Wednesday, 18 January 2017

#TrainYourDogMonth: Doggy Daycares

Doggy Daycares

Originally Posted January 18 / 2017

January is #TrainYourDogMonth

If your dog is bored at home during the day, has a lot of playful energy, and is very well-socialized, then a doggy daycare might be a good fit.  It’s important to choose the right daycare to ensure your dog has fun and is safe and I hope this blog post can help you do so.  

Although there are some awesome ones out there, some doggy daycares make dog trainers cringe with worry.  This is not a blog post against doggy daycares in general, but outlines a few things to look out for when deciding if this is the right fit for your dog, and what factors you may want to consider when making that decision.

Full disclosure: I own and operate Pawsitive Pet Care, which is a pet care service.  We offer dog walking services in which we walk dogs from their own homes.  We also offer single-dog and low-numbers doggy daycare, so we want to fully acknowledge both our personal and professional biases here.

1.  Staff-to-Dog-Ratio

In a controlled environment like a training class, the recommended staff-to-dog radio is 5:1 or less (Ryan, 2008).  In an uncontrolled situation like a daycare, the ratio should be even lower, yet it can be 10 dogs or even more per staff member, and the staff are sometimes inexperienced in reading dog body language (again, in some facilities, not all).  Not being adept at reading social signalling amongst dogs can lead to an increase in tension among the dogs, stress, and ultimately fights.  Not to mention if a fight does break out and you have one person per 10 dogs this is a danger to both the dogs and the staff member.

When looking for a good, reputable, safe daycare, choose one that has low numbers, a low dog-to-staff radio, and will allow you to observe their staff interacting with the dogs.

Which brings me to the next concern.

2.  Inexperienced Staff 

I certainly do not want to paint all daycares or their staff with the same brush.  Some daycares may have skilled, excellently trained staff who are amazing at reading dogs and interpreting their social cues.  This is why it is important to ask what type of training the staff receive and what type of experience they have in managing large groups of dogs.

A good, skilled daycare should have all of its staff trained in understanding dog body language.  There are many excellent webinars and courses available online and there is also a workshop held at our local Humane Society called “What Is My Dog Saying?

This is not only important for preventing tension and fights, it is also important for gauging dogs’ enjoyment of the daycare setting.  By observing dog’s posture and communication we can monitor their stress levels and determine whether they are actually having fun or are terrified and overwhelmed, as many dogs can be in a large group.

3.  Giant Dogs with Teeny Dogs

Many large and giant breed dogs can live peacefully and safely with small and even toy dogs.  That said, it is one scenario to have dogs get along in the comfort of their own home, and a completely different story when in a high-energy situation such as playing with unfamiliar dogs of all shapes and sizes.  A very friendly giant dog can very easily hurt a small dog just by being playful.

A good daycare will have small and large breeds separated for their safety.

4.  Overstimulation!

An adult dog needs an average of 12-14 hours of sleep per day.  Let’s estimate they get about 8 hours overnight while we're sleeping.  Many dogs get another 4-6 hours during the day while their owners are at work.  If they’re at daycare all day in a high-energy, stimulating environment, they’re bound to get tired.  And just like people, tired dogs can get grouchy.  Dogs have their limits too and that tolerance level decreases with each hour of sleep missed.

A good daycare will enforce “quiet time”, will have a nap room, and will allow dogs to sleep or have time away from the group when they need it.  Back to reading dogs well, a good daycare will be able to observe dog behaviour and pick up on when a dog needs some space or alone time.

5.  Puppies

During puppy development puppies have a critical socialization period that is said to span from approximately 3 weeks of age until approximately 16 weeks of age, with some individual differences.  Puppies under 4 months of age should not attend daycare, not only due to this sensitive period, but also because of the number of dogs on site and the risk of illness for puppies who have not completed their vaccinations.

Experiences during the critical period can have a major influence on a puppy's future sociability, fearfulness, and overall behaviour.  If a puppy has a bad experience, such as being overwhelmed or crowded by a group of larger dogs, the puppy may become defensive.  With repeated experiences such as this, a puppy can easily grow up to become an adult dog who is fearful of other dogs - and defensive behaviour often looks like, or turns into, aggressive behaviour.

If you're looking for help socializing your puppy, consider a positive, specialized class.  Our local Humane Society offers a Puppy Socialization class.   If you just don't want to leave your puppy alone all day and want some help providing company and potty breaks, consider a pet sitter or puppy walker.

A good daycare will not allow puppies so young and will recommend a socialization class at a reputable and positive training facility, or perhaps they will invite clients to attend their own classes rather than the daycare, if they offer their own. 

6.  Disease Control 

In addition to potential socialization risks, young puppies are at greater risk for health repercussions as their immune systems are na├»ve.  Even fully vaccinated dogs and puppies can potentially get sick (not just at daycares, of course, this can happen at groomers, boarding kennels, dog parks, anywhere that larger numbers of dogs share a space).  

On that note, another concern with daycares and any other place where large numbers of dogs pass through and interact is the potential spread of communicable diseases.  For example, kennel cough (Bordetella) is highly contagious and can have serious impact on vulnerable dogs such as young puppies, senior dogs, and dogs with underlying health issues.  Even vaccinated dogs can still get bordetella.  For a healthy vaccinated dog it may just be like a "dog cold", presenting as a cough that passes after a week or so, but for some dogs it can pose a larger health risk.  

As much as daycares and other facilities may follow a rigorous cleaning protocol, if the dogs are interacting with each other, playing, wrestling, sharing water dishes or toys, etc., then it's nearly impossible to eliminate the risk.  Many daycares and boarding facilities don't even require the dogs who attend to have their bordetella vaccination.  

For dogs who are healthy, fully vaccinated, and get great enjoyment out of daycare, this may be a relatively minor concern.  For any others, this should be an important consideration when deciding whether or not to send one's dog to daycare.  Always ask prospective businesses about their sanitization protocols and their vaccination requirements.  

7.  DOGS ARE NOT PACK ANIMALS (No, really!) 

Dogs are highly social animals.  Dogs are not pack animals.  Wolves are pack animals.  Dogs are not wolves.  Dogs share almost all of their DNA with wolves, but behaviourally are very different, especially because dogs are domesticated and wolves are not.  There is a lot of scientific literature out there if you are interested in learning more, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog post.

Click here for an excellent, easy-to-read blog post on this topic.  

A good daycare will not incite pack theory as a marketing tool.  A good daycare will understand that not all dogs like other dogs and not all dogs are suited for a daycare setting.  A good daycare will let the owners know if their dog is not having fun and will recommend alternatives such as a dog walking service.

8.  Daycares are NOT for the Process of Socializing Dogs

Seriously.  Daycares are for allowing already well-socialized dogs to interact and play because they enjoy the experience.  If a dog has difficulty getting along with other dogs, is fearful or reactive, then daycare is not the place for them.  Being flooded by a group of dogs will only exacerbate the problem.

For good information on flooding, and why it is dangerous for fearful dogs, visit Debbie Jacob's website.

A good daycare will screen for sociability and the dog’s willingness and interest in playing with other dogs.  A good daycare will recommend a qualified, compassionate trainer to help you if your dog is struggling with fear and/or reactivity or other complex behavioural issues.

Phoenix is a social but shy girl who would be overwhelmed in a group environment.

In closing, I want to reiterate that not all daycares are the same and there are some that are run by very knowledgeable people who train their staff, have low ratios, and truly understand dog behaviour.  If you have a dog who is already well socialized and has a lot of playful energy, then I hope this helps you find the right daycare for your dog.  A good daycare will have a screening process and will allow you to come and observe how the staff and dogs interact.  A good daycare will have small numbers of dogs who look loose, relaxed, and happy.  For more on dog body language, consider a webinar or online course to help.  If you are local, check out: “What Is My Dog Saying?

If you need help with behaviour concerns with your dog, please

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Jillian Enright, CPDT-KA

About The Author

Jillian is a fear-free certified and CPDT-KA certified animal behaviour specialist and has been working in the animal care and behaviour field since 2009.  


Ryan, Terry (2008) Coaching People to Train Their Dogs, second edition.

2018 Update

November 14 / 2018

I recently saw an article in the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) blog, called "Barks From The Guild" on the topic of daycares and wanted to share some great points from the perspective of a long-time doggy daycare operator.  Here is the link to the original article: written by Danette Johnston.

In her article, she outlines important ways to know if Doggy Daycare is not the right fit for your pooch.  Her main points or questions to ask yourself are as follows (Danette's words are in purple and she expands on each point in her original article):

  • The physical space does not work for your dog
    • Space is a huge factor for all dogs, even those who are well-socialized.  A dog who is a little shy will need to feel like she can get away when she wants or needs to.  This is especially true if there are too many dogs in one room or in one facility.  (Danette Johnston goes into more detail in her article).
  • Your dog goes to day care too often
    • Yes, even a social butterfly needs a day off! 
  • Your day care dog is not getting socialized sufficiently and is missing out on other, very important stuff. 
    • While daycare allows your dog an opportunity to play and exercise, it should not completely replace walks and training with her family.  Walks and training are important sources of both enrichment and bonding. 
  • Your day care provider is not talking to you.
    • It is very important that your daycare provider give you regular updates and that you are able to check in and get specific information on how your dog is doing there.  Your daycare provider should be honest with you if your dog is not enjoying her experience. 
  • Your day care staff is not trained.
    • More to my point made earlier - always ask the daycare owner what type of training the staff receive.  This should include training in pet first aid as well as canine body language. 

Danette Johnston owns Dog’s Day Out in Seattle, Washington and has been a licensed veterinary technician in the state of Washington and is a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA). 

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