Day cares can provide wonderful enrichment for a dog but if not well run, can also result in stressed-out, over-stimulated dogs, a lack of impulse control and forgetting "house manners."
A good dog day care is very similar to a quality pre-school: Dogs should experience freedom to explore and play, but should also be positively reinforced to use manners and treat others nicely.
Here are five things to consider on your quest to find a facility you can trust with your precious pup:
1. Look for experienced and adequate staff. It takes a lot of hard work, sharp observation skills and experience to properly manage a group of dogs with different temperaments and play styles. Staff should have experience in dog behavior, training and group dynamics. Staff who can intervene before problems arise is important to ensure the health and safety of the group.
The ideal dog: Staff ratio is 1 staff member for every 10-15 dogs.
Unfortunately, few day cares adhere to this. Staff members should be in the room with the dogs at all times. Watching through a window or over a gate is not enough.
2. Look for small play groups. Small groups minimize stress and maximize fun for dogs. They are also easier to manage if a scuffle should start. Most dogs prefer to play with a small group of friends and even the most social dogs can find large groups chaotic and overwhelming. Groups may be divided by compatible play styles, energy levels or temperaments.
3. Ask what the screening process consists of. Quality day cares require behavior evaluations for new clients. This ensures each dog is a good candidate for this environment and that he/she enjoys the company of other dogs. New dogs should be acclimated to the group slowly and put into a group of compatible canines.
4. Visit the facility on several different days. Be aware that your visit can disrupt the dynamics of the day and may create behaviors not typical for the group (think guest speaker visiting a kindergarten classroom). When you visit, be a neutral observer. Do not try to make friends with the dogs, however tempting this might be. Watch the dynamics between staff and dogs, see what activities are taking place and see if the dogs look like they are having fun.
5. Ask what techniques are used to manage the group. Appropriate control measures would include redirecting dogs towards more appropriate behaviors, interrupting dogs before conflict ensues (experienced staff can see the signs before it happens) and short time out periods if necessary to allow overly aroused dogs to settle down.
Watch for facilities whose staff patrols with squirt bottles, keep dogs crated for half the day or use physical corrections to maintain control of the group.
• Sam Kabbel and Stefanie Strackbein are co-owners of Edu-Care for Dogs, an innovative program that combines fun and effective training, guided socialization and safe, educational group play. Reach them at (480) 200-2011 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/educarefordogs.