Dog daycares have become a mainstay for dog owners across the United States, growing in popularity since they first popped up in the mid-1990s.
For many dog owners, dog daycare gives their dogs a safe place to exercise during the day while they're at work and provides much-needed mental enrichment and companionship that dogs wouldn't be getting by themselves at home.
But how do you know which daycare to choose? With increased popularity, more and more people are getting in on the trend, and there are lots of options and styles available, from the large franchised "brand-name" daycare to the dog daycare your neighbor started in their home.
The dog daycare and boarding industry is under-regulated, so it’s important you find a daycare where your dog will be safe, happy, and well cared for. There are a few things to consider when interviewing different dog daycares, including the style of daycare, staff-to-dog ratio, staff experience and training, cleaning procedures, dog handling and training methods ... and more!
Before exploring different daycare options, first, think about whether your dog will actually enjoy going to daycare. Check out this article for more information on how to tell if your dog will enjoy and do well in a dog daycare.
Read on to learn what to look for and what to ask a prospective doggy daycare.
The MOST Important Thing to Look For in a Doggy Daycare
While there are a few best practices to look for when choosing a daycare, I believe the most important quality is transparency. This means that daycare staff is willing to answer your questions thoroughly, openly discuss their policies, talk about pack management and training philosophy and methods, and be honest when discussing your dog's behavior in the daycare environment.
A reputable dog daycare will be more than happy to discuss how they do things with you, and will also allow you to "tour" their facility so you can see it for yourself, whether in person or virtually through webcams, videos, or photos. Don't be surprised if a daycare does not allow in-person tours while daycare dogs are present — the constant coming and going of new people can cause unneeded stress within a group of dogs. Instead, they might have you take a tour outside of operating hours, have a live webcam to watch, or videos and photos of what a typical daycare day looks like for their doggy clients.
Different Styles of Dog Daycare: Which is Best For Your Dog?
There are a few different types of dog daycare, and you’ll want to choose the style that best matches your dog’s temperament, physical and mental stimulation needs.
Dog Park Style
This type of dog daycare has large open spaces and is often indoor/outdoor or outdoor only. The space provides energetic dogs the room to run, play fetch with staff, meander around and catch up on pee-mail, or watch all the activity from the sidelines.
Because it usually includes outdoor space, if you live in an area with inclement weather, be prepared for a wet and muddy dog at the end of the day. You’ll also want to be aware of the facility’s plans for very hot or cold weather.
Daycare staff is spread out throughout the play area to ensure safety and polite behavior between dogs (think "zone defense"). Make sure the ratio of staff to dogs is kept at a safe level in this type of daycare (more on staff to dog ratio further down in the article).
- Which dogs do best in this style of daycare? Social dogs who love to run do well in this type of daycare, as they have the space to really stretch their legs. More cautious dogs or those who might be overwhelmed while surrounded by high activity would do better in a different setup. Dogs who like to play "catch me if you can" or who are scared of being touched or led by the collar should avoid this type of setup due to the difficulty of corralling them for pick up or in other situations.
Separated Play Area Style
These types of daycares are similar to dog park style setups, except they have smaller, usually either indoor-only or outdoor-only play areas.
Dogs are separated into playgroups usually based on energy level, play style, or size. Groups in this style of daycare are usually smaller due to space limitations. Typically each group has between 10–20 dogs per area, but this depends on the size of the room and the number of staff.
Which dogs do best in this style of daycare? Dogs who are a bit more cautious and scared of high activity might do well in this setup because they can be separated into an appropriately matched group of dogs.
A home-style daycare is in someone’s home and provides a familiar environment for dogs that might be overwhelmed in a dog daycare yard or room.
These daycares usually have only a few dogs that attend each day due to space available and allowances by local municipalities regarding kennel/boarding facility licensing requirements for residential homes.
Along with the familiarity comes the everyday dangers of a home, so make sure the home has been properly dog-proofed and is properly cleaned and sanitized to reduce illness transmission (more on cleaning protocols further down in this article).
- Which dogs do best in this style of daycare? Dogs who exhibit signs of separation anxiety tend to do best in this style of daycare. Dogs who enjoy the company of only a couple of dogs at a time are also good candidates. High-energy pups might be too rambunctious for a smaller group of playmates, but this depends on the physical exercise routine provided by each individual homestyle daycare.
What Things You Should Ask a Prospective Dog Daycare:
Below I've listed some basic aspects of dog daycare you should ask about, and my recommendations as far as what answers you should be looking for.
1. What are your vaccination requirements for dogs that attend?
Dogs are in close contact with other dogs at daycare, and illness can spread quickly if dogs are unprotected. A responsible daycare facility will require all dogs to show proof of current vaccinations for Rabies, DHPP (Distemper, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza, and Parvovirus), and Bordetella ("kennel cough"). Some daycares also require vaccination for Canine Influenza (the doggy flu).
One thing to keep in mind is that even with vaccination some illnesses can still be caught, such as kennel cough (Bordetella). However, if your dog is vaccinated and contracts kennel cough, the severity is often much less than if they'd been unprotected. Speak with your veterinarian about their recommendations for vaccinations beyond those required by the daycare facility. Click here for more information on what vaccines your puppy needs before attending places like doggy daycare, training classes, or the dog park.
2. What are your spay and neuter requirements?
Most dog daycares have a minimum age requirement for spaying or neutering dogs that attend their playgroups, usually between 6 months to 1 year of age. This is due to pack management safety — it has nothing to do about whether or not it's "better" to fix your intact dog (we'll leave that debate for another day). Altered dogs can react differently to intact dogs, and vice versa.
A responsible daycare will want to keep these kinds of flashpoints to a minimum in their pack, which means they must ask non-altered dogs to not attend once they reach sexual maturity (usually between 6 months to 1 year of age). It's all about setting the group up for safety and success.
3. What is your daycare trial process?
A dog daycare should have a protocol for accepting new dogs into their pack. A daycare trial should include asking for health and behavior history so staff is aware of any issues that might affect a dog's behavior in a new environment. Find out what behaviors would preclude a dog from attending daycare, and make sure you are comfortable with the daycare's behavioral requirements for daycare attendance.
If you know that your dog struggles with behavior that might result in them being dismissed from daycare or not passing the trial, be upfront with staff so they can better set your dog up for success and keep themselves and the other dogs safe. Some behaviors that can be tough to manage in a daycare environment include:
- Resource guarding (of food, space, or toys)
- Sensitivity to handling by humans
- Shy or timid personality
- Nipping and mouthing
- Jumping on people
- Excessive humping
- Excessive barking
- Separation anxiety
- Herding behavior or predatory chasing
You can ask the daycare facility what behaviors are hardest for them to manage in their setup and environment to make sure you're setting up your dog for success and not causing unneeded stress for your dog, the current daycare dog pack, and daycare staff.
A dog daycare trial should start with your dog meeting the staff and being evaluated on how well they accept being handled by someone other than you, their owner. When being introduced to the dogs, the process should allow ample time for a slow introduction into the pack. This might mean your dog starts in a kennel at the side of the play area, is introduced one-on-one with other dogs before being out with the entire group, or starts in a low-energy playgroup area before moving into the more action-packed rooms. Ask what the facility looks for as far as indications whether a dog is enjoying their trial or if they need a break. Depending on the daycare, the length of a daycare trial might range from a few hours to a full day.
4. What is the ratio of daycare staff to dogs?
There should be at least one well-trained staff member for every eight to ten dogs (1:8–10), but the smaller the ratio the better! I like to see a staff-to-dog ratio of 1:5–7 in the high-energy playgroups to help maintain appropriate play between the more rambunctious dogs.
5. How many dogs are in each group?
This depends on the style of daycare. A dog park style might allow thirty to forty dogs in one group; you want to make sure that there is an appropriate ratio of staff to the number of dogs, that the dogs in the group are well-matched temperaments and play styles, and that there is enough space for the dogs to move freely about without feeling crowded.
6. Are dogs separated by size?
This is also determined by what style of daycare your dog attends. A home-style daycare will most likely not separate dogs by size, and instead might determine which dogs can attend based on their energy level and play style. A daycare with separate play areas has the best capacity for separating by size if you are worried about your smaller dog playing with larger dogs.
Some daycares specialize in small dogs only or large dogs only — find one that separates dogs based on what you feel most comfortable with for your dog. My small Corgi, Sookie (seen in the photo below), did the best running around with the medium/large group of Labrador Retrievers at her daycare because they matched her playstyle and high energy.
7. What fencing and other safety features does the facility have?
A daycare should have fencing that is a minimum of 6 feet tall to help prevent dogs from jumping over the fence to go on adventures, and dogs should never be left unsupervised. If you have a dog that likes to dig under or climb the fence, let the daycare know and ask what their management plan is for dogs that try to escape enclosures.
Double door entry is another safety feature to look for in a daycare. Dogs should not have direct access to a door that leads directly outside — there should be a secondary doorway or gates that prevent door dashing or escapes by daycare dogs, much like the airlock gate system seen at many dog parks.
8. What happens if my dog is injured while at daycare?
Injuries happen in a dog daycare environment, from ripped paw pads to sprained ankles, to scratch and bite wounds from other dogs. Dogs play with their mouths and teeth, so ear injuries are common during wrestling play when they get chomped on a bit too hard. You'll want to make sure the daycare has a plan of action that you are comfortable with in case your dog is injured during their stay.
How do they assess injury severity and treatment plans? How soon is the owner notified of any injury? What injuries do they believe require a veterinary visit? Does the daycare have a veterinary office close by that they have an agreement with for needed non-emergency vet care or do they take the dog to the owner's veterinarian? Does the daycare try to contact the dog's particular veterinarian before taking them to an emergency vet clinic? Are they adequately staffed so that if there is an emergency, there is someone to take a dog to the vet and someone to stay with the other dogs in the pack?
A dog daycare will have you fill out forms that authorize them to take your dog to the veterinarian if needed and clarify what medical decisions they are allowed to make in your absence. This is very important for them to have in case of an emergency.
It's a good idea to provide something similar for your pet sitter or dog walker — here's a free download of a Treatment Authorization Form so anyone watching your dog has the information they need.
9. What certification and training does the daycare staff have?
Because the industry is still under-regulated, anyone can decide that they want to open up a dog daycare. However, loving dogs isn't the only qualification someone needs in order to keep dogs physically and behaviorally safe and cared for. As the industry grows, more daycare operators are investing in applying for certification through the Professional Animal Care Certification Council (PACCC), a 501(c)(6) non-profit created by well-known and respected industry experts that holds their members to high standards. Even if a prospective daycare is not professionally certified by an organization like PACCC, you can still use their standards to decide if it's the right place for you and your dog.
Ask the daycare facility what training staff has received in regards to pet first aid and CPR, reading dog body language, how to manage dog play, how to prevent and break up dog fights, and training methods they use with daycare dogs. Daycare staff should be current on a pet first aid certification and provided with continuing education in these topics. Having a certified professional dog trainer on staff is ideal, not only for dog training and behavior management for the daycare dogs but also for staff education and training.
There should be no reliance on aversives (such as shock collars, shaker cans, or water hoses) to punish dog behavior. Look for a daycare that uses positive reinforcement (praise, petting, and play) to reward dogs that behave in daycare and negative punishment (time outs, or no more fetch play) as consequences for unwanted behavior.
An easy way to find out about a daycare's training methods is to ask the question:
"If my dog <insert bad behavior here>, what do you do?"
Their answer should never include physical punishment, aversives, intimidation, or other dominance-based methods. Make sure you are comfortable with their training philosophy and methods.
10. Do dogs follow a particular routine throughout the day?
Keeping a consistent daily routine helps dogs relax, stay calm, and encourages good behavior. Ask the daycare if they have a schedule of activity throughout the day, or if there is a natural routine their dog pack follows. Some daycares have scheduled "nap time" where all the dogs are kenneled for a period of time. Other daycare styles might rotate dogs between higher energy areas and lower energy areas to encourage relaxation, or staff might only play games with the dogs at certain times of the day. This can help prevent overstimulation, physical injury, and physical exhaustion, especially for dogs that would play all day if allowed.
11. What are the cleaning protocols for the facility?
The daycare should be regularly and properly cleaned using products that are safe for animals and effective in preventing the spread of bacteria and viruses. Dogs do have potty accidents inside — especially in an exciting and stimulating environment like daycare. Ask the facility how often the daycare area is sanitized and what products are being used — a good daycare should feel confident in telling their clients what their protocol is for ensuring the health of the dogs in their care. The daycare space should look and smell clean, without an overwhelming smell of chemicals.
Most dog daycare facilities will deep clean their space weekly using veterinarian-hospital grade disinfectants such as Virkon, Wysiwash, or Neogen, and perform regular spot cleaning in between with all-natural and pet-safe cleaning products. Their cleaning routine and products should kill viruses (Parvo, Distemper, and Influenza), bacteria (Kennel Cough), and protozoa (Giardia).
It might seem like a lot of information to gather, but it's important to make sure your pup is safe and getting the best care while playing at daycare. Just remember, transparency is key and the most important thing is that you are personally comfortable with a dog daycare's policies and protocols. For many pups, daycare turns into a home away from home, and dog owners can rest easy knowing that their pup is safe and has human and canine company throughout the day!
Share your dog's daycare stories with us or ask any questions in the comments below!