Daycare seems to offer today’s busy dog owner the perfect solution to the dilemma of what to do with the dog during the 8-10 hour workday. They (should) offer safe, clean, engaging surroundings that will keep dogs happy while their people are away. Some offer incredible amenities – Barley’s Canine Recreation Center in Salt Lake City offers optional swimming sessions, for example.
And while daycare can be a blessing for many dog owners, it’s important to know that not all dogs – not even all social dogs – benefit from repeated exposure to a daycare setting. Here’s why:
* The vast majority of daycare facilities are staffed with people who may love dogs, but are not formally trained in reading and responding appropriately to dog body language and behavior. This leaves dogs largely governing themselves, practicing behaviors that may (or may not) be desirable to their owners.
* Many dog daycare facilities have a REALLY unbalanced dog:employee ratio. Too many dogs with too few guardians means too much goes unaddressed – until it reaches crisis point. At which point, dogs have learned only negative things.
* Most dogs don’t need – or even benefit from – that kind of social interaction on a repeated (say, 5-day-a-week) basis. Once in a while is great, even two-three times a week may be fine, but we rarely see dogs thrive when they’re in daycare all the time.
* We believe that a balanced adult dog should sleep between 14-16 hours a day. We know how we feel when we’re sleep deprived, right? Snappish, irritable, erratic, not our best selves. We see the SAME THINGS IN DOGS.
* Remember: a dog’s life is all about routine. Do we really our dogs conditioned to be up and alert all day? They’ll adapt as much as possible to the life we ask them to lead, even if that means staying up when they’d be better off napping.
* Dogs can learn many things from one another, which is a blessing and a curse. Many practice and can even pick up bad habits from other dogs – and the setting. Dogs who are allowed to jump up on daycare workers have a harder time learning not to jump up on everyone at home, for example. Dogs who are natural herders or guarders, and who are allowed to herd other dogs at daycare or act as the “fun police” to other dogs, have a harder time curbing that behavior at home – which can manifest in nipping children, passers-by, visitors, etc.
If you think your dog would benefit from and enjoy daycare, we have the following recommendations:
* Know your dog, and let that guide your choice of daycare facilities. If your dog needs attention, look for a smaller, or (better yet) trainer-run daycare.
* Look for a daycare that includes at least some structured “down time” for the dogs.
* Ask about staffing ratios, and staff training. The better trained the staff, the better the chances will be that your dog will not be picking up naughty habits.
* Ask for feedback, regularly. Even if your facility has web cams, that won’t necessarily tell you what you need to know. And any hesitation on the part of the daycare to provide feedback on your dog’s behavior is a red flag. A quality daycare will be up front about your dog’s (mis)behavior, even if that means you scale back on the frequency of your visits.
Other red flags:
* If you’re just starting to send your dog to daycare, be super watchful for any behavior changes at home. A quality daycare experience will send your dog home relaxed. Not amped up, not needing to blow off steam, not so exhausted she sleeps for the next two days. That’s not a balanced, happy life.
Watch for slippage in your dog’s existing training foundation. If your dog begins to disregard or forget your “house rules” – rushing through opening doors, for example, or jumping up on guests, when these are issues you’d worked on and established expectations for, daycare may be playing a role.
* Watch social interactions, with people and other dogs. If your dog is becoming pushy (or fearful, or avoidant), she could be picking stuff up at daycare.
* Be VERY careful about sending puppies (dogs under a year) to daycare. They’re in an incredibly impressionable stage of life, and need help to find their confidence and understand mannered behavior. If you must send your puppy to a daycare, make SURE they have the time and the training to give your puppy the attention she needs.
Many dogs can find daycare fun and fulfilling. But not all. The more thoughtful we are about whether our dogs are suited for that setting, and whether the setting suits their needs, the better.