[Revised/updated on Jan. 22, 2014]
I’ve been working in doggie daycare since July 2012. I have worked in three different daycares and heard stories about many others. I can completely understand why people may consider bringing their dog to daycare. Perhaps they have a particularly energetic pooch who needs to burn off some excess energy. Maybe the dog is destructive when left home alone or has separation anxiety. Some people just work long hours and don’t want to keep their dog cooped up all day. If they have a puppy, they think it would be great for socialization. And so on.
So would I recommend doggie daycare? Generally, absolutely not.
Why? There are a few reasons.
1. Most daycares know little to nothing about dog behavior.
Most doggie daycare attendants are often just your Average Joe minimum wage worker. Behavior knowledge is typically not required. Not all daycare workers know how to properly discipline rude dogs, break up fights, or watch for concerning body language. Or worse, you’ll get a daycare worker who’s watched a few too many episodes of The Dog Whisperer and think they’re a behavior expert (for those unaware, Cesar Millan’s techniques are incredibly outdated, inaccurate, and potentially harmful).
I also frequently see attendants who don’t know how or don’t think to reinforce good behaviors. I try to reinforce the good behaviors like crazy. Jumpy, mouthy, barky dogs will not earn my attention. Only polite ones will. Many attendants don’t know how to properly discourage these nuisance behaviors, or they actively encourage them not realizing the owner may not appreciate that.
Some daycares will even squirt the dogs with water when they’re “misbehaving.” This only serves to stress the dogs out and teach them that the daycare workers are not so fun to be around. Or you’ll wind up with a water-loving dog who views the water squirt as a fun reward. Some dogs just get used to the squirts and are no longer fazed by them. Plus, if the squirt is poorly-timed, the dog gets punished for the wrong thing. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the attendant will accidentally squirt other dogs near the dog they’re aiming at, thus punishing innocent dogs as well.
2. Most daycares put WAY too many dogs in at once.
Some daycares will put anywhere from 20 to 40 or more dogs into daycare at once. That is way, way, WAY too many! Especially considering there is often only one attendant on duty. On average in my second daycare there were anywhere from 8 to 15 dogs (but I’ve had up to 22), and I still have a hard time paying as much attention to them all as I need to. I may be busy trying to shoo a pushy dog away from a fearful one and there could be a fight breaking out in the other corner of the room. Had there been fewer dogs or more attendants, I could have paid closer attention to the other dogs’ body language and prevented that fight. It was a tiny room and the cramped space frustrated many dogs. I have also noticed that dogs become remarkably more stressed and on edge when in larger groups. Fights and fearful behaviors are significantly more likely to occur. In smaller groups (6 or fewer), things were much more peaceful, and timid dogs were much more confident and willing to play. A large group is just too overwhelming for most dogs (and the poor attendant).
3. It’s not a controlled environment.
This is why I hate the idea of people using doggie daycare for socializing their puppy. Socialization is a very critical part of a dog’s life, and it needs to be done properly. Tossing your puppy into a room with a bunch of loose, strange dogs can have horrible results. Maybe your puppy is on the timid side and needs to be introduced much more slowly with a lot of positive reinforcement. Not all dogs play well together; maybe one of those other dogs is a bully that attacks your puppy and teaches it that other dogs can be scary. I’ve often seen dogs in my daycare who will pick on the more timid ones until the timid one feels forced to lash out at them in an attempt to tell them to back off. Often it’s the timid puppy that gets punished for lashing out by ignorant attendants, which only stresses the puppy out further. Plus it can teach the puppy that the more subtle, peaceful warning signals will be ignored and they need to skip to more aggressive methods to get other dogs to back off, leaving your dog with poor coping skills. Not only that, but I’ve seen many puppies pick up bad, obnoxious habits from older dogs in daycare.
4. The dogs are not always evaluated as thoroughly as they should be.
Most daycares require your dog to go through and pass a short behavior evaluation before being allowed to participate. A simple evaluation to see how the dog reacts to handling, to test for resource guarding with toys (if used), and to test how well they do with other dogs. A great idea, but these evaluations usually only test the dog with one other dog. This doesn’t show how they will do in a room full of dogs. Some dogs will do fantastically one-on-one with another dog, but become terrified or overwhelmed in a room full of them. I think dogs should have to do an evaluation and then do a trial period in the actual daycare to see how they do. To put it simply, the evaluations just aren’t always great indicators of how well the dogs will do in daycare.
So what should you look for in a doggie daycare?
Try to find a daycare that breaks the dogs up into small groups. I would say there should be an absolute maximum of 10 dogs per play group, but even that is pushing it if you ask me (especially if the play room is not that large). Daycares that put dogs in play groups together based on compatibility of play styles is awesome. That way there are no timid, gentle dogs forced in with pushy, rough players. And make sure the daycare staff know how to read body language. If they can’t read dog body language, they can’t do nearly as good a job of preventing fights or removing a dog that is getting overwhelmed and nervous. Avoid ones that utilize any sort of punishment such as squirt bottles, yelling, or anything physically intimidating/punishing. Time-outs will suffice for rude dogs. I would also, of course, avoid any who throw around “dominance” nonsense. The daycare should be supervised at all times. It only takes a split second for a fight to break out or a dog to get into trouble.
Extremely social and resilient dogs who read and display body language properly can do well in most daycares. But many dogs aren’t like that. Not every dog is going to be screwed up by daycare, but it’s far too risky for me to ever recommend it. It’s better (and much cheaper) to just set up a play date with a friend’s dog, provided they get along with yours.
P.S. No, I don’t typically recommend dog parks either.
Edit: It has come to my attention that some doggie daycares will leave head halters or even weighted backpacks on dogs while in daycare to “calm” them. Supposedly the head halter hits calming pressure points behind the head, thus helping an anxious dog relax. The one time I’ve seen this happen, a Gentle Leader was used. Many dogs find GLs uncomfortable and irritating, since most owners do not go through the proper desensitization protocol. I’m not sure these people are witnessing a “calmed” dog so much as they are a shut down or distracted dog (distraction != resolution). No trainer I know will ever recommend leaving a head halter on a dog in daycare. It is unsafe for two reasons: the other dogs can grab onto it and jerk the dog’s head around, or the other dogs could get their jaws caught and twisted in it (which admittedly has happened with flat collars). Also, chances are your GL is simply going to get destroyed. I imagine many dogs aren’t fond of wearing the weighted backpacks either, plus the other dogs will likely just consider it a new toy that just happens to be attached to their buddy. So if you come across a daycare that utilizes head halters and weighted backpacks as calming tools, I wouldn’t be too impressed with them if I were you.