The concept that by attending a doggy daycare your dog will magically become a well socialized adult dog is a MYTH. Daycares frequently create more problems than they fix and are often the cause of many many more issues.
Doggy daycare, for some, may be a necessary evil. For those working long shifts/shift work that aren’t able to guarantee a time they would be home to care for their dog, boarding with doggy daycare was a great solution. But what started as a way to tire out dogs in a boarding facility has grown into a monstrous industry of approx. 4.5 billion dollars a year in the US. (Which is a whole lot of reasons that they don’t like to tell you the downsides of their service.) When run in small and controlled groups, with appropriate staffing and knowledgeable dog professionals, doggy daycare wouldn’t necessarily be disastrous but the reality is those are very few and far between.
And before you think your daycare is the exception to the rule, lets see how many red flags your particular daycare holds…
- A ratio of more than 5:1 (dogs to handlers)
- No caps on attendance. Not only are you able to drop your dog any day on no notice, they encourage multiple days in a row or “unlimited attendance”.
- No trainers specifically handling the daycare. (While many facilities offer training services in the evening, very few have actual trainers assisting group interaction daily.
- Most pictures are large groups of dogs, all in movement, indoors.
- No crates/kennels.
- No outdoor space.
- The majority of staff are 16-19 years of age.
- There is no injury record, incidents of note, illness history.
Does your doggy daycare pass when you look at it like this?
Let’s break down why we care about these…
Ratio – Breaking up a dog fight is no joke, and in large numbers dog fights can get out of control quickly. I like places with strict supervision and low ratios to ensure if there is ever an incident it can be handled quickly with lower risk to both dogs and staff. While daycare staff are typically very experienced at breaking up fights, it can be extremely risky to both dogs and staff the more dogs there are able to get involved. The other issue with high ratios is that your dog is likely only interacting with other dogs all day. This is likely super fun and exciting for them, but lowers the value of interacting with people. If a dog is getting lots of engagement, reinforcement and enjoyment out of dog-dog interaction, and getting far less of these things with humans or their own owner, it can make training difficult. I tell my clients frequently that for every hour that your dog plays freely with dogs, you need to spend a minimum equivalent of an hour training/interacting in a fun way with them to balance it out. (This isn’t being with them in the house! I mean actively training, walking, hiking etc) So if your dog attends 16 hours of doggy daycare weekly, you would be looking for around 16 hours of training/interaction weekly to balance this out)
Attendance caps - While the idea behind daycare is to “tire your dog out”, constant attendance can easily overstimulate your dog and create a pattern of overstimulation where they struggle to self-regulate without constant stimulation. Additionally, multiple days in a row just builds your dogs physical endurance and means they need to come more and more frequently to “get tired”. (might not be great for you at home with your dog, or for your bank account, but pretty great business strategy, right?) Beware of daycares that allow multi day attendance regularly without a break or allow unlimited attendance. If a daycare wants your dog to attend as much as possible, it’s likely not for the dogs benefit.
Trainers – Most daycares advertise training services, or have partnered with a trainer, but almost none of them have a trainer supervising daily interactions. Now, in smaller groups and bigger spaces this may not be super critical, but I would vastly prefer a trainer supervising interactions that is able to tell who should be playing together and who shouldn’t, and to head off interactions that could be going south before they actually get bad.
Pictures – I like that a lot of doggy daycares put out pictures but take stock of what pictures consist of. If over 90% the pictures are dogs in large groups milling around, or dogs in constant movement, that implies that the general ability of whoever is supervising them is unable to ask individual dogs (or the group) for even simple obedience like sit. If they cannot ask a dog to sit, or recall, what happens if they need to separate out a dog for any reason? Could it happen quickly? Not likely. Additionally, if all these dogs are inside in a group all day, is there an outdoor area for bathroom breaks? Cause I’m here to tell you that once one dog pees inside, the vast majority will think that peeing/marking inside is ok. Now, will that break the house training of a three year old dog? Probably not. Could it make house training a younger dog more difficult or confuse them on what the criteria is for when they are/aren’t allowed to pee inside? Definitely could.
Crates – Lots of places like to advertise “kennel free” services, which sounds nice to some people I guess, but my question to the business would then be how do you get the dogs to take a break during the day? When are they allowed to rest/decompress if overwhelmed, and where do they go for that? What happens if a dog is injured/starts a fight/you notice illness and needs to be separated safely until they are picked up? Even kennel free spaces should have a kennel/crate or two that they can use in an emergency.
Outdoor space – The vast majority of dogs I’ve met like to be outside. It’s a naturally enriching environment, and reinforces that wild playtime is best done outdoors not in the house. Playing outdoors, digging, running, marking and sniffing are all natural behaviours that dogs enjoy in large quantities and I would always prefer a facility with outdoor space where these things can take place.
Staff – This is something I have complicated feelings on because I’ve met some TRULY WONDERFUL daycare attendants that were 17/18 years old who have fantastic dog skills and abilities. However, I’m more interested in the ethics of a business here. A lot of daycares want to hire young employees because they want to underpay by offering the ability to “play with dogs all day”, don’t offer growth within a company, and some companies like that these employees don’t always know the rules and standards an employer should be held to. One of my current employees was hired by us out of a daycare at 18 years old. At 18, she had vast experience breaking up dog fights and when asked, couldn’t put a number on how many times she was bit. (And she thought this was normal for the industry.) Young people in daycares regularly work inconsistent/part time hours for minimum wage, short notice shifts, without benefits/growth, and in dangerous conditions. Hiring young and not being willing to provide growth to your employees also ensures a low collective knowledge and a high turnover rate keeping skill and experience low.
Injury/Illness record – Daycares don’t like to tell owners how often incidents happen and how high the risk to attending daycares truly is. When an owner is informed their dog is involved in an incident or injured, companies frequently imply to the owner that the incident is a one off or a rarity. Owners typically also don’t know each other so aren’t able to discuss the frequency of these occurrences.
Now, if your dog ends up with an illness after attending a daycare this is not unusual, you’re sending your dog to service where the literal point is to have a group of rambunctious animals that like to lick each other play together in close quarters for hours… illness spreads quickly. Typically illnesses are minor and should be an understood risk to any multi-dog activity, much like colds spread through school classrooms. My concern comes from facilities that deny that injuries or illnesses occur at all. Any potential client that asks if we’ve had injuries to dogs or staff, or if illnesses have come through gets an honest answer. If a doggy daycare denies any illnesses or injuries happen, this is dishonest. The reason I’m comfortable describing all injuries, incidents and illnesses at my facility is because I’m completely comfortable with how we run our programs and the steps we take to mitigate these issues. The vast majority of incidents were acknowledged risks (scratches or minor lacerations from dog-dog play, kennel cough, quicked nails and torn paw pads from running in the woods etc) that can and regularly do happen from living life. These incidents are not dependent on environment, supervision, or training skill. Most typical daycare injuries could be prevented by fewer numbers, more staff, better knowledge or more space. Most illnesses could be prevented by larger spaces, more stringent evaluation procedures upon drop off/entry to the facility, better cleaning procedures, and improved communication about what illnesses exist and how they spread. But again, these remedies would affect the bottom line.
Ok, I get it, doggy daycare is evil.
No, that’s not it. You just have to look for the people doing it right! When put in this context, do you see the risk you might be taking with doggy daycare? It’s not to say don’t attend at all, but pick the right place and do your research.
Here’s what to look for;
- Restricted numbers to ensure a low ratio of dogs to staff.
- Restricted attendance to ensure dogs are not overstimulated or becoming dependant on the outlet.
- Honest communication to owners about illnesses, injuries, methods used, and containment. All of these things happen even in the best run facilities that take all precautions. It’s important to deal with a company that is honest about their policies.
- Facilities with lots of space to allow independence and decompression. Even better is a place with outdoor access, but that’s very hard to find. Places with large spaces that choose to keep low numbers and ensure individual attention are great.
- An account of what your dog did during the day, or how they did. Might be pictures/video through social media, might be a report card, or simply communication from staff at pick up, but know what your dog did during the day.
- Staff with experience, knowledge, and the ability to grow within the company. Look for a place with trainers on staff that are involved during the day. I’m quite biased towards day training programs since I run one, but at the minimum, if a trainer is assisting supervision that would be ideal.
And just to ensure you all know I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is, here's how my Day Train program stacks up against these criteria:
We limit Day Train attendees to 10 dogs max per day. Adding our residential program dogs to the day train numbers we average approx. 20-25 dogs total per day. For every day the Day Train program runs, we normally have 6 staff on site putting our ratio anywhere from 3:1 to 4:1. We never allow full 20 dog play groups, and dogs allowed to play with others are typically in small groups supervised at a 2:1 ratio.
Dogs are not allowed to attend more than once per week. In special circumstances, after evaluation with specific dogs, we have had 3 different dogs that have been allowed to attend twice per week.
We inform all owners when an injury happens and how it happened. We've had multiple scratches over the years, one case of stitches in a paw that got caught up outside, several quicked nails, one scratched eye when a dog running in the field ran into a fence. Hot spots are somewhat common in the dogs that come for board and train given these dogs are living in a completely new environment and under stress. Kennel cough normally comes through in the fall and we've shut down two separate times (preventatively) in our history for a full week to slow the spread.
We operate on 12 acres, have multiple fenced acre sized yards, smaller fenced isolation areas, and three indoor training spaces between 600-1500 sq ft.
We send home a tracking booklet with basic info every day, but we update 10-20 times daily during a day train day with video/stories on Instagram of what the dogs are doing.
My staff is exclusively made up of trainers. All were hired with previous dog industry experience and those without professional experience did an apprenticeship until they had the skill level to work here. All but two of our employees are full time, with above industry-average wages, and opportunities to expand their knowledge and skillset. We encourage further learning and educational opportunities, as well as trial and competition with all personal dogs.
Again, I don't have a problem with doggy daycare if it's done with the dogs best interests in mind. But to see the general industry knowingly take advantage of the average owner is extremely frustrating. These companies frequently know better and are making decisions based on profit not welfare. Choose a daycare with strict standards, something more to offer than wild playtime with poor supervision and an interest in bettering dogs overall.