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Dog Daycare: What to Expect and is Your Dog a Good Fit?

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Contrary to what many people may believe, not every dog is cut out for doggie daycare — for a host of reasons.

So, if you're thinking about getting your puppy, or even your mature dog started at daycare, this is definitely an episode you won't want to miss.

Dr. J and Mia talk to one of Preventive Vet's newest team members, Cathy Madson, a certified dog behavior and training expert, about what to expect and not expect from a doggie daycare. Health and behavior issues to think about before and while a dog is at daycare. Red flags to turn you away from a daycare facility. And a whole lot more!

Quick Links Mentioned in the Show

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Meet Cathy's dog, Sookie, one of PV's newest team members and very, very good girl.

Summary Below

If you've gotten a puppy or added a dog to your family recently, there's a whole lot to think about, including how they'll be spending their time when they aren't with you for extended periods. If you're contemplating sending your dog or puppy to daycare, there is a whole lot to consider, especially since not every dog is going to be an appropriate fit.

Some things you need to take care of before considering bringing your dog to daycare 

Make sure your pup is up to date on vaccinations

In any dog-dense area, vaccinations are really important. Talk to the facility ahead of time to know which vaccinations they require. Typically they would require kennel cough, parvo, dog flu, rabies should be obvious.

But it would also be important to talk to your veterinarian because not only will the daycare require proof of vaccination, but your vet will also have a better idea of anything else they’ve been seeing come in to their practice, either seasonally or based on your dog’s medical conditions or age.

An important thing to note: Vaccines are great at preventing things, but they do not prevent everything. Just like a flu shot for humans doesn't guarantee you won't get the flu, the same goes for animal vaccines.

So a dog that's been vaccinated against kennel cough can still get kennel cough because it's a condition that involves various potential causative agents, whether it be bacteria or viral. But it typically shortens the course of it, lessens the severity of it, and decreases the chances of them getting it.

Puppy shots - see how the vaccines your pup gets influence who they can meet, where they can go, and when.

Combo preventatives help everyone

For their health and the health of others, make sure your dog has been dewormed recently. The daycare will likely ask for a recent negative fecal test. It would be really important for your dog to be on flea preventatives, and a lot of times nowadays they come as combo preventatives to include flea, tick, and intestinal parasite protection.

Know how well your dog tolerates other dogs, and other humans

For puppies, you can start out by going to puppy play groups and puppy training classes. This usually gives you a good idea for how well they’re going to respond to being around other dogs.

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But just as important, how does your dog do with meeting new people, because they’re going to be in a new environment having a lot of different people handling them. So just having a baseline for your dog’s behavior around other dogs and other humans is really nice before you just head in to daycare.

What an owner thinks of as “well-socialized” may not be the same as what a trainer, or veterinarian would

There is a spectrum of sociability, and that can change throughout a dog’s life

Most of the time, puppies would be considered Dog Social so they really enjoy the company of other dogs. They put up with a lot more rude behavior from other dogs, like pester barking, and jumping all over each other. They’re a lot more tolerant than an older dog who may not enjoy that type of attention.

spectrum of dog sociability

Older dogs tend to become more Dog Tolerant which means they do well on leash around other dogs, they require a normal amount of supervision when playing with other dogs, they’re a little less tolerant of some of that rude puppy behavior but are good at modifying their correction levels with each other. They’re playful with most other dogs, but some may not be the best play match, so they are more selective with who they will play with, and more tolerant of the others.

Being a Dog Selective dog is very common for older dogs. It can be hard for us humans to understand when if our dog, as a puppy, was super playful and loved being with all other dogs, and suddenly isn’t very interested when they mature and settle into a more selective attitude and become less tolerant of certain behaviors.

Marshall being dog selective is why he was photoshopped into this team pic
My man Marshall is dog selective, which is why he was photoshopped into this Preventive Vet dog team pic

As Cathy reminded us, it’s kind of like going to Chucky Cheese. When you’re young, it’s all you want to do. But now that we’re older, it’s something I completely avoid since I don’t have kids, and it’s a place Dr. J is forced to go to twice a year with his daughters.

The last spectrum phase for sociability is a Dog Aggressive dog. And while that may sound scary, it's also something that is totally ok. It’s not that they are a “bad dog”, it’s just that they don’t enjoy the company of other dogs. That kind of dog is going to need a lot of management.

They may have select playmates, maybe one or two that they enjoy, and that's great. But they don't cope well in new situations, like dog daycare where they have to deal with young puppies jumping on them, or have to deal with other dogs just walking by that they don’t know. Strangers handling them can also cause more stress and change a dog’s sociability.

There’s nothing wrong with a dog who is in the dog selective or dog aggressive category, you just want to make sure you don’t set them up for failure.

Here are some examples of what good dog playing looks like:

 

 

Check out this article for more great information about dog body language, and proper play behavior, and when it's time to press pause on the play.

Potential Dog Daycare Pros

One of the main reasons people tend to want their dog to attend daycare is for the physical exercise. They typically have this active younger dog that could run all day, and having the option for dog play or fetch with the daycare staff is a great way to burn some of that extra energy, especially for the younger teenage dogs.

For other dogs, it can also provide great mental stimulation.

Amos's Story:

The last daycare Cathy worked at, there was a great 13 year-old pug, named Amos, who was not there for the exercise. He didn't run around and play with the other dogs. He meandered sometimes, but usually he would just go from bed to bed to bed to bed.

His owner wanted Amos to have the mental stimulation of seeing the other dogs and the opportunity to be engaged with different people. It was also important for Amos to have access to the outside, potty breaks, and someone to feed him lunch in the middle of the day. His owner said every time he came home from daycare, Amos was worn out.

Cathy says this can be especially important for older dogs who might not be as playful or active, as it still gives their brain activities to do and also helps maintain socialization.

Dog daycare is NOT where you socialize your dog, but can help maintain socialization

You should not use daycare as a means to start socializing your puppy or dog, but if they are already socialized and dog (and people) tolerant, it can help to maintain that level of socialization.

An important thing to note is that socialization is a perishable skill between dogs, so the less often they are around other dogs or in those kinds of environments, the newer it gets to them every time. So if a dog has been a regular at daycare for a while has gone on a prolonged vacation, or maybe they moved away and then come back, it can still seem like a brand new experience for them and there is a regression in their socialization.

Preventing destructive behaviors at home

Another great pro of daycare for your dog is that it prevents destructive behaviors at home. If you've got a chewer, especially a boredom chewer, that behavior isn't going to happen at home if they're at daycare running out their energy with the pack.

Some dogs go to daycare because when they are bored, they bark all day long, which can be a very quick way to get kicked out of your apartment, or get hate mail from neighbors. So daycare can be a great way to give your dog an alternative environment and prevent problem behaviors from happening at home.

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Marshall showing off some of his best boredom chewing work 6 years ago

Preventing self-destructive behaviors at home

From a medical standpoint, there are plenty of self-destructive behaviors that can be prevented with a daycare environment. Some dogs incessantly lick themselves out of boredom or anxiety, and develop lick granuloma.

When I first rescued Marshall, he was terrified of being in a crate and even completely chewed himself out of one, which not only damaged his crate but his poor mouth. Needless to say, it was the last time he saw the inside of a crate.

So, if your dog can't be entertained at home, it's not just about them destroying their environment, but also potentially themselves.

Supervision and companionship

The supervision and the companionship that daycare provides for your dog, having humans around to make sure that they're doing okay, making sure they get potty breaks and get out of bed every once in a while, can be very beneficial. And it keeps them socialized with people, not just their family unit, which can be important for some dogs too.

Would daycare be good for helping a dog cope with separation anxiety?

Dog trainers have to be very careful in how they approach that question because separation anxiety should be diagnosed by your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Trainers can help you make plans to help ease your dog's anxiety, but a veterinarian is going to be the one who really helps you decide whether there needs to be medication or if you're just in need of a behavior modification plan.

So, if you think your dog is suffering from separation anxiety, the first step would be to talk to your vet. But daycare can really go either way for a pup dealing with separation anxiety — for some it can exacerbate the problem.

Another thing to consider is whether your dog suffers from separation anxiety or what's called isolation anxiety. This is something a veterinary behaviorist can really help you figure out based on your dog's symptoms and how they're acting.

A separation anxiety is more when they get very anxious when certain people in the family leave, or one person in particular. So being separated from that person is stressful and causes that anxiety, even if other people are around.

Isolation anxiety is more that the dog just doesn't want to be alone. So having anyone around is going to make them feel better. Cathy has seen a lot of dogs with isolation anxiety do really well in daycare because staff is around.

Wallace's Story

Wallace, a black lab mix, came in and his owners knew that he had separation anxiety. They'd been working with a veterinary behaviorist to treat it and had tried a couple different daycares.

The first two they tried, he was not having it. 30 seconds after they left, he was screaming, trying to jump over the wall, rushing through doors, and couldn't calm himself down. So he had a very high level of separation anxiety.

But because Wallace's owners were so good about communicating with their vet, with Cathy as their trainer, and with the daycare facility, they were able to set up a plan where they left him the first time for two to three minutes, and then they immediately came back and then left.

They created this routine for their dog, never pushing him beyond what he could handle, which is super important with separation anxiety, and they were able to get him up to a length of five hours staying at daycare without them.

Some potential dog daycare cons

  • Over-exercise, which can happen a lot with teenage dogs, or high energy breeds who have a hard time "turning it off"
  • Overstimulation which can lead to stress and becoming more anxious, possibly leading to behavior changes at home
  • Increased risk of infectious diseases, parasites, and injuries

 

What to expect and not expect from your dog's daycare facility

Expect

The biggest thing is transparency. You really want a daycare that is willing to answer your questions, tell you about how your dog is doing, any problem behaviors that they might have exhibited or things they're worried about in that environment.

You want a facility who is transparent about their cleaning protocol, which is really important in mitigating illnesses like kennel cough.

You definitely want the facility to be transparent about how they handle different problem behaviors. So if you go into a daycare to check it out and see if you want to send your dog there, you want to ask things like, "How do you manage problem barking if my dog is barking the whole time?"

You want to look for a daycare that doesn't rely on the use of aversives, so things like spray bottles or shaker cans, or heaven forbid, smacking a dog if they misbehave. Those issues should be managed with positive reinforcement training if possible, or just management of the environment.

And this is where you see quality daycare facilities determine whether a dog is fit for their pack environment based on their behavior. So if they see problem behaviors, they should be honest with the owner and tell them this daycare setup isn't the right one for their dog.

But, while it may not be the right place for your dog to deal with their boredom barking, it may just mean it's time to try a different style of daycare.

When determining which facility to bring your dog, it is very important to ask what kind of relationship they have with local vets, and what plan is in place in case of emergency. Obviously they should contact you, but also find out if there is a vet nearby that they have a relationship with and can bring animals in with a moment's notice. How would they get your dog there? Do they need to have a treatment authorization form in case of emergency?

You want to see that they have a plan in place and they provide you with a packet of policies and requirements for their daycare attendees.

Do not expect

  • That your dog will definitely be physically exercised. If your dog is super chill and, like myself, not very into getting their cardio in for the day, the facility will not be playing the role of Jillian Michaels or Bob Harper and whipping them into shape.
  • That your dog will be socialized, or that your dog will come home with better manners... in fact, some dogs will come home having learning some not-so-cute behaviors
  • Definitely don't expect there to be any training taking place, unless you're paying for an add-on option your facility offers

Red flags

  • If the facility you are speaking with does not answer your questions and/or does not have an emergency plan in place, you should consider this a huge red flag.
  • Cleanliness is key to keeping illnesses at bay. If you want into a facility that looks dirty, or smells dirty, you should use caution and definitely make sure you ask about their cleaning protocols.

Different types of dog daycare facilities

  • The most common type of doggie daycare is a larger warehouse style facility that is separated into rooms where dogs are broken up into groups based on energy level, size, or both.
  • Dog park style which tends to be one big open space, sometimes with indoor outdoor access, and all of the dogs together in one pack
  • Home style daycare, which is getting more popular, and takes place in someone's home and is generally comprised of a smaller group of dogs

So all hope is not lost if your dog isn't a fan of one style of daycare and gets dismissed, there are others to try that may work much better for their energy and comfort level.

How can we tell if our dog loves or hates daycare?

Cathy says, "Usually what I look for is a happy-go-lucky dog when they leave, and they're also a happy-go-lucky dog when they come back. I want a dog who's excited to be there, but not exhibiting stress signals. And this can go back to overstimulation, which can happen to some dogs."

They might seem very excited, but it is a stressful, excited. They're just shaking with excitement, stressed, panting. You might see them breathing heavily, or exhibiting a weird energy level that you don't normally see from your dog, and for Cathy, that's concerning.

"So while a lot of people see that as, 'Oh my dog is so excited,' I worry when I see that in a dog because it's almost like they can't control their excitement and so their body just starts shaking and over-exaggerating everything.

So you do want a dog that exhibits really happy, loose body language coming and going. That they show some interest in the staff, and they enjoy that kind of interest from the staff as well, and that depends on the dog. Some dogs don't love human contact as much as others, but you want that tolerance of staff there."

Things to watch out for either before or after daycare

  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Obsessive self grooming, such as licking their paws over and over
  • Stress panting, or excessive amounts of drool
  • Any sudden changes in behavior or personality

The main points to take away is, use some common sense. Make sure that your dog is appropriate for daycare rather than just sending them in and hoping for the best. Make sure you're a responsible pet owner and keeping everyone safe and happy. And don't be afraid to ask questions!

Thanks again for reading and listening. Have a story to share with us? We'd love to hear from you!

Topics: Dog Safety, Dog Health, Socialization, puppy proofing, adult dog tips, puppy tips, paws and play, dog daycare

Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

Please share your experiences and stories, your opinions and feedback about this blog, or what you've learned that you'd like to share with others.

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