I recently met with an owner whose dog is picked up regularly by the equivalent of a dog school bus and taken to dog daycare. In addition to the daycare experience, her dog is also groomed. Any one of those events, in and of itself, would be a stressful situation for the large majority of dogs, taken as a whole I am surprised the dog didn’t return home in a straight jacket. Even more concerning is that this particular dog is already an anxious and insecure dog. I can only imagine her stress levels throughout this busy day.
No doubt this and other daycare dogs come home exhausted. But why? The best dog daycares are far more than just about fun and rough housing for 8 hours or more a day. They provide a safe environment that supports all the different personalities that are in their care.
For many busy dog parents it seems like the perfect solution to meeting their dog’s social and exercise needs. And in some cases that may be true. But not all cases. While being in a pack or family unit does come naturally to dogs, being around very large numbers of dogs doesn’t. A pack or family usually consists of 5 or 6 dogs. There are a couple of leading members, kind of like parents. Everyone else is typically jockeying for position in the middle ranks. That can be stressful. Large numbers of dog together can feel threatening and engender confusion as to where an individual member can fit in and feel secure.
That being said, many dog daycares allow far too many dogs to participate at any given time. It’s interesting to note that the State of Iowa has legislated that no dog daycare should have more than 15 dogs at once. An important question to ask a dog daycare provider is how many dogs they have on average. What is the maximum number of dogs per day? More importantly ask what the staff to animal ration is. A good facility will have at least one staff member with no more than 10-15 dogs at all times.
A responsible daycare may also limit how often your dog can attend. Even better is one that is unable to accommodate your dog on a particular day because they are full. That suggests a business that is concerned with your dog more than their finances.
It’s a great idea to go and observe the daycare and its’ employees without your dog. How many staff members are with the dogs? How do they handle dogs that are bullying or being bullied? Do they appear punishing in their treatment of the dogs? Ask to see their written policies for handling an emergency, such as a dog getting loose or injured and also their policy for handling a dog fight. These are animals and these things are bound to happen.
If you decide to allow your dog to attend, observe your dog unobtrusively. How is she handling the other dogs? There’s a difference between stress and playful excitement. Ensure that your dog is running around panting and excited because she is enjoying herself, not running for her life.
Daycare should provide at least 2 hours of quiet rest time during an 8 hour day. It is not healthy for dogs to be running and excited for 8 hours. Ask to see the area where the dogs rest. Is it quiet and clean? Is there a minimum of stress? Dog facilities do not have to smell bad or be noisy all the time. A well laid out facility with plenty of employees can be kept clean and peaceful.
Ask the staff about their training and experience with large groups of dogs. Keeping large groups of dogs safe and secure requires skill and education. It requires a lot more than just being physically present. Employees should be present and attentive, not looking at their phones.
Upon return, how does your dog behave? What is she learning at daycare? Done right, dog daycare can teach appropriate social behaviors. But too much of it and without proper supervision can create a dog that is impulsive and bullying. Daycare dogs may begin to jump and bark. They may also be less responsive to their owners, as they are spending large portions of their day without any real structure or human supervision. Any noticeable change in behavior should be noted.
I also can’t over emphasize the importance of teaching a dog to just be. We live in a society of constant overstimulation and we are passing the anxiety it creates on to our dogs. Once their basic exercise and social needs are met, even a puppy can be taught to relax without constant activity and attention.
Finally if your dog comes home with any injury or illness from daycare, especially if the staff doesn’t mention it to you, you should rethink your daycare plan.