Pet Boarding and Daycare Expo

Reducing Stress by Design

By Al Locker

We all know the effects that stress can have on us. Minor or even good stress, such as preparing for a Hawaiian vacation, can be debilitating even though our rational self knows a vacation will be lots of fun! However, this isn’t true for our four-legged friends. Pets don’t have the mechanism to understand that being away from home could be a lot of fun; therefore, their response to the slightest change can be disturbing.

To better understand the effects of stress on the pets in our care, we need to understand the biology behind it. All of the body’s processes strive to maintain equilibrium. We are in a constant flux, wavering around a homeostatic point (our optimal condition for living). Environmental factors, internal or external stimuli, continually disrupt homeostasis in humans as well as in pets. Situations such as a new physical environment, interaction with unfamiliar animals and humans, or a change in diet can greatly disrupt a pet’s homeostasis. Their attempt at restoring conditions back to or near homeostasis consumes energy and natural resources and is stressful.

When pets are stressed, they can develop both physical and emotional issues: loss of appetite, diarrhea, hot spots, chewing, aggression, depression, etc. So how do we reduce stress? As Laura Pakis and Josh Spiert expertly wrote in their article [“Dog-centricity Provides a Pleasant and Relaxed Experience,” November/December 2012], we can do many things to make a pet’s stay much calmer and happier by adapting our operations and respecting the patterns and habits of boarding dogs. Their suggestions and insights were right on, and I agree that “thoughtful kennel design allows dogs to feel more at home.” However, I would add that the actual physical design can offer more than just comfort; it can drastically reduce stress.

Many of the clients who come to me for assistance with their pet facility plans already have an idea of how they want their kennel building to be designed. Usually their preliminary ideas are based on an existing facility that they have toured. However, they may be copying an inefficient, noisy design that will provide years of stress for them and their boarding guests – even though it looks good!

Several stress triggers should be addressed when considering design. The first would be reducing the amount of noise in the kennel. The best way to do that is by eliminating it at the source. For example, to keep barking at a minimum, you should limit the number of pets in any one open area. If a facility is divided into four individual rooms of 25 pet enclosures rather than one room of 100 enclosures, barking will be limited to 25 voices rather than 100 voices. At my wife’s pet resort, we have noticed that the pets stay calmer and quieter in the individual suites, which are located in a separate area of the kennel building. Once the noise is reduced at the source, it makes the building noise reduction measures easier and more effective.

The type of enclosure chosen is also a factor in reducing stress. Using a four-foot high isolation panel between adjacent runs limits the sight and exposure to the other pet guests, making for a more secure, den-like environment. Having indoor-outdoor runs will provide the dog with added space for exercise and a self-regulated elimination area. It will also give shy dogs a place to get away from annoyances. Of course, using noise-abating and absorption materials in walls and ceilings between the compartmentalized housing areas follows.

Well-designed traffic flow through the facility is next to be considered. Reducing the parade of traffic in front of the pets reduces the amount of visual and noise stimuli. Staff-time efficient operational routes through the kennel are key to eliminating the constant disturbance of the guests and critical to helping lower pet barking. Most people would be shocked if they counted the number of times a boarding pet is disturbed by foot traffic as new boarders come in, leaving borders depart, enclosures are cleaned, and pets are fed, watered, and taken for exercise. It is also good measure to isolate activity areas and traffic patterns from housing areas with proper placement.

Changes in how our house-trained pet guests eliminate while they are staying with us can also be stressful. At home, most dogs are let out multiple times a day for relief breaks, usually on grass, gravel, mulch, or some outdoor surface. Asking boarding dogs to eliminate in their enclosure or on a surface that they have been taught by their owners not to use for elimination may create a stressful situation for them. Therefore, providing relief areas that are of a similar surface to what they are used to will obviously help reduce their stress.

Making them wait long periods of time before they can eliminate would be similar to us having to wait in very long lines when we go to the movies, ballpark, etc. It can be very uncomfortable. You can imagine how stressful it might be when the kennel opens up in the morning if the dogs have to wait hours for their turn to go outside. The waiting time can be minimized by having plenty of areas for getting the pets out in a timely manner as well as having some indoor/outdoor enclosures. Most importantly, these design options give dogs some control over their new environment, which will reduce their stress.

Lastly, proper lighting and ventilation round out the list. Pets, like humans, thrive on natural light. Doors with windows not only allow borrowed light from other areas but also allow a safe entrance into the adjacent space. Being able to see what’s happening on the other side of the door before going through it with a Rottweiler might be a good thing. Adequate ventilation keeps the kennel drier, allowing for reduced bacterial growth (i.e. smell) as well as providing the needed fresh air for the pets and staff.

This all sounds great if we are designing a new place, but what if we have an existing building? The same rules apply. In addition to operational factors and adding exercise sessions that wear off some of that anxiety, consider the following minor renovations that will change the traffic in the kennel and add more separation:

  • Isolation between enclosures with new HDPE materials
  • Non load-bearing walls to separate large areas into smaller ones
  • Acoustical ceilings to absorb sound
  • Additional relief areas (whether indoors or outdoors)
  • Artificial turf mats for indoor relief areas
  • Dog doors and outside yards to create indoor-outdoor enclosures
  • Converting existing runs to private rooms or suites
  • Additional doors that will provide better traffic circulation
  • Isolation areas for the repetitive barker
  • Separate entrance for the daycare or grooming guests to reduce traffic

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, so a review of your facility with experienced, fresh eyes never hurts! Of course, as pet care professionals, our goal is to provide a stress-free stay for the pets we love so much, which has the added benefit of making our job easier and the owners happy as well. Whether building a new facility or remodeling an existing one, keep your focus on reducing stress by design!

Al Locker is president of Turnkey, Inc., a 52-year-old design build construction company. He and his wife, Suzanne, have also owned ABC Pet Resort in Houston, Texas, for over 20 years. Turnkey, Inc. specializes in design, design consulting, and both commercial and residential construction. Al has designed over 40 pet care facilities around the U.S. and built 12 in the Houston area as well as exhibits at the Houston Zoo. Designs range from “ground up” construction and conversion of existing buildings to lease space build-out tenant improvements. Al is a popular seminar speaker for groups such as American Boarding Kennels Association, Pet Services Expo and AusBoard (Australia’s association for pet professionals).

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