The surge in dog ownership over the Covid pandemic has largely been due to an increase in people working from home. However, now that workplaces are re-opening, many owners are concerned about leaving their dog at home for long hours (particularly owners of puppies who were obtained during lockdown and have not experienced much time left at home alone). Consequently, many owners may be thinking about doggy day care services or walkers, and a lot of new companies are emerging due to the increased demand for dog care services.
However, there’s a lot to consider in terms of whether your dog actually would benefit from having someone help take care of your dog, the type of setup that might be appropriate (or inappropriate) for your dog, and the sort of questions to ask a potential daycare or walker to ensure there are no negative implications caused by the services on offer – there’s a lot more to research rather than just making a decision based on price alone! There is a belief that sending a dog to daycare or to a dog walker is a good opportunity to “socialise” them, but bear in mind the definition of socialisation is “learning to behave appropriately” and not ‘getting to play with other dogs’… indeed, a poorly run daycare or group walk can have the opposite outcome to that which was intended.
First of all, determine whether daycare or a dog walker is most appropriate for your dog and circumstances. If you have a dog with separation issues, for example, then you will need to organise cover for your dog so they are not left home alone past the length that they are able to cope with. We’ll come onto further things to help you make this decision in a minute. But regardless of the type of care you choose, here are some things to consider:
- Do they have necessary insurance and provide you with Terms and Conditions?
- How many dogs will be looked after alongside your dog? How are they grouped together?
- How are they travelled (if relevant)?
- Do staff have a good understanding of dog body language, communication and behaviour?
- What are their training values?
- How do they respond if dogs exhibit undesirable behaviour?
- Do they request lots of information about your dog from you?
- Are they First Aid trained?
It is also a legal requirement for anyone offering daycare of any kind (i.e. in a home or a commercial facility) to have a licence. (However, I would also stress that even a good licence grade from the council does NOT equal a good daycare – make sure you also consider the following…).
Rest is essential
Daycare providers should have the ability to give each dog their own space and to actively encourage periods of rest throughout the day. It is rarely a good sign when dogs return home from daycare utterly exhausted. The number of dogs present, or the staff to dog ratio, is irrelevant if the space is not adequate to be able to provide this, or if free-for-alls are allowed between any number of dogs. Too many dogs (either in an indoor setting or out on walks) is a recipe for over-stimulation and inappropriate interactions, and monitoring dynamics would need a really experienced staff member appropriately qualified in dog behaviour to help dogs out as necessary. Crating to enforce rest at daycare should also not be standard in my opinion (there is way too big a risk of dogs being shut in crates who are not happy to be in there, and daycare staff are unlikely to have the time to appropriately crate train every dog in their care) – however, if one dog loved their crate, it was their safe space and allowed them to switch off and rest then that could be a useful tool for short periods.
Calm and safe travel
If dogs are travelled to/from daycare or walks, are they done so safely? How are the dog’s arousal levels when getting in and out and are interactions managed appropriately to prevent any aggro between dogs (as well as during travel)? Do you want your dog rehearsing high-arousal, vocal behaviour during travel or would you rather quiet, calm behaviour is encouraged?
Appropriate behaviour between dogs
On walks, dogs should not be given the opportunity to pester or rehearse inappropriate behaviour with other dogs within the group nor with the public’s dogs. It would most likely be suitable for the walker of a group of dogs to avoid members of the public in general. All dogs need to be kept within sight and under control at all times (the latter is the law). Driving to a private field and letting the dogs loose for an hour to pretty much do as they please is unlikely to be appropriate either – stagnation will lead to boredom and some dogs starting to make their own entertainment using the other dogs.
Response to unwanted behaviour & training methods
Understanding dog behaviour is vital for anyone who works with dogs in any capacity – and I don’t just mean from watching trainers on TV or having always owned dogs. There are short behaviour courses and qualifications out there for dog walkers and daycare staff – ask for evidence (and then research what that course actually entailed). Ask what happens if a dog shows unwanted behaviour – the mention of water sprays, collar grabs, shouting, manhandling, lead yanking or similar methods would not be appropriate. Instead, the dog(s) in question should be calmly removed from the situation, the environment altered if necessary and management implemented to ensure the dog(s) cannot continue to rehearse that behaviour. If training is conducted, ask what qualifications they have to do so and what methods are used. As a minimum, the dogs will need to respond reliably when they are called and – for dog walkers – loose lead walking will be required for appropriate control, with sufficient knowledge regarding when and how to reinforce each dog (resources such as toys and food need to be managed with a group of dogs, for example). As with all professions, dog care providers and dog walkers should know their limits and stick within their remit, recommending trainers, behaviourists, groomers etc as necessary rather than attempting to resolve problems they are not qualified to do so.
My parting thought is this… does your dog really need to go to daycare? Do you think they might enjoy it, or are you worried about leaving them home alone for too long? Because sometimes being left home alone is the dog’s peace and quiet and opportunity for rest. Have you videoed them when they’ve been left at home alone to find out what they do? Would a dog walker breaking up the day be more beneficial? For some dogs, solo walks might be far more beneficial. It enables the walker to really concentrate on your dog’s needs and build a solid relationship with them without any of the risks that might come with inadequately controlled group walking. Do not underestimate how difficult it is to run a well organised daycare or group dog walk and it takes a very skilled person (or several people) to be able to do so – those who are doing a great job have my utmost respect! For the right dogs, a small group of doggy friends united on a regular basis can be a hugely beneficial experience. A professional who understands dog behaviour and really gets to know the dogs in their care, meeting their behavioural needs and ensuring all the dogs are listened to (by both the humans and other dogs present) is worth their weight in gold.