I’m often asked by my clients what to look for in a dog day care. I do have some hints on how to evaluate the day care, but the first thing you need to do is evaluate your dog. If your dog was very well socialized as a puppy, and is at ease around unfamiliar dogs, and is a good player, that’s a great start. Day care is not the place to “socialize” a dog that is ill at ease, and in fact, while you may get a tired dog back at the end of the day, you want “good tired” from exercise and play, not the “bad tired” that can come from your dog spending his days in a state of constant stress. Dogs that did not get to meet a lot of other dogs in off leash situations during the critical developmental stages within the puppy socialization period may never be totally comfortable in a situation where other dogs are soliciting play, sometimes fairly obnoxiously. Of course, some dogs do take a while to warm up to unfamiliar situations, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog is not a candidate for day care, so long as he or she is not aggressive, and is not so scared that progress is not seen after a day or two. Expect a good dog day care to have a lengthy application process and to ask you plenty of questions, and to bring your dog for an evaluation ahead of time. If you think their process is too invasive, or “picky” that’s probably a good thing. After all, you want the management to be concerned enough to screen out aggressive dogs, and make sure that the dogs they admit will have a good time while they attend. Speaking of the management, there are a lot of former software engineers who run dog day cares these days. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not attacking software engineers, and some of them run terrific day cares, but the point is that they didn’t start out as dog professionals! You, as a consumer, have a right to know where your provider got his or her dog education. It’s NOT enough to just like dogs. Taking care of other people’s dogs is a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and the answer you want is that the person has some kind of formal training in behavior, and perhaps attended additional seminars given by experts in the field. Be leery of anyone who talks about “pack behavior” or “dominance” or “alpha dogs” as they are not up to date on the latest that we know about the social structure in which dogs live. Be very careful, if the day care is also going to provide boarding services, to ask if there is always a human on the premises (think what would happen with no one there if a dog got a claw caught on the crate, if there were a fire, or if a dog became ill – after all, you are paying for care, not for the kennel staff to be away for the weekend just like you), and you need to specifically ask how much crate time the dogs get. They should get some time in their crates or in cubbies, for rest purposes, but should not be crated for long periods, completely bored and unhappy, whining and barking for hours on end. If the day care has a web cam, super! Then, you can check in on your dog yourself from time to time, and be sure that he isn’t being ignored, yelled at, or bullied by other dogs. If you would like to know what normal canine play looks like, go to our Yappy Hour page and click the link at the bottom of the page that shows Quanah and Lojack playing. In normal play, expect lots of curved body postures, frequent self interruption, back and forth action so that no dog looks like the “victim” all the time, and open mouths with tongues lolling out occasionally. Growling is not necessarily bad, and play bows are usually good. If you aren’t sure your dog is happy, ask the day care provider to pull the other dog away gently and see if your dog goes back for more or chooses to leave the other dog.
Choosing a day care provider is like choosing any other professional service. You have to do your homework. And, just as you might do if you left your child with a day care, an unannounced visit from time to time is probably a good idea!