Day Care For Dogs: What Really Goes On

Day care for dogs is something humans like the idea of.

But is it actually good for dogs?

I went inside a bunch of different daycares in search of an answer.

Here are 12 things I learned.

1. Day care for dogs is not natural

Daycare is a human overlay, a construct, anthropomorphism.

Whatever fancy words you want to use to describe it, the point is this: dogs are not human children.

They don’t socialize in the same manner.

Nowhere in nature do individual dogs from different packs mix in the way they’re forced to at dog daycare.

A wolf pack consists of a male and a female and their offspring. 

Not surprising then that when you inspect dog daycares, you can spot dogs displaying the gamut of fear behaviors, distress, confusion and overstimulation.

Would you recognize the signs if you saw them? 

Dogs want to be with their pack, and are most comfortable on their own turf.

That means you, their human family and the home environment.

High density living might mean there’s no backyard.

But your dog is still most at ease in his familiar surrounds.

Spending all day somewhere else, without you, can be very stressful.

Do you feel like your life is so busy that your dog will get no attention unless you send him to daycare?

Perhaps you’re not ready for a dog.      

2. Excitement is not necessarily a good thing

Owners frequently say, “Oh, he gets so excited when we’re on the way to daycare, he just loves it.”

Maybe.

But maybe he’s just overstimulated, knowing the chaotic environment he’s about to be thrust into. 

Calm is the name of the game.

Don’t put your dog in a situation where he’s spending hour upon hour worked up, jumping out of his skin.

A heavily panting dog is a stressed out dog.

Being over-threshold for prolonged periods is not good for your his health and wellbeing, mental or physical.

A dog should not need pills to get through the day.

I was shocked to hear a sizeable portion of dogs at one daycare I visited were routinely sent along medicated for anxiety.

Look for daycares where the arrivals are low key, the staff don’t hype the dogs up for the sake of their own egos, and where the dogs as a group are chilled out, not wildly playing. 

“He sleeps from the moment he gets home he’s so worn out from all the fun at daycare.”

This is another flashing red warning light.

Maybe it’s convenient for an owner to have a conked out dog at night, but it’s a sign his day has exhausted him.

And that doesn’t necessarily mean through physical activity. Stress will tire a dog.

In short, you want a daycare where keeping arousal levels low is actively prioritized and stimulation kept to a low-moderate level.

3. What qualifications do dog daycare staff have?

The vast majority of daycares for dogs that I examined hired untrained “dog lovers”.

These kind of dog daycare jobs pay a pittance and usually attract young women in their twenties with no particular knowledge or experience.

The rare daycare insists on staff with qualifications in dog behavior. 

Dog behavior is complex.

As a result, handlers need experience and training in order to read dogs and successfully manage large groups of animals.

Especially in confined spaces.

It takes strong leadership from the humans to head off conflict and to block inappropriate interactions before they escalate.

Are there lots of balls and toys lying around in the play area?

You might think this is a good thing.

But toys can engender resource guarding and fights.

Ask the staff what their practice is with behavior moderation and how conflict is managed.

Dog plays with a toy at dog daycare

4. Even proprietors admit not every pup belongs at dog daycare

You don’t want your dog to be the one that sits frozen in the corner from the stress.

You also don’t want him running around like a lunatic, hassling other dogs.

This is just ingraining bad behaviors.

Same goes for jumping on humans and barking.

Some owners think sending a dog with behavior problems to daycare will “socialize” them and resolve any issues.

No.

That’s a recipe for disaster both for your dog and for the other dogs.

Some dogs are well behaved but just don’t like other dogs that much.

And no dog will like every other dog he meets.

No more than you or I like every human we encounter.

Daycare settings are questionable as a whole, for any dog.

For some dogs they are totally inappropriate.

5. How many dogs are at the daycare?

Doggy daycare is big business. 

Camp Bow Wow, the world’s largest provider of dog daycare and dog boarding, is a $100 million dollar plus franchise with over 140 locations. 

The more dogs a daycare packs in (and the more add-ons like baths they up-sell to you), the more profit they make.

Unscrupulous operators will cut corners, with higher dog to handler ratios.

The larger the group, the more stressful for the dogs.

And the harder to manage.

What is the staff to dog ratio?

How are dogs divided into groups?

A simple “big dog” pen and “small dog” pen won’t cut it.

Groupings ought be based on behavior and specific inter-dog dynamics.

Ask about this.

Do the same dogs come on the same days each week so they develop a rapport with each other?

Or is every day a fresh mix of untested permutations and combinations?

Dogs behind a fence at a boarding facility

6. Do your research

Scan the daycare’s own website and social media channels.

It can be very revealing.

Are dogs leaping high in the air on hard cement floors?

This might produce an instagrammable moment but it’s no good for their joints. 

Do you know anyone who works at a day care for dogs?

See if you can talk to them in confidence.

Staffers often sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from disclosing what goes on at daycares.

Privately though some will express concerns about overcrowding and even practices of lying to owners about whether their dogs are actually enjoying their days.

There have been cases of dogs dying and dogs being lost while at daycare. 

How are dogs vetted before being accepted into the daycare?

That’s something else to pay attention to.

Did they take your dog no questions asked, without any checking for behavioral problems?

If so, they’re doing the same for others.

They may be more driven by profit than by the wellbeing of the dogs.

7. Discipline and control

How do staff respond to undesirable behaviors or treat difficult dogs?

Do they use time-out pens and are those spaces safe for an agitated dog?

What is their stated philosophy, but also what happens in practice?

How transparent is the daycare?

Can you see all areas on a webcam at all times of the day or are you presented with a carefully curated image via social media?

Are the staff more concerned with snapping pics than moderating dog behavior?

Do staff wear ear muffs or ear buds with music playing because of constant barking?

Are all dogs visible to handlers at all times?

Have dogs ever escaped or been lost on outings?

Are dogs let off leash when taken off premises for walks and park visits?

Dogs can and do go missing and die at daycare.

Not all cases make the news.

8. Access to water at all times

Believe it or not, not all daycares provide this.

If there’s not easy, constant access to clean, fresh water, run a mile.

Obviously.

What about air conditioning?

Are dogs kept in overheated conditions to save on power bills? 

This can disastrous for brachycephalic breeds.

9. Treats

Are the staff feeding dogs treats?

Are they feeding processed food or kibble when your dog is raw fed?

Be aware of their practices.

10. Structure

Does the day include significant periods of designated rest where dogs are actually relaxed enough to sleep?

This is important.

Your dog needs downtime.

A lot of it.

If he was at home he’d be snoozing and chilling out most of the time you’re at work.

At daycare, do the dogs spend the whole time running amok in a canine mosh pit?

Equally, are they cooped up in a cubicle for all but one hour?

The real story may be different from the image projected.

Little dog locked in a cubicle at dog daycare

11. Hygiene at day care for dogs

Something else that you might assume goes without saying is cleanliness.

How are toys, bedding and floors kept clean?

Wooden furniture and tennis balls can’t be sanitized.

What is the ventilation like when chemicals are being used to mop floors etc?

Are you doing all you can to avoid exposure to toxins in the home but then your dog is lying on bleach-drenched floors all day?

You might be undoing your good efforts.

12. Regulation of the dog daycare industry

How is day care for dogs regulated where you live?

Is there a requirement on operators to report injuries and dog deaths?

Can you check this information?

Perhaps because it’s still a relatively new sector, doggy day care rules and regulations tend to be lax and loosely policed.

At the very least, research all the daycares you’re considering and seek out independent reviews.

In conclusion

The first known dog daycare opened in New York in 1987.

Now it’s all the rage in certain dog owning circles. 

If you decide to go ahead and put your dog into daycare, do your due diligence.

But if your pup is perfectly happy at home while you’re out bringing home the bacon?

You may well decide to scrap that search for “best dog daycare near me”. The best doggy daycare may be none at all.

Fair chance he’s fine right where he is, snoozing in that patch of sun on the bedroom floor. 

Dog daycare prices are high.

Perhaps you choose to invest the money you save on the cost of dog daycare in other experiences for you and your dog.

PS. Many of the same cautions around day care for dogs apply equally to off leash dog parks and dog beaches, although at least in those settings you can be there to supervise your dog.

You would have to say all the risks of dog daycare apply just as much to boarding dogs.

In some ways dog boarding is even more problematic because it goes on overnight and for days on end.

More reading

Mucus in dog’s poop: Why it’s not always a bad sign

Neutering: Why the old advice is wrong

Are you speaking your dog’s language?

4 thoughts on “Day Care For Dogs: What Really Goes On”

  1. Omg! I have said those exact words. I have work in a day care and I’d say all but 2 are enjoying it. They are so stressed and scared. The older dogs lie against the wall as they get trampled. The little ones cower and want on my lap. I know personally with all my animals they’d rather be home sleeping not made to play or engage with others.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for posting this! I had my dog in doggie daycare for 2 days and intuitively felt much of the same that you’ve written about. I withdrew her on the second day. It was a horrible experience for us both. Thank you for validating.

    Reply
    • Bernadette, good on you for realizing what was going on and taking action. It can be really hard for owners to know what goes on when they’re not there.

      Reply

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