Dog daycare providers can help you meet your dog’s needs for attention, activity and supervision. They provide a great antidote for bored, lonely or high-energy dogs with busy guardians who work away from home all day and don’t want to leave their dogs alone. Daycare isn’t for everybody—or every dog—but if yours enjoys playing and socializing with other dogs and the cost is appropriate for your budget, it can be a great option for your home-alone pal.
Daycare for dogs works similarly to daycare for children. You drop off your dog in the morning, and she gets to play, socialize, snack and nap while you’re off working. Then you pick her up at the end of the workday. Instead of your dog greeting you workday with loads of pent-up energy, she’ll be pleasantly tired and ready to relax with you all evening.
Most daycares offer half-day or full-day options and everything from daily and weekly to occasional care. Dog daycare is offered at facilities that are specifically designed as daycares as well as at traditional boarding kennels. Most are open 12 hours a day (from 7:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. ), Monday through Friday. Some businesses also offer training, grooming services, dog pickup and delivery, and even transport to veterinary appointments.
You could think of most dogs today as “unemployed.” Dogs have been traditionally bred for jobs—typically in hunting, livestock herding, protection or guarding. But their main job today is Couch Potato! Unfortunately, boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for behavior problems in pet dogs.
The main benefits daycares can provide are:
- Relief from boredom
- Relief from loneliness and the anxiety that loneliness can cause in dogs (including separation anxiety)
- Socialization with people
- Much-needed exercise and socialization with other dogs
- Prevention of destructive behavior in the house when unsupervised
- Relief from guilt for pet parents who feel badly about leaving their dogs home alone all day
Is Daycare Right for Your Dog?
Good candidates for daycare are healthy, spayed or neutered and well-socialized dogs who really enjoy other dogs and seek interaction with them at every opportunity. Young dogs often adjust to the daycare environment better than older ones. If your dog is a regular at dog parks, and she plays a lot and enjoys herself there, then daycares are probably ideal for her.
However, some dogs do better sleeping at home alone than spending the day in the company of other dogs. If your dog has ever bitten another dog; is regularly aggressive toward other dogs (snarling, growling or snapping); is fearful, tense or anxious; or tends to avoid or just tolerate other dogs, then daycare is probably not right for her. Hiring a dog walker, asking friends or neighbors to visit your dog in the middle of the day, coming home at lunch, or taking your dog to a boarding kennel may be better options for you.
Other unsuitable candidates for daycare include:
- Unvaccinated puppies
- Females in heat and unneutered males
- Undersocialized dogs who haven’t had sufficient pleasant experiences with a wide variety of other dogs
- Bullies who tend to pick on other dogs
- “Dog dorks” who lack good social skills and whose intensity and energy often seem to annoy or scare other dogs
- “Fun police” dogs (often herding breeds) who run around trying to control the movements of other dogs and interfere with their playing
If you decide your dog is a good candidate and has been evaluated and accepted into a daycare, it’s a good idea for you to stay and observe for a bit the first day and on occasion after that. Also, after the first couple of visits, pay attention to whether your dog seems happy and pleasantly tired afterward or stressed and overwhelmed. Another good way to decide whether she’s enjoying daycare is to observe her closely the next time you drop her off. Does she show any signs of stress or avoidance as you approach the daycare? Is she reluctant to enter? Or does she approach and enter the building looking happy and relaxed or excited?
Please see Canine Body Language for illustrations of dogs that will help you to accurately interpret your dog’s body language and understand what she’s feeling. This interpretation is not as intuitive as some people think—we often forget that dogs are a different species than us! They can express the same feelings we do, but in very different ways.
What to Look For
Knowledgeable personnel are crucial to a safe, professional and enjoyable daycare business. Ask whether your daycare’s employees have received professional training from seminars or videos by experts with academic credentials in the field of animal behavior, such as those with a doctoral or master’s degree in animal behavior, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs) or, at minimum, Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDTs). Your daycare’s employees must understand basic canine communication, including body postures and signals. If employees are unable to accurately interpret dogs’ body language and social communication, then they won’t know what’s going on among the dogs. Lack of such awareness is risky and could be downright dangerous. It could lead to chronic stress for dogs who are scared or overwhelmed but forced to continue to interact with other dogs because the staff don’t recognize their discomfort. And it could lead to serious fights breaking out because employees don’t see tensions rising among the dogs and, therefore, don’t intervene to calm things down. Having daycare employees who don’t understand dog communication would be like trying to run a business with staff who speak a different language than your customers!
You also want to look for employees who are well trained in dog handling and behavior management and who closely monitor dog activity at all times. Ask about the daycare’s relationships with local Certified Professional Dog Trainers. Did the daycare consult with a reputable professional trainer or behaviorist to develop their playgroup guidelines or staff training programs? Ask for details about the facility’s dog handling and training methods to confirm that you’re comfortable with them. You might ask several “what if” questions like: What would you do if my dog barks too much? What would you do if another dog keeps bothering my dog? What would you do if my dog growls at another dog?
A rule-of-thumb for adequate staffing is to have, at minimum, one employee per 10 to15 dogs.
Unfortunately, however, there are no national standards for daycares. The American Boarding Kennel Association offers online, self-study educational materials. They “certify” pet care technicians (CPCT) and kennel operators (CKO), but this doesn’t guarantee that certified individuals understand dog handling and behavior management.
- The daycare should be compliant with Occupation Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines and regulations, and it should have emergency training and plans. (OSHA is the government agency that oversees safety & health legislation in the workplace.)
- The daycare’s play area should ideally provide 75 to 100 square feet per dog. For example, if there are 25 dogs, the play area should be about 2500 square feet.
- The daycare should be clean, sanitary and organized. It’s advisable to visit it more than once. The first time, you may come at a good or bad time. It should be cleaned daily—or twice daily if the facility also offers boarding. There shouldn’t be any lingering odors, and dog waste should be removed immediately. It should be free of debris and clutter. Ventilation is a critical disease prevention measure.
The dogs should have plenty of toys (if toys are allowed), as well as equipment to play with or on or under. They should be given access to safe, comfortable napping spots. Staff should interact regularly with the dogs and walk them outdoors routinely to maintain house training.
- Ask about the daycare’s vaccination policies. Policies and veterinary recommendations are changing across the country, and the facility may have its own. Ensure that the daycare will abide by your veterinarian’s vaccination protocol. Most veterinarians recommend puppies have at least two rounds of their vaccination series before going into daycare. Most veterinarians also recommend that dogs who go to kennels, daycares or dog parks get vaccinated for bordetella, the most common cause of tracheobronchitis (kennel cough) in dogs, at least one week in advance. (Some veterinarians recommend yearly bordetella vaccinations; others recommend biannual vaccinations. Consult with your veterinarian to find out what’s right for your dog.)
- Ask about the daycare’s flea-prevention plan. Canine clients should be required to be reasonably flea-free.
- Ask if employees are trained in animal First Aid and CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). Also ask what the daycare’s protocol is in the event of emergency illness or injury. Does someone on staff know how to administer first aid? Will your dog be taken to a veterinarian or emergency hospital if necessary?
- Toys and objects in the play yard Toys and other objects a dog may value can be problematic for resource guarders (dogs who are aggressively possessive of things). If the daycare’s intake evaluation screens for resource guarding and doesn’t accept dogs who are possessive of things they value, having toys and objects around during play is probably fine.
- Floors and fencing The floors should have wall-to-wall, washable rubber mats. The dogs should not have direct access to doors that lead to unfenced outdoor areas. All fencing should be in good repair and high enough to keep dogs safely contained. Fencing barriers should be used when adding new dogs to the main play room to prevent new additions from being mobbed when they first enter.
- Collars Some facilities remove all collars (flat, choke, prong, martingale, etc.), while others just remove choke chains and prong collars. This is done to eliminate the danger of dogs accidentally choking each other or getting a paw or jaw stuck in a collar. Both have been known to happen.
- Behavior assessments Many daycares conduct an initial behavior assessment to determine how a dog behaves around other dogs and people. An assessment may give staff a rough idea of a dog’s behavioral tendencies—but it’s important to acknowledge that a single, on-the-spot behavior test can’t definitively determine a dog’s temperament or personality. An assessment should not be used to label your dog or to identify her personality traits. Traits are characteristics and behaviors that are consistent over time and in various contexts, so a short one-time test can’t accurately identify them.
- Comprehensive intake interview with dog guardians A thorough interview with you is more important than your dog’s on –site assessment, since it covers your dog’s behavioral history. Known behaviors that have occurred over time in a dog’s history provide more solid information about her temperament than an artificial one-time test can. The facility operator should thoroughly question you about your dog’s behavior in various situations, including aggressive and fearful behavior. Paperwork should elicit solid information as well—not just ask cutesy questions about your dog’s favorite color of blanket. Whether she likes pink or blue is not so important if she’s been in three serious fights at the dog park!
- Breed bans Some facilities ban certain breeds, while others evaluate dogs based on their individual merits. The latter is preferable.
- Dog introductions Introductions should be done slowly, one at a time, starting with the most congenial dog. Ideally, your dog should first be introduced to one older, socially experienced, gentle female. Several more one-on-one introductions with other dogs should follow. Then more dogs can be added to the group until there’s a small group of about 7 to 10 dogs milling around. Finally, your dog can be taken into the main play room with all the daycare dogs.
- Reproductive status Many daycares require that all dog clients be spayed or neutered. If that’s not the case at your daycare, verify that employees understand that intact males are more likely to behave aggressively toward each other, and even well-behaved intact males may provoke aggression from other males simply because of their hormones. (Other males can detect an intact male dog’s high level of testosterone, which may excite or upset them.)
The structure of your dog’s playgroup is important to her enjoyment and her safety. The safest number of dogs per group is 6 to 10, and it’s important to have dogs of similar size in any group. When there is a 50% or greater difference in size between dogs, the risk of “predatory drift” is higher. (Predatory drift refers to a situation in which a larger dog suddenly perceives a much smaller dog as prey.)
In addition to being structured according to the number and size of dogs, the most successful playgroups are also organized by play styles. This takes some time and skilled observation. For example, German shepherds can be vocal and do a lot of flank-grabbing and hip checking. Their style could be stressful for a shy Lab mix who prefers to lie on the ground and chew on her playmate, or to a spritely Weimaraner who’s bouncy but doesn’t enjoy much bodily contact. Similarly, some bully breeds, such as American pit bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers, and many Labradors and boxers naturally do a lot of body slamming and wrestling during play, whereas herding breeds, such as border collies, Australian shepherds and Australian cattle dogs, do a lot of chasing and nipping. It’s best to keep these styles separate and allow dogs who share similar play tendencies to play with one another. Some facilities do color coding of their dogs according to personality, history, size and play style. This kind of organization can be very helpful and indicates a high degree of thoughtfulness and thoroughness on the part of the daycare.
How long your daycare allows play sessions to run will depend on the dogs involved, but all dogs in daycare need naps and quiet times between play sessions. Find out how often dogs get time on their own to rest and where dogs are kept when separated for play breaks.
Watch some play groups at the daycare that you’re considering for your dog. Look for appropriate play, such as reciprocity and role changes in wrestling, chasing, mounting, etc. For example, sometimes a dog is chasing, and at other times she’s being chased. Sometimes a dog is on top while wrestling, and sometimes she’s on the bottom. Chances of play becoming tense and tipping over into aggression are higher when the play becomes consistently one-sided, with only one dog always pursuing or on top. Other signs of good play are relaxed, curvy-looking bodies, bouncy movements, play bows (when a dog puts her elbows on the ground and her hind end in the air), rest breaks (often around water stations), brief pauses during play and game changes (first wrestling, then chasing, then playing tug with a toy, etc.), and open-mouthed jaw wrestling.
Signs during play that trouble might be ahead are constant barking, bullying and ganging up, body slamming by just one dog (not reciprocal), stiff bodies and deliberate movements, a dog who tries to disengage and wants to rest but her play partner doesn’t let her, clashing play styles, avoidance, increasing speed and intensity, and any signs of stress or fear. Signs of fear include a tucked tail, yawning, ears down or back, rapid panting, crouching or cowering, and piloerection (raised hackles). Signs that require immediate intervention by staff include stalking, hard, long stares, and repeated scuffles that last more than five seconds.
What to Avoid
- Overcrowding A good rule of thumb for the optimal size of a dog daycare facility is 100 square feet per large dog, and 50 to 60 square feet per small or medium dog. It’s well documented in psychological research that overcrowding leads to aggression in most animal species, including human beings.
- Limited access Avoid any daycare that prohibits dog guardians from visiting their dog at any time, with or without advance notice. Also avoid daycares that do not allow you to tour the entire facility and observe playgroups before signing your dog up.
- Unwillingness to meet your dog’s needs A conscientious daycare will accept and honor your request that your dog receive a special diet or medication that you provide.
- Poor customer service Loving dogs is not enough. Staff should also be courteous and friendly to human clients!
- Dogs left unattended Dogs should never be left unattended. If a second person is not available at all times for back-up, the daycare should have arrangements for another employee to arrive quickly if an emergency requires the regular attendant to leave.