In 2008 when I first decided to make dog training my career path dog daycares were just starting to pop up throughout the United States. Now, they’re everywhere with more opening every year.
But are they good for you and your dog?
There are some who swear by daycare for their dogs and use them daily, while other people have horror stories of injuries and illness.
I thought it was time to weigh in on this subject because I’m very familiar with daycares and have been exposed to them from all angles. You see, when I first became a dog trainer I worked at 2 different dog daycares for about a year or so. And since then, I’ve consulted with a bunch more and visited quite a few.
I’ve seen many different daycare business models, layouts and practices and now really understand what they’re all about, as well as what the benefits are vs. the possible negative effects they can have.
So, let’s get into it all so you can have a better understanding of what to do for your dog.
Is Daycare Good?
Before we get into how to tell a good one from a bad one (which is important), we need to decide if daycare for dogs is even a good idea. Should we drop our pooches off and let them run around for hours with other dogs?
In my opinion, dog daycare is the best invention for dogs since freeze dried liver.
Remember that your dog is another species living in our (very strange) human world. They are different from us, live differently and have very different needs.
The really cool thing about dogs is that they are very good adapters and can figure out how to live comfortably among us – IF we take care of their basic canine needs (daily).
Domesticated dogs are very social animals that, in the wild, live together in family groups. They crave social interactions and thrive in the company of others. And although they are happy (and love) to be with us, they also really enjoy time with their canine buddies.
Because I have news for you, you’re not easy to live with. To your dog, you have strange customs and some really weird rules (like not enjoying being jumped on or nipped in the butt when you’re playing – very strange, indeed).
I think our dogs graciously suppress (most of the time) their innate canine behavior for our benefit, but it’s nice for them to forget about all our human nonsense and just be dogs for a little while. They get to run around with their buddies, talk about how weird we are and just connect with their true canine selves.
Then there’s the activity aspect of it.
I hate to be the one to tell you this but you’re pretty boring. Don’t take it personally, it’s just a fact of human life. We are not nearly as active as dogs are and tend to get weighed down by countless responsibilities that stop us from running around with our dogs all day (which is what your pooch wants you to do).
No matter what kind of job you have, it’s rarely enough activity or stimulation for our dogs. Now, I know there are a bunch of you out there that are going to say, “Well Fern, my dog is happy to just sit on the couch all day and doesn’t need all that exercise.”
That may be true, your dog may not need it. But doesn’t he deserve it?
Even though your dog has adjusted to your lifestyle doesn’t mean he doesn’t crave more. Just because he’s accepted living without canine companionship doesn’t mean his quality life can’t be improved.
Now, not all dogs are the same and there are some who are not well suited for a group daycare setting (more on that below). However, most dogs would benefit from having some regular interactions with other dogs – even if they’re not actively playing with all the other dogs. Most dogs benefit from the social interaction and companionship of hanging with their doggie brothers and sisters.
There are four main reasons why dog daycare is so beneficial to your dog:
1. Socialization – If your dog is not exposed to other dogs in a natural way (off leash) regularly they can become anti-social, which presents as dog reactivity, anxiety and aggression toward other dogs.
I think this is one of our biggest flaws as people living with dogs. When I see a dog that doesn’t like other dogs, it’s because we messed up somehow. Dogs are born social. They like and crave contact with other dogs. And a dog who doesn’t like other dogs is very un-doglike.
Early and consistent socialization is the most important thing you can do with young puppies and is critical for their healthy development. The rise of dog reactivity is a direct result of our restrictions on letting dogs interact with one another in a natural way.
If you want your dog to be social throughout his life, you need to consistently provide him with positive social experience with other dogs.
2. Learning Social Cues – If dogs don’t get the proper exposure to other dogs they have a hard time reading them and get into more conflicts. It’s almost like they never learned the canine language.
I’ve seen many dogs trying to engage another dog that was clearly not interested, however the dog ignored all the subtle warning signs and persisted until he forced the other dog into physical altercation. All because he didn’t recognize the signals the other dog was giving.
3. Exercise – We all know that our dogs need exercise but very few people are actually doing something about it. The problem is usually that we just don’t have the time to run our dogs enough and/or we can’t give them the intensity they crave.
Walks are nice (and mandatory for a healthy dog) but unless you’re going 45+ minutes a clip, you’re barely scratching the surface of a high energy dog’s exercise needs. Nothing can replicate the energy expenditure of dogs playing together. That constant wresting is the optimal way to provide them the outlet they so desperately need.
4. You Get A Break – Having a dog is like having a child – another living thing that is dependent upon you for survival. And it can be an exhausting day to day process (especially if you have a puppy or young dog) when you have to factor in your dog into your already crazy schedule.
Sending your dog to daycare gives you a much needed break from the pressure of taking care of your dog for a little while, you don’t have to feel guilty that you’re away and you can just focus on you (or the 4,372 things you need to do today).
It’s like sending your kids to camp. They’re out of your hair, happily occupied and come home nice and tired. They had fun with their friends and return drained of energy and content. It’s a win – win.
What Dogs Are Well Suited For Dog Daycare
Just like everything else in life, dog daycare is not right for everyone. There are some dogs that do really well and benefit the most from spending time there. Here are a few types of dogs that are a good fit for daycare (this is just a generalization and there will always be exceptions based on the individual dogs personality and temperament):
Puppies – socialization is CRITICAL for young puppies. If they don’t get lots of positive exposure to other dogs in an off leash environment, they can develop anxiety, fear or aggression toward other dogs.
Dog parks are too much of a gamble. You’re assuming every dog is healthy and friendly, which is rarely the case. And you’re assuming every dog parent is responsible -HA!
At daycare you know every adult dogs is healthy and up to date on all vaccinations and that young puppies have had the appropriate care appropriate for their age. All dogs are temperament tested so they’re friendly and you’ve removed the human element altogether – the dogs are supervised by an impartial third party who makes sure everyone is behaving and having fun.
Adolescent dogs – Teenage dogs can be about as fun as teenage kids. And just like kids they need stuff to do or they will find stuff to do. If you don’t provide constructive uses for their time, they will find something to occupy themselves and it’s more often than not a destructive outlet.
Let these young punks run around at daycare and drain all that energy and come home satisfied and tired. You and your furniture will thank me.
High Energy Breeds – Labradors, Pit Bulls, German Shepherds, Dalmatians, Jack Russells and so many other hyper active breeds need to RUN! You will never tire these guys out with a walk or a few minutes of tug.
The nonstop action of daycare is just about the only thing that will satisfy their exercise needs and help them be better behaved at home.
Working Dogs – Dogs that were bred to do a specific job need to be doing something or they feel unfulfilled which can present itself in a number of behavioral issues. These guys need a job and you don’t want to have an unemployed working dog.
Daycare is a great way for them to do something constructive. Left idle these guys go a little bonkers.
What Dogs Are NOT Good For Daycare
Dog daycare is great for all dogs on paper, but in reality it’s not the right environment for some.
Let’s go over a few types of dogs that might not be a good fit for a group dog pack setting.
Very Anxious Puppies – Most puppies are happy-go-lucky and have no problem being let loose in a group of dogs. However, if your dog is viably uncomfortable around other dogs already, we want to proceed slowly or we risk doing negative socialization.
We might need to move a little more carefully and let him meet one dog, make a friend and then see how he can handle more. A little anxiety is okay and often can be improved with regular daycare visits, but if your dog is really freaked out we’re probably doing more harm than good. If you’re not sure, try him on a weekend at daycare or other slower time when there are less dogs there and see how he does (just note it may take a few visits for him to settle in and start to loosen up).
Fearful Adult Dog – Much like the anxious puppy, a dog that is afraid of other dogs is going to be overwhelmed in a pack setting. They need to be worked with on an individual basis with the right dogs to make sure we are helping and not making matters worse. Walking with other dogs works great.
Dog Reactive or Aggressive Dog – Obviously if your dog is grumpy with some or all dogs an off leash environment is not going to be the best place to work on it. Keep them home and find a local trainer to work with you and maybe you can improve the situation so you can eventually try it out.
How To Pick A Good Daycare
Hopefully I’ve sold you on how great dog daycare can be for your dog. The next step is finding the right one for you and your dog.
All dog daycares are not created equal. There are good ones and bad ones out there. I recommend visiting a few and finding the one that you feel most comfortable with.
They should be clean and look like a safe environment to leave your furry best buddy. The lobby should be well kept and organized. If the customer facing elements are not in good order, the behind the scenes stuff is probably a mess.
Don’t get too hung up on the play area. It doesn’t have to be marble floors with top of the line fixtures – believe me your dog doesn’t care about that stuff. Pay less attention to the aesthetics and more on is the space safe (not objects the dogs could hurt themselves on, etc). I actually prefer less stuff in the play areas. I like just a simple room with no toys (or any guardable resources) and few obstacles. I think simple is better for the play areas.
Although and outdoor area is nice, depending upon where you live it might be very difficult to get zoning for outdoor dog space (In Northern New Jersey, where I live, it’s rare to find daycares with outdoor areas). If they do have an outdoor area, make sure it looks like a safe place for your dog. For example, if you have a goofy Lab who likes to put things in his mouth an outdoor surface of small rocks might end with your dog getting them removed surgically (I know of two dogs this happened to).
I think it’s important to separate dogs into different play groups depending on size, age and temperament. Large and small dogs should not be in the same play groups (with some exceptions – many French Bulldogs, for example, play too rough for dogs their size and often do better with the big guys) not because they can’t get along but because the little guys can get run over and injured by accident. Older dogs with less energy will often feel more comfortable and happy hanging out with smaller dogs.
The most important thing to focus on when you’re picking a daycare is the staff. Are they friendly and welcoming. I like family businesses where you see the owner(s) there daily. They are invested in their company, really care about how it’s run and love the dogs that come there.
Some daycares have cameras in the play areas so you can watch on your computer whenever you want. I actually don’t like this for a few reasons. Most people tend to watch them like TV and that’s not healthy. You are supposed to go out and do your own thing while you let your dog do his. Also, most people have little or no idea of what appropriate play is and typically overreact when they see the dogs rough housing. Trust the staff to determine what’s best for the pack.
A good daycare will also be honest with you and tell you when something has happened or if your dog was a jerk that day. You want the staff to keep you in the loop as to how your dogs is doing but don’t be overbearing with them. Don’t take anything personally and understand that both you and the daycare wants what’s best for your dog.
Tips for Doing Daycare
When you bring your dog to daycare I have a few pieces of advice for you to help you get the most out of it.
1. Drop your dog and leave ASAP – Just like dropping your kids off at daycare, they always do better once you’re gone, so don’t stick around, converse with your dog or stay to watch. Just hand the leash over, turn and walk away (and don’t look back – you know you were going to).
2. Give your dog time to adjust – If your dog hasn’t had much exposure to being in a daycare or pack setting it may take some time for them to adjust and get used to it. Don’t panic if they are a little uncomfortable the first few times or they don’t seem like they are eager to go in. Give it about a month of regular (2+ times per week) and see how they are doing. Many dogs loosen up once they have adjusted and although they started out apprehensive they end up having a blast.
3. Don’t binge watch the webcam – I already talked about this but it needs repeating. If the daycare has live webcams and you miss your pooch and want to peek in to see what he’s up to, just look for a minute and then get off. It’s much better for everyone if you’re not hovering and obsessing with what’s going on.
4. Don’t sweat the small stuff – Just as with kids going to school, your dog is going to get a cold (kennel cough) once in a while or come home with some scratches on his face. That’s normal and to be expected. Don’t freak out, don’t blame the staff of the daycare and don’t overreact. It’s going to happen and it’s no big deal.
Last week my one daughter caught strep from someone at school and this week she got a huge bruise on her leg in the playground. Is that the school’s fault? No. Does that mean I’m not going to send her back? No.
The benefits of daycare far outweigh any negative side effects that may come along with them.
5. Do some homework to help your dog – If your dog has some issues (especially bad manners, separation anxiety or any kind of fear) don’t use daycare as your treatment. Make sure you do what you need to do to improve the issues so that your dog’s time at daycare can be the best it can be.
Often daycare can be a great tool to be used in conjunction with behavior modification that can have some really positive results for some dog problems.
I think daycare can be such a great thing for dogs. They get to have fun, be social and get some much needed/deserved play time with their canine compadres. It’s not for every dog though, and some dogs may not be a good fit.
If you’re not sure, stop by your local dog daycare, speak with them and maybe give it a try. Having spent a good chunk of time in daycare play groups I can attest to how much fun it is for the dogs and how it can help cultivate a happy, “well balanced” dog that is social and enjoying life to the fullest in this very human world.