Choosing a Good Dog Day Care

Dog day care shouldn’t be a free-for-all. Here’s how to choose a well-run place (and decide whether day care’s right for your dog).

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #23

Nail polish; ribbons braided into the fur; day care. One of these may improve your dog’s quality of life. This week, dog day care – when it’s a good idea, and how to pick the right place. 

Is Dog Day Care Worth It?

Many working people find that they have to spend more time away from their dogs than they might like. A daily visit or two by a dog walker can take care of your dog’s bladder and bowels. But for a social animal, 10 or 12 hours a day is a lot of alone time. Especially for an adolescent dog, boredom plus loneliness plus pent-up steam can produce the three-ingredient dish called trouble. If your dog enjoys the company of other dogs, then a well-run day care may increase her happiness and simultaneously decrease your guilt. And day care can be part of a behavior modification plan for certain forms of separation anxiety.

Check Out the Dog Day Care Premises

I wish this went without saying, but to judge by a couple of establishments I’ve visited, it really, really doesn’t: the day care should be clean and well ventilated. Some doggy aroma, especially on a wet day, is one thing. Feces and stale urine are another, and if the place smells as if the attendants clean it by pouring undiluted bleach over every surface, go elsewhere. Your dog doesn’t need to be breathing harsh fumes all day.

The day care should have separate rest and play areas, with dogs rotating in and out. The point of day care is to supply your dog with a reasonable amount of play and social time, not to overtire and stress him; a well-exercised dog will spend a lot of time asleep. Fresh clean water should be available in play areas and individual kennels. Finally, dogs at an indoor day care need outdoor potty walks so they don’t either lose housetraining or make themselves miserable holding in their waste all day.

Look at the Dog Day Care Play Setup

Large and small dogs should have separate play areas or separate play times.

One joyous Lab-sized body slam could break an Italian Greyhound’s legs. Another danger is the phenomenon called predatory drift, in which the running and squealing of a small dog may lead larger dogs to respond to them as prey rather than as fellow dogs. The outcome may be the small dog’s serious injury or death. No data exist on the frequency of predatory drift or on how often catastrophe results, but separating large dogs from small will cut the risk to nearly zero.

Play groups should include dogs with compatible styles -- wrestling face-fighters with other wrestling face-fighters, run-and-chase fans with other run-and-chasers, hang-out-and-sniffers with other laid-back types. If the day care is spacious enough, dogs with varying styles may all be out at the same time without getting in one another’s hair. Even the nicest dogs will sometimes fight, so the play area should be equipped with citronella spray and maybe a water hose to break things up.

Make Sure Dogs Are Screened

I love application forms. Well, no, nobody does. But if your day care’s application seems hyperdetailed or even intrusive, be glad and reply honestly. I wouldn’t want my dog to hurt another dog or to get hurt because the day care asked no difficult questions. The application should include everything from the dog’s vaccination history to her reaction to puppies and human strangers. The more the day care staff knows about your dog, the better able they’ll be to show her a good time or to pick up indications of trouble.

Many or most day cares exclude unneutered and unspayed dogs. Intact males aren’t necessarily more aggressive than neutered dogs, but they do sometimes elicit challenges, as if their testosterone ratchets others up. Conflicts may also arise, even among neutered males, over female dogs in heat. As for breed exclusions, I have mixed feelings. Certain breeds seem to include a higher proportion of dogs who readily fight, and fight hard, with other dogs. But any behavior problem can arise in any breed. I’d opt for meticulous screening of each individual dog, plus a well-trained staff. Remember, too, that life can’t be risk free, and that most dog fights result in minor injuries or none at all.

Look for an Affectionate, Well-Trained Staff

Dogs must always be supervised when at large, so a good day care has well-trained employees and plenty of them. If the day care’s accountant doesn’t like dogs, fine, but everybody else involved had better. 

 A good working knowledge of dog behavior and body language is a must -- play attendants must recognize hints of anxiety and oncoming conflict, and be able to distinguish body-slamming play and growly face-fighting from real aggression. They don’t have to be expert trainers, but they should be aware that eliciting good behavior is far preferable to punishing undesirable behavior and that a heavy-handed, dominance-based approach causes more problems than it solves. Finally, the staff should be able to recognize common signs that a dog is sick or hurt, and there should always be someone on premises who knows canine first aid.

Other Important Services at Dog Day Care

A good day care can give medication, feed a special diet, or supply extra walks for an old dog who needs more potty breaks than most. Many offer grooming, as well as pickup and dropoff. Webcams are a common perk. Then there’s the serious luxury stuff -- spa services, aromatherapy, massage -- which, frankly, is more for our benefit than our dogs’. You’ll choose well if you focus on safety, caring, and fun.

I’m always happy to hear from listeners – look for The Dog Trainer on Facebook, email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, or call 206-600-5661. Thanks for listening. Bye!

Dog in Cage image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).