• Dana Rebaza

How to Choose a Dog Daycare

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

I remember when the idea of dog daycare was more of a punchline than a reality. These days, taking your dog to daycare is often a routine - if not integral - part of dog parenting. Having safe, structured play time with other dogs can be very healthy for the dog-social dog.

Daycares come in all shapes and sizes. I have seen this firsthand in my many moves around the country. Dogs, too, come in all shapes and sizes, and not every dog is going to enjoy every daycare. In fact, it is common for dogs to outgrow day-stays or certain playmates.

In choosing the right daycare for your dog, take the time to do a little digging. First, you will need to decide what kind of daycare would be best for your dog. Next, take the time to research and tour best options. Know that it may take a few trials before your dog finds the right fit.

Below is our step-by-step guide to choosing a dog daycare.

Step 1 - Understanding dog daycare

Before you get started, it's a good idea to get a good idea of a day in the life of your dog at daycare. While every day care is different, there are some things you can count on.

There will be play. Often times, lots of it. Jumping, scratching, sparring, and barking. The degree to which your dog engages in these behaviors will depend on your dog and the setting. Even in low-key playgroups, there is typically plenty of activity. Moving around. Sniffing.

Energy usually picks up as dogs enter and exit. This is why some daycares limit their drop-off and pick-up hours. There are often peak times of day when dogs are at their rowdiest and volume level inside the facility increases. There should also be valleys during the day, where dogs slow down.

Dogs may have access to pools for splashing, tables for climbing, and toys for tugging. They may be kept in indoor or outdoor yards - or both. Dogs may be grouped by size, weight, age, breed or play style. Some daycares offer programs that help integrate fearful dogs into larger groups, and results vary. Additionally, some daycares may be able to accommodate dogs for solo play or play with known siblings only.

While the goal of dog daycare is to create a safe environment for all dogs, safe does not mean without conflict. There may be times when a scuffle or even a fight breaks out. In a healthy setting, these should be rare and preventative measures should be taken to keep all dogs and handlers safe at all times.

A dog daycare may take in upwards of 100 dogs in a single group. They may rotate dogs in and out of kennels or crates in order to facilitate nap time or lunches. They may restrict age or breed of dogs. Almost all will require that your dog be spayed or neutered by a certain age and your dog's proof of vaccination.

Step 2 - Getting honest about your dog

Is daycare right for your dog? The answer is different for each dog. You should not consider daycare if your dog has a history of causing injury to or conflict with other animals. For all other dogs, consider everything from age to play style.

Puppies, once appropriately vaccinated, can learn so much from play with other puppies. Healthy puppy play can help with bite inhibition, mouthiness, nipping, impulse control, fear and more. It's important for puppies to have access to age-appropriate play so that they are learning from and with dogs their age.

For older dogs, you'll want to consider their health and physical stamina. Is my dog in good health? What are their daily energy needs? Do they have any physical limitations or handling sensitivities? You'll also want to consider any known fears or phobias, and share that information with the daycare you choose.

Some dogs may be overwhelmed by the noise and activity level at daycare. Ask yourself how your dog does out and about. Are there any reasons that you might think they would struggle in a busy environment? If so, you may focus your search on smaller operations.

You will also want to consider your own risk tolerance. That's right, dog daycare comes with its own risks, as does everything in life. It's worth it to consider how you feel about your dog coming home stinky, dirty or with minor scrapes. This is common for dogs that frequent daycare.

I also recommend that dog parents become familiar faces among their dog's daycare staff. Be the chatty Cathy that wants to know who they played with and what group they were in. Making detailed debriefings a part of your regular interaction with your daycare's staff ensures your stay up-to-date on how well your dog is doing at daycare.

In summary, consider:

  • your dog's daily energy needs

  • your dog's age and size

  • your dog's fears or phobias

  • any handling sensitivity that your dog displays

  • your risk tolerance

  • bonus points if you know your dog's play style or preferred playmates

Step 3 - Do a little digging

Once you know what kind of daycare setting would be best for you and your dog, it's time to do a little research. By now you know that not all dog daycares are made alike. This is why it's important to base your choice of daycare on more than just location or convenience.

Taking a little extra time early on to ensure a good match will make life easier in the long run. You want to feel confident in your choice of daycare, and you can only do so if you know a little more about the operation. Take the time to get to know how the daycare is run by speaking to staff and touring the facility. It's also a good idea to speak with current clients. A firsthand account is much more reliable than a google review.

Make a short list of daycare options. Then, pick up the phone and have a conversation. Questions to answer about prospective daycares:

  • How are dogs assigned to groups?

  • How many dogs per group?

  • What are the busy times of day?

  • Do they give dogs breaks from group? If so, how is this set up?

  • What kind of introduction will your dog get?

  • What is the minimum and maximum time your dog can spend there?

  • Do they offer boarding? If so, what are the options?

  • How do they keep play safe?

  • What is the staff to dog ratio within the play yards?

  • What areas and amenities do the dogs have access to?

  • What happens if a scuffle or dog fight breaks out?

  • How do they keep you informed of your dog's progress?

  • When do they contact you about your dog's behavior?

  • How do you go about touring the facility?

Step 4 - See for yourself

Your research will help you narrow your search down to a few options. I recommend starting with your top three choices. If possible, set up a tour during each facility's peak hours. Showing up when dogs are most active will give you an idea of how intense the experience will be for your dog.

Different daycares have different rules about tours, but transparent daycares will want to show you behind the scenes. While you should not have contact with the dogs, you want to be able to lay eyes on the dog yards and the dogs. Also ask to view any kennels where your dog may stay during breaks.

While onsite, get the answers to any remaining questions you have. Clarify any details from your previous research. Watch the dogs - where would your dog fit in? Ask about a individual dogs - how well do the the staff know them?

Here is what to look for when you're there:

  • What areas and amenities do the dogs have access to?

  • Are there any areas that are off limits? If so, why?

  • What do the dogs' body language tell you?

  • How do the dogs in kennels look?

  • Are there any dogs that appear distressed or uncomfortable?

  • What safety tools are on hand? How are they used?

  • What is the noise level?

  • How many staffers are in each dog group?

  • How do staff interact with the dogs?

  • In what ways is the daycare transparent with you?

Be sure to confirm the best days and times for an initial evaluation. Get details about what you can expect to learn afterwards.

Step 5 - Try it out!

Touring a few dog daycares should help you narrow your search even further. If you have more than one favorite, start with your first pick. Follow their guidelines to set up your dog's first visit to daycare. Most daycares will require an initial evaluation - usually for a half-day, limited to certain hours.

When scheduling the evaluation be sure to share about your dog's personality. Be honest about any known challenges and anything you may be concerned about. More information is helpful, and it gives you a chance to start off on the right foot with your daycare team.

Remain open to the feedback that the daycare shares with you about your dog. Remember that transparency is the top quality you are looking for in a dog daycare - even if feedback may be hard to hear. If your dog is welcome back, ask about playmates and their recommendations for days to return.

Some dogs may not be welcome back after their evaluation. When this happens you may need to consider a different type of daycare, or returning after working with a qualified trainer.

Dog daycare can be a great way to exercise and socialize your dog. A little bit of research can go a long way in ensuring that you find the best fit for your dog. Remember that every dog is different and so is every daycare. Make sure you choose a daycare that is committed to transparency, and that you remain flexible as your dog's needs change.

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