Bark All About It!
For a lot of us, selecting a daycare for our dog is more nerve-wracking than selecting a preschool for our kids. Certainly more mysterious. At least we can relate to the preschool experience. But a daycare for dogs? Most of us naturally assume that if 30 dogs can all be in the same space without ripping each other apart, then it’s all good. Rover’s got friends and a life elevated beyond staring at the walls waiting for you to come home from work. Enrichment. Right?
Perhaps. But not always. Let’s break it down so you can make an educated decision about daycare for your dog.
The people responsible for the hands-on management of the playgroups at daycare need to know what’s what. They’re the difference between a best-day-ever and a get-me-the-freak-out-of-here experience for your dog. Being experienced trainers, we know what can go wrong in a group of dogs. We also know dogs give us plenty of information – broadcasting their feelings, state of mind, and intent – long before stuff actually hits the fan. Observers just need to know what they’re looking at and watching for. Are the staff at the daycare you’re considering trained in the subtleties of dog body language? Dog behavior? What kind of training have they received? (Note: You can’t expect credentialed ethologists to be on staff at your local dog daycare, but you can expect that training goes beyond watching shows on National Geographic and Animal Planet.) Do they know the signs of stress in a dog? And how do they handle a dog that is showing prolonged signs of stress? (Another note: Keep in mind it’s natural for a dog to show some signs of stress as it adapts to a new social situation. Think of the searching look on your face as you scout the cocktail party for someone you might know, or someone who at least looks approachable. It might look a little stress-y for a bit as you navigate the social scene.) How do they identify – and interrupt – potential conflict? How do they handle emergencies? Dogs are animals, and stuff happens, but a dog-behavior-savvy staff can spot a potential problem way before it erupts into something beyond acceptable canine communication. Observe a playgroup and ask questions.
A good dog daycare facility doesn’t have to look like The Four Seasons. Dogs don’t care about wall art or color schemes. That stuff is for us. But they do need to be able to play on non-slippery surfaces, and have access to clean potty areas. Ask the facility about their cleaning and disinfecting routine. Keep in mind that even the cleanest daycare is to a dog what a preschool is to a kid – germ central – and even vaccinated dogs, like kids, aren’t protected from every virus. In addition to the standard vaccines, the facility should require a fecal test to protect against parasites (you’d be shocked at how many well-cared-for dogs are infected with parasites and show no symptoms). Play areas need to be spacious enough so dogs have room to maneuver and not feel trapped. Are there areas for dogs that might want to take a break? Lie down? Small and large dogs should have separate play areas. Find out how they handle the dogs in temperatures above 85 and below 45 degrees. There needs to be some climate-controlled space.
We’re talking about other dogs. How do they evaluate dogs for daycare? Ask how they introduce a new dog to playgroup. It should be a controlled and well-managed process. How do they communicate with owners about a dog’s behavior? Report cards? Incident reports? How do they decide if Ms. Rough-and-Rowdy’s overt advances toward Mr. Wallflower need to be interrupted? What does a dog have to do before it gets kicked out of playgroup? If they observe that a dog simply doesn’t appear to like being there, are they honest with the owners? Those of us who are in the business because our passion is dogs keep their health and safety at the forefront. Making a buck off the back of a miserable dog shouldn’t be standard operating procedure of a dog daycare. Again, watch a playgroup and ask questions. (But don’t distract the staff that are watching the dogs.)
Finally, you have to make an honest appraisal of your dog. Is she cut out for daycare? Does she even like being in the company of a group of other dogs? Before you answer, it doesn’t count if your dog simply lives with another dog, or sometimes hangs out with your sister’s two dogs. We’re talking a group of dogs, dogs whose butts your dog has never laid eyes on, much less sniffed. If you have any doubts at all, or simply don’t know, the daycare you select should have staff experienced in dog behavior conduct an evaluation. And it shouldn’t cost you anything. Also, keep in mind that daycare is not rehab for un-socialized dogs. That’s called training and it’s a separate thing. If groups are managed properly, daycare can definitely help a shy dog come out of its shell. It can be a lifesaver for owners whose social, energetic dogs need an outlet. But not all dogs appreciate (or need) the company of other dogs. If your senior dog is happy to spend the day napping, let him nap. At home. In his own bed. Doggy daycare is the highlight of the day for many dogs. These are the dogs that happily walk into the facility, all waggy-butt and eager to play, and go home relaxed. If your dog has to be dragged in like a prisoner to the gallows, he might not be a good candidate for daycare. Or you might need to try another daycare.
The bottom line in selecting a doggy daycare is you’ve got to be that pet parent: the one that asks a lot of questions. It’s OK. A reputable facility will happily answer your questions and encourage you to stop by for a tour. Once you find a facility that passes muster with you, let your dog try it out a few times for short periods. Get the download from staff on how she did. Hopefully it will be a positive experience and a great source of enrichment. If not, don’t fret. Your dog might prefer a different kind of social experience, like smaller meet-up groups in your neighborhood with familiar people and dogs. After all, not everybody is the cocktail-party type.