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Dog daycare: Is it the right choice for your pet?

Grace was always painfully shy. Being around others left her feeling uncomfortable and anxious. In social situations, if Grace couldn’t leave the room, she would usually sit off to the side, waiting for the moment when she could go home.

Grace’s younger sister, Sydney, is the polar opposite: quick to make friends, flitting about from group to group, introducing herself with excitement. Sometimes, Sydney’s gregarious nature can be a bit much to handle – newcomers aren’t always sure how to deal with her. If they don’t share in her enthusiasm, Sydney vents her frustrations on Grace, by jumping on her head and biting her face.

Wait, what?

Grace, a 40-kilogram Mastiff mix, and Sydney, an 11-kilogram Welsh Springer Spaniel, are on opposite ends of the dog sociability spectrum. Sydney is the dog equivalent of a human extrovert – she loves to play, interact and be in the company of other dogs. Grace is much more introverted; she is not afraid of other dogs, but she prefers the company of people, and keeps her canine interactions to a minimum.

It’s important to note that these differences are neither good nor bad; it’s just the way it is. By honouring our dogs’ essential nature, and respecting their choices, it’s possible to meet their needs and avoid potential problems – even for dogs as different as Grace and Sydney.

This is especially important in considering what type of daily care they need while you’re away at work. Last week, we looked at the pros and cons of dog walkers. Today, here’s another alternative – dog daycares.

Ally Fodero gathers her charges at Soulmutts, a Toronto dog service that offers daycare. Dogs are social creatures, and meeting with others can give them a break from the usual routine. (Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail)

The benefits of dog daycare

A well-run daycare, with staff trained in dog body language and behaviour, can be an ideal solution for many pets and their people. A good dog daycare provides:

– Safe and supervised play: Dog parks are not always hospitable places for off-leash interaction. Daycare dogs have been evaluated for energy level and temperament, and are closely monitored while they play, to ensure every dog has fun and stays safe.

– Mental stimulation and social contact: Dogs are social creatures. Meeting up with doggy friends, even one day a week, provides your pets with a break from the usual routine, and allows them as much (or as little) social interaction as they want.

– Flexibility for owners: Dog daycare is usually offered in full-day or half-day increments, which makes it an ideal solution for people with odd work schedules or occasional dog care needs. Daycares are often more flexible in their arrangements than dog walkers, who have a schedule to keep.

– Pinch-hitting for your dog’s exercise needs: While a day spent at daycare can wear your pet out, it’s not a substitute for your responsibility as an owner – namely, twice-daily walks with some play and training mixed in. However, for busy families with packed evening schedules (think hockey games and ballet recitals), sending your dog to daycare when you’re not going to be home at night is a brilliant compromise to make sure all family members are looked after.

– Management for problem behaviours: Some dogs suffer from separation anxiety – a panic-induced state where the dog feels abandoned and becomes destructive and physically ill during an owner’s absence. Being surrounded by dogs and people can help to mitigate this response while the owner works with a trainer (and perhaps a veterinarian) to address the underlying behaviour problem.

The downside of dog daycare

Not every dog is well-suited to a daycare setting. Dogs with health or mobility challenges, older dogs and young puppies might find the environment overwhelming and unpleasant. Daycares are also inappropriate for undersocialized dogs, and do not provide the right setting to help over-reactive pets. Even if your dog is an excellent candidate for a daycare setting, there are still possible pitfalls:

– Overstimulation: While playing with other dogs all day, every day, might sound like your idea of dog heaven, every dog needs a break sometimes. Unfortunately, the most playful dogs will often go until they drop, with no awareness of the need to take a step back. Well-trained staff will keep your dog from getting overstimulated, by providing some down time (either alone in another room), or through controlling the entire group’s energy level with a kindergarten-inspired nap time.

– Exacerbating problem behaviours: While daycare can help manage some behaviour problems, it’s possible it will make others worse. Dogs can pick up bad habits, like jumping up on people or furniture, marking or even overly-rough play. A good daycare will work with you to understand your rules for your pet, and help to enforce the training you’ve been doing.

– Injuries and worse: When it comes to bumps and bruises, dog daycares are no different than playgrounds for kids. Dog play includes open mouths and the use of paws – occasional nicks and scrapes are going to happen. However, more serious accidents can happen in the blink of an eye, and sometimes fights can break out. Qualified staff can help keep these incidents to a minimum, but owners should know that as with any activity involving other dogs, there’s a chance your pet may get hurt.

– Disease and illness: Yes, dog daycares screen all their attendees and require proof of vaccinations. However, things like kennel cough (think “doggy cold”), puppy warts or even fleas can be spread rapidly through a close-knit group of dogs. The risk is similar to what your pet would be exposed to at a dog park, but good quality daycares do their best to clean and disinfect all the areas where the dogs play.

How to choose a dog daycare

There are multiple online resources that list dog daycares (along with dog walking and petsitting) under “businesses you can start with no special skills or experience.” That frightening thought alone should make you carefully question the people who want to take care of your dog all day. Here are some things to keep in mind:

– Trained staff: Your pet’s daycare experience will only ever be as good as the people making it happen. Staff need to be trained in pet first aid, dog body language and stress signals, safe play, and how and when to interrupt dogs safely. Ask what protocols are in place for breaking up fights, veterinary emergencies and keeping everyone playing nicely together. If you hear something along the lines of, “Oh, the dogs will work it out,” find another provider.

– Staff to dog ratio: Simply put, the more staff per dog, the better. The absolute maximum ratio should be 15 dogs for every one staff member, and there should never be fewer than two employees on site at any one time. The dogs should never be unsupervised, not even for a minute – fights can break out in seconds, and staff should never be more than 10 steps away to stop them.

– Structure and set-up: Dog daycare should never be a free-for-all in a wide open space. For the safety and sanity of your pet, there should be large play areas, as well as smaller rooms, runs or cages where dogs can take a break (or be given a time-out for bad behaviour). Dogs need more sleep than people do, and their days must include some downtime, either by being rotated through play and rest periods, or through a group nap, where all the dogs rest at the same time. Your dog should be able to play in a group with other dogs of similar size, temperament and energy level – be sure your daycare provider has enough space to accommodate large and small dogs in separate spaces.

– Outdoor opportunities: The best daycares have fenced in outdoor areas where the dogs can play and relieve themselves. In large cities, this is sometimes difficult, so be sure to ask if your dog will be walked outside at least twice a day.

– Cleanliness: Yes, it’s a facility where dogs romp and play all day, so you can’t expect hospital standards, but the place should be clean, disinfected daily and generally have decent upkeep. Diseases are easily transmitted in close quarters, and can live in the smallest of crevices for months. The best smell is no smell at all – sometimes daycare owners will use perfumes or harsh cleaning products, which not only mask real odours but are hard on your dog’s nose.

– Evaluations and contracts: No respectable dog daycare would ever let a dog into its program without an evaluation. Expect to bring your dog in to meet with one or more demo dogs, and be prepared to answer plenty of questions, from your dog’s training to food preferences to play styles and beyond. It’s an inherently risky endeavour putting several strange dogs together; choose a daycare provider who tries to get as much information as possible, so he or she can make the best decision for your dog and the other pets in their care.

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