Megan’s Musings: Is Daycare Right For Every Dog?

Your dog does not like daycare. I have had to deliver this news a few times and it is never easy. I always feel proud of my team for taking the dog’s emotional and behavioural well-being so seriously and understanding when daycare is not right for certain dogs. However, the team is often faced with frustration, hurt, and even anger by dog owners when this decision is made. We pride ourselves on our dog-dog programs and our success at integrating dogs back in with their canine companions. However, we also have the experience and the knowledge to understand when this is not the best fit for the dog. In this post, I am going to share how we make these decisions at dogma and how you can help to understand if your dog is enjoying daycare.

Arousal  Arousal is a big challenge with groups of dogs. Off leash play is a stimulating activity that attributes to over-arousal, which most often develops into behaviour concerns. This can be from the off-leash park, daycare or too many games of fetch. We often see this when dogs begin to show frustration at the off-leash park or within the daycare, but have otherwise been social dogs. Majority of the time, a change in schedule from every day off leash romps to once or twice a week is all it takes to reduce this frustration. This is the same for daycare.

We typically do not allow dogs to attend 5 days/week as it adds to over-arousal concerns and is detrimental to their behavioural and emotional well-being. In special cases where a dog does have to do this, or attend multiple days in a row, we put them on a separate schedule, which includes some focus work and additional rest. If your daycare limits days/week that your dog can attend or asks you to reduce them, they are doing this for your dog’s well-being. They could happily take your extra money, but are making the right choice to ensure your dog is safe and happy.

Arousal also needs to be managed by your daycare facility. Smaller playgroups sizes, staff who are highly trained in canine behaviour and scheduled rest are vital to ensure the dogs do not become over-aroused and to minimize conflict between the dogs. It looks great to us when we see large groups of dogs running around and playing, but too much of this will have detrimental effects on the behaviour of most dogs. A well-run daycare will conduct a variety of exercises to help focus and settle the dogs and manage the arousal. Dogs should still be running around, making noise and having fun, but a well-trained staff will ensure it is appropriate. This means identifying that all dogs in the group are enjoying the activity. If dogs are avoiding the play, going under or up on furniture and moving away from the group or our acting as the play police and trying to settle the other dogs, the play is too much and has become over-stimulating for them. The dogs need to go into a more settled group if available or perhaps daycare is not a good fit.

Age I always give the analogy in human terms. Daycare is like elementary school for children. Yes, it may be fun at first, but too much of it for older children or adults would get tiring fast. We would become cranky and easily frustrated with the energy levels of the children. We see the same thing for dogs. Majority of the dogs who attend are young and full of energy. As dogs age, they need more rest and may find daycare to be too much. If they seem to require extra rest at home after a day at daycare or do not seem as enthusiastic, they may need to be moved to a more settled daycare group if that is an option. Or perhaps lessen their days at daycare per week or even the hours per day. Listen to your dog and realize that it is likely just their age. They may still enjoy the facility, playing with dogs and getting out, but just need more rest.

My dog Duke attended 3 days per week and I started to see him requiring much more sleep between the days and he even seemed a bit cranky. We moved to 2 days per week and now we just monitor how he is feeling and even let him tell us what days he wants to go or not go. By listening to his needs and the feedback from the team at dogma, I can ensure he remains happy and his behaviour remains stable. He loves to play and go to dogma, but if I pushed too much on him, we would see his arousal and frustration increase and could see behaviour concerns such as frustration towards other dogs and over-excitement at home.

Structured Exercise  This is something that is my responsibility to monitor at home. I know that Duke only spends about 10% of his total time a week at the facility, so it is my job to ensure that the remaining 90% is beneficial to his emotional and behavioural well-being. It is expected that taking him to daycare will be stimulating regardless of the facility set up or experience/knowledge, so it is normal for concerns to amplify there. However, if I take Duke to the off-leash park every day of the week, do not work on self-control or manners and provide no structured exercise, it is expected that I will see behavioural concerns develop. This will typically show as frustration towards dogs or over-excitement. We could also see leash aggression and even a decrease in his obedience skills. These are all things that you should be discussing with your daycare team and monitoring in your dog at all times. We implement a minimum once/week attendance at dogma for this reason. It allows us to better monitor the dog’s behaviour to watch for these subtle changes if they are developing. It is also not good for your dog’s arousal level to only attend daycare occasionally. They will be out of the routine, so they have to reintegrate every time they attend which can be stressful on them.

You can help your dog by ensuring that they attend at least once/week and that you provide structured exercise. Do this by limiting off-leash park play to only once or twice per week and minimize over-stimulating games such as fetch and tug. Provide structured, on leash exercise. Loose leash walking is an excellent self-control skill and focus work gets the dog thinking. These are excellent ways to tire out your dog without over-stimulating them.

Rest Do not forget about rest. Give your dog time to settle after daycare days or off-leash park trips. Too much exercise has been proven to have detrimental effects on our dogs. If you feel like you cannot provide enough exercise and your dog is always full of energy, this is a sign that they need rest. Each time they attend daycare, go off-leash, on a walk, play fetch or any other stimulating activities, you are elevating their arousal levels. They need time in between to rest and settle. By keeping things calm and providing them some more quiet time, you will begin to see great results in their behaviour and manners. Ensure your daycare facility provides adequate rest for the dogs. A day with no rest is not good for any dog.

As you can see, dog play and our dogs’ behaviour are closely linked and this is a complex topic. Dog daycares need to have certified trainers on staff who are reward-based to ensure the arousal and stress levels in dogs are being effectively managed. The set up and structure throughout the day directly impacts the behavioural and emotional well-being of the dogs, as does everything that your dog does outside of the facility. A facility who is discussing your dog’s behaviour and bringing up concerns is ensuring they are working to provide the best solution for your dog. And sometimes that solution may be that daycare is not a good fit. Your dog may find the large group play too stressful. Thank them for observing this and work with them to help your dog. There are many training options and other solutions to provide your dog with play. There is nothing wrong with a dog who finds daycare or the off-leash park to be too stimulating.

When I opened dogma, I was thrilled to be able to have a place to bring Guinniss. However, as I began to do this, I realized that he did not like it. It was too much excitement and it overwhelmed him. I had to step back and look at why I wanted him to attend. I had this vision that it would make it him happy, but realized that it was to make me happy. He may learn to function there, but he would not love it. It became an important lesson on how I structured dogma and how we work with each dog. Accept the dog you have and help them. A dog who does not attend daycare or go off-leash can live a happy and full life. Be proud of yourself for helping your dog by making the right choices for them.