By Hillary Alexander and Kasey Nash
Dog daycares are becoming increasingly popular as more people realize the benefits of exercise and companionship rather than home alone. As dog owners we all want our dogs to enjoy the day, get exercise – even learn some new skills. Surely this is better than a day of solitude.
The biggest challenge is finding the right daycare for your puppy or dog. There are certainly a number of strategies out there; shopping around, asking friends, reading reviews. While these are important strategies you’ll want to begin your search with some idea of what your dog really needs when it comes to his preference for certain activities, his need for exercise, level of maturity, play style, and any idiosyncrasies or dislikes. This will make your search and decision more informed because you will have a better idea of what you are looking for.
The Search Begins – At Home
Your search for a daycare begins at home. Sit down with your spouse, kids, and friends who are familiar with your dog. Obtaining their input can be clarifying and even help steer you in the right direction.
Make three lists; one will be your dog’s loves, likes and dislikes. The second list will be your, “Must Have’s,” like outdoor time to run, naps in the middle of the day to help him settle, types of toys, level of supervision, types of canine companions, games or other activities he enjoys. What constitutes a great day in his book?
The third list will be any behavior quirks and/or challenges. None are too small or insignificant to mention so be exhaustive. For example, does your dog dislike men, children, uniforms, large groups of dogs, little dogs?
This exercise will help you define what you are looking for, your, “must have’s,” as well as less important things. For example, does he need to get outside for a run? Does his prefer structure, dislike rough play, become over-stimulated without a nap in the afternoon? If he is under a year he is sure to need structure and ongoing training, as well as proper socialization with other dogs and people. Once you know what questions to ask, you’ll have some idea what you are looking for.
Now you are ready to begin your search. Talking to friends, to their friends, and reading online reviews are helpful, however since every dog is unique no one can say which daycare might be the, The One.
Most well run and reputable daycares start with a behavior evaluation to determine whether your dog or puppy is a good candidate for their program. This is also your opportunity to evaluate the daycare firsthand. You would do the same for your child’s daycare and where possible you’ll stay a while and observe how he is adjusting to staff, other children and his surroundings. It is important to do this for your dog as well. Whether you have half an hour or half a day it is important you observe your dog in his new environment. The more you know about his day the better decision you can make. His behavior will speak volumes; is he engaged or standing off to one side, does he prefer to interact with one or two dogs rather than many, and is there adequate staff to safely supervise the dogs on hand? In our experience we’ve seen some daycares with upwards of 50 or 60 dogs in one play area supervised by a single staff person.
Here are some additional considerations:
- Check the cleanliness of the facility. When you walk in the doors of any kennel or daycare check for odors; whether those first smells are strongly of bleach, urine or feces will tell you volumes about that facility’s sanitation. If it smells too strongly of any one cleaning product, ask how they protect the dogs from those chemicals? Ask about their sanitation procedures; do they clean-as-you-go or end-of-the-day deep cleans? Any facility with a large number of dogs will pick up a lot of bugs so sanitation is a health issue.
- Make sure the environment is safe and spacious! A small place for breaks, meals and snack times, crate time, are fantastic — but not if used for more than a short time. Ask how long your dog or puppy will spend crated. If your dog is a fence climber or a gate dodger, be sure the facility is double or triple gated, that fences are tall enough to discourage escape. If they have an outdoor area, is it secure as well as clean and fresh smelling?
- Ask about staff-to-dog ratios. It is important to ask about their dog to staff ratio. As mentioned earlier, many daycares across the U.S. and Canada have a 1:15 ratio, meaning one staff to 15 dogs. It is perfectly fine to ask about what kind of training they receive, how experienced they are and what outside education or training they have.
- Is there training staff on hand? Every daycare should have at least one trainer available on-site during business hours. Ideally all staff that interact with your dog will be knowledgeable in dog behavior and communication. Having a staff member tell you whether your dog felt stressed that day or whether they observed a subtle difference in their gait or play will keep you informed, in the loop and able to make decisions regarding your dog’s health and wellbeing. It is also important that staff is familiar with canine first aid and CPR. While staff turnover may not be an issue to a dog who adapts well to new people, a high rate of turnover is indicative of challenges management may face that could impact your dog.
- What is this daycare’s acceptance policy? Ask to see the center’s acceptance policy for dogs. Since you cannot be there 24/7 to protect your dog from unwanted rough play, bullying, or otherwise inappropriate behavior, it is important to know the daycare will exclude those types of dogs. Keep in mind that while some centers may accept these dogs, they must have measures in place to prevent them from interacting with the more appropriately behaving dogs.
- Ask about their daily routine. What time does staff come in, vs when do they open? What happens to the dogs when they’re boarding, and if they do board are they left alone at night? How much attention are the dogs given while staff is busy cleaning? How do they safely clean around the dogs? What time are the dogs fed, and what time are they put to bed? What activities are available to break up the time spent in their kennel? Is there an extra cost for human interaction, or are there fulfilling activities during the day?
- Learn what activities are available for your dog. If your dog is mellow or senior he or she may not require a lot of interaction. However like most of us lots of dogs need and prefer the company of others, be they canine or human. They also need activities that exercise their mind and body. Ask staff what options are available to improve your dog’s experience, behavior and happiness. Daycares that offer structured activities are still rare across the US, but look for training, structured games, agility, walks, and time with their own kind, be it a group nap or hang-out time following a walk.
- Ask about intervention procedures. Problems such as growling, nipping, humping, and inappropriate/rough play are things that arise daily in all daycare environments. How the staff and management respond to these occurrences is important. Ideally their response will vary with each situation. Let them give you some examples of how they intervene when an overly aroused dog or group becomes too rough, or there is a disagreement over a toy. Their response will tell volumes about their philosophy on shaping dog behavior and protecting the dogs in their care. Shouting and physical manipulation/punishment are not appropriate, especially when time-outs and verbal obedience cues are more effective.
- Simply observe. Lastly, it is important that you observe the activities and facility yourself. Having asked your questions, spend time noticing both your dog and the others around him. Watch the interactions, how staff responds. Imagine this is your child’s daycare and watch the other children/dogs, how they respond to supervision, to verbal cues. Are they responsive? Do they ignore staff? Move away from instead of toward them? How engaged is staff? Most daycares will give you a way to view playtime without interfering, and this is your chance to make an informed decision. Finally, if you encounter any red flags or areas of concern, discuss them with staff before making up your mind.
- Going Home. When you pick up your dog how does he behave? Is he blissful, calm without being exhausted, attentive yet relaxed or over-stimulated?
There are many considerations when choosing a daycare but once you are clear about your dog’s behavior, his needs and, “Must Have’s,” you’ll be asking the above questions above with more confidence than the majority of dog owners trying to make the right choice for their dog.
An added benefit to being informed is the relationship you create with the daycare staff. Sharing concerns and asking questions opens a dialog and lets them know you are involved, interested and knowledgeable. This makes you the best advocate your dog can have.
To find out more or schedule an evaluation for our ALL-INCLUSIVE DAYCARE PROGRAM at the Hound House, please call (415) 453-4515.