By Brielle Gregory
These days, the number of doggie daycare facilities—and amenities—seem endless. Pet owners can now choose from doggie daycares that boast swimming pools, memory foam mattresses, home-cooked treats and even tennis courts for their dogs to play ball in.
But with all the bells and whistles, it can be hard to decipher what’s really important when choosing a daycare for your dog. Before you sign your pooch up for a playdate, consider these questions:
Regardless of where you take your dog for daycare, there are certain vaccines the daycare should always require: rabies, parvo, distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, canine influenza and bordetella, which dogs in daycare facilities have a heightened risk of contracting.
“Bordetella is a respiratory disease caused by a bacteria that can be transmitted when dogs are housed in close contact,” says Dr. Steven Friedenberg, an assistant professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Although bordetella isn’t typically fatal, it is highly contagious and can cause serious respiratory disease in your dog. The vaccine should be given through the nose, as this form is most protective, Friedenberg says.
You should also make sure that the daycare requires your dog to be up-to-date on any preventive care (e.g., fecal examinations or heartworm testing and prevention) that is standard for your area.
“I think it’s a reasonable thing to look for in a daycare that the dogs allowed are healthy dogs,” says Dr. Andrea Morden-Moore, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist in Urbana, Illinois.
Unsurprisingly, the dogs that do best at daycare are those that play well with other dogs and are typically pretty active.
“Even if they’re not physically active but you can tell they’re still mentally active, it gives them something to look forward to, especially if you’re not home a lot,” says Dr. Carolyn Lincoln, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist at Play To Behave in Cleveland, Ohio.
Your dog should also do well at daycare if they’ve gone through puppy classes and have had positive experiences in training environments. Dogs who have undergone formal training are typically better socialized and don’t usually get over-stimulated in a daycare setting.
“The dogs who get the best benefits can get their exercise without causing problems,” says Dr. Sally Foote, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist at Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Tuscola, Illinois.
As for the dogs who won’t be too well-suited for doggie daycare? “Dogs who tend to get very nervous or timid and [hide] from other dogs or people they don’t know,” says Foote.
The general rule of thumb is that small groups are better than large ones.
“I think it’s best to have no less than one supervisor or handler per every four dogs,” says Foote. “Avoid the big mosh pit doggie daycare. You can’t intervene adequately when that’s going on.”
If possible, your dog should play with no more than three dogs at a time.
“When you start to get to five [dogs], depending on the personality, it gets riskier,” says Lincoln. “Then you’re forming a pack, and the behavior can change. When they start to form a pack behavior, they don’t listen to you. They’re more focused on each other.”
Although it would be ideal for all of the daycare staff to have positive training and socialization certifications, it is not always the case. However, you should make sure that there’s at least one supervisor or head of the daycare who has had formal training.
“See if there’s someone higher up, like a supervisor, who’s certified and passing that info along to lower-level staff,” says Foote. “If the head person has certification and they have in-house training coming from that person, that’s a good thing.”
You should also feel comfortable asking what the turnover rate at the daycare is. If the facility has a low turnover rate, that’s a good indicator that the employees are being paid and treated well, which will reflect on the treatment of your dog.
“I would be looking for [more expensive daycares] typically because that means they’re putting money into the staff and facilities,” says Lincoln. “If they’re charging more, they can be pickier about who they get.”
This is the quickest, easiest indicator for whether a daycare is run well or not.
“From the minute you get there, you should be treated well if you expect your dog to be treated well,” says Lincoln.
The staff should be asking you questions and getting a feel for your dog’s likes, dislikes and certain personality traits, even if you’re there every single day. “They should always be asking, ‘how is your dog today?’” she says.
The best daycare staffs will also have the person who will be taking care of your dog that day come out to greet you and your dog.
“I want to see my dog interact with them and make sure my dog is comfortable before they leave my side,” says Lincoln. “If they’re not paying attention to you, they’re not going to pay attention to the dog.”
In general, the daycare facility should screen all of the dogs it has that day and assign playgroups based on preventing any skirmishes from breaking out, but if a tense situation does arise, you need to ask how the staff reacts to it.
“You don’t want to hear, ‘well, we let them work it out,’” says Foote. “Dogs don’t work it out. That’s when we get fighting and other problems.”
A key component in avoiding those situations goes back to having a well-trained staff. If the staff is well trained, they’ll be able to recognize reactive or rough play. If the daycare staff doesn’t recognize when play turns violent, your dog could end up injured.
You should also make sure that the daycare has areas to separate dogs if needed and that your dog will have a private space to be away from other dogs. That way, if any issues arise, they have a quiet place to rest.
The last thing you want is to take your dog to a daycare where there’s a chance of them getting hurt, sick or lost.
“I’ve seen doggie daycares [with] fences [that] didn’t look secure,” says Morden-Moore. If the fence looks loose, too short or has a latch that may have seen better days, it might be a place worth avoiding.
“Do they have double gates?” says Lincoln. “That makes me feel safer.”
Aside from the security of an outdoor play yard, the cleanliness of the facility as a whole is especially important. Make sure staff is regularly picking up waste and watching out for any signs of illness in any of the dogs. And remember, you have to do your part too. “Don’t bring your dog to daycare if they’re actively sick,” says Friedenberg.