Is Doggie Daycare Right For My Dog?

I get this question from everybody when they find out I train dogs at a canine center:

"Is doggie daycare right for my dog?"

As the owner of Dog Gone Smart, one of the first doggie daycare centers in the USA, you might imagine I would tell everybody that sending your dog to doggie daycare is the perfect place for all dogs.

Well, this may shock you; I do not think Doggie Daycare and free play boarding facilities are the “right” choice for all dogs.

Many dogs love the dog-to-dog interaction at doggie Daycares and can handle these facilities' social nature.

They’ll likely even thrive because of it.

These dogs have probably grown up playing with siblings at home or other dogs at these facilities and dog parks. They have other canine friends. They have experience and draw enjoyment from being social with dogs.

For many dogs (and their human companions) it can be a lifesaver. Many people would not be able to properly exercise their active dogs or even own them if they could not bring their dogs to Daycare when they went off to work. Many “stay at home” Moms find daycare a “must” so that they can properly care for their children, yet still own a family dog.

Dogs are demanding and particularly active and young dogs need lots of exercise in order for everyone one to be happy. When dogs can play with others of their own kind, they can expel lots of energy and come home happy and tired at the end of the day.

So, when is bringing your dog to daycare not the right choice? And which daycare setups are better than others?

Personality Differences

If your dog did not imprint (play and interact off-leash) with other canines outside your own home before the age of 6 months to 1 year, she may not understand even how to play and interact normally with other dogs. Putting this dog into a social group of five to 12 other canines could be terrifying and even dangerous.

Remember, if your dog is nervous around other dogs there is likely a very good reason. Maybe you adopted this dog without knowing that she was hurt by another dog in her previous home.

Putting a dog like this in a group would not be fair to the dog, to you, or to the other dogs.

Without knowing a full history it is best to assume the worst situation and act accordingly than to hope there is nothing wrong and act blindly.

Many years ago I adopted a Pitbull named Elsie from a kill shelter. Elsie had been used as a bait dog for other fighting dogs.

They put a muzzle on her and let fighting dogs beat up on her to build their own confidence. Evil stuff.

Needless to say, Elsie did not like other dogs and was scared to death of them. She never trusted any other dogs and I didn’t blame her!

She was a dog that I never brought to Dog Gone Smart for daycare or boarding. It took more than a year of continuous work (with my professional guidance and training) for her to learn to trust and live with my Doberman Rubina.

Sometimes people think that because their dog grew up with another dog in their house that it is socialized correctly and could easily go to a daycare facility.

This is also not necessarily true.

This dog may live with another dog but not have any experience in meeting new dogs or have any experience with certain types of play.

Just because your dog lives with another canine at home, does not mean that he knows and understands social cues and manners when meeting and playing with another dog outside its pack. Dogs as puppies and young adults need lots of canine interaction in order to be well socialized in canine environments. There are constantly new greetings in doggie daycare environments. And greetings are when most fights start. So, your dog needs to know how this works and be comfortable with it.

Interaction With Other Dogs

There is appropriate play and inappropriate play. Does your dog understand what to do if it gets a warning? How will the dog handle it if another dog tries to hump or mount? Will it be okay sharing toys? Does it understand a play bow, a tongue flick, or look away? Does it have bite inhibition and know the power of its mouth? Does it understand the body language of a submissive or dominate dog?

All these things are learned when a dog is raised playing and socializing with other dogs at a young age. It can be learned as an adult, but it is a much slower process and not one you want to jump into blindly.

For some, particularly dogs over a few years old and those with no canine socialization, it can be prohibitively stressful. These dogs are mostly imprinted on humans and much prefer human companionship to other dogs. So, if you have a dog that has had very little canine interaction growing up, they may prefer to have a human companion take care of them.

When I see an elderly dog that comes to Dog Gone Smart for the first time, I often try to dissuade the owner. Elderly dogs prefer a routine and for better or worse daycare is not routine the first few visits. It can be quite confusing, and confusion can be stressful. Unless this elderly dog has been going to the same doggie daycare with the same group of dogs (within the past few years) I would keep this dog at home and get an in-home sitter.

On the other end of the spectrum, if your dog is over 6 months of age and is unneutered or unspayed, doggie daycare facilities are not the place for them. Intact males are much more likely to be attacked by neutered dogs.

Sounds a bit crazy, but neutered males view themselves as intact. When they see other neutered males they probably just view them as females and not a threat. But, when a real unneutered male enters their space, a fight can – and usually does – ensue.

Unspayed females that are going in or out of heat can get a bit testy and can also start fights with the neutered males.

For all these reasons most doggie daycares do not allow intact males and unspayed females in their facilities after 6 months of age. It just keeps the peace easier to maintain.

Health Concerns

At Doggie Daycare, much like human daycare facilities, dogs are socially and physically interacting with one another. They are often sharing water bowls and they are romping and playing with one another.

This may lead to dogs catching communicable illnesses like canine cough or influenzas, Giardia, and even Canine HPV. Most of these illnesses are not life threatening and go away in short order with the right treatment. Some of these illnesses have vaccines that can help, but they are not fool-proof.

Sometimes dogs will play too rough. Or, yes, even get into fights. Injuries can occur. It happens!

So, if the idea of your dog coming down with something or getting hurt is terribly upsetting to you as the parent, then Daycare is not the right choice for you.

Personally, I send my kids to school every day and I know that they may skin their knee or catch something by the weekend. It’s just a part of life.

But if you are not comfortable taking these risks, there is no daycare facility that can guarantee a safe and problem-free environment. You must go in aware of the risks.

Picking the “right” daycare facility is very important. I usually would look at the experience of the facility and staff.

Have they been in business at least 5 years?

How have the people supervising the dogs been trained? Have they had any formal training so that they can “read” a dog’s body language and can stop potential issues before they begin?

How do they “group” dogs in the play areas? They should have a separate area for small dogs under 30 lbs. They should also be able to determine and have a separate area for rough players and more timid players.

How much play time do they get in each session? You don’t want to pay for daycare if your dog is going to be locked up most of the time.

How is each group of dogs staffed? As a rule, there should not be more than 11 dogs to each floor person. Watch the staff if you can and see how much interaction is going on with them and the dogs. The staff should be constantly playing and interacting with the dogs. They should be constantly vigilant and supervising them, not sitting in a chair and looking at their cell phones.

It is important that the daycare facility look clean. Does the facility have the right type of flooring? Rubber floors that are easily cleaned are good choices for indoor facilities. If the play area is outside, is there real grass? Real grass is very hard to maintain and many times it can harbor round or hook worm parasites that dogs can pick up. Artificial turf that can be disinfected is usually a better choice. Ask the facility about their cleaning practices. Facilities should have floors, walls, equipment and crates disinfected at least every day. What kind of air system do they have? Do they have air-conditioning for the summer months and what temperature do the dogs live in? Do they have UV sterilizers in their duct system to kill airborne illnesses? The daycare management should be more than willing to answer these questions.

Finally, if your dog is going to daycare several times a week, they will tell you if they are having a fun time. Dogs don’t lie. If after some adjustment time your dog does not want to go inside, then chances are this is not the right place to be sending your dog.

So, while Doggie daycare is a great resource for many dogs and their owners, it is not the best choice for all dogs. You must know you’re your dog and understand its behavior in these settings.

If you are not sure how your dog will do in a daycare facility, then contact the facility to give your dog an evaluation where the Daycare management can tell you if Daycare is the “right” choice for your dog.

Postscript for a Post-COVID World

By the time you read this, the way we live and interact will have dramatically changed. Nearly everything about our day-to-day lives will have been altered in some way.

The way we care for our precious pups will not have.

While your need for daycare may have changed, the reasons for visiting one and what to consider when you will not have. Everything written above still stands. Especially if you are an “essential” worker who has no choice but to entrust your canine companion to someone else during these days of social isolationism.

Pay attention to the number of employees and lobby protocols. A daycare that is looking out for the dogs and their owners will have instituted contact-limiting procedures like curbside drop-off and pick-up. Ask about the cleaning and sanitizing procedures used daily. A good daycare will not have had to increase cleaning much from what they were already doing but cleaning of high traffic areas should be constant.

Ask about virtual classes and other distance training options your facility may offer. Adapting to changing situations while maintaining a sense of calm and normalness is important for reducing stress in ourselves and our animals.

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