By Inga From, CDBC, CPDT-KSA
Dog daycares sound like the perfect way to squeeze in some extra exercise for our dogs despite our busy lives. While there are some wonderful daycares with dogs that are the perfect temperament for them, there are just as many sad stories about good intentions gone wrong. As with all aspects of dog ownership, it is important to be educated and think carefully before dropping off Fido or Fluffy.
Know your dog
Before considering a daycare, ask yourself if dog-to-dog play is actually something your dog will enjoy. Just like people, dogs can be extroverts, introverts, and everything in between. If your dog, at best, seems to tolerate other dogs, you may want to consider other options. If your dog has a history of bullying, reactivity, or aggression, it is certainly not fair to him/her or the other dogs. Very shy or timid dogs can be easily overwhelmed. You will also want to be sure your dog is physically up for all that play, so getting your vet’s approval is strongly recommended.
If you decide to enroll in a daycare, regular check-ups and check-ins are also vital. Don’t take anyone’s word for fact; see it with your own eyes. What would you expect the daycare to tell you if you ask “does my dog like coming here?” A responsible business person will answer honestly, but their goal is to keep you coming back. Pop-in unexpectedly, they should be glad to see you. Keep a close eye out for changes in your dog’s behavior (and not just that they get worn out). Dogs can and do learn from one another, and it always feels like they pick up the bad habits faster than the good ones. Resource guarding, nuisance barking, and bullying are just a few behaviors your dog may be quick to learn during unregulated play.
Good kennels make for good play
Hours of uninterrupted play may seem like a good idea, but can be a recipe for disaster. While some dogs seem to be naturals about regulating their play—taking breaks and pausing frequently—many dogs don’t know when to quit. The bigger the group the more quickly dogs may become overstimulated. Look for a daycare that has the ability to kennel or crate every dog, either for regular ‘nap times’ or as needed or requested by the owners. Ideally your dog will have short play sessions throughout the day, broken up with kennel or crate downtime. If your dog gets a meal or snack break, they absolutely should be kenneled for a minimum of an hour to prevent bloat and other medical issues that may be triggered by playing too soon after eating. Just as good fences make good neighbors, good kennels are important for positive and appropriate play. Too much of a good thing can lead to serious problem behaviors.
Beware of the bully
Unfortunately there are lots of dogs who don’t seem to understand when another dog says “enough.” A dog may pester or harass your dog when he or she is ready for a break. If play is unsupervised or monitored by someone with little or no training, they may not spot a bully in action or misinterpret the behavior. This means your dog gets the raw end of the deal; no person to rescue them from the bully and no way to escape. Dogs either get grumpy or shut down (a shut down dog may appear sleepy to the untrained eye, so if you see your dog apparently sleeping in the middle of a playroom, be suspicious).
Sadly, I can think of countless cases where an awesome and very social dog has been bullied just a little too much and learned to be proactively aggressive. If a bully doesn’t listen to your polite requests to back off, how about you ask more assertively? Sticking up for yourself sounds fine and dandy but once your dog has learned this trick it might crop up in unwanted places, like the middle of a walk or when greeting your neighbors’ dogs. Now your nice little Fluffy looks like a killer—snapping, growling, or worse at other dogs for apparently no reason. While you can manage and moderate these behaviors with training, many dogs don’t ever bounce back to being the happy-go-lucky pup you started with.
And if your dog is lucky enough not to have to deal with a bully it might just be because he or she IS the bully. Perhaps your goofy and fun-loving pup is the one that really loves to play. If he or she learns over time that being pushy works, that eventually you can prod those lazy dogs into action, then the behavior gets stronger. Now your dog may be the only one in the room having a good time. And how will you feel if he or she tries those same bullying behaviors with the little kids who live next door?
Choosing a daycare
If you’re sure a daycare is the right choice for your dog, you’ll now find yourself faced with choosing from the numerous facilities available. It can be hard to know how to pick and whose expertise to trust. First, trust your gut instincts, don’t ever do anything that doesn’t feel right when it comes to your pet. We recommend you tour any facility you are considering both with and without your dog. Ask lots of questions. A good facility will want to meet your dog before they are willing to consider enrollment, and they should have many questions for you as well. You should be allowed, even encouraged, to see where the dogs play, and any staff member interacting with the dogs should be able to easily answer your questions. Don’t trust anyone who tells you observing the play will “affect the pack” – would you leave your children in a daycare where they would not let you observe? Here are some ideas for questions you might want to ask:
- Is the space “dog safe”?
- Are the floors padded, non-slip, and easy to disinfect?
- Is there a person with the dogs at all times?
- How is staff trained?
- How is play regulated?
- How do they handle conflicts? (If they tell you there are never conflicts cross them off your list.)
- Do they use squirt bottles or other aversive tools which may have unwanted side effects?
- Do they separate dogs based on play-style/size/age?
- How many dogs are allowed in one space at a time?
- When and how do they give the dogs breaks from each other?
- Can they meet special requests like more frequent kennel breaks for your dog?
- Do they keep any records about your dog’s play/behavior for you?
- How do they identify dogs that are getting overwhelmed/overstimulated?
- How to they handle bullies? (If they say they don’t allow them, beware. Bullying crops up at least once in every play session we have ever hosted, even with the nicest dogs.)
Inga From, CDBC, CPDT-KSA is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants), a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers), and a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Find out more at www.AHippiedog.com.