I’ve been professionally active in the pet care industry for 15 years. I feel that each day I become more and more convinced that dogs are sentient, highly intelligent, beings that need careful nurturing and enrichment to become highly functioning members of human society and culture. As human culture changes, so does our pet care industry. Housing in much of America offers less opportunity for our dogs to have enriched lives within the confines of their own backyards than it has in the past. Yards are smaller; often our communities have neighborhood covenants that do not allow fencing of any kind. Owners have more pressure and expectation put on their time and proper exercise, training, and enrichment of man’s best friend often falls by the wayside of an increasingly demanding lifestyle.
The pet care industry is not the only industry to change with cultural change. We have seen a massive growth in the childcare industry as well. The same social developments that have caused a positive change in childcare facilities are fueling the growth in dog daycare facilities. I propose that we, as a dog loving culture, need to begin to evaluate our dog daycare centers more carefully. It should be our expectation that these facilities offer excellent, scientifically based, programs for our dogs – not just a place to “burn off energy.”
A quick Google search of how to select a childcare center brought many pages of advice. Here are a few of the most common items listed to consider by child development experts:
1. Adult to Child Ratio
2. Group Size
3. Caregiver Qualifications
5. View the facility from a child’s perspective
6. Ask about undesirable behavior management policies (aka discipline)
7. Everyday education and developmental stimulation
8. Caregiver’s ability to communicate with and act on child’s communication
9. Consistent schedule of daily activities and development
10. Keeping with your philosophy of child rearing and care
Let’s compare that to the quick Google search of how to select a dog daycare center:
2. Small dogs and large dogs separate
3. Temperament Evaluations
4. Loving Staff
That’s it. With few exceptions, that’s the criteria in article after article. I feel like this is such a disservice to our dogs. They are our companions, our feeling, thinking, and dynamic dogs that do life with us. I fully understand that children and dogs are not the same, but there are similarities in needs for a fulfilled and thriving life. I would like to see our list of childcare and our list for dog daycare look much more similar. I would like to see us, as a society, begin to think about the situations as meeting the same end goals. Dog daycare can no longer just be about “getting out energy.” It should be about so much more!
Let’s go though the list of how to select a childcare center and apply it to dog daycare centers:
1. Adult to dog ratio: According to many canine behavior experts the dog to adult ration should be no more than 15:1. As with child care, smaller ratios are even better! (information is according to the ASPCA guidelines)
2. Group Size: There should never be more than 10-15dogs to any individual group. Additionally, each dog should have 75-100 sqft of playspace for each dog in a group. That means that for a 15 dog play group, the facility should have no less than 1500sq ft just for that one group of dogs. Did you know that many dog daycares have so many dogs that each dog only spends fraction of the day outside of a cage? Make sure you ask how long your dog is actually in his play group each day and how long he is in a cage each day. (information is according to the ASPCA guidelines)
3. Caregiver Qualifications: Staff members at a dog daycare should be well educated on dog behavior, body language, health, play style, and behavior management. They should have received training from a qualified, certified, professional in these areas. Ideally the facility will have a certified animal behavior specialist overseeing the staff and management of the dogs.
4. Accreditation: Unfortunately there is no inspection/qualification driven accreditation organization for non-vet dog care facilities. There are several “purchased” accreditations, but these do not require inspections in order to be approved, they simply require membership dues. The best option at this time is to look for a daycare center that has owners, managers, or staff members with individual accreditations and certifications in animal behavior and training.
5. View the facility from the dogs perspective: Is it safe? Is the fencing secure? Do the other dogs seem to be having a good time? Is the staff interactive? Are there plenty of places to rest? How long is the dog actually in their group each day? How long are they in a crate/cage each day?
6. Ask about undesirable behavior management policies: Discipline at many dog daycare facilities is shocking! Ask the facility what their policy is on discipline and then ask exactly how they enforce that policy. The facility should be positive reinforcement and force-free. The facility should NEVER use harsh corrections or the water hose to discipline dogs.
7. Education and developmental stimulation: Does the daycare offer a day-training program? What about dogs not in the training program but just the daycare program? What programs are in place to ensure your dog isn’t just spending the day being exercised physically but also mentally and emotionally?
8. Caregivers ability to communicate and act on the dogs communication: You should feel comfortable with the staff at your dog daycare. Staff education in dog behavior and body language is so important! Again, look for a facility with a certified dog behavior specialist overseeing staff education. All staff should be trained in the latest scientific findings in dog behavior and body language and should be well versed in the science of positive reinforcement.
9. Consistent schedule of activities and development: Your dog daycare should be able to give you an exact schedule for the pets in their care. There should be organized play, education, cleaning, feeding, etc. These schedules and policies should be easily and openly communicated by staff members to pet owners.
10. Keeping with your philosophy of dog rearing and care: It is so important to ask good questions. Dog daycare facilities should ONLY employ positive reinforcement and force free tactics. Anything else is antiquated and scientifically proven to be harmful to your dog both physically and emotionally. It is so important to not just ask if it’s a positive reinforcement facility but to ask exactly what that means. How do they praise? For what? How exactly do they discipline and for what behaviors? Do they know why their reinforcement and disciplinary policies work? Can they explain them to you based on the latest scientific studies of animal behavior and cognition?
Dog Daycare is a wonderful thing. I think it is an excellent solution for the cultural changes that are negatively affecting our family pets. However, we must begin to ask good questions and have higher expectations for the humans we are entrusting to care for our dogs. I encourage each of you to do your research and find a wonderful dog daycare facility and give your pet the opportunity of a truly wonderful experience!