In 2008, Americans spent over $43 billion on their pets – double of just a decade ago and more than what they spend on movies, video games and listening to recorded music combined. By 2010 this number is projected to grow to over $52 billion. This demand is projected to increase exponentially every year as pet owners find themselves working longer hours, traveling more for business and personal reasons, looking for alternatives to crowded kennels, and generally spending more on their furry family members. (“Industry Overview” from Fetchpetcare.com
It’s clear that people have a need for dog care services and this need is only projected to grow. What had never been conceived of just a decade ago is now considered the norm in a lot of places–taking your dog to a facility where he is looked after all day. Dog daycare service takes many forms. There are “mobile units” that spend much of the day in a dog park, there are very small operations run out of residential homes that may only take in a handful of dogs each day, and there are large-scale operations that operate out of warehouses or other commercial spaces. When run responsibly, by knowledgeable professionals, dog daycare can be a very safe and positive experience for your dog. As with many areas of the pet industry (food, training, etc.) there is minimal if any regulation of dog daycare facilities. Many facilities are staffed by self-professed “dog lovers” that are working for near minimum wage, not professionals in dog behavior, pack management, or even veterinary medicine. How do you find the safe facilities and how do you even know if your dog would be happy at doggy daycare? Let’s dive in: we’ll discuss the claims made by dog daycare facilities and the reality as it may pertain to your unique dog, and what to find out before you sign up your dog for his first week of doggy daycare.
Claim #1: Doggy daycare is a great socialization opportunity for your dog
Not totally incorrect, but this is not a “one size fits all” benefit either. In fact, eight hours or more of near constant interaction might be a miserable experience for your particular dog if he’s older or has a more laid back personality. The most vital period of canine socialization your dog had was between 3 and 7 weeks of age with his litter. That’s not to say that your dog shouldn’t continue to be exposed to healthy, balanced, safe dogs throughout his life to reinforce good manners, but the group hanging out at your local doggy daycare may not be the best influence! Dogs that spend a lot of time in doggy daycare can actually develop behavior problems as they pick up bad habits from other dogs, or get picked on and develop aggression or anxiety. This comes down to knowing your dog: if your dog is a well-adjusted, social, high energy dog, that largely goes through the world unfazed, he’ll probably thrive in doggy daycare. If your dog is on the shy and nervous side, doggy daycare may have to wait until he’s had more exposure to dogs in a less intense setting. Alternatively, if the facility maintains a lower population and can assure you your dog will be given adequate down time and the employees are able to recognize when he needs a break, it may work out just fine. On the opposite end, if your dog tends to be dominant or somewhat of a bully, for the safety of everyone else, it’s probably a good idea to pass on doggy daycare. The safest dogs in doggy daycare are the ones that are already well adjusted and well socialized. Using doggy daycare to socialize your under-socialized dog could be a risky prospect.
Claim #2: They separate by size to ensure your dog’s safety
This is a nice precautionary measure for smaller dogs that may be overwhelmed or even viewed as prey by larger dogs, but dog fights can and do occur in a pack of small dogs as well. Separating by size is not enough—dogs must be separated by energy and dominance levels. For example, placing three very dominating dogs in a single group, especially if they’re all the same size, is begging for trouble. Better to separate these “leaders” among different groups. If a group of high energy Labradors is together and you throw in a more subdued greyhound, the greyhound might be completely overwhelmed by the activity. Pack dynamics is an important consideration, and the people supervising the dogs everyday need to have this knowledge and understanding.
Claim #3: Your dog comes home happy and tired
Dogs that attend doggy daycare get a good bit of unstructured exercise during the day. But he’s just spent his whole day being stimulated by other dogs with very little human contact. It’s ultimately detrimental to your relationship with your dog if he’s so tired from running with his canine buddies that he has no energy or desire to interact with you. You need to interact with your dog through play and exercise to maintain a healthy relationship. If your dog is so tired at the end of the day that he’s uninterested in you, it might be time to cut back on daycare.
Claim #4: Your dog will gain confidence
If your dog is gaining confidence with a group of dogs, it’s likely at the expense of another dog. And you definitely don’t want another dog gaining confidence at the expense of YOUR dog! It’s much more desirable for your dog to gain confidence by interacting with you, getting consistent feedback during obedience training, exercising together (walks and runs), or play. This type of interaction is a healthy way to build his confidence and strengthen your bond.
Claim #5: Great for dogs with separation anxiety that can’t be left alone all day
Sending your dog to doggy daycare allows you to avoid the problem of separation anxiety or other problem behaviors that may take place while you’re gone during the day, but it does nothing to address the underlying issue. If you ever have to leave the dog alone, in the event of an emergency or if doggy daycare isn’t open, the problem will still be there. Better to actually treat the problem than simply cover it up.
So those are the claims commonly made by doggy daycare providers—not necessarily false, but not categorically true forall dogs either, and let’s face it, the most important dog out there is your dog! Let’s look at some of the other potential pitfalls of doggy daycare.
Even with the best efforts to screen health and require up-to-date vaccinations, dogs cannot be vaccinated against all diseases and at some point a dog will show up at doggy daycare sick–he may not have any visible symptoms but could still transmit to other dogs he comes in contact with. Infection of parasites through feces is also possible, just like at the dog park. Whenever a group of dogs gathers, the potential for disease transmission is there.
Dog fights will happen
At minimum, there should be at least two people for every fifteen dogs. Even with this ratio, the chance of two people breaking up a dog fight that involves more than two dogs is unlikely. Many doggy daycare facilities squeak by with minimum supervision as a cost-saving measure, sometimes even relying on camera feeds rather than an actual person in the room with the dogs, needless to say this puts all the dogs at risk. The daycare facility must be staffed at all times for the “worst case scenario” so they’re prepared to safely manage all the dogs in their care.
Money out the window
A different blog on this topic raised a good point when the blogger said that the money spent on doggy daycare, potentially upwards of $300 a month depending on how much you use the service and where you live, may be better spent elsewhere. Spend the money on training to get that problem behavior fixed once and for all instead of just managing it with daycare, spend the money on a fun activity you and your dog can participate in together to strengthen your bond, like an agility class. That’s not to say that doggy daycare may not be a very valid expense for you, especially if your dog is well-suited to the highly stimulating environment. But if you determine your dog would derive more benefit from an activity with you, or one-on-one time with a dog care professional, you might consider other options.
You’re not there, but you’re still responsible
If your dog injures another dog at doggy daycare, you’ll be held responsible, even though you weren’t there and had no control over the situation. Depending on the nature and severity of a bite, the dog could be labeled a “dangerous dog” (and with it comes the requirements such as muzzling the dog in public, paying a fee to keep a dangerous dog, posting signs on your property, etc.). Even if it was a lapse in supervision by the staff, you are accountable for your dog’s actions in the eyes of the law and this could have very serious consequences for both you and your dog.
So let’s say you’ve weighed the risks and decided your dog is a good candidate for daycare. Here are a few tips to help you find the right provider:
- Get the recommendation of your friends, family, and veterinarian to create a list of prospective daycare providers.
- Once you’ve got a few names, look up their websites and search online for customer reviews. Some common review sites include insiderpages.com, yelp.com, and citysearch.com. Look for trends in the feedback provided and write down any questions or concerns that come to mind as a result of your research.
- Drop in unannounced without your dog and see how you’re treated. Ask if you can observe for awhile. If you get a bad vibe from the staff or they seem hesitant to let you hang around, cross them off the list. If you can hang out and observe, note how many staff members are supervising, note if the facility is clean, if the dogs seem to be having fun or if they seem stressed or anxious. How much attention is given to individual dogs?
- Speak with a staff member and try to ascertain the following:
- What type of training do the employees managing the dogs have? Are they dog trainers or behaviorists? Are they certified in pet first aid and/or CPR, or are they mostly dog lovers with varying degrees of proficiency with dogs.
- How many dogs are usually here on a normal day? What about during peak times? What’s the maximum number of dogs your dog will be with at any given time?
- What do you do in the event your dog has a medical emergency? (Is there a vet on call, is the dog transported somewhere for care?)
- What do you do in the event of a dog fight? Have you had any here recently?
- What do you do if a dog shows up for daycare and appears to be sick?
- What’s your employee to dog ratio?
- What’s your staff turnover like and what’s the average length of time an employee has worked here? (If you trust the staff that’s working there in August but they all go back to school in September and the facility hires a bunch of new people, will you feel comfortable with them?)
- How do you screen a dog prior to allowing it in daycare? Is there a temperament test, a health check, etc.? Have you ever turned a dog away and if so, why?
- Are the dogs separated? If so, how are they separated?
- Have you ever had to kick a dog out of daycare? What would cause you to do this.
- And finally, ask if you can bring your dog in for a half hour to an hour during the time you plan to normally use the facility. You want to do a trial run and stay and observe during this time to see how your dog interacts with the other dogs, but also how the staff interacts with the dogs. If there’s anything to “catch” it’s likely you’ll see it during a longer observation period during which you essentially act like a “fly on the wall.” If the facility doesn’t allow this, it may be a warning sign. After you do the trial run, note how you and your dog feel. Are you anxious? Did the fumes from the bleach cleaner give you a headache? Or did you leave wanting more and feeling like your dog would be happy to spend a whole day there?
There are certainly reputable doggy daycare providers out there, but it definitely pays to do your research ahead of time—your dog’s health, happiness, even his life could depend on it. Don’t presume that because a facility is the largest or most popular in your city, or is conveniently located on your way to work, it’s the best option for your dog.
Finally, if you decide daycare isn’t a good fit for your dog, or you just don’t want to take the risk, there are in-home services care services that are a great substitute! In-home services are tailored to your dog’s individual needs and are performed in your home and in your neighborhood with one-on-one attention to your dog. You don’t have to take your dog anywhere, you don’t have to worry about who he’s interacting with all day (human or canine), and you would be one of a growing number of people across the country taking advantage of this more personal approach. According to Paul Mann, founder of the Fetch Pet Care franchise, “Pet parents have to go to work longer and travel more, and they still need pet care. They’re turning away from day cares, where their pet can be beat up by an alpha dog, and letting them stay in a safe and comfortable home territory,” (Entrepreneur Magazine interview, February 2010).
You still want to do your homework when considering an in-home service, and trusting this individual is even more important since you’ll be giving them access not only to your dog but also your residence. Check qualifications and ask tough questions.
We welcome your feedback about your experiences (good or bad) with doggy daycare, in addition to any more tips you may have for people considering the use of one of these facilities. Please do no include specific daycare names in your comment, but feel free to visit one of the aforementioned customer review sites to name and review specific facilities.
Check out this video news segment from November 2007 that discusses doggy daycare and offers additional information on the topic: