The concept of a dog daycare is that an owner may take their dog to a place where their pet will be supervised and cared for while socializing with other dogs. That is a great concept and many dogs can reap great rewards from the experience.
Benefits of daycare attendance include positive social interaction, confidence building experiences, fun, play, exercise, and learning to be happy when separated from the dog’s family. Dogs that enjoy going to daycare return home tired and relaxed, and thus
are less apt to entertain themselves by chewing on the TV remote control, begging for attention, or sprinting around the living room bouncing off the walls from boredom.
However, visiting a daycare can also produce unintended negative consequences.
Whenever somebody spends time with your dog, they are “training” your dog by reinforcing one behavior or another. For instance, a daycare employee might enjoy prompting your dog to jump
up on them and play roughly. You may then pick up your dog at the end of the day and wonder why your previously well-behaved pet is now jumping up on you, visitors, your grandparents, and anybody else who happens along.
How does a dog owner know whether a dog daycare is a good place to entrust the care of their pet? Without visiting every individual daycare in the area and making recommendations, I will give you a list of questions so you can interview the daycare management and staff.
Knowledge is power, and you are your dog’s best advocate, so take this knowledge and go forth to inquire about your best daycare options from a position of power.
The way the daycare building is designed can influence the experience your dog will have. Is there a quiet place where new daycare dogs can be evaluated for their true behavior, or are they “evaluated” in a busy retail lobby where there is a lot of human/dog traffic that distracts and arouses them? How are dogs led into the daycare room? Is there a single door serving as a focal point of attention and arousal and thus leading to predictable confrontational behavior, or are dogs led into the daycare area in a way that avoids conflict and maintains order and comfort? Does the daycare employee usher the new dog into the midst of 50 excited dogs and abandon them to their fate, or escort them into the room, providing support and direction so they can join the group safely and not feel mobbed, intimidated, and overwhelmed? In short, are dogs being set up for success or failure? Do the dogs have regular nap times, or safe and quite kennels they can go to for periods of rest and quiet, or are they always subjected to hyper-activity and arousal?
Other considerations in environmental design are the floor surface, and noise levels. Does the daycare have a slippery polished concrete floor, or risky gravel covered outdoor play area? Some dogs eat rocks and then require emergency surgery. Or does the daycare have a safe rubberized interior play area and a grassy or Astroturf outdoor play area? Which type of surface do you think is safer for dogs to run and play on?
Sound affects dog behavior, as Patricia McConnell (Ph.D.) demonstrated in her thesis research on acoustics and animal behavior. What is the decibel level in the daycare, and how does that affect your dog? You will not know what the decibel level is, but OSHA has regulations on
noise level in work environments refer to continuous noise at 85 decibels or louder as harmful, yet sound levels in dog shelters have been measured at 110 decibels or more. Sustained high sound levels impose stress on a dog and thus affect behavior, and can also damage hearing. Does the daycare you are considering do anything to reduce sound levels? Do they even care?
If a daycare facility is well-designed but has inept staff, your dog will still be set up for failure. How is daycare staff screened and hired? To be an effective employee in a dog daycare one must be observant, self-motivated, confident, calm under stress, and trainable. Those are good qualities, but how well is the qualified staff compensated? Are they paid minimum wage?
If so, any unqualified person desperate for work will apply for the job as well as qualified applicants. How does the dog daycare choose the applicants they hire…and retain them? Experience with large groups of dogs is unique. Are employees compensated for that value and encouraged to remain at the daycare or are they merely replaced with another minimum wage employee when the time comes? Employees, like dogs, know when they are valued and when they are not. They each respond according to their motivation and reward.
Are staff members trained, and if so, how? Is there a standard of behavior expected of staff members, and if so what is that standard? If a staff member does not meet expectations, then what becomes of them? The point is that an employer must establish a standard of performance and enforce it. If an employee does not meet the standard, are they allowed to continuing interaction with your pet anyway? Remember, anyone that interacts with your pet it training your pet. What sort of behavior are they reinforcing? Dogs tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced and tend to stop repeating behaviors that go without reinforcement.
Employers who are sympathetic to a needy employee are not prioritizing the needs of the dogs in the daycare. Who are they serving? If I was describing a daycare for human infants, would the daycare provider continue to employ unqualified staff just because they needed a job?
What is the mission statement of the dog daycare and how do they live up to it?
Assuming that staff are carefully selected, are they knowledgeable about basic things such as learning theory, canine communication, and emergency management? If not, why should you entrust the care of you beloved pet to them? Learning theory is very simple; dogs do whatever behaviors are reinforced and they learn by association. Daycare staff may reinforce behaviors that you desire, or do not desire. If they reinforce behaviors you desire then they are helpful.
If they reinforce behaviors you do not desire, then they are either intentionally making trouble for you or they are incompetent.
Dog owners often seek out trainers to teach their pets to stop performing undesirable behaviors. Are they also paying daycare employees who (inadvertently) teach their pets to perform those same unwanted behaviors? Does the daycare owner or manager know what the employees are doing? If so, what are their oversight protocols?
Canine communication is a critical language skill that every dog daycare employee must learn. How does an individual learn such a skill set? There are plenty of books and DVDs on the subject, so what does the dog daycare do to educate the employee? Can daycare staff
describe affiliative and agonistic behaviors? If not, they lack competence and will endanger dogs left in their care. Affiliative behaviors are friendly distance-reducing canine body language
signals, while agonistic signals are unfriendly distance-increasing signals. Dogs in the care of
inattentive or uninformed staff must sort out their conflicts by their own means, which sometimes results in dog fights. Generally speaking, a dog fight is a conflict that daycare staff failed to resolve. Don’t blame the dog.
Daycare staff must understand what they are seeing in order to supervise large groups of dogs.
If they recognize canine behaviors, how do they address them? Daycare staff should know how to interrupt undesirable behavior, redirect a dog to desirable behavior, and then reinforce that behavior.
What protocols are in place in case of dog conflict and injury? Is daycare staff educated to recognize signs of stress and injury among dogs? Many dogs will hide injury, so staff must be adept at observing changes in behavior among the dogs in their care. An injured dog may be attacked by other dogs in the group. How is staff prepared to respond in an emergency, and how do they protect dogs and respond to their injuries?
To illustrate a worst-case scenario on this topic I will describe the following example as told to me by a foster care dog steward. A lady took her two foster dogs to a daycare in the morning and picked them up in the evening. At that time she was informed by daycare staff that one dog was “jealous” and did not allow other dogs to approach the second dog during the daycare visit.
How the staff knew the dog was “jealous” was not explained.
The lady took her dogs home and observed that one them were limping, and her leg was obviously swollen. When the injured dog tried to walk the lady heard the bone snap. She took that dog to the veterinarian and learned the dog had a fractured leg. Daycare staff noticed a change in behavior in the first dog, which they declared “jealous” and did not notice the swollen leg of the second dog, nor did it dawn on them to investigate why the first dog was preventing other dogs from approaching the second dog. Nobody at the dog daycare noticed the injury, and so no medical care was provided for several hours. The dog suffered an amputation.
In another case a dog that played well with others but was a ball-obsessive retriever was conditioned by daycare staff ignorance to become dog-dog aggressive. Initially the retriever occasionally displayed some toy resource guarding behavior, which the daycare staff reinforced by continuing the game for an hour or so at a time, giving the retriever plenty of resource-guarding rehearsal. Over time, the retriever learned the best strategy to keep the game going was to warn the other dogs to stay away from the ball. If the warnings were not sufficient, a nip would do the trick. Even so, the game continued.
Upon seeing the nipping the daycare staff paused long enough to scold the retriever, and then continued the game. That taught the retriever to stop giving warnings. Aggression can generalize quickly and so the retriever learned to threaten any dog within proximity, whether there was a ball-chasing game or not. It also learned to stop giving warnings, or the warnings came in such quick succession that the inept staff failed to see them. Ultimately the retriever learned to bite dogs that were “too close” under any circumstance, and the staff whined that the retriever failed to offer any warning. Several dogs were bitten during this approximate six-month process, the retriever was evicted from the daycare due to aggression, and the owner of the retriever was left with a dog-dog aggressive pet. In my experience with the retriever, it had been a safe and reliable daycare dog for four years…until inept staff was allowed to inappropriately and repeatedly interact with (AKA “train”) the dog.
Dog daycare can be a great place to take your pet, or a terrible place to expose your pet to negligent risk. Please ask questions of the daycare owner, manager or staff. See for yourself how the business takes care of the dogs in their care before choosing whom to entrust with the safety and behavior of your pet.
Olds Stone Pet Lodge
4353 Old Stone Road, Oregon, WI 53575
Web site: www.OldStonePetLodge.com
The indoor play area is large and has a safe surface; the outdoor play is large and has an Astroturf surface, and a 7’ wood privacy fence. Dogs are screened as to their behavior and are limited to approximately 10-15 per day, on average. The staff is experienced and competent.
I know the owners and staff, have referred 16 dog owners to the daycare, and take Buddha and Gandhi there.
CountryView Veterinary Clinic
1350 S Fish Hatchery Rd, Oregon, WI 53575
Web site: www.CountryViewVets.com
The dog daycare is operated by a certified trainer. The indoor play area is a modest room with a safe surface; the outdoor play area is a fenced paddock with some play equipment. Dogs are limited to 10 per day, with a single attendant.
I know the trainer who runs the daycare, and have referred one dog owner there.
The Dog Hut
4311 Triangle Street, McFarland, WI 53558
Web site: www.DogHutCare.com
The indoor play area is partitioned by visual screens; the outdoor play area is half Astroturf and half gravel, with a variety of play equipment. The fence is 5’ chainlinked with a visual screen. Dogs are limited to 35 per day and separated by size and/or behavior. It is owned and operated by a family, with employees who have worked there in the three years that the business has operated.
I have visited the business and consider it worth checking out.
Dogs Welcome! Training and Daycare
813 Post Road, Madison, WI 53713
Web site: www.DogsWelcomeTraining.com
Daycare Manager: Chaunte Eifert
The indoor play area is large, with a safe rubberized surface and sound baffles in the ceiling; the outdoor play area is large with a lush grassy surface, surrounded by shade trees and adjoining a nature preserve. It has a 5’ chainlink fence around the main play area, with three smaller
fenced areas adjoining it.
I know one of the trainers and have inspected the entire facility. It is a very comfortable and welcoming environment and I would feel comfortable taking Buddha and Gandhi there, if it was closer to my home.
Please take care when considering a daycare for you dog. I am presently working with a 9 year old dog that used to be a very happy and playful dog, but it was attacked twice in a dog daycare and the staff declined to change the environment in order to protect the young dog. Now is it an older dog with a well-established fear of other dogs, making it difficult for the owner to even
take her dog for walks in the neighborhood.