I’ve been mentoring a dear friend who had just gotten a job at a doggie day care facility and she was very excited to put into practice all that she had learned. After only a few days, I got a call from her that was very unsettling. What she thought was going to be so much fun, watching dogs play and interacting with them, turned out to be far from fun.
Doggie day care is a thing! It’s a thing that got started because of people being too busy to care for their own dogs. Out of guilt, people are swooned by fancy and often false advertising, offering the perfect alternative to leaving dogs home alone all day. There are hundreds of doggie day care facilities in America. This makes me very sad.
Now, think about this, for a moment. Doggie day care is actually an oxymoron. Dogs come to play, yet much of their so-called play time, is squelched by the ‘yard attendant’. Do you know what the attendants job is? Remember, them in elementary school? It’s their job to stop the play if it’s going overboard. Why would this be necessary? Well, the truth is that dogs don’t play in large groups. It’s not the nature of what it is to be a dog. Yes, they are lovers of play but not with more than 3-5 dogs at a time and that’s being generous. It’s also not in their nature to be in large groups of dogs for hours on end. Some day care facilities have dogs who come for 12 hrs at a stretch and some come every day. This must be so exhausting for these dogs. I don’t know about you, but this is madness to me. These imitation play yards, (often way to small for the amount of dogs playing in them) with fake floor surfaces and plastic toys, is not a healthy environment for dogs and many are suffering because of it. While dogs are social by nature, they are not meant to be in large play groups with other dogs for hours on end, in an environment that tries to mimic fun. It’s just not intrinsic to who dogs are.
Dogs need and thrive in play but they also need rest. Most facilities don’t have a required rest time, only removing dogs who have become overly aroused, for a time out. This means that dogs have to try to rest on a nearby bed which are often placed in corners of the yard/room. However, there’s too much noise and mayhem, to get the necessary rest that they need. If they finally get settled in for a nap, another dog zooms by them or jumps over them, making getting any rest, impossible. It takes the phrase ‘no rest for the weary’ to a whole other level.
This study found that dogs in shelters who don’t get the rest they need, become anxious, aggressive, fearful, frustrated and all of this anxiety may lead to the inability to cope in stressful situations. For me, doggie day care facilities are much like shelters and our dogs welfare truly needs to be seriously considered. There is too much stimulation, too many dogs, not enough space, creating an environment that is so chaotic for many dogs, leading to problems emotionally, manifesting behaviorally and this is not OK in my book.
If you must take your dog to a doggie day care, here are some things to look out for and questions to ask.
- How many dogs do you take at a time?
If the answer is, our limit is 40 dogs and the space is the size of your garage, RUN. Would you like to go to a party with 40 rowdy friends (even if you love them) and not get a break for hours? Then don’t make your dog do it.
- Do you interview perspective doggie clients? If so, which dog is used for the interview?
I have been to many facilities where they use a really sweet doggie client for the interview. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my sweet dog subjected to a dog that no one knows, with the possibility of said dog attacking my dog. I know it seems crazy, right, but it’s happening all the time at most facilities. The staff should use their own, known dog for the newcomer interview process. I hate to say this but there are still many more facilities who don’t even have an interview process, just throw the dogs in to sink or swim. This is called flooding (graphic above) and is quite frightening to dogs.
- What are your qualifications? Is your staff trained and if so, in what?
There is a wonderful doggie day care certification program offered by The Dog Gurus, that teaches day care facilities about safe dog play, how to read dog body language, enrichment, design and more. If they aren’t certified, ask why or simply, move on. If their website says things like: staff is ‘trained‘, ‘professionally trained‘ or ‘fully trained‘; ask them what this means. Trained in what? If they are trained or certified by a day care educational program, it will be proudly presented on their website as well as in the facility, itself. If not, they are most likely bluffing, hoping you won’t ask questions. In the end, it’s your dog who suffers.
- What do you do to mitigate disease?
Have they had Kennel Cough, Parvo, Giardia, etc. at their facility? If so, how long ago? Did they close the facility or keep it open. What is their protocol if they have an infectious disease come through their facility?
- What do they use to clean the facility?
Let’s face it, having a lot of dogs pooping and peeing in a small area is clearly a health hazard and it’s going to stink. That alone would keep me from bringing my dog. This may not even occur to many of you but it’s important to consider? If they are using bleach every day and your dogs are rolling around on it all day long, it can effect your dog? Bleach is toxic to breathe, to lay on, to play on, to swallow. I wouldn’t want my dog anywhere near a place like this. There are some, however, that use non-toxic products for cleaning but they are few and far between and why it’s good to ask.
- Do the dogs get a time out? If so, how?
How long is the time out? Where are they kept during time out? Are they put in time out because they were overly aroused or because this is normal procedure because they know that rest is important and necessary? Are they in a crate happily chewing on an enrichment toy, until they fall asleep or are they in a kennel where they can’t see out, with no enrichment toys, listening to and joining in with all the other frustrated, barking dogs?
- Do you separate dogs by size, play style and age or are they all lumped together in one big space?
How many play areas do they have and how many dogs in each area? I’ve seen many where big dogs are in the same area as small dogs or calmer ones are with wilder ones. This is very stressful for any dog and quite dangerous for some.
- What are you doing for enrichment?
Most day care facilities don’t do enough when it comes to enrichment. They rely on the dogs to play with each other and this is one of the biggest mistakes. While some may have some kind of climbing structure or a pool for those warm days, don’t be fooled into thinking this is enough. It’s not and why the ‘yard guards’ have to intervene the play, all too often. Enrichment is more about smaller groups and one on one games and skills where the ‘yard guards’ actually engage the dogs. Leaving dogs to run amuck is over stimulating for most dogs, causing anxiety. How fun and safe is doggie day care, now?
- What do you do to keep dogs from barking all the time?
I visited a doggie day care facility that held up to 100 dogs, 50 in two separate large outdoor play yards. It was eerily quiet. As I was getting the tour, I noticed shock collars sitting on the counter in the kitchen area. That was all I needed. No, I didn’t finish the tour. If it’s quiet, ask how they are managing the dogs to keep them quiet. If it’s loud and nothing is being done, you should then ask yourself, if your dog would be happy in that kind of noisy environment. If your dog isn’t a barker, he just might become one, in an environment like this. Can you even hear yourself talk while going on a tour? Imagine how your dog would feel.
- How many dog bites have you had since you opened? How do you handle a dog fight?
You may not get an honest answer but you can read between the lines. If they hesitate in answering or answer too fast, these are red flags. Watch their body language. Are they searching for the right answer? If they answer yes, ask how they handled it? I don’t know of one facility that can attest to not having a dog fight and or a bite, severe or mild. I do know many where bites go unnoticed because people find the wound on their dog with no mention of it from the staff at the facility. Remember, most staff are not trained and why dog fights happen.
- How do you handle emergencies?
If a dog is bitten by another dog, what is their procedure? Will they pay for the medical expenses? Will they call you right away, so you can bring the dog to your vet or ask for your permission to use theirs? Which veterinarian do they use?
- How do you handle stress with dogs in your care? Would you recognize it?
This is a very big one. If the staff hasn’t been trained in body language, then they wouldn’t know what to look for. They wouldn’t know the signs of stress, so your dog may be stressed all day and finally hit his limit and go after another dog. Your dog is at risk of being bitten or biting another dog. The graphic above shows some signs of stress and dogs manifest stress behaviorally by humping, bullying, hiding, shaking, running away, etc. and physiologically by vomiting, drooling, diarrhea, not taking treats, eating, etc. These are symptoms that when go unnoticed or ignored may lead to big problems and unfortunately this is more common than you want to know.
- Do you do boarding? If so, is there someone there overnight?
A dog who is boarded in a day care facility is a dog who often becomes stressed and overly aroused. They are alone all night after a day of non-stop (no rest) play, only to have to do it again, the next day. This dog who may have passed the interview at one time, is now at risk, to himself and to others. Being away from home is not a party for most dogs. It’s stressful and stress leads to problems. Long term boarding, especially at a doggie day care is akin to a shelter environment. I would go out on a limb and say if studies were done on fights in day care it’s because of boarding dogs, who’s stress level is increased. If no one is there at night, and there’s an emergency; fire, earthquake, or your dog gets sick, no one will know until the morning. If they close at 7 pm and don’t reopen until 7 am, your dog is alone for 12 hours and may have to go potty after 7 pm. Think about your dogs schedule and how you can best meet his needs before considering day care and boarding. You always have options. Pet sitters coming into your home is the best, first choice.
Now, with all this said, I must add that there are a few and I mean a few, really great doggie day care facilities. They are small, keep the amount of dogs playing together in small groups, separated by age, size and play style and they rotate groups, so there are never too many dogs playing at one time. This also allows for rest during the time another group is in the yard and it also allows for individual or small group enrichment between dog and properly trained staff. Their staff is truly and properly trained in body language, enrichment, training and dog play. I can’t praise these facilities enough. I applaud their effort. It really is about the dog; not their pocketbook!
Nothing in our world today, is easy. Making healthy choices for our dogs is about educating ourselves. In doing so, we are able to keep them safe, happy and thriving.
About the author: Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer, award winning writer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast, USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. It’s available in iTunes and Google play. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. She also does online dog training, worldwide. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page