that extreme distress. Most board and train programs require that dogs spend some time alone so that the trainer can work with other dogs, other clients, and even just to live their own lives. I decline more board and train applications and send more dogs home early for separation anxiety than for any other reason.
Your dog directs their aggression toward you. This one is a maybe because it really depends on why your dog is aggressing toward you. Is it due to touch or handling sensitivity? In that case, a board and train may be called for. Redirection of frustration or aggression toward something/someone else while on leash? Board and train can help address this. Resource guarding of stuff? Board and train can help. Resource guarding of people in the home? Board and train cannot resolve this, but it can teach your dog other skills that will help you manage it while your trainer coaches you through resolving this at home. But if your dog just doesn’t like you, doesn’t feel safe with you, and doesn’t want you near them; that cannot be fixed with a board and train. This requires in-home coaching alongside you to help you repair or develop the relationship you want with your dog. There may be some remote training specialists who can help you with this as well, but board and train is definitely not the solution.
You don’t have time to train your dog. Contrary to popular belief, dogs are not like computer programs that you upload and can henceforth expect to behave the way you programmed. In fact, a lot of trainers hate board and trains because this idea is so prominent, and dog owners spend thousands of dollars only to have their dog slowly (or sometimes quickly) revert back to all their old behaviors when they come home. Behavior is fluid. It is constantly changing to work within the current environment. That means that if the owner never changes their own behavior or their dog’s environment, even if the dog was acting like a completely different dog during the board and train, they should expect their dog’s behavior to return to whatever was working for them in the past shortly after they go home. So every dog owner needs to learn how to modify their environment to elicit the behaviors they wish to see and then to reinforce those behaviors so that the dog has reason to repeat them. Additionally, if a dog has developed a negative conditioned emotional response to things in the home environment that cannot be changed (presence of dogs, strangers, harnesses, muzzles, sounds, etc.), the trainer may be successful in desensitizing and counterconditioning to those triggers in the trainer’s environment, even in busy and public places, but all that work will be context specific. New skills will be learned, and the way will be paved for the dog to more easily be desensitized and counterconditioned to triggers in the home environment. However, the work at home will still need to be done in order for the dog to learn to feel safe there. For these reasons, anyone investing in a board and train must realize that this is only the beginning of the dog’s training, and that it will be up to the owner to continue the training after the board and train in order for the board and train to be successful.
You wish to socialize your dog-aggressive adult dog so he can play at the dog park. Nope. No can do. A trainer can no more accomplish this than you can turn my introverted, crowd and noise-averse self into an extrovert who loves Disneyland. The socialization window for dogs is roughly between 3 and 16 weeks of age. While a great deal of acclimation can be done after that time, once a dog is demonstrating an overt dislike for the presence of other dogs, the goal is desensitization and counterconditioning to coexisting, not turning your dog into a daycare or dog-park dog. That said, while any qualified trainer will immediately tell you that your dog-aggressive dog will not likely ever enjoy interacting with strange dogs, a board and train may be the perfect place to help your dog learn to feel safe passing other dogs on the street without reacting.
Your dog does not tolerate confinement. The vast majority of board and trains will require some type of confinement at some point, whether that is staying in a crate while the trainer runs errands, staying in a bedroom to give space from other dogs, remaining behind an exercise pen to provide some exposure without access, or remaining in a kennel. If your dog whines, cries, paws, scratches, bites, barks, howls, or otherwise tests or protests their source of confinement, board and train is not for them.
Not All Board and Train Programs Are Equal
Before sending your dog away to a board and train facility, you really need to do some research because not all board and trains are set up to accomplish the same things, and not all board and train programs are run by qualified professionals. In fact, some programs are so poorly run and overtly dangerous that many of my own clients come to me to help undo the psychological damage inflicted upon these poor dogs during their stay at other facilities. Here are some things to look for:
Dogs have some level of 24/7 monitoring. Either they have cameras on them at all times and there are few enough dogs that they can be easily monitored throughout the day and night, or they literally have a person with them 24 hours a day. Three times my cameras have saved dogs from serious injury or possibly death. Once, a dog got their jaw stuck between the bars of their crate, and I was able to quickly respond to help extricate the dog’s jaw. Another time, a dog with no known history of eating non-food items began eating the stuffing of his bed as quickly as he could. Because I saw it on camera, I was able to rush into his suite, interrupt the behavior, and provide immediate veterinary care which prevented blockage, the need for surgery, and possibly death. A third incident involved a dog with previously undisclosed separation anxiety. He was an extraordinarily powerful animal who began chewing through the walls of my suite. I interrupted him within seconds, thus minimizing his self-injury and limiting the destruction. He went home immediately so that he wouldn’t have to endure additional trauma. Accidents can and will still happen at even the best run board and train facility just as they do occasionally happen at home. But they will be fewer and farther between with quality monitoring.
The board and train setup is appropriate for your dog’s individual needs. If you have a puppy who needs some confidence-building and basic training, an in-home setup with other well-monitored, polite dogs may be ideal. A kennel setup surrounded by big, scary, aggressive dogs may be more likely to increase fear and reactivity for the scared puppy. On the other hand, if you have a dog with human and/or dog aggression, an in-home setup with other dogs is likely not the safest place for your dog, the other dogs in training, or for the trainer. A human-aggressive dog needs a setup that will allow for protected contact with the trainer. A dog-aggressive dog needs an environment where access and line of sight to dogs is strictly controlled. This is not only safer but will also enable the dog to relax in the new environment so that desensitization and counterconditioning work can be done.
The trainer is a qualified, reinforcement-based professional who understands the difference between behavior suppression and changing a dog’s emotional response while reinforcing new behaviors. Watch the training videos on your prospective trainer’s social media pages. Do the dogs look stressed out (rapid rate of respiration, ears pinned back, tension between the eyes, corners of the mouth pulled far back, stiff bodies, low tails, crouched body position, averting eyes, whale eye, lots of avoidance, etc.)? If so, does the trainer acknowledge the stress and explain what is being done to help the dog feel safe? What happens when the dog does something “wrong?” What equipment is being used on the dog? A qualified board and train facility will be using harnesses, flat collars or martingales on dogs not yet conditioned to wear a harness, and maybe occasionally a gently-used head halter for dogs that greatly overpower owners. They will be generous with treats and toys. Any aggression-related training videos will be extremely boring to watch. It will appear that they almost never work with truly aggressive dogs because they go to great lengths to keep the dog “under threshold.” This means that they are only exposing the dog to what they can handle in that moment and gradually building the dog’s tolerance and skills. Good training is not sensational, and it makes terrible television because it is slow, boring, and basically like watching paint dry unless you are a fellow behavior geek. A qualified trainer’s website lists their training certifications and credentials. Since this is a completely unregulated industry, anyone can call themselves a trainer. While experience is generally a good thing, if continuing education isn’t prioritized, even a person who has trained dogs for many years may not be using modern, humane, or even particularly effective methods. Good trainers have both extensive education in animal behavior and experience in their field.
The environment is set up to reduce stress as much as possible. The location of the board and train has minimal stressors around the property. It is a low-volume facility that is generally quiet. For kennel-type environments, dogs do not have visual access to each other outside of controlled training scenarios. Sound-canceling and/or absorbing devices are being used.
The environment smells fresh and clean. Stressed out dogs frequently eliminate in their kennels/suites/rooms, and even if they are cleaned regularly, the constant recurrence will cause the smell to linger. Obviously, dogs that do not have sufficient opportunity to potty outside will also have accidents in their space. Occasionally, an insufficiently potty-trained dog will regularly eliminate in their suite, but most dogs will try very hard not to. Additionally, poorly cleaned and sanitized dog areas will smell badly. Attention to good sanitation is usually indicative of both physically and psychologically healthier dogs.
Red Flags in Board and Train Programs
High-volume facilities. I initially worked at a facility that had 80 kennels, many of which boarded more than one dog at a time. Kennels faced each other, and the tops of the kennels were bars that dogs could see through, so they were regularly reacting to each other on three out of four sides. While I learned a huge amount working at this facility, and I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not had the opportunity to be there, one of the things I learned was just how stressful this environment was on dogs. Every single day, the kennel staff had to power wash kennels that were covered in feces and urine, not just on the floor but on the walls as well from the dogs panicking and fence-fighting all night long. This was a matter of routine, considered perfectly normal, and dogs that did this nightly were reported as doing “fine” to their owners who had no idea that their dogs were really struggling. My board and train dogs frequently developed infections (conjunctivitis, upper respiratory infections, kennel cough, etc.) requiring vet care due to the lower immune system resulting from stress and, likely, due to the concentration of germs from so many dogs in one building despite good sanitation practices. Additionally, the volume from so many dogs barking was not only stressful, but it literally caused me some hearing loss. Imagine what that does for our dogs with even more sensitive hearing.
Key words and phrases. There are some words that are frequently used by trainers that are indicative of a lack of understanding of behavior and/or are popular among those who use compulsive training. Some of these words are: Dominance, alpha, submissive, respect, K9, leader/leadership, correction, boot camp, balanced, stim, training collar, red zone, hierarchy, pack, master (either referring to the owner or “master trainer”), commands, referring to treats as bribery, “all dogs learn differently” (While dogs are individuals and thus find different things reinforcing or punishing, the principles of learning are the same for all breeds and animal species.), behaviorist (if in the US without credentials including at least an MS degree and board certification–an actual animal behaviorist is a cherished find!), behavioralist (not even a word), stubborn, focus on specific breeds (all German Shepherds and Malinois, all Cane Corsos, etc.), focus on strict obedience, and no actual certifications listed (Membership in various clubs or organizations are not training certifications and are no indication of skill.). Not all of these words are necessarily bad or inapplicable to dog behavior, but when used in promotional material, they are usually used incorrectly or in a way that indicates a trainer will be using fear, intimidation, or force; which, if it works, suppresses behavior but does not address the underlying reason for it, and it often increases the dog’s distress and leads to behavioral fallout, which may be more challenging to deal with than the original behavior.
Guarantees. There are far too many unpredictable factors to guarantee the success of any board and train program. While I have made progress with every single dog that has come through my doors (and wasn’t immediately sent home for separation anxiety), the level of progress has varied, and the results at home have varied even more. Some things that affect the success of the board and train are: Genetics (It’s harder to teach a guardian that was bred to guard not to guard than it is a dog bred to sit on laps and cuddle.), learning history (A dog that has been mauled by another dog may be harder to teach to feel safe around other dogs than one who has only ever had good experiences playing with dogs.), need for behavior modification medications or optimization of current prescriptions (Dogs that struggle with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or similar psychological issues will learn much more quickly if they are on the best pharmaceutical cocktail for their individual needs. An unmedicated or under-medicated dog with these issues has a very difficult time learning to feel safe.), environmental opportunities (If it’s 110 degrees outside, we will not be working at the park. Similarly, if we are snowed in, creating opportunities for the right amount of exposure is challenging.), owner compliance (If the owner doesn’t follow management and training guidelines, even if it is because life events have gotten in the way of otherwise good intentions, the board and train will be pointless.), and owner skill (This is both on the trainer to teach the owner and also on the owner to be open to learning and to practice and develop their skills. The ability of the owner to learn the new skills and the rate of learning are also dependent upon a host of factors that cannot be predicted.). And this isn’t even an exhaustive list. So any time someone guarantees success of a board and train program for behavior modification, run far and fast. This person does not sufficiently understand behavior and most likely will be relying upon suppression to modify it.
Corrective equipment. If the website or social media pages show dogs wearing choke chains, prong collars, or electronic collars, this trainer uses force and suppression to change behavior. Look reeeeeeally closely at those collars, as some trainers have taken to using prongs hidden underneath pretty, wide-banded, fabric martingale collars. While pretty and more palatable, these collars are every bit as pokey, pinchy, and chokey as they are when uncovered. Occasionally, an electronic collar will not have shock capabilities and will be used only for GPS purposes, so if a website otherwise looks fantastic, it may be worth asking about an apparent electronic collar, but most reinforcement-based trainers would avoid having a photo of one of these on their page without a disclaimer as we know exactly what it looks like and would rather not have anyone mistake them for a shock collar.
Now, that is a lot to consider before signing your dog up for board and train! I’ve seen board and train programs be completely transformational for both dog and owners, hugely improving everyone’s quality of life. I’ve also sent dogs home because board and train was not a good fit for them. And I’ve seen dogs’ lives completely ruined by the trauma of bad board and train experiences. So if you are struggling with your dog’s training, board and train may very well be the answer you are looking for, but dive in deep, and choose carefully. Don’t just select the program with earliest availability (I’ve been booked up to a year in advance.). If, after reading this, you think board and train may be right for you and your dog, reach out to me or to another reinforcement-based trainer you trust, and let’s talk about it together. A good trainer wants to sell you something that will help you and your dog and will do everything they can to steer you away from that which will cause harm, including guiding you away from their own programs if they are ill-suited to your needs. Any quality board and train program puts your dog’s welfare above everything else. These programs exist, and they can be so transformative that they are worth their often steep price tags, so let’s make sure you find a program that is a good fit for your needs.