First, let me say that I love my job. I believe in what my mentor/employer is doing and I am blessed to be able to work with her. She had a pet sitting business for many years but when she saw what was happening in doggy boarding and daycare facilities she was unhappy with it, so she opened her own facility to set the standard. The thing is, it’s working. Other facilities in the area, even large country-wide chains, are changing the way they do things. Now, beyond believing in her vision, the experience and knowledge I am gaining from simply watching different dogs and different breeds interact and play is invaluable. With all of that said, there is so much the average owner simply doesn’t know about what happens when they drop their dog off. I’ve seen things firsthand in the facility where I work as well as heard the many, many stories from clients as well as previous employees from other facilities!
What you first need to understand about these facilities is that they aren’t necessary. Sure, its nice to have somewhere to board your dog when you travel but your dog does not need doggy daycare.
“But dogs are pack animals and they need doggy friends!” While dogs SHOULD be well socialized as youngsters so they aren’t aggressive or nervous around other canines, they do not need to play at a daycare. Not only are the dogs at a facility not a pack, domestic dogs do not need a pack like wolves do. YOU and other dogs in the home are their pack. A pack is a structured hierarchy where there is a level of respect and a family-like dynamic, they know the leader, they know each other. You wouldn’t consider children at a human daycare siblings, right?
The pros of doggy daycare:
I have no interest in turning everyone off of using facilities with their dogs, that is not my goal here. There ARE good things about it! First and foremost being, your dog is gonna be tired. This must be the number one reason people bring their dogs, they use the socializing as a way to burn off their dog’s energy so they can enjoy the cute and cuddly side of their pooch, and lets be honest… we all prefer the pup snugs instead of the crazy, jumping dog when you walk into your house.
If GOOD doggy daycare is consistently and correctly used from puppyhood, it makes for a well-socialized pup. Socializing is important for so many reasons. One, someday you might want another dog! If your dog isn’t already socialized with other dogs… and is now aggressive, good luck getting a new one! What if someday you need to re-home your dog for whatever reason? Take it from me, it is hard to find a new home for a dog aggressive dog. A dog aggressive dog is also a liability… if your dog were to ever escape the yard and injure another pup walking by… YOU are responsible for that. As the owner it is your responsibility to socialize your dog from the moment you purchase/adopt it.
Some(by some I mean few) facilities employ very knowledgable staff, as in trainers, behaviorists, rescuers, etc, who know enough about canines to be able to modify your dog’s behavior and help them become comfortable around other dogs. This is the exception, not the rule, but nevertheless it is a definite pro. If you have rescued a dog who has some dog anxiety or aggression issues, it is possible it can be helped… with the right guidance and knowledgable people to help.
The cool thing about doggy daycares with knowledgable animal people is if you don’t know much about dogs, they can catch things you wouldn’t. There are many times where myself or my co-workers notice something about the dogs coming in and are able to share it with the owner. Whether it be odd behavior from a dog that we see almost daily, or injuries, or an illness, or a large dog growing incorrectly because of genetics or something… anything abnormal, we would be able to notice and bring to an owner’s attention. We even have a couple clients with dogs who have genetic diseases who come in so we can monitor them for their hard-working owners.
Now the cons:
Most facilities DONT have knowledgable staff and think about it, it is extremely costly to have vet techs, behaviorists, trainers, etc on staff. The reality is most employees for doggy daycares are high school kids looking for a short term job. Most places just employ them, throw them in the yard with sometimes up to 80 dogs and say “have at it!”, some will show a couple hour course about doggy body language then send them on their way with good luck wishes, only a small few facilities have career animal people as employees. Which employees would you want watching over your dog?
Over-escalation is a huge problem in these facilities. To understand this, you need to understand the canine brain which we break up into three parts, fore, mid and hind brain. We will focus on fore and hind. Forebrain is where your dog is when you are working through your obedience cues and he is thinking, hindbrain is where your dog is when the mailman comes or they are chasing the squirrel in the backyard. An over-escalated dog is in hindbrain. When they are in hindbrain they are essentially taken back to their roots and are in a purely instinctual state of mind, fight or flight. This is why a dog who has just been hit by a car could bite his owner even though he is the sweetest dog on the planet who wouldn’t hurt a fly in normal circumstances. When a dog is playing they begin to escalate, they get wound up and start teetering on that edge between normal behavior and escalated behavior. A rough playing dog can go from a body slamming good time to snapping and “aggressing” at their playmate within just a few seconds. With ill educated employees, that is terrifying. Over-escalation is the cause of most fights in facilities and if you do not know enough about dog behavior or body language to be able to recognize the dogs’ escalation levels and react accordingly by giving the dog a break or stepping into the play to redirect the attention, you will have a fight on your hands. From what I’ve heard from friends who were once employed by other (well-known) facilities, there were times they were breaking up fights sometimes six times a day, mostly just because of pure volume of dogs in the yard at one time and lack of humans to monitor it.
Dogs do learn from each other just as much as the learn from their owners. That is one reason why most will recommend leaving a puppy with its littermates for at least eight weeks, they learn valuable body language and behavior from one another. Anyone with multiple dogs can attest that dogs pick behaviors up from each other. My Erni didn’t bark until he was almost 10 months old and he learned it from a female I was fostering for a short time. Now, even after she has found her home, he barks. Quite the alert dog, he is. In facilities this can be problematic. Dogs can learn to jump, dogs can learn to bark, to resource guard, push through doorways, react at crate/kennel doors, etc.
Your dog can be hurt. Anyone who tells you that your dog could not possibly be harmed is not being truthful. Just like children at daycare or in school, your dogs can come home with scratches from another dog while they played, scraped paw pads, a limp from being jumped on, scratched face from trying to escape a crate, its even possible your dog was the victim of an over-escalated dog and was bit. It does happen. And anyone who says otherwise is lying.
Now, I’ve gone on and on about the dangers and compared facilities. Some are good and some are bad. But how do you know? How do you pick a good from a bad facility? First, you need to trust your gut. I know many dog owners are not very knowledgable, so it could be difficult to feel like you can truly make an educated decision, but you can definitely trust your intuition. If you feel like something doesn’t add up or you don’t feel comfortable, do not leave your dog there. Do not let someone talk you into something you are uncomfortable with because they sound like they know more than you because, it’s possible they don’t know much more than you! Be weary of facilities where your dog isn’t given the opportunity to rest. Just like children, our dogs need a chance to settle down and relax. They need to have down time just like they need to be able to play. ASK what kind of training the employees receive before they are working with the dogs because it is important. Just having a dog at home is not enough experience to be the single human in a yard with 35-80 dogs. Ask where your dog goes if they are overwhelmed, where they can go to have their own space in case the yard is too over-stimulating for them. Ask how the dogs are introduced to group, if they respond “on leash” LEAVE. It’s one thing to have a dog on leash with it dragging behind them just in case, its another to introduce dogs face to face on a tight leash, if they don’t know what that does to a dog behaviorally, they do not know enough to leave your dog there. If they say that they just throw the dog in the yard, LEAVE. Having cameras for the owners doesn’t mean much, either. Like I mentioned before, if you don’t have the knowledge you can’t really tell what is happening on those videos. For example, if you’re watching you see a dog resting, I see that cute Golden Retriever laying in the corner as a terrified, over stimulated dog in the wrong playgroup. If they will allow you in the yard with your dog to watch them play, LEAVE. A dog will ALWAYS behave differently when their owner is around. It is dangerous for you, your dog and the other dogs for you to enter the yard to watch play at any point in time. If possible, find a facility where there are SMALL play groups rotated throughout the day. Ours has a 15 dog max per playgroup, but most of the time the groups hover around 6 to 8 dogs. 35-80 dogs is simply too many dogs to ensure as much physical, mental and emotional safety as possible.
If anyone would like to inquire further about doggy daycare facilities, facility names, horror stories, or alternatives to daycare feel free to contact me. I am more than open to answering any questions anyone may have or even advising anyone on where to take their dog.
Licks to everyone!