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Making Friends On The Playground: How To Choose A Reputable Daycare For Your Dog

Dog daycare is extremely popular and many dog guardians who come to us can feel overwhelmed about deciding whether daycare is right for their dog and if so, how often they should go and where they should go. They understandably want to make sure that they are making healthy decisions on who to trust and how to optimize their pup’s experiences.

Provided that a dog is one who will genuinely enjoy the pace, environment and social experiences of daycare (and not all of them are), it can be an incredibly enriching experience for them as well as provide a wonderful outlet for their energy.

If you feel your dog is a good candidate, the next step is choosing a daycare that’s right for you as not all are created equal. This is obviously important because this means selecting a facility that you are entrusting your companion’s care with and that’s a big deal. In order to set our clients up for as much success as possible here, we often advise that they have a list of questions ready to ask potential daycares that will help point them in the right direction on where to choose. Below is an example of the questions you should ask, along with what you should be looking for in answers and why.

How many dogs are there per employee for play groups?

This is very important because when there are too many dogs for a staff member to manage, safety becomes a problem. No matter how many years of experience someone has at working in a daycare, if there are too many dogs and something happens (a risk of daycare no matter where you go), there’s only so much one person can do. The industry standard is 1 person for every 15 dogs so any more than that is too many. We prefer a smaller ratio of dogs per person since that makes addressing any potential problems much more reasonable. Just as important as that answer, I would similarly want to know the maximum number of dogs in a space together at any given time. Even if you have 1 person for every 15 dogs, if you have 40, 50 or 75 dogs in one room (yes, it happens in some daycares), there is a massive increased risk in safety by the sheer volume.

Do they have cameras that you can tune into at any time, and if so, are there blind spots?

This certainly isn’t designed to instill paranoia in you, but it’s important for owners to be able to check in on their dogs simply because it’s a comfort for them to see their dog in that environment. Owners know their dogs pretty well and can sometimes tell more aptly whether their dog is enjoying itself. Also, we love this in a daycare as it’s a sign of transparency on their end.

Are the staff trained on canine body language?

If all they have to say is “yes” with no elaboration, I would ask more. Most

places that put their staff through training are happy to tell you all about it. It is every bit as important for the staff at these facilities to be trained on canine body language, and it should be deliberate training on the part of the company. Even if you have a lower-than industry standard number of dogs to staff, if the staff isn’t comfortable with the scientifically backed understanding of body language, there is no way for them to prevent conflict or determine whether a dog is genuinely enjoying themselves or are appropriate for the playgroup. A good daycare will not take your money and let your dog be there when it shouldn’t be. One dog who’s stressed or has behavior hurdles that interfere with their ability to interact appropriately in very high intensity social situations such as daycare can impact the entire dynamic of the group.

How is a dog that is over stimulated or engaging in “nuisance behaviors”

such as excessive barking, humping, or playing too roughly handled?

This is a big one. Giving dogs who are struggling time away from the group to decompress by removing them for short periods to spend time in a quiet environment is an appropriate answer. Squirting with spray bottles, shaking a can of pennies, yelling, scolding, or any other aversives

are not an acceptable answer as these methods can create much larger issues with

not only the offending dog, but the other dogs there as well. And while it may seem like those tactics are reasonable, they can have long-lasting effects. Meaning, your pup may bring that home with them. It’s not uncommon for daycares to do these things as a means of de-escalating or suppressing problematic behavior, however they rarely ever resolve the problem and those methods have a very high risk of behavior fallout (ex. anxiety, stress, fear, & aggression).We have done workshops for daycares to help them understand how to more effectively run their playgroups and when staff are using these tools it’s because they think they have to. While there is rarely malice in daycares who do these things, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t harmful. There are many daycares that are trained on how to appropriately address these concerns during playgroups and how to avoid creating emotional or behavioral damage to the dogs in their care.

How is a dog who is showing fear, nervousness, or avoidance regularly in a play

group handled?

Removing that dog from the playgroup and explaining to the dog’s owner that daycare is not a good fit for them (either at this time or ever) is the answer you are looking for. We’re not just talking about short or momentary but out of character interactions. We’ve seen dogs at daycare who clearly had no interest in being there….ever. They either sat in the corner, displayed anxious repetitive behaviors, avoided dogs, hid most of the time, or were agitated with the majority of the other dogs. Not every dog is going to enjoy it; in fact most dogs move into the category of “dog selective” during adolescence. So even if they like playing with a few of their best dog friends, that doesn’t mean they want to be friends with every single dog, no matter their play style.

There is a very large difference between playing with another dog or two and playing with a much larger group of dogs in a very different and often much more stimulating environment. Flooding a dog (forcing them to stay in a scary or stressful situation) is not conducive to a fun time nor is the dog likely to just “get used to it.” Reports on how your dog does during their day should not be completely generic. During our workshops, we sometimes find that daycare workers are nervous to tell an owner if a dog was anything but fine (as long as there weren't any major incidents) and part of our coaching is making sure that communication, even for news that’s not optimal, is extremely important. If a daycare’s first priority isn’t making sure the group of dogs they are caring for are a good fit for the facility, then this is not a good fit for you and if the staff can't give you a few personal details about your dog's time there, they likely have too many dogs to keep an eye on and this is a red flag.

Do you introduce a new dog slowly/do any assessment of a new dog before

allowing them to join?

This should always be yes. No matter what. If they do not do a slow trial run (introducing a new dog to a smaller group of more calm dogs first and adding more dogs in as the newcomer gives signs they are doing well) or they don’t require some kind of assessment, I

would avoid choosing this location. Efforts to ensure your dog is going to enjoy

themselves in that setting first are a good sign they want to keep everyone safe

and happy and help ease your dog in so the experience is a positive one.

This can feel overwhelming to a dog owner, but despite our warnings of what to avoid, there are very good daycares out there who take the time to make their business all about the experience being a good one. Remember, start with half days to begin with so you can ease them in. If your dog shows signs of stress when coming home from dog daycare, communicate with the staff to find out how your dog is handling their time there and get details. This doesn't mean your dog is being mistreated, but may be an indicator that how long they're there or being there in general is too much. Most importantly, they should be communicating with you too, especially if there is a problem or your dog doesn’t seem to be enjoying the play. Good daycares will address questions or concerns with honesty, transparency, details, and enthusiasm.

If you have any questions about choosing a daycare, or if you work for a daycare and would like more information about our available immersive workshops, please feel free to contact us!

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