Day Care, Don’t Care?

Written by Naomi White

Doggy day care is a big thing these days, it has become a central part of many of our dogs’ lives. We use it as a way to ‘socialise’ our dogs and give them an opportunity to hang out with ‘doggy’ friends while we’re at work or too busy to be with them.

Day care looks great on the outside; glossy websites and Instagram pages are full of dogs gleefully having fun, living the dream of playing with other dogs, running around big open fields or swimming in paddling pools … ahhh this truly is a dog’s life!

Is it really though?

In general dogs don’t play in large groups, nor do they play for hours on end because, in reality, they appreciate their own space and social play is more of a momentary enjoyment rather than a day long event.

Socially it’s exhausting. Just imagine being at a party, surrounded by other people, most of whom you have never met before. It’s noisy, chaotic and downright exhausting.

Some people may enjoy this scene, just as some dogs may enjoy day care, but the majority of people will, at some point, feel that it’s time to leave, or they may feel anxious just thinking about it. If you do think it sounds quite fun, imagine that being your life. Every. Single. Day. … Over it yet?

As much as we like to think, and have repeatedly been told, our dogs DO NOT need a huge group of ‘doggy friends’. Some dogs are quite dog social, but on the whole, most are actually more ‘dog tolerant’, they appreciate a polite greeting and maybe a brief burst of play but then they’re quite happy to move on or engage in another activity. Even highly social dogs would not naturally choose to socialise all the time.

Day care facilities do a good job of appearing fun and exciting to us, making us believe there is no better place for our dogs to spend their days. But our dogs don’t think like us and the constant chaos of stimulation is beyond what most dogs can cope with.

There is usually little care taken to encourage rest time, so the dogs spend all day being busy and stimulated, adding to their ever-increasing arousal and stress levels. Managing arousal levels is unlikely to be a priority at day care but allowing dogs to become over-aroused is potentially dangerous in a group situation. Time-outs may be used when things do start to boil over but it’s likely to be a case of too little too late.

There are numerous of issues with day care set-ups, but if done right, it can be the best option for some dogs. If you are seriously considering day care or you already use one, then take time to research them thoroughly and ensure you find a suitable place for your dog:

  1. Choose small scale places

  2. Well-assessed friendly dogs

  3. Good supervision, enrichment and rest time

  4. Well controlled dog-dog interactions

  5. Constant play time should NOT be priority

  6. Question, Question, Question

  7. They should ask you as much as you ask them

  8. Your dog’s personality, his likes and dislikes, energy levels, play style, behaviour and health history

  9. If they assess you and your dog thoroughly, they will have done the same with others, making it a safer, more trustworthy place to leave your dog

  10. Qualifications and Knowledge

  11. Knowledge, experience and up-to-date qualifications

  12. Understanding of dog behaviour

  13. What would they do if anything did go wrong? We don’t like to think about it but realistically, dogs are dogs, things go wrong, accidents happen or disagreements blow up and whoever is responsible should be ready to deal with this

  14. Is rest time encouraged and how is this done?

  15. Is it a routine part of the day or is it used when needed?

  16. Is arousal, tiredness and stress considered?

  17. Look at their resting facilities… Kennels? Crates? A quiet room?

  18. Are enrichment activities used?

  19. Each dog is different, think about what you and your dog are most comfortable with.

  20. Doggy companions

  21. Who will your dog be sharing their day with?

  22. Dogs should be matched carefully, and interactions must be monitored

  23. Is there management in place if dogs aren’t getting along?

  24. Not everyone likes everyone so whenever multiple dogs are sharing a space this should be considered and managed.

  25. How knowledgeable are they about body language?

  26. Dogs are subtle communicators and things change quickly when you have multiple dogs sharing a space

  27. Carers should be well educated in all aspects of behaviour and body language so they can maintain calm and avoid issues

  28. Like us, dogs have good and bad days. Even the most well-mannered dog could be pushed to his limit more easily on a bad day, especially in a stressful day care environment. It’s a huge risk and situations can escalate quickly so vigilant carers are vital

There are amazing day care providers available and it’s a great option for some dog owners, but choose carefully … question them, research thoroughly, and expect them to spend time with your dog, asking questions and ensuring your dog is a good match for them.

Some dogs just simply aren’t made for day care though (or day care isn’t made for them, if you like!). It’s quite obvious to see why nervous or unsocial dogs would not enjoy the environment. However, some people will see it as an opportunity for their dog to socialise and learn to enjoy the company of other dogs, but in reality, it’s more likely to work the other way and simply confirm to them why they don’t enjoy socialising! It could work if enough care and control was in place to protect anxious dogs and keep all their interactions positive, while also providing them with their own space away from other dogs when they choose. But in general, day care facilities don’t offer dogs choices like this, in fact they offer very few choices for the dogs which is why it can be such a damaging environment.

This lack of choice means anxious or fearful dogs are often trapped in a highly stressful situation, and rather than creating a positive association with dogs, they are more likely to have their fears reinforced further. This could cause an escalation in their behaviour and create a need to display their feelings more clearly. Meaning your slightly anxious dog may become increasingly fearful or reactive.

If a day care does offer to take your less-than-friendly dog, they will have offered the same to many others. Which means your dog is mixing with numerous other unpredictable or anxious dogs. Maybe not the sort of place you’d like your dog to be learning and interacting with other dogs!

What about the highly social, dog loving dog? He loves dogs. All he wants to do is play. The best part of his day is playing with his friends. Great. Day care is perfect then, right?

Maybe don’t be so sure of that…

Think about it, a dog who loves other dogs will spend all day with them, playing, chasing, and wrestling with them. They’re just having fun and tiring themselves out. There’s no reason for anyone to step in and say enough is enough. Why would they?

We are painted this idyllic image of day care teaching our dogs better social skills, giving him the friends he needs and making his life better in every way. Realistically, even highly social dogs can be negatively impacted by day care environments, a dog who already finds other dogs extremely stimulating and exciting will be pushed further into this mentality. It is likely to leave you with challenges when you walk your dog as he now sees every dog as a potential playmate. This will damage his recall, his relationship with you (you can’t be more exciting than the dog, can you?), and create frustration when he can’t greet dogs. This frustration can be incredibly challenging and troubling … your endlessly social dog now turns into a barking, lunging nightmare when he sees another dog who he can’t get to. Let him off-lead and he returns to his crazy, dog-loving self. It doesn’t make sense?

Frustration is frustrating. It can be hard for us to understand why our dog loves other dogs when he’s off-lead, but apparently ‘hates’ them when he’s on-lead. It’s probably hard for him to understand too. One day he can play with tirelessly with dogs, but the next he’s restrained and can’t reach the dogs? That’s frustrating. Teaching your dog to respond differently to frustration, and control his impulses better, will go a long way to improving the behaviour, but it’s also worth asking yourself whether all those days spent playing crazy games with other dogs is really beneficial for him?

Play between dogs is unlikely to be well-managed or controlled at a busy day care, meaning the dogs will be learning, and practising, rather inappropriate and potentially quite undesirable play behaviour. Boisterous play is quite acceptable in small amounts, if the dogs involved are equally engaged in the activity. However, as soon as play becomes unbalanced it can turn into bully-ish behaviour. Dogs who have spent long duration’s engaged in exuberant or inappropriate play may lose some understanding of play signals and struggle to disengage from play when the other dog isn’t interested. When a dog doesn’t read these signals effectively, they risk being ‘told off’ by other dogs or, potentially even worse, causing another dog considerable stress and frustration by their persistent or inappropriate play behaviour. Dogs who try to ‘bully’ other dogs into playing are at risk of displaying increasingly aggressive behaviours as the result of receiving negative responses from other dogs.

A good day care will consider all these challenges and work in a way to ensure that anxious dogs are not overwhelmed or flooded by the experience, they can do wonders for building confidence, but it has to be done in the right way. Equally a good day care can instil better self-control in our dogs, teaching them a balance between enjoying the company of other dogs, while also learning when to take breaks, enjoy rest time, and listen to their humans!

While there are some dogs who do well in a day care environment, there are many more who don’t. There are other options available for those dogs, so don’t try to make your dog fit into a place that simply isn’t right for him. Consider individual walks, someone to pop in and let him out in his own home, or enrichment activities to keep him busy while you’re gone. You should never assume that day care is the only option.

And remember, day care is rarely the place to socialise your anxious dog, provide your over-friendly dog with new friends, maintain his social life, or teach him how to ‘play nicely’ and it should NOT be used as such. It is far more likely to worsen any challenging behaviours you’re already experiencing than it is to improve them. If you really want to gain something from day care, look for a skilled, knowledgeable person who works on a small scale and focuses their time on training and behaviour work … they will make your dogs life better not worse!