Doggy Day care is growing in popularity in New Zealand, people are busier and smaller housing means people have smaller back yards and dog owners are also recognising the importance of having well socialised dogs.
I have owned a doggy day care for nearly 5 years and have employed qualified, trained and caring staff to ensure the facility is safe and well managed.
The aim of doggy day care is to create a fun, safe environment where you can drop your dog to make your life easier and be a positive experience for your dog. Day care's are a controlled environment versus being out and about in public where there are unknown factors. Many dogs have a fantastic experience and it is great for their socialisation, development and energy levels.
When choosing a doggy day care how do you know what to ask? You may be worried because you are not qualified and don’t have an understanding of dog behaviour to know what you are looking for. To help you keep your dog safe, I, along with our behaviourist, trainer and vet nurse, Sam who has 20 years experience in the dog industry, have put together this list of questions to ask:
- Vaccinations – a pre-play vaccination check should be performed BEFORE the dog is in contact with other dogs at the facility. The current international vet standards are: core vaccinations every 3 years, lepto and KC annually. After the pre-entry check, what is the ongoing management system to ensure these are kept up to date?
- Staff qualifications and training - Staff members at a dog day-care should be well educated on dog behaviour, dog body language, canine CPR, health, play style and behaviour management. Ideally, the facility will have a qualified dog behaviourist onsite overseeing the dogs and staff. If not, they should have at least received training from a qualified professional in these areas. Who has the qualification? If it’s the centre’s owner, how often are they with the dogs or what training have they given the staff.
- Are temperament evaluations performed before dogs join the facility and are these completed by a qualified person? It is not enough to simply test a dog for aggression - to ensure a safe facility dogs should also be tested for other things such as separation anxiety, confidence levels and toy possessiveness. The tests should be fully explained to you and the results communicated. If the initial evaluation goes well the dog should then be observed over several hours. If your dog is overwhelmed, stressed or unhappy the staff should be able to give you advice on if they can overcome this. A reputable doggy day-care will let an owner know if day-care is not the best option for your dog based on their behaviour, not the money you are potentially going to pay. A gradual introduction to the facility may be suggested, this may not be that convenient for the owner, however sets the dogs up to succeed within the environment.
- How do they group the dogs? Trained professionals will group the dogs by temperament, personality and size. You don’t want a highly energised large dog in with a low energy tiny dog. It is important for small dogs to interact with big dogs and vice versa as when we take our dogs out and about we can’t control who they run into.
- Who supervises the dogs? Dogs should be supervised at all times by trained staff.
- What are the group sizes – these can change depending on personality of dogs, facility set up and what they are doing in day care. For example, if they are resting the group sizes could be bigger than if they are in group play.
- How do they introduce new dogs to the facility? New dogs should be slowly introduced to the dogs at the facility, keeping the whole experience positive.
- What is the handler to dog ratio? According to international standards the handler to dog ratio should be no more than 15:1. As with child care, smaller ratios are even better! When taking the dogs out of the facility e.g. to the park, extra staff members are required.
- Where can the dogs rest if they have had enough? Do they have dedicated rest times throughout the day? This is important for your dog’s wellbeing – puppies in particular don’t know how to regulate their own play. Like children, tired dogs can cause fights so it’s important they have rest times.
- Dogs are exercising and running around having fun so there is an element of risk for injury just like a child at school but what does the facility do to limit the risk and what is their dog injury rate?
- What do the dogs do throughout the day? Are there any extra activities, like games, outings, walks or mental stimulation? The staff should be able to give you details of the daily schedule. When looking after groups of dogs there needs to be a very high level of organisation.
- What range of services do they offer? If the facility offers a range of services such as swimming, field trips, training, overnights, bathing, walks and classes this can be easy for the owners as well as provide continuity of staff for the dogs.
- What are the safety procedures for dogs and staff?
- Is the fencing secure – do they have a double gate system? How high is the perimeter fencing?
- Are you able to view the dogs in day care regularly? Insist on viewing the facility beforehand (be conscious some have mat times so go outside these times). If they won’t show you the facility – don’t leave your dog there.
- What are the cleaning policies? What do they use to clean and how often is this done?
- If feeding is required, do they feed dogs separately?
- Do the dogs seem happy? Dogs can’t talk in human language, but body language is key, if your dog does not want to go into the facility, ask yourself why (exception may be when they first start while they are getting used to the new place but they should settle in reasonably quickly if introductions are done right). If your dog has been fine and then suddenly does not want to go in, I would be asking the facility for an explanation, if it doesn’t feel right stop going.
- Are the staff interacting with the dogs? A big warning sign is if the staff have phones out in the play areas or standing in the play areas with coffee cups – you need your attention to be 100% on the dogs if you are supervising groups.
- What are the behaviour management policies – how do they spot problems and deal with them? Like schools there must be order however it needs to be done correctly.
- Education and development - Does the day-care offer dog training? If not do they have access to a trainer and behaviourist to help with any problems? If they don’t have an onsite qualified behaviourist how do they keep their staff’s knowledge up to date?
- Do they communicate with you when there are problems, or are you just told your dog is “fine and had fun” on pick up?
- Do they allow excessive barking? There’s 3 main reasons dogs bark - over excited, bored or under stress. Observe barking levels, not just on pick up and drop off when they are most excited, but during their day too.
- Testimonials from other clients are useful so you know others have had a great experience at a doggy day care. Check them out online or ask to speak to other clients.
- Overnights - if your day care offers overnights other questions would be around if they have someone onsite with the dogs ALL night. If they are in group play overnight is there someone observing them the whole night. A person sleeping there is not enough, as dogs must be supervised while in group play AT ALL TIMES. After a full-on day of playing a dog more often than not wants their own space to have a rest and sleep, if they are in group play overnight it can be too much for them not to mention unsafe if they are not constantly supervised.
Not all dogs are suitable for the day care environment, like people some dogs like a quieter environment and would prefer staying home. If your dog does not feel comfortable in a doggy day care, it’s not a bad thing, just a preference. A well-run business with qualified staff will advise you if your dog is not suited to the day care environment. This may be disappointing to the owner, however, a good day care will be honest about how the experience is for your dog.
In New Zealand and in most of the world doggy day cares are largely unregulated, meaning you must do your homework. A poorly managed doggy day care can be at worst fatal to your dog so please be vigilant and do your research.
I hope this list gives you some ideas on what to ask a potential or your current day care to help ensure your dogs are kept safe.