Does your pooch really need daycare?

Marie is a thirty-something professional who has just acquired Phineas, a 1-and-a-half-year-old  Lab/Shepherd amalgam from the local pound. She grew up with a couple of mutts in a 3-bedroom house with a fenced yard in the suburbs, so Phin isn’t her first experience with dogdom.

But he’s the first dog she’s had as an adult on her own, and this poses several challenges for Marie (beyond the basics of housetraining and obedience instruction). Marie and Phin live in an apartment house intown, a house devoid of a yard at all. Though a few of the other renters have dogs, Marie doesn’t know them too well.

Phin is a bundle of energy, and the obedience classes the two are taking are helping him socialize some and calm down, but he requires more exercise and stimulation than she has time or space for. The nearest dog park is accessible on weekends, but not so much after work.

Marie wonders if the recent “doggy daycare craze” is worth a look. She feels guilty that she isn’t giving Phin all he needs, but until she is able to buy a house with a yard, his once-a-day leash walks during the week are the extent of his exercise.

Doggy Daycare: What’s the Big Idea?

It’s true that most dogs enjoy the company of other dogs in structured settings. Like us, dogs are social creatures, and let’s face it: we humans just aren’t up to “mouth wrestling” or “chase-me-bite-my-legs-and-roll-me-over” games. A good daycare can provide socialization for dogs who simply don’t have other safe outlets for it. It may seem odd to pay for this (why not just use the dog park?), but there are plenty of things to take into account when wondering if you are truly giving your dog everything he needs. Playing with other well-mannered pooches can accomplish some great things, but before you sign Fido up for this, make sure you and he are ready.

Determine Fido’s “fitness level” for the daycare experience. Does he like other dogs? (It sounds silly, but some dogs are simply not happy around other dogs.) If he has been around other dogs off-leash in your presence, you probably already have a good idea whether he likes other dogs, and what types of dogs he prefers.

NOTE: On-leash behavior is rarely indicative of off-leash behavior. Many dogs appear quite aggressive when on-leash, but are completely different off-leash. A good trainer can tell you if your dog’s displays are leash-related or not.

ALSO, if Fido is a small dog, he may understandably be shy around larger, more rambunctious dogs. However, he may actually enjoy the company of smaller or calmer dogs. A quality daycare will be able to find out.

Research A Few Facilities

Though convenience is a factor, it shouldn’t be the only deciding factor, and it shouldn’t trump quality. Cost should be taken into consideration, and it’s important to make sure you are not paying for services you don’t need (every dog does NOT need a bath at the end of the day), and that your dog is receiving what you ARE paying for.

What should you be paying for? We’ll discuss that a few paragraphs hence.

You should research more than one place so you will have a good comparison. This research can start on the Internet, or over the phone (see a list of questions below). Ask your friends, neighbors, and your veterinarian if they have recommendations; word-of-mouth is the world’s best advertising.

Visit the places you are interested in. Go take a look around one day on your lunch break without your pooch. Staff should be willing to show you (if they are not too busy; it may be best to call ahead) most of the facility, especially the group play areas, outside areas, and any kennel runs (yes, this is important).

Though it may have a doggy aroma, the facility should be clean and not too smelly. Staff should be knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. Remember, these are the folks who will care for your precious pooch! Whether they like it or not, theirs is as much a “people” business as it is about the dogs.

During your visit, find out what your dog will need to have in the way of vaccinations or health clearances before they can meet him. If they don’t seem to care (“oh, we don’t have any worries about that here”), go elsewhere. If they seem too strict, requiring a laundry list of shots you’ve never heard of, ask why.

Here’s the deal: contagion is a concern in any facility that houses multiple animals, especially facilities where those animals come in direct contact with one another. Dogs can pass “colds” and worse stuff to each other, so most facilities require some level of immunization, depending on the ages of the dogs that will be playing.

So facilities can require your dog to have certain vaccinations before he can stay there. If you want to play, you gotta pay. Requiring you to furnish proof of vaccinations is good policy. Some places may require shots others won’t.

Questions to Ask The Doggy Daycare Personnel

  • Do you separate playing dogs by age, size, or temperament? Or do all dogs just play together?

Appropriate answer: Yes, we separate them, by all three. It depends on the individual dogs, but play style is the main separator. (If it’s size, that’s OK. “No separation” is not a good answer.)

  • How much downtime will my dog have? Where will he be during this time?

Best answer: As much as he needs (and all dogs get something). In a crate. Good answer: One 2-hour break in the middle of the day, away from the other dogs. Not-so-good answer: Downtime? What’s that? Really bad answer: Oh, we think that’s not neccessary–the dogs play all day with no downtime. After all, owners want them really tired out.

  • Who supervises playtime? How much experience does he or she have? How many dogs is he or she supervising alone at one time?

Best answer: We have multiple experienced staff members who understand dog behavior and have had hours of training in it. Many have been working with dogs for years. No employee is supervising alone; it depends on what the group needs. Supervision is hands-on, in the areas with the dogs. Not good: We watch the play from cameras, or “NO one can supervise play ALL the time!” or, “Supervise? That’s not neccessary. Dogs work it out on their own. They don’t need supervision.”

  • Have there been any deaths or serious injuries here? Please explain.

Best answer: No deaths, no serious injuries. Appropriate answer: No deaths, a few scrapes here and there, due to individual dogs’ play styles. Inappropriate: “Oh, look, someone is calling me. Gotta go!”

  • How are squabbles handled?

Best: Depends on the squabble. A warning growl or snap is appropriate in many contexts, but allowing the dog to continue to do it beyond what is necessary is not allowed. Neither is humping, or pestering. We keep the dogs moving, and we separate them appropriately, so we have very few squabbles.

  • How many dogs would be in the play area at one time, maximum?

Best: The best answer depends on the facility and the number of employees per group. It also depends on the tenor of each pack group, and the size of the area. But we want the dogs to have plenty of room to move, so we are careful not to overload. Worst: “Why, as many as will fit, of course!

  • What type of flooring is in the play areas?

Best: non-slip, with a bit of cushion. Outside, probably thick grass.

  • What about dogs who aren’t suitable for free play with other dogs? What is their day like?

Best: our experienced trainers work with them individually several times a day, and they are crated the rest of the time, with ample potty and stretch breaks.

Ask your friends

Word-of-mouth advertising is what all businesses want to cultivate. With many successful ones, it is their main source of new clients. WOM is the best way to find animal services, including doggy daycare.

Ask everyone you know with dogs what places they use, and why. You’ll probably end up with 3 or more places, but some names may repeat. Research these first.

Your veterinarian and/or your dog trainer can be a good source for this service.

Start slowly.

Think about your dog, and your schedule. The average dog doesn’t “need” daycare more than 2 days a week. Often, one day a week, or less, is sufficient. It may seem like “more is better,” but for most dogs, this isn’t true. (If the dog is going to daycare frequently because your schedule demands it, ask that he be crated a bit more so that he is not playing too much.)

Pooch Professor tip: The more your dog plays with other dogs without your presence, the less responsive he may be to you as his leader.

Playing with other dogs is often very rewarding to dogs. There is absolutely a possibility of “too much of a good thing.” Taking your dog-crazy pooch to daycare every day is like giving your 16-year-old your credit card at the gates to Disney World, and saying, “see you in a few days!” Your kid has everything he needs for several days of fun–why does he need you?

Many people put their pooches in daycare because of guilt. They are not able, due to their schedules, to spend as much time with the dog as they think he needs. This is a valid concern, but are you really meeting your dog’s true needs by parking him in daycare every day?

If you think all your pooch needs is physical exercise, and socialization with a pack of other dogs, then yes. Most dogs get plenty worn out in daycare, and let’s face it–our dogs generally need more exercise than we want to help them with. So, they come home exhausted, you get to spend your evenings doing things besides exercising the dog. Everyone’s a winner, right?

Sadly, not necessarily. Your dog needs physical exercise, absolutely. For most dogs, walks on leash are not enough. He also, generally, needs socialization. But what about his other needs? How does daycare provide him with structure, discipline, consistency in training, leadership, and mental stimulation? How does he relate to you when his days contain so little of you? Didn’t you want a companion? A soulmate? A buddy? Then what is the purpose of a dog who spends the whole evening crashed out like a kid who was let loose in an amusement park from sunup to sundown?

The average dog owner works a 40-50 hour week. Dogs can still get what they need if you work, even if they are alone that whole time. The trick is involving your dog in your life when you are not at work. Obedience training, dog sports, hiking, or even just silly indoor games where your dog uses his brain all make a difference—and since you are doing these things WITH your dog, your bond with him is increasing!

In fact, dogs that spend 40-50 hours a week home alone in a safe confined area generally suffer less from separation issues than dogs who live with owners that are home all the time. Taking your pooch to daycare “so he won’t be alone” isn’t helping him learn a valuable lesson: how to be alone sometimes.

Human absences from the home are a fact of life. Helping your dog become a bit more independent so that he can easily weather these absences is better than creating a dog who can never be left alone. Plus, if you never leave, how can he enjoy your return? A dog’s ecstatic greeting upon your return home is one of life’s greatest joys.

Make sure the daycare you choose offers the following:

  • Supervised play

Dogs can generally police their own play pretty well, as long as they are grouped properly and well-behaved. But that does NOT negate the need for competent supervision in a situation like daycare, where play styles and training levels are not congruent. Play must be supervised in person by someone with knowledge of dog behavior at all times! It’s not good enough that someone is observing dogs from a bank of cameras. They won’t be able to intervene if there is a problem.

And does that 18-year-old new employee (who until last week worked at Starbucks) really know anything about dogs? Sadly, this is more common than you think.

The popularity of daycare has given rise to many entrepreneurs thinking that it’s an easy way to make a buck. They don’t know much (if anything) about dog behavior, and haven’t thought through the safety concerns of multiple dogs at play with minimal supervision. They avoid problems with sheer luck. How long will their luck hold out? They may “love dogs,” but taking proper care of people’s pets requires more than love! It requires common sense, business smarts, thorough knowledge of dog behavior, training basics, managerial skills, and more. And unless the dogs who come to the facility bring credit cards strapped to their collars, running a dog boarding/daycare facility requires a love of people, too.

NOTHING irks me more as a canine professional/educator/customer service provider than business owners waxing on about how much they “loooove dogs” and then treating the dogs’ owners with contempt.

Ask your daycare if there have ever been any serious injuries or deaths to dogs in their care. Have them explain.

  • Play sessions interrupted by several “time-out” breaks

Time-out is as important during playtime as the playtime itself. It gives dogs a chance to cool down physically as well as mentally, a definite need. Facilities that brag of being “cage-free” may appeal to the dog owner, who thinks cages are “cruel” (and loves how nice and tired Fido is after a day at daycare—what a time-saver!) but time to decompress, rest, and be away from frenetic play is an essential part of being a dog! The dogs can play supervised for a while, then be crated for a while, and then play some more. Is it more work for the employees? You bet. That’s why many places don’t do it, sadly. They allow in too many dogs per day to make it feasible.

  • Crating (or “suite” confinement) at night

Crates keep everyone cozy and safe at night. It’s fine if the facility uses kennel runs, or has small “suites” for this and for time-out.

  • A feeding schedule close to yours at home (for overnight boarders)

This helps dogs be less stressed, and stay on their food. Nothing freaks out thoughtful daycare owners more than dogs who quit eating while in facility. If your dog is strictly a day boarder, this isn’t an issue.

  • Friendly, knowledgeable staff that actually likes dogs

This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are people who are just in this business for the money. Do they greet your pup enthusiastically when you arrive? Do they regale you with his exploits when you pick him up? Do they seem to really like him, and the other dogs there? Do they listen to and follow your wishes regarding feeding, playtime, training, and scheduling? Or do you overhear them complaining about certain dogs (or their owners) when they think you aren’t listening?

Many dogs have specific likes and dislikes or certain needs, and it’s not just wishful thinking to wonder if the dog’s needs are being met. You shouldn’t have to wonder. While the staff has lots of charges in their care, the fact that your dog doesn’t want to play with “rough and tumble” dogs, but prefers quieter ones, or gets cranky after too much play, should be heeded. More than once I’ve had clients tell me that they specifically informed the staff about their dog’s play issues, and the staff ignored them, and the dog got into a scuffle, for which he was banned from daycare.

Scuffles and accidents happen. Most dog-savvy people know this, and know what is just going to blow over, and what won’t. They are in charge of keeping all the dogs safe, so they should be concerned when things actually get out of hand. Understanding dog body language and behavior is key to being a good daycare operator. Kicking dogs out because of minor scuffles that the humans misinterpreted is not good business. Nor is allowing “bullies” or fighters to remain, where their behavior is detrimental to the safety of the friendly dogs.

Good daycares have personnel that engage with the dogs, and intervene when necessary. It’s not the most exciting job, which is why some daycares use young people with little or no dog experience. There is a lot to be said for gaining experience on the job, but it shouldn’t be at paying customers’ expense! It takes more than watching a quick video about dogs to know how to keep them safe.

  • Safe play areas that are sanitized regularly

This sounds obvious, but here’s the problem: most easy-to-clean surfaces are simply not safe for dog play, indoors or out. The ones that are both are expensive. Concrete is the cheapest flooring option for large indoor surfaces, and it cleans up nicely, but it can be hell on dogs’ orthopedics. Sealed concrete is ridiculously slippery, sometimes even when dry. Slips and falls happen quite a bit as dogs roughhouse, and dogs are pretty good at hiding injuries. If a dog gets hurt during play, several things can happen. Either he’ll be left in the play area and become very sensitive to contact, which can quickly become aggression towards anything coming at him, or he’ll attempt to remove himself from the fracas and hang in the corner. If the staff doesn’t notice, other dogs will continue to try to engage with him, and he may escalate his attempts to get them to leave him alone.

Not to mention that injuries are painful, emotionally upsetting to owners, and expensive. So are communicable diseases.

Both are preventable, though.

A quality daycare will use better flooring to ensure the dogs’ safety. Rubber matting isn’t cheap, but what price can you put on safety? It needs to be sealed, durable, and checked often for wear and tear. Daily sanitization (unless no new dogs will enter that day) is excellent.

Outside, there aren’t a ton of options. Grass dies quickly underneath playing dogs’ feet. Dirt is horribly messy, and becomes an uneven, and dangerous, surface after a while. Pea gravel drains well, but isn’t exactly comfortable. Mulch is an OK option, if it is in smaller pieces and replenished often (though some dogs like to gnaw on it). There are a few types of rubber matting for outdoors, but I haven’t visited a daycare yet that uses it—it’s very costly. What works best depends on the climate, number of dogs on it daily, and sanitation protocols.

  • The play areas are spacious, and not over packed with dogs

Just because you can cram 100 dogs in a play area doesn’t mean you should! Some facilities don’t turn daycare clients away, and keep packing them in, adding to the incidence of fights and injury. Space is a dog’s main language, and dogs think spatially all the time. They need room to maneuver properly to avoid confrontations and keep the play smooth. Jamming too many dogs in a small play area is asking for trouble, especially if there is only one supervisory employee. Too many dogs in a space creates static, and static creates tension, and tension leads to fights. One of the great things about dogs is that, because they are social creatures, well-adjusted ones do everything in their power to avoid confrontation. By controlling and patrolling the space they play in, experienced humans can keep the play fun and non-threatening.

My Basic and Intermediate training classes all have an off-leash socialization component built in. It makes class go more smoothly, it helps owners learn about their dogs, and it helps dogs learn about being dogs–under competent supervision. Safety is my number one concern, always. I can safely control and patrol a medium-sized yard with up to 12 dogs at a time, and I have done so without incident for over 13 years. I require owners to move about, I keep the dogs moving, I match play styles, and I do not multitask. (It goes without saying that I do not allow aggressive dogs in these groups.) Many of my professional training colleagues do this as well, and they report great success with it. I know for a fact that being prepared for problems and having lots of dog knowledge are crucial to making it work.

Employees should have a workable number of dogs to watch, in a decent amount of space, and they should keep the dogs moving! If a particular dog is not engaging and keeps leaving the play, he should go into “solitary” for a while, as he is clearly saying it’s where he’d rather be.

Too much of a good thing?

I once had a client tell me how much his retriever mix “loved” daycare. He took her 3-5 days a week because it tired her out, and that helped him immensely. He had called me because she started to have some behavior issues, so I met him at the facility (a highly-regarded one) to observe and see what I thought was happening. I watched as he handed her over to the employees (no problems), and then as she was put in the play area with the other dogs, many of whom were also daily visitors.

What I saw, and pointed out to him, shocked him. His dog did not “love” daycare; in fact, she was afraid of most of the dogs in the play area, and tried to “lay low” and avoid them. There were a few she interacted with, but for the most part she spent her time on the fringes, eyeing the other dogs nervously. When they were ushered outside to the outdoor area for a bit, she stayed on the outskirts and snapped at a few dogs who approached her.

When I asked the employees if this was typical for her, they said yes. Her snapping hadn’t ever become anything more (surprisingly, no dog had yet taken umbrage to it), so they left her in, thinking she’d “loosen up.” But they admitted that she never seemed to. The dog was clearly uncomfortable, but no attempt was made to help her relax—not even downtime. The facility utilized “all day play” with no breaks at all for any dog!

My client was baffled. “But if she doesn’t play, how come she’s so tired at night?” I told him it was probably because she stressed herself out so much during the day—being “on guard” for that long is very tiring! At any rate, HE might be enjoying her going there, but SHE was not having fun.

He wasn’t able to change his work schedule, but that wasn’t even important. We came up with ways he could keep her occupied at home during the day most days, and still have time to relax in the evenings. A combination of training exercises, more physical, aerobic exercise for her in the mornings and in the evenings (just an increase of 15 minutes a day), made easier by the fact that she loved to play fetch, occasional “playdates” at a neighbor’s house and fenced yard (with a dog she liked and played well with) and “indoor sports” that challenged her mentally helped bring her behavior not only back to normal, but to Better. Why? Because now Scott was the one engaging her, and she learned to regard him as a leader. He was back in control of her life, which, like most dogs, she found reassuring and comfortable. Since she wasn’t sacked out all evening, they interacted more, and he was able to provide consistency.

Yes, she had more energy—and Scott admitted he didn’t always appreciate having to help her burn it off, especially in the rain or when he’d had a hard day. (Many pet owners vastly underestimate how much exercise and mental stimulation a healthy adolescent or young adult dogs needs daily, and can get put out if told they are not providing enough.) But he also admitted that he was enjoying his dog more, and felt truly needed by her. He felt as if they were real companions now, and that made up for her extra energy. He took her to the daycare on days he knew he’d be working late (about once a week), with strict instructions to try her with a few dogs and then remove her and crate her if she was not engaging. Even if she ended up crated most of the day (something she didn’t mind because he used one at home) at the facility because she was uncomfortable playing with the dogs that were in-house that day, she got some breaks and some attention.

After a few weeks, Scott reported that Lucy was actually enjoying daycare more now. “They say she actually engages more with the other dogs, and though I still have them crate her for a few hours in the middle of the day (yes!), when I watch her on the webcam, she actually appears to be having fun when she’s playing, instead of the way she used to act.”

More, you see, is not necessarily better.

Doggy daycare can be a real lifesaver for dog owners, and I’m not suggesting it is always, or even mostly, a bad choice. It may, or may not, be really helping your dog be his best. The more YOU can meet your dog’s needs for exercise, mental stimulation, socialization, training, structure, and leadership, the better your relationship will be.

The bottom line is that safety and experienced supervision are not optional. Do your homework, and ask questions.

Your dog is worth it.