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Is your dog actually enjoying their doggy daycare?

Doggy daycare has become a mainstay in the lives of dog owners everywhere. According to what I was able to find on the internet, the very first formal doggy daycare was called Yuppie Puppy and opened up in New York City in 1987. Seeing how many doggy daycares there are now (it feels like a new one pops up every week!), it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time they didn’t exist!

Three dogs play on a beach
Dog play can often be great fun, but that doesn't mean daycare is always good fit for your dog!

Doggy daycare can be a great opportunity to continue providing your dog with lots of social opportunities and to give them a break from boring day to day life if you are out of the house a lot. But not all dogs enjoy going to doggy daycare and in some dogs going to daycare can exacerbate or even create behavior problems. So it’s important to know how your dog truly feels about doggy daycare, and what to look for!


Unfortunately, it's been my experience that most doggy daycares will not “kick a dog out” of daycare unless the dog is actively causing harm or distress to the human handlers or other dogs. If the dog is fearful, anxious, or just not having fun, the daycare continues to have them come since no one is in immediate danger. Sometimes this is due to not wanting to upset the dog's owners, sometimes it's due to downright negligence (the handlers and daycare owner see that the dog is not enjoying themselves, but continue to allow them to come so they can make more money and afford their overhead costs), sometimes it’s due to the massive number of dogs in the room (the handlers don’t even notice how fearful one dog is because they’re so overwhelmed supervising 20+ other dogs), and sometimes it’s due to the handlers simply not knowing what to look for (many daycares rely on hiring high schoolers and young college aged kids who have no formal background in behavior or training, so they do not see lower level stress signs that a dog is giving off that would indicate they are unhappy).


A worried looking dog stands on a sidewalk  wearing a leash
Tight, closed mouth, lifted paw, and lowered tail carriage are all low level signs that this dog is worried! Unfortunately not all daycare staff are knowledgeable about body language!

So, if you’re not sure what to look for to make sure that your dog is enjoying their daycare experience, here are some things to look for and questions to ask your daycare provider!


What to look for:

  • Does your dog pull you to go into the building, or stay in the car/avoid entering the building? This is one of the most easily read indicators that a dog is likely not enjoying themselves at daycare. If your dog doesn’t even want to walk into the building, they probably don’t really WANT to go to daycare, no matter what the daycare facility is telling you.


  • Does your dog walk with a lowered tail carriage/body posture either into the building or into the back rooms? If your dog doesn’t look overjoyed to be heading into the back with the daycare worker, it would be a good idea to ask yourself why. A dog that’s happy to be going to daycare should eagerly head into the back since they know that’s where their friends are.


  • When you ask the daycare attendants how your dog is doing, do they use labels like shy or standoffish, of say they’re not interested in the other dogs? It’s not uncommon for a dog to be shy or not play super confidently for the first week or two that they attend daycare, but if your dog has been a regular daycare attendee for several months or more and they’re still “shy” or avoidant with other dogs, they’re likely just not a good fit for a daycare setting. Daycare is not a natural setting for dogs to be in so it shouldn't be surprising that not all dogs will fit the mold of a "daycare dog".


  • Do they claim that your dog is more interested in the human attendants than the other dogs? Lots of people make this claim and laugh it off, saying that the dog “thinks he’s a human” and other silly things like that. But truthfully when you look at the behavior of these dogs more closely, you can often see small signs that they’re quite uncomfortable, and they’re looking to the human attendants for help or comfort. This is ESPECIALLY true if your dog isn’t normally a big jumper and they’re jumping on the daycare attendants; the jumping up is often the dog begging for someone to help them, but many people misread this signal as the dog being “naughty” because they’re “excited” by the daycare environment!


  • If your daycare has cameras that you can access, does your dog follow the human handlers around constantly? Again, see the above point.


  • Does your dog only play with other dogs after being “bullied” into playing? If your dog will play, but ONLY after another dog has been pestering your dog to play for several minutes by body slamming them, barking in their face, and other overt play solicitations, it’s likely that your dog is playing because they’re trying to just deescalate the situation, not that they actually WANT to play. Which leads us to the next question…


A doberman pinscher and a border terrier play together
Play should always be reciprocal, like this adorable play between Ernie and Echo!

  • Does your dog ever solicit play from another dog, rather than waiting for the other dog to solicit play? If your dog is NEVER the one to start play, ask yourself if the play that you’re seeing is like that mentioned above, where your dog is basically bullied into playing because they don’t know what else to do with a pushy dog. Play should be a consensual interaction between BOTH dogs, and your dog should be actively seeking out play just as much as they reciprocate it!


  • Does your dog hang out in the corners or up against the wall for most of their day? Many dogs see the use of walls and corners as a way to make sure no one can come up behind them or to the side of them. It’s a survival instinct that many living organisms have (including humans!): when you’re unsure, make sure your back is covered! If your dog is never in the middle of the room, and spends most of their day on the perimeter of the room, it’s a good idea to ask yourself why that is.


  • Does your dog pace and pant? Is their tail lower than normal at daycare? Is their posture sunken or low? The number one way that we can make sure our dogs are having a good time is by reading their body language. A dog that is enjoying daycare should be interacting with the other dogs, not just pacing the room, and their body language should be loose and relaxed to show that they are having fun!


Some of the above information may be difficult for you to ascertain if your daycare does not have live-streaming cameras on in the play space. I personally do not recommend utilizing daycares that do not have cameras that you can easily access to see what your dog is doing. For me, if a daycare doesn’t have cameras I consider it a “red flag”.


Unfortunately there are many unscrupulous business owners out there and I know of several different clients who thought their dog was playing all day with the group when in reality the dog was either crated the vast majority of the time or the dog was showing signs of distress all day long and the owner wasn’t notified since the dog wasn’t “causing issue” in the group. If you bring your dog to a daycare already that you love and they do not use cameras, ask the daycare if they wouldn’t mind recording 30-60 seconds of your dog while in the room with them. If the daycare will not allow for this, I would think twice about continuing to bring my dog there. It’s highly suspicious when a daycare won’t attempt any accommodations to assure you that your dog is enjoying themselves.


All this being said, what happens if you figure out that your dog actually doesn’t like going to daycare and that they’ve been stressed and miserable every time they go? Well, if you need daycare due to your long work days I recommend looking for a licensed, insured, and bonded dog walking company (not Wag or Rover, there’s just too little oversight with both of these companies!) And hiring someone to come in once or twice a day for walks or yard time. I personally used to work for Pet Watchers Northwest, and always recommend them highly to my clients: https://www.petwatchersnw.com. And I have used and recommend Fetch Pet Care of Schaumburg as well: https://www.fetchpetcare.com/schaumburg/


An akita looks out the window
No need to leave your dog all alone for a full work day, a licensed, bonded walking company is a great resource to have!

If you’re taking your dog to daycare for the continued socialization opportunities and your dog truly loves other dogs but is just stressed when the group is as large as most daycare groups, you can see if any neighbors have referrals for in home doggy daycares where one person has two or three dogs at a time. Again, ask if the provider is insured! Anyone who works with animals day in and day out NEEDS to be insured, and it's a huge problem if they aren't! You can also just set a weekly "play date" with friend and family dogs and make sure to keep that "date" for your dog!


A black lab and mixed breed puppy play together
Many dogs are suited best to playing in small groups of dogs, instead of the large groups of 30+ dogs found at many daycares. Even if they love playing with other dogs they may be too overwhelmed by the chaos of a large group!

And if you’re taking your dog to daycare just because they have so much energy and you don’t know how to help them burn it off, I recommend increasing your dog’s mental enrichment with food dispensing toys like the ones I have listed here, purchasing a long line for sniffaris and adventure walks (my favorite long lines are from High Tail Hikes), and purchasing some new toys like a flirt pole. Tell yourself that instead of spending your time driving your dog to daycare 20 minutes 3 times a week, take that time and dedicate it to increased mental and physical enrichment for your dog!


Doggy daycares CAN be a good option for your dog, but it's not always as black and white as we would hope! So if you're not 100% sure that your dog is loving their daycare time, do some detective work to figure out if your dog is TRULY a daycare dog, and if they’re not use the above ideas to enrich their lives further!


Happy training!

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