Doggie Daycare–the Chuck-E-Cheese of the Dog World
Over the last 5-10 years or so there has been a huge uptick in the world of doggie daycare. In my area the number of facilities offering this service has gone from 2 or 3 to about quadruple that number. Even as the economy started to tank, people were still flocking to doggie daycares to provide their dogs with daily social interactions and exercise. That sounds great right? A way for someone else to help you exercise your dog and socialize your dog all while you work! Unfortunately, doggie daycares are often not all that they are cracked up to be.
There are a lot of things that make me really concerned about most (though not all) doggie daycare situations. They are basically like the Chuck-E-Cheeses of the dog world–tons of kids running around causing chaos, allowed to practice bad behavior (both between each other but also adults), no constructive guidance, learning inappropriate social skills, typically being poorly supervised by under-trained staff and staff that is often not terribly well prepared for emergencies (whatever those may be).
It’s pretty similar to most doggie daycares when we think about it and that’s a big problem in my opinion. Doggie daycares often book way too many dogs for the space they have, are staffed by untrained/uneducated play supervisors, they often have questionable tactics for testing a dog’s ability to be allowed in daycare, they often do not match up dogs well in groups, most daycares do not have a structured day for the dogs, dogs are either allowed to practice in appropriate behavior or staff use some type of punishment to discourage it (sometimes, when they catch it), and many do not have staff prepared to handle emergencies.
Now not all doggie daycares do all of those things, most are probably only guilty of some, and a very rare few don’t fall into more than one of those traps. I think we have to be realistic about doggie daycare–they are not all sunshines and rainbows, there are some serious concerns. Let’s look at those concerns a little bit more closely…
Book way too many dogs–I will tell you a secret, when I was a teenager I interviewed for a job at a doggie daycare and part of my interview was being a supervisor in the play group area keeping things under control (why yes, I was totally untrained on handling large groups of dogs, they just put me in the space with little to not guidance). I was in a relatively large space (20×25 plus an optional outdoor space of similar size) with 9 dogs that were all over 50lbs (there were 5 small dogs in the next area–the dogs were separated by a 6ft tall chain link fence but the big dogs could easily see the littles). The space was quite tight considering the number of dogs and there was no place for the dogs to just leave each other alone and do their own thing. This meant that the dogs were constantly aroused and although all were friendly, they were all up in each other’s business the whole time and some were getting tired of the constant arousal/play. I don’t know about you but it made me really uncomfortable seeing all those dogs in a space that didn’t allow for them to relax–IF a fight had broken out it would have been a seriously scary mauling with 9 dogs involved.
Poor interview process for new dogs-–There are a lot of daycares that don’t have sound ‘interview’ processes for the dogs they allow in daycare. Most, at least, make sure the dog is mostly friendly with other dogs (though that is not always the case and there can be some seriously scary dogs in daycare situations), but what they don’t generally look at is whether the dog is enjoying themselves or if they are overly stressed in the situation. There are a lot of dogs who are highly stressed out, or completely overwhelmed, or otherwise not enjoying the experience that should not be in daycare. The actual process they use can be hit or miss, some do a good job at introducing a new dog to one dog, then a second, then a third–slowly making sure the dog is doing well with the group…. others, well, let’s just say others do not do things well. I have had experiences of fearful dogs being pushed into daycare only to be completely ruined and turned into aggressive/reactive dogs because the daycare staff never mentioned how concerned the dog was.
Uneducated play supervisors—As an applicant and interviewee for the position at the dog daycare, the main requirement? A high school diploma and a willingness to work with dogs and clean cages. Some of my fellow interviewees were less than confident working in the play group and were actually a bit jumpy about the dogs. They couldn’t read body language and didn’t know when to interrupt the play or how to manage a large group of dogs. Of everyone in the room, I was the only person who held certificates for CPR and first aid (for people, not even for dogs). This is one of the scariest things to me–people who don’t know how to read body language well or how to manage a group of dogs are in charge of the safety of tons of dogs. SOME daycares do not even have a staff member supervising each playgroup individually.
Practices unwanted behaviors-–The dogs were allowed to practice unwanted behaviors both towards people and to dogs. They would jump on the people, bark at the people, hump the other dogs, pester the other dogs, ignore the other dog’s calming signals, and some even became predatory toward the small dogs on the other side of the fence. It’s no fun when your dog learns obnoxious behaviors from other dogs at daycare or practices behaviors like jumping/barking at daycare.
Staff told to use punishment to curb behaviors-–I was not even TRAINED on how to moderate the play groups but I was handed a spray bottle and told to keep it with me at all times and squirt dogs in the face if they were getting naughty. I’ve heard of air-horns, rattle cans, and throw-chains being used in daycares as tools to control the crowds. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want some untrained and uneducated person squirting my dogs in the face–this could easily lead to some serious behavior problems if it’s as poorly timed and as prevalent as I have seen.
Poorly matched play groups—Some doggie daycares do not even group their dogs at all which is, I think, incredibly dangerous. Some group by size, some group by age, and some group by play style. I don’t think there is a ‘perfect’ method except for doing it one dog at a time and taking more than one factor into account when making play groups.
Lack of a structure–Dogs do not need to play for 8 hours straight. If I had my way, dogs would have a predictable schedule to their day. Play time in the morning for a while, then a snack and some down time (in individual runs), then some play time in the afternoon, then nap time in the afternoon, etc. Dogs are not programmed or designed to run on high for 8 hours straight and while they may have fun and will come home exhausted…I’m not sure it’s a good thing for them mentally or physically to do day in and day out.
Unprepared for Emergencies—Staff members are often completely unprepared and untrained on how to handle an emergency. A dog choking, a dog fight, a dog’s jaw caught in a collar, a dog getting loose, or a dog on human attack/bite. Knowing how to handle emergencies is so important (knowing how to prevent them is just as, if not more, important) and it’s something many doggie daycare staff are lacking.
There are, obviously, a lot of concerns I have with doggie daycares in general but there are some good doggie daycares that exist and that do it right. They keep the number of dogs down, they match up dogs into appropriate play groups, they have a high level of supervision with skilled employees, they have structured days with down time, etc. These places are often expensive (because of the type of services being provided and the level of employee being hired) and are few and far between but if you happen to be near one, count yourself as lucky!
If you currently take your pup to daycare and are happy with it, that’s fantastic! You may want to take an afternoon and ask about some of these things or really closely observe your dog and the play supervisor in videos (if available). I’m not here to say DON’T DO DAYCARE!!! I am not “anti-daycare”… I am just pro “responsible daycare.” I want dogs to be safe at daycare, to be happy at daycare and to be under the supervision of experienced handlers–I’m just not sure all three of those things are happening regularly at most daycares. So, if you are looking into daycare, be picky! Ask questions! Observe your dog, make sure he/she is enjoying the time at daycare! Observe the staff and make sure you feel comfortable with their policies/protocols!
I don’t think daycare, as a concept, is a horrible thing, I think it could be great (and know of a few facilities that do it right), but it’s often not run in a way that makes it great for the dogs–and isn’t that what it should be all about?