“An individual behavioral analysis is performed on each dog.”
“Dogs are grouped together by temperament and carefully monitored.”
“Our staff is specially trained in canine behavior.”
“Your dog will be well-exercised and all tired out by the end of the day!”
If you’re one of the slew of pet owners who take their dogs to daycares or board at those same facilities, these are probably all promises you’ve heard before. “We clean kennels and dog common areas multiple times a day! Our facility is staffed by dog lovers! We take pride in ensuring every dog has a safe and pleasant experience!”
For those who have a crammed schedule and a lively pet, these claims can be as irresistible as a siren call. After all, who wouldn’t like to come home to a dog who had a great time playing with their own kind, and is now all tuckered out and ready to relax quietly on the couch, rather than spending the day destroying the couch out of restless energy? The guarantee of a socialized, well-exercised dog who's had their destructive urges placated sounds like a win-win-win!
The problem is, despite nice daycares appear on the surface, they are actually harming your pet. This is because the inherent nature of doggie daycares throws a wide variety of dogs with wide-ranging personalities into in an unfamiliar environment, thereby placing them in close contact with a large number of unfamiliar dogs, only to be handled by a typically overworked staff of often unknown and generally unskilled people.
Sound unpleasant? Sure is. Four main issues make daycares an inherently unsafe and ultimately unhealthy environment for your dog.
Problem #1: Disease
When large amounts of dogs come into direct contact within small, occasionally enclosed spaces, diseases abound. Many settings host large amounts of dogs (shows, training sessions, and controlled boarding facilities are some examples), but are much better at circumventing the risk of disease than daycares, because they avoid direct contact.
Dogs in training or competition settings typically do not directly interact with each other, nor do they share quarters at any point--in fact, immediate contact is the thing those handling dogs in these settings most want to avoid, as interaction is the fastest way for animals to spread disease, and the surest way to spark a fight. Plus, maintaining the high standard of cleanliness necessary to minimize the risk of disease as much as is responsibly possible is far easier for facilities that keep animals separated completely, eschewing common spaces.
Though most daycares try their best when it comes to cleanliness, the very nature of their facilities creates the perfect infection ground for canine health issues, such as kennel cough and worms. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association:
The very reason you take your dog to a dog gathering – social mixing with other dogs – is the same thing that can put them at risk. Diseases can be spread through direct contact between dogs, shared bowls and equipment, contaminated water, stool, insects and other methods.
Daycares and dog parks are two of the highest risk settings for the spread of diseases, as they involve:
Want to take all the steps you can to avoid putting your dog at health risk? Make the smart choice, and cut out daycares and dog parks.
Problem #2: Fights
Just like with people, dogs possess a wide variety of personalities, pet peeves, and quirks. In fact, this is particularly true in dogs, given the beautiful range of breed diversity present in their species. German Shepherds tend to be aloof, protective, and proud; Belgian Malinois tend to have supreme athletic ability and enough energy to power a small city; Border Collies can skillfully maneuver vast herds of sheep across hundreds of acres of land; and Rottweilers are excellent at guarding their owners’ properties from ne'er-do-wells. This is one of the reasons we love dogs - they really have something for everyone, ready to do any job imaginable.
However, when it comes to daycares and other communal settings, these wide-ranging traits are a double-edged sword. Characteristics which make one breed great at their jobs can also make them less skillful or patient when interacting with other dogs, especially in a group setting. A dog who may harmonize with one or two dogs, or even several specific dogs, may act rudely or aggressively when it comes to different combinations of others. Different dogs bring different traits to the table, causing personalities to inevitably clash.
For instance, in the case of the German Shepherd, the aloofness and protectiveness which causes them to excel at apprehension work and bitesports can make them aggressive towards other dogs. Their nature, after all, is to police!
In the case of the Belgian Malinois, their boundless energy can cause them to become obnoxious towards dogs who aren’t interested in rough play for hours on end, thus provoking “if you don't leave me alone, so help me” fights.
In the case of Border Collies, their nature to herd and chase can similarly annoy dogs who interpret being stared down as a threat.
And when it comes to Rottweilers, their guarding ability causes them to be highly protective over resources such as water and toys, often to the point of attacking other dogs.
The same rule of character clash applies to even the friendliest and most tolerant of breeds, such as Golden Retrievers. The sunny personality which makes them such a popular family pet can also make them grating to dogs who prefer to be left alone -- just as highly extroverted people who don't always pick up on subtle “I want to be left alone now” cues from introverts can inadvertently cause arguments.
And these are just a handful of examples of dogs who may get along just fine with others... until someone irritates them, or smells “wrong”, or touches “their” water, or finds their repeated and increasingly desperate requests for personal space ignored. Australian Cattle Dogs may get along great with breeds who are tolerant and willing to put up with their pushy, stubborn natures, but something like a Doberman isn’t going to suffer in silence as a Lab or other typically tolerant breed may.
As a stand-alone trait, that’s not a bad thing. It’s perfectly okay if a dog has strict boundaries! If we were in their shoes, most us would, too. When these boundaries become unacceptable is when dogs are placed in situations that have high likelihood of violating said boundaries. This is not fair either for the dogs who have these rules, or for the unknowing dogs who surround them.
Unfortunately, daycares inevitably place individuals whose personalities will clash together. Again, many dogs may be fine with specific individuals, in a specific setting, at a specific time, but all of that can change in a flash. And the volume of dogs who pass through daycares necessitates that the “behavioral evaluations” -- often performed by individuals who have not spent the years of learning necessary to read the nuances of canine body language -- are brief and not nearly thorough enough to truly assess a dog’s characteristics. Similarly, the volume of dogs who pass through daycares, coupled with a finite amount of space, means that eventually, a less-than-ideal combination of dogs will happen, and so will a fight.
Fights are a regular occurrence in daycares (even when they don’t result in visible wounds) due to the low ratio of staff to dogs. Even in states such as Colorado, which mandate that there is at least one staff member is on duty per every fifteen dogs (Code of Colorado Regulations, 8 CCR 1202-15, p. 15) still require far too low of a ratio to truly minimize the risk of altercations as much as responsibly possible. This is particularly concerning in light of the clashing personalities and ineffective evaluations explained above! No matter how competent a kennel attendant may be, expecting them to monitor a slew of dogs in the circumstances already described - small yards, clashing personalities, and limited resources - is just plain unrealistic.
Furthermore, the skill and care of employees at daycares can vary wildly. Many of those who work at daycare facilities are well able to read canine body language and truly love working with dogs, but many of those workers do not. The lack of skill and lack of enthusiasm which can -- and often does-- pervade these facilities can make the difference from a dog roughly treated and a dog kindly handled, and can also make the difference between a simple disagreement and a bloody altercation.
Want to minimize the chances of your dog being mentally or physically scarred? Skip the daycare. Find a reputable training facility, and get active with your dog.
Problem #3: Stress
Possibly the most common reason pet owners pay for their dogs to attend daycare is exercise and fun. After all, it can be hard to wear an energetic pup out, particularly if you work full-time and have kids who need to be chauffeured from one activity to another. The prospect of receiving a tired, happy-to-be-reunited pet at the end of the day can be tempting, just as the prospect of picking up a tired out, happy-to-be-reunited child from soccer practice can be.
So what’s the difference between sports practice for kids, and daycare for dogs? Both give the participants some healthy socialization and good old-fashioned exercise, right? Nope! Sports and other activities are a form of good tiredness, and daycares are a form of bad tiredness, a.k.a tiredness springing from stress.
Think of it this way: taking a long flight filled with delays and shuttles and several transfers is tiring. So are impending final exams which involve hours upon hours of frantic studying, and so are job deadlines involving multiple people and large and complicated workloads. After enduring these experiences, the average person needs time to recuperate - maybe even a spa day!
Spending a day hiking in the mountains, on the hand, is tiring without being draining. Visiting with a friend for coffee is the same. In fact, these activities and other active, enjoyable ones usually qualify as a form of recuperation in their own right! The difference is, the first group of tiring activities are stressful and thus exhausting, and the second group of activities are enjoyable and thus fulfilling.
For most dogs, spending a day in an environment filled with rowdy, unpredictable strangers and unfamiliar handlers with no way to bow out is the polar opposite of a good time, leading to vast amounts of stress and discomfort. Just as we come home from a long, stressful day at work and have no energy to do anything but veg for the rest of the night, your dog is lethargic when they return from daycare not because they've had an awesome day, but because they're trying to recuperate before they have to deal with it all over again tomorrow.
Problem #4: Bad Habits
Just as their good forms of tiredness and bad forms of tiredness, there are good forms of socialization and bad forms of socialization. Socialization, after all, simply means learning from those around you. Dogs who have pleasant, fun experiences with other dogs and humans generally learn to be polite, gentle, and friendly, looking forward to interacting with others. After all, why wouldn't they? Other dogs and humans have only ever brought them a pleasant time!
Dogs who have negative or stressful experiences, on the other hand, can learn obnoxious or dangerous coping mechanisms, to be fearful or reactive, and to have a low threshold for behavior they don’t care for, thus avoiding interactions with others at all costs. If you repeatedly have awful experiences with others, you're going to do your best to avoid any interaction you can. When it comes to dogs, that can manifest in obnoxious, dangerous, or even violent habits.
Our pets learn from each other, and they learn from us. This is true even when we aren’t actively trying to teach them anything - perhaps more so! And as you probably know, dogs also tend to default to behaviors we dislike. (That’s what makes training so important.) And when a dog is placed in an environment with a variety of strangers with wide-ranging manners, they tend to come away with fresh bad habits - both due to imitation, and due to newly-learned coping mechanisms.
Ultimately, this is because of a lack of quality control. As with most things, when it comes to socialization, quality can be beneficial; quantity can be ruinous. When a dog is being obsessively fixated upon by another dog, it doesn’t matter that they're receiving an enormous amount of interaction. They can quickly learn to lower their tolerance for behaviors they don’t care for, whether that’s obsessive dog #1 harassing them for an extended period of time, or well-mannered dog #2 issuing a polite invitation to play.
As kennel attendants also vary widely, so does the effect they have upon a dog’s behavior. Skill of handling drastically affects the attitude, comfort level, and performance of dogs, creating either a fun and effective experience, or a stressful and damaging one - same as how a good trainer can help you have a happy and well-behaved dog, and a mediocre one can put your dog four steps back.
If the handler is unskilled or uninterested, dogs can learn fun new ways to coerce humans into caving to giving them their way, and they can unlearn commands when allowed to repeatedly ignored ones issued. Daycares lack quality control, and they are thus the ultimate breeding ground for bad habits.
Are there exceptions to this “daycares are unpleasant and unsafe for your pet” rule? Sure. But they’re just that: exceptions, and exceptions which buck the doggie daycare model completely by having standards which most facilities either can't profitably sustain, or don't want to.
Ultimately, it’s well-demonstrated that doggie daycares/communal boarding facilities do more harm than good. The same ends which people desire by sending their dogs to daycare can be achieved through far less risky and far more beneficial means. Do what’s best for your dog, and quit the daycare.
So What Should I Do?
After reading this article, you’re probably wondering: what are these better alternatives? How can I find them for my dog? What can I do to give my dog safe, healthy stimulation? Here are just a few!
For during the day when your dog will be home alone, try:
For when you return and have a few minutes to spend on your dog:
And most importantly, visit a local trainer for activities, games, and solutions customized to you and your dog. Reputable trainers can provide access to:
In the end, it’s the informed and kind choice to find alternatives to putting your pet through a potentially life-damaging experience. As is said in the dog training business: set your dog up for success! That’s the ultimate goal of a pet owner, after all. We love our dogs, and we want what is best for them. So make the wise choice. Dodge the risk and dodge the sales pitch, and start a new hobby for your dog.