Features November 2010 Issue

Doggie Daycare Can Be a Wonderful Experience: But is it For Every Dog?

Daycare can improve some dogs' behavior, and aggravate others. How do you decide whether it's right for your dog?

The term “doggie daycare” has become a panacea in recent years for all manner of canine behavioral ills. Does your dog engage in destructive chewing? Nuisance barking? Rude greetings? Poor canine social skills? Mouthing and biting? Separation anxiety? Just send him to doggie daycare, and all will be well. You hope.

I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the next trainer of suggesting a daycare solution for a huge percentage of my behavior consult clients. The fact is, many of today’s canine companions suffer from a significant lack of exercise, stimulation, and social time with their own kind. A good daycare provider can go a long way toward meeting those needs. But daycare is not the one-size-fits-all answer that we would like it to be; there are many factors to take into consideration before enrolling your dog in your friendly neighborhood doggie hangout.

Which Dogs Shouldn’t Go to Daycare

Not all dogs are appropriate daycare candidates. Just because they are a social species doesn’t mean all dogs get along with each other. Humans are a social species and we certainly don’t all get along! It’s important that you honestly evaluate your dog’s personality and behavior to determine if he has the potential to do well at daycare. If he plays well with others, is comfortable and confident in public, and doesn’t mind being separated from you, then daycare may be a fine choice. If any of those are questionable, proceed with care.

If your dog doesn’t enjoy interacting with other dogs, he’ll likely find daycare a very unpleasant experience, and his dislike of dogs will probably get worse.

When the planets are aligned just so – with a well-managed, highly trained staff and a perfect set of playmates – some dogs who are mildly fearful of other dogs may develop greater social skills and ease around their own kind. But many a dog-fearful dog has become reactive-aggressive as a result of being forced into proximity with other canines. Total immersion in dogdom is not an appropriate behavior modification or management plan for a dog who is intimidated by his own kind. Many dogs simply become less dog-playful as they mature, and a day at doggie daycare is not the fun party for them we imagine it is. Of course, geriatric dogs and those with medical conditions should not be asked to endure the rough-and-tumble play of dogs at a daycare center.

Doggie Daycare

Play groups should be comprised of dogs who are compatible in size, age, and play style, and all the dogs should appear to enjoy themselves.

Undersocialized dogs who are environmentally fearful and/or afraid of humans also do not belong at puppy playschool. While a dog who was rescued from a puppy mill or a hoarder may feel more comfortable in the presence of a pack of dogs because that’s what he knows, he can be difficult, perhaps even dangerous, for staff to handle. If something should happen – he escapes, or is injured and in need of treatment – the situation goes from bad to worse. The escapee will be impossible to catch, and is likely to head out in a beeline for parts unknown. A fearful dog who must be cornered and restrained by strangers for treatment in an already high-stress environment is very likely to bite, perhaps with alarming ferocity as he struggles to protect himself from what he may perceive as his impending death.
A canine bully or any dog who is otherwise offensively aggressive toward other dogs is also not an appropriate daycare attendee. Don’t think sending him to daycare will teach him how to play well with others. It’s more likely to do the exact opposite! He’ll find it quite reinforcing to have the opportunity to practice his inappropriate bullying or aggressive behavior – and behaviors that are reinforced invariably increase and strengthen.

Doggie Daycare

Dogs who get picked on - or who seem to be in fear of being picked on - need to be moved to a group with fewer, smaller, and/or gentler play companions.

Finally, dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are often horrible candidates for daycare. (For more about separation anxiety, see “Scared to Be Home Alone,” WDJ July 2008.) Owners of dogs with separation anxiety often hope their dogs will relax in the company of other dogs and humans, and trainers often suggest daycare as a solution for the dog who is vocal or destructive when left alone. But if your dog is at the extreme end of the separation-distress/anxiety continuum, sending him to daycare doesn’t make him any happier, and only makes those who have to spend the day with him (canine and human) stressed as well. True separation anxiety – in which the dog has a panic attack if separated from the one human he has super-bonded to – is not eased by the presence of other dogs or humans. Less severe manifestations of isolation/separation distress may be alleviated by a daycare provider. Be honest with your prospective provider about your dog’s separation-related behavior, and see if she’s willing to give it a try. Be ready to celebrate if it works, and look for another solution if it doesn’t.

Perfect Doggy Daycare Candidates

In contrast, if your dog loves to play with others, doesn’t have significant medical problems that would preclude active play, and has energy to spare, he’s the ideal candidate for doggie daycare. This professional service, offered by a high-quality provider, is the perfect answer to many a dog owner’s prayers.

Perhaps you have a friendly, active young dog, and you just don’t have the time you would like to devote to his exercise and social exposure. You come home exhausted from a grueling day at work and he greets you with a huge grin on his face, his wagging tail clearly begging for a hike in the woods or an extended session of ball-retrieve. If you don’t exercise him you risk the emergence of inappropriate behaviors such as chewing, but you are just too tired, and you have to work on a project, due tomorrow. Daycare, even one or two times a week, can be the perfect outlet for his boundless energy, give him the social and dog-play time he covets, and relieve you of the oppressive guilt of not being able to take him for that hike.

Doggie Daycare

All prospective daycare attendees should be screened for their ability to get along with other dogs in every type of circumstance.

You may not know whether your dog is an appropriate daycare candidate until you show up for your interview and the staff assesses your dog. Note: if the facility you’re considering accepts your dog without an assessment, look for another provider. Even if your dog passes the assessment, daycare staff may advise you after a visit or two that your dog is stressed and not enjoying his play experience there. If that’s the case, you remove him from daycare, and/or inquire about possible behavior modification programs to help him have more fun at dog play.

Be Choosy When Picking a Daycare Center

One of the pitfalls of suggesting daycare to clients is the dearth of high-quality providers in most areas. If you are considering sending your canine pal off to a professional dog-sitting facility for the day, you want to be confident that he’ll be as safe and happy in their hands as he is in yours. You should see each prospective provider’s facility (preferably when dogs are present), and talk to its manager and staff.

You may need to make an appointment in order to get the best tour of a daycare facility. There are times (especially in the morning during peak drop-off hours and in the afternoon during peak pick-up hours) when it will be extremely difficult to spare a staff member to show you around. Call ahead and ask when it would be best to see the facility.

 As you visit facilities and interview managers and staff, observe the dogs that are present in the daycare centers. They should appear happy, not stressed. Staff should also appear happy, not stressed, and be interacting with the dogs. The environment should be calm and controlled, not chaotic, and your take-away impression should be one of professional competence as well as genuine caring for dogs. Trust your instincts. If anything doesn’t seem right, don’t leave your dog there. If staff says you cannot observe the dogs, we suggest walking away. (See “No Viewing ‘For the Dogs’ Safety?’ ” next page.)

One of the most important things to ask about is the dog to staff ratio. This can range from 10 dogs or fewer per staff person to as many as 20 or more dogs per caretaker. “Obviously, the fewer dogs per person, the more closely supervised your dog is likely to be, and the less likely any canines are to get into trouble,” says Robin Bennett, co-owner of All About Dogs Daycare in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Cost is also an important factor, but don’t select your provider by cost alone; neither the lowest-priced nor the highest-priced facility may be suitable for your dog. Depending on where you live and the specifics of the facility, cost per day can range from a few dollars to $40 or more per day. Facility specifics vary. “The daycare may be operated out of a private home or a multi-staffed, full-service facility,” says Bennett. “Multi-staffed facilities are naturally costlier, but can offer a much wider range of services to meet the needs of individual dogs.”

Doggie Daycare

Not even a rainy day can dampen the enthusiasm of most active young dogs for outdoor, social exercise! It helps when the daycare staff is also willing to go out and play in the weather - and towel the dogs off when they come back inside.

Speaking of services: In a full-service facility, trained staff members keep the dogs busy with indoor or outdoor play, or even, in some cases, happily munching snacks and watching movies made just for the entertainment of dogs. Activities might include hide and seek, tag, or anything that canine minds can come up with. Many facilities provide a variety of toys and balls to enjoy, and some even have swimming pools! Some also offer training, from good manners to agility and more. Good daycare centers also include rest time so dogs don’t get over-stimulated by having too much fun.
Other things to ask about include:

  • What is the assessment process? If they don’t assess, run away fast. If they do, be sure you’re comfortable with the things they tell you they will be doing with your dog, before you let them do it.
  • What vaccinations do they require? Make sure you’re comfortable with the requirements. Don’t compromise your dog’s physical health by over-vaccinating or administering unnecessary shots just to satisfy daycare. If they ask for vaccinations you’d prefer not to give your dog, see if they’ll accept a letter from your veterinarian stating that in her opinion your dog is adequately protected.
  • How do they determine appropriate play groups? Your Maltese should not be in a play group with a Great Dane, or vice versa. Nor should a body-slamming adult Labrador be playing with a space-sensitive Border Collie puppy. If you get the proper answer (play style, size, and age) make sure your observations of the groups playing support their answer.

“To minimize risk of injury, dogs should be separated based on play style, size, and age,” says Bennett. “Keep in mind that accidents and injuries can happen in all facilities. Dog daycare is like a child’s playground, and by allowing dogs to play together there is a risk of injury. Collars can present a hazard during dog play, but dogs without collars have no visible identification. Discuss this conundrum with your potential provider to see how they handle it, and be sure you are comfortable that escape risks are minimal at the facility. You should see multiple doors within the facility to the playrooms and secure high fences around outdoor play yards.”

  • Do they feed the dogs treats? If so, are the treats a type and quality that is compatible with your dog’s diet – especially if he has allergies or you are committed to high quality foods? Can you provide your own treats to give him, and if you do, can they ensure he gets your treat and not the others? If you ask them to refrain from feeding treats, or limit the amount, will they?
  • What kind of dog handling and behavior training does the staff receive? What training books and authors do they recommend? What tools do they use? Staff members should be reading books by the growing list of positive, science-based author-trainers. If dominance-based television celebrities are held in high regard, run away fast.
  • How frequent are serious incidents, requiring staff intervention,  of inappropriate behavior  between dogs? These should be rare. If they happen more than a few times a year, the facility has a serious problem.
  • How do they deal with incidents involving inappropriate behavior between dogs? Incidents should be defused by separating dogs calmly, only using physical tools such as water, loud noises, blankets, and boards if absolutely necessary. Squirt bottles and noise aversives should not be routine management tools. Verbal and physical punishments, including shock collars, are totally and completely unacceptable. There should be planned debriefings after an incident occurs to determine what went wrong and prevent a recurrence. Solutions include putting dogs in different play groups, or asking offenders not to return unless and until adequate behavior modification has been implemented.
  • What if a dog is injured? Do they have a regular consulting veterinarian who is available during all daycare business hours? If not, is there an emergency clinic available? Will they transport to your veterinarian if that’s your preference? Who pays the vet bill?
    The provider should notify you immediately if your dog is seriously injured, either by another dog or some other physical mishap, and honor your preference for veterinary care if at all possible. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the “who pays” question, but you should be aware in advance of their policies so you’re not surprised.
  • Has a dog ever escaped? If so, how did it happen, and what have they done to prevent future escapes?
  • Has any staff ever been bitten by a dog? If so, what were the circumstances? Was the bite reported to authorities? (In many jurisdictions, all dog bites are technically required to be reported, but often are not unless they are serious enough to require medical attention.) If your dog bites and is reported, he will likely have to be quarantined for a period of time (often 10 days) and the incident may trigger “dangerous dog” legal proceedings. Bites can happen. But if the facility you’re considering has a history of lots of dog bites, there’s a serious problem.

Few Daycare Options?

If you don’t live in a relatively affluent urban area, daycare providers can be hard to find. Word of mouth is a powerful tool; ask all your dog-owning friends and your dog-care professionals if they can refer you to a good facility. Search the Internet, starting with the website for the Pet Care Services Association at petcareservices.org or (877) 570-7788. You can also check with the Better Business Bureau and your local Animal Control agency, to see if there have been complaints or problems with the providers you’re considering. If choices in your community are limited, you’re better off passing up the daycare opportunity than choosing to leave your dog in the hands of a sub-standard care-provider.

Other alternatives to professional daycare include arranging play dates with dogs your dog already knows and loves; using social media to connect with other owners in your area who may be looking for dog-play opportunities; asking your dog-care professionals (trainer, vet, groomer) if they have clients who may be interested in having their dogs play with yours; and asking friends, family members, and neighbors who have dogs of their own if they might be up for small-scale daycare duty.

The benefits of dog play are numerous, and it’s well worth the effort to find a professional facility that can help your dog be as happy, well-rounded, and well-exercised as he deserves to be. If no daycare facilities exist in your area and you happen to have the skills and interest, you could think about starting one yourself! 

Pat Miller, CPDT-KA, CDBC, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Pat is also author of several books on positive training, including her latest: Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life.

Comments (8)

"What training books and authors do they recommend? What tools do they use? Staff members should be reading books by the growing list of positive, science-based author-trainers. If dominance-based television celebrities are held in high regard, run away fast.????????????????? That's a joke! I'm sorry bu"t for $8 an hour, picking up poop, sweeping dog hair, stopping dogs from humping and eating poop all day I'm not about to go home and read books on how to care for someone's dogs.

Posted by: oeboy1 | July 16, 2013 12:53 PM    Report this comment

Great article with lots of good information.

Only thing that struck a warning chord for me was the suggestion that strangers might be walking thru and around the day care when the dogs are there. I want only the trained staff around my dogs, not a nice but random assortment of owners (including ME) walking through. The day care I use and LOVE has live video feeds and has the dog's owners present for the temperament evaluation.

Tour the facilities before or after hours by appointment and with sensitivity to the fact that staff are putting in extra hours for this but don't be in the dog area when staff should be focused on working with the dogs. Not sure I'd accept a day care that let strangers walk thru, I want trained staff not tourists.

I remember an earlier WDJ article where someone said they'd stood on a car roof or hood to see over the day care fence to see how the dogs were doing. I would be furious if my dogs were EVER subjected to that. Can't imagine a disembodied head over a fence would be anything but frightening and highly arousing. Could even create an issue with fences for some dogs. I sympathize with the need to see but that is NOT the way to do it. Video is a lovely tool these days.

Owners have the right and responsibility to screen and interview but do not have the right to put other client dogs at risk in any way.

In general, I applaud the article!

Posted by: HERA P | June 4, 2012 10:33 AM    Report this comment

My dog loves daycare. She's frequented facilities in New York, Michigan and California.

Going to daycare has helped with her separation anxiety and fear of people. She's wary of the caregivers on her first couple of trips, but ends up loving them after a few weeks. Now, when I drop her off, she can't get out of the car fast enough. And she's dog-tired at the end of the day.

I would suggest touring a few facilities before picking one. Even for a novice, it won't take long to recognize the good ones from the bad.

Make sure the daycare you select is clean, has strict vaccination requirements, divides the dogs into groups by size and temperament, offers at least one long rest period, and enforces a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bad behavior.

And ask lots of questions at the initial assessment. (Note: if the facility doesn't conduct a comprehensive assessment of your dog--one that includes a trial interaction with dogs that already attend--that's a good sign you need to choose another place!)

Posted by: Stephanie G | November 15, 2010 3:22 PM    Report this comment

I worked for a daycare/boarding/training facility for over four years. I will have to say that I appreciate how well they trained the staff to read and interact with dogs. There were of course the occasional scuffles but serious incidents were very, very rare, especially considering the number of dogs that visited the business. Play was supervised and inappropriate behaviour was interrupted. I took my dog to work with my every day. The only reason I do not take him anymore is the cost and the fact that I feel they now accept TOO MANY dogs per day.

We actually accepted several dogs that had separation anxiety at home, but who did well at the daycare. We gave almost every dog a chance, and were honest with people about whether we were the right place for their dog or not. We took in several dogs who were not the most "well behaved", and actually learned how to better interact with other dogs and people.

However, I will say that there were several dogs, mine included, that seemed to eventually develop some behavior problems for going to the daycare very frequently for several years. They seemed to become over-aroused and would be a little more rough during playtime with other dogs. My dog started fence fighting and gate-guarding. Another dog jsut started playing too rough with others.

Overall, I like the idea of daycare. Since leaving my old job, I've found a new daycare which is pleasingly small scale, something I would recommend. I only take my dog once a month now, but would recommend it to other people.

Posted by: therowdydog | November 10, 2010 7:38 PM    Report this comment

My best friend, her husband and two cockers, myself, my husband and our two cockers always meet on vacation. One year we went to Branson, MO. We stayed at the Grand Victorian Hotel as they allowed pets. When we started to leave to go sightseeing all the cockers started barking. We felt guilty asked around and found a doggy day care there. It was fantastic, they lady started it because she had trouble finding places for her dogs when she traveled, she had a little dog that sat on the counter and would take your credit card. We felt bad leaving them, but next day, they couldn't way to get in the door, they really loved the place. They stayed 3 days from 8 to 5 and each day their little nubs were just wagging like mad when we dropped them off. We had a really great experience, but this is the only time we left them. We usually stay in cabins or cottages, now we have a 37ft motorhome, so they get to stay home.

Posted by: June | November 10, 2010 12:43 PM    Report this comment

I managed and worked in boarding/daycare kennels for more then a decade. I have mixed feelings about daycare for dogs.

Daycare is far and away safer then dog parks, I do not recommend any dog ever go to a dog park. EVER

The safest Daycare situations are those where EVERY dog has an indoor kennel as well and the dogs are taken out in size, age and activity compatible groups (ie puppies of similar sizes, geriatric group, quiet/calm dog group etc) of TEN OR LESS dogs, 3-4 times a day for play sessions with experienced caretakers

In MY MIND the most dangerous Daycares are those where the dogs are stuck together all day long (they get over tired and grumpy) and/or are in mixed size/age/activity level groups, in groups larger then 10 dogs or have inexperienced caretakers

Posted by: rottlady | November 10, 2010 12:03 PM    Report this comment

I prefer doggie day cares over dog parks. Granted, not all doggie day cares are the best, and not all dog parks are bad. But for me, doggie day cares are a much better alternative for some fun and exercise.

We interviewed several different doggie day cares before we even adopted our dog, as I already knew that I wanted our dog to have at least one or two days doing something different when we are at work during the day. The doggie day care we take our dog to is small and has a limit to the number of dogs per handler. ALL the employees are dog trainers or behaviorists, they accept ALL breeds, and require regular proof of vaccinations and fecal screens. The dogs get a few different nap times throughout the day, so that way there is a lesser chance of issues arising from exhausted dogs. There are so many other benefits that I won't get into here.

To me, a dog park is nothing but a HUGE petri dish of unknowns. There are unknown dogs with possible unknown illnesses, unknown behavioral issues, unknown owners who tend to not pay attention, etc. etc. The list goes on. That is too many unknowns to subject my dog to. Also, after working at my vet's office for a few years, the number of dog park injuries (both major and minor) and illnesses that were acquired from dog parks was staggering! If I didn't like dog parks to begin with, I sure would have said NO to them after my time at the vet's office.

Dogs can get injured anywhere, and doggie day cares are no exception. My dog has injured her left front leg a few times in our backyard playing ball. A dog in her agility class hurt her hip jumping over a couch. Injuries happen anywhere. Unless your dog is in a plastic bubble or isn't allowed to be a dog and have fun, then injuries may happen at some time in his/her life.

Posted by: Therapy Dog Mom | November 2, 2010 12:26 PM    Report this comment

I've heard of a lot of doggie day-care injuries--and not always at the same place. I'd be wary.

Posted by: Cindy F | October 30, 2010 6:35 PM    Report this comment

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