Dog Daycare Problems
(Updated September 2023)
A friend and client had asked for their previously trained dog to attend boarding and training in my home. This is a dog whom I previously trained very well when he was a puppy but hadn’t seen for about a year. I was very excited to see him and to see how well his training was coming along.
When I first saw him he was wearing his standard flat buckle collar and nothing else so I presumed he was doing so well with heeling and loose leash walking that no other “training” equipment (front attaching harness or head halter) was necessary. I was wrong.
When I took him on his first walk, I noticed he had regressed far worse than when we began our dog training Los Angeles curriculum, sigh. How could this be?
I spoke with the parent, and she informed me he loved his traditional dog daycare and boarding kennel facility. Now I understand why his training and behavior got much worse and the poor habits he picked up since our last two-week dog training and boarding.
It is important to understand that even the best dog kennels and dog daycare facilities are much more stressful than home environments or playing one-on-one. Adding to that stress are multiple unknown dogs (and people) coming and going at all hours, the noise, chaos and bullying that happens at traditional dog daycare and boarding facilities.
Dogs are shown to be much more stressed than when staying in a familiar home with predictability, and a single person and dog friend playing one one.
She also informed me he would be picked up and whisked off to a daycare facility (or someone’s home) that had a very nice business owner who loved dogs but who was clueless about ethology, cognitive ethology, dog training, dog emotions, learning, play styles, socialization and nutrition.
Unfortunately, this is often the case where most daycare facilities (or someone’s home) pander and make it sound great to drop your dog off at a cage-less facility to give your pet an unstructured, unencumbered, romp with a group of dogs for a few hours or a full day.
However, nothing will stress a dog out more and unravel a dog’s behavior and training than this type of daycare or dog park free-for-all.
Unlike a carefully thought out and behaviorist-designed and operated customized dyadic dog daycare, most traditional dog daycare environments destroy your dog’s training skills, manners, and overall behaviors. But it does worse than that – it reinforces and teaches inappropriate behaviors and manners for as long as your dog is attending.
Instead of a Chuk E Cheese ball pit with hyped-up sugar-dosed kids going ape shit, most dogs and parents should be practicing relaxation and deference protocols with their dogs.
A dog park or daycare free-for-all does just the opposite.
- It overstimulates most dogs
- Puts dogs in an unhealthy state of arousal
- Promotes poor behavior and teaches a dog to ignore the parent
- Have a high risk of getting injured or sick
- Can make dogs fearful or reactive to other dogs and/or people
All things we don’t want.
So not only does daycare not reinforce positive behavior and what a family wants from a well-behaved family pet but most daycare environments enable, teach and reinforce everything we do not want our four-legged friends to do and thus set a dog up for failure.
One solution and alternative to dog daycare is one-on-one dog boarding and training (with or without dog training) to give your pup the proper play, socialization, exercise, enrichment, and training needed to maintain and improve a dog’s behavior and health. Or even a great dog walker who walks your dog one-on-one (not group walks) and who understands dog behavior and what’s healthy for your dog.
We always want to set dogs up for success. When they are left unsupervised (which is synonymous with being supervised by an unprofessional, uneducated individual in the previously described environment) you’re setting your best friend up for failure.
Your dog doesn’t have the ability to rationalize or to know what is best for him/her. On the other hand, a parent does.
I would no sooner let my 2-year-old son or daughter be surrounded by 20 other hyperactive children of all ages, all with individual physiological, physical, health or behavior issues, comprised of unknown, various ontogenies, and personalities, unsupervised or supervised by someone who had no background in education, child psychology, behavior and not an accredited teacher, then I would my dog.
Also, only the most well-trained and behaved dogs should be allowed to enroll in dog daycare.
Ideally, your dog would play in one-on-one sessions with compatible play partners selected by a behaviorist. Dogs are dyadic by nature and thrive on one-on-one supervised play sessions. Dogs are not pack animals. By being ultra-selective, a dog daycare facility should resemble a very well-balanced or private members-only country club dog daycare and boarding park and hand-select dog play partners.
However, unfortunately, because most businesses are run by individuals who may love dogs but do not have extensive ethology or cognitive ethology background and run on a volume-based business model, dog behavior problems get overlooked or unrecognized and profits get put before the health and safety of the dogs.
There are simply too many situations or reasons to mention why a great dog daycare would be healthy for your dog and why a poor dog daycare would be unhelpful or downright harmful for your dog. We think the cons for most dog daycares substantially outweigh the pros in most situations.
Questions to ask a dog daycare facility:
Education Of The Staff – Education is vital to your dog’s safety, comfort, and wellbeing. If the employees supervising the dogs are not certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) as a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) and/or Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT) or experts with academic credentials in the field of animal behavior such as Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists (CAABs), I would not leave my dog at that daycare facility.
Dog training and behavior licensing is not required in any state. The IAABC and the CCPDT are the most highly recognized independent dog behavior and dog training certification councils. Other organizations that offer certifications simply provide those certifications to graduates of their own program or only certify their own members.
The various certifications offered by the IAABC and CCPDT are the closest thing to licensing offered in the world of non-degree-based dog training. Basic canine communication, including body postures and signals, and displacement behaviors (dog anxiety behaviors), such as why dogs lick you, dogs eating poop, or dogs eating grass, are imperative for the supervising staff to understand in order to ensure your dog has a safe and enjoyable experience. Continuing education in ethology, psychology, cognitive ethology, dog training, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, learning theory, and animal husbandry saves lives.
As a CDBC and CPDT, it is mandated that we take continuing education units (CEUs) every year based on the most current scientific knowledge in ethology and dog training.
Some additional dog daycare questions are: What educational requirements do you have for new hires? What continuing education and training does the daycare staff receive? Unfortunately, there is little perspicacity of the business owners, and the new hires often lack the proper skills, education, experience, and background to be effective at keeping your pet healthy and safe.
Health Policies And Sanitation – How organized and clean is the facility and how is it cleaned? Do they use harsh chemicals that can offend a canine’s sensitive olfactory glands? The facility should also be flea and tick-free and cleaned multiple times a day, so there is no pungent smell or odors in the air. The facility must be very well-ventilated. The HVAC is critical when considering a daycare or dog boarding facility as epidemiology has shown many airborne pathogens and diseases spread from inadequate fresh clean air circulation.
Are there many windows or garage doors or skylights they can safely open to give your dog fresh air when wanted?
Lighting – Are there skylights, windows, garage doors, etc? Do they have mood lighting that changes based on the time of day/night and/or activity? Lighting is shown to affect a dog’s energy level and comfort just like the temperature in a room does.
First Aid And CPR – Ask if employees are trained in Pet First Aid and CPR. Ask what the daycare’s protocol is in the event of an emergency injury or illness. Will your dog be taken to a veterinarian or emergency hospital if necessary? Los Angeles is prone to earthquakes, flooding, and fires.
In your neck of the woods, hurricanes, or tornados may loom, so make sure there is a standard operating policy (SOP) and procedure for handling these events. Emergency veterinarians are NOT the same as your regular veterinarian and require different forms and procedures.
Vaccination Requirements – The dog daycare facility should require mandatory checks for health risks such as Bordetella, and vaccinations for tracheobronchitis (kennel cough) at least one week prior to daycare, including checks for pathogens, fleas, ticks, and parasites. There should be requirements for vaccinations or titers, and sick dogs should not be allowed to enter the daycare or boarding facility. In addition, there should be policies and a SOP in place for medical treatment in case of injury.
Spay Or Neuter – The daycare policy should prohibit unaltered male or female dogs. Nothing throws off the chemical balance and harmony of a group of dogs quicker than a female in heat or an intact male. Not to mention neutering and spaying your dog may add years to their life!1
Temperament Testing And Initial Evaluation – Your dog should be trained by a Certified Trainer and Behavior Consultant prior to being considered for allowance into daycare. After that, the dog should be “interviewed” in the daycare facility, or ideally a one-on-one private Board and Train to learn about them, and their temperament, and see how they do in very small groups (1 or two dogs max) in a relaxed atmosphere.
It is impossible to get a feel for a dog’s temperament in one meeting. Behavior is contextual and requires continuous observation over a period of time in different groups, circumstances, and environments. A daycare facility should be more like socializing at Starbucks than a boxing match or a crazy romp on at a dog park.
Pet Parents Interview – A comprehensive interview with the pet parents is equally important, if not more so than your dog’s temperament test.
In the initial training session, questions should include the complete ontogeny of your pet, behavior problems, complete bite history, behavioral quirks, likes, dislikes, what makes them nervous, have they ever bitten another dog or person, play style, energy level, and any fear, timidness or aggression displayed in the past.
Your interview will yield more valuable information than a one-time temperament test and will alert the facility on what socializing group to put your pup in, and a conscientious daycare should let you know if daycare is even right for your dog. In many cases, it is not but they have a conflict of interest.
Potty Training Trouble – Whether or not your dog is potty trained, it is confusing for them to go to the bathroom in new places, surfaces, and environments and especially when they are stressed.
If your dog is used to, or you want your dog to go to the bathroom in the same spot, at the same time, or on the same surface (grass rather than cement, carpet, tile, rubber, etc.,) every time, a daycare will likely be detrimental and regressive to your dog’s training and potty training progress.
A well-trained dog that only wants to eliminate where they are trained to go potty may “hold it” for so long that it could cause pain or a urinary tract infection. Or you might have a service dog that is trained to potty on cue where you want them to and a daycare won’t be able to reinforce this behavior.
Dog Apparatus – There should be no dog collars or harnesses on any dog. If they must wear something, it should be a break-away collar. They should be as they came into this world, naked.
There are too many incidences where a dog dies from getting choked or another dog’s tooth gets caught in a collar or a dog gets injured because some type of hardware was left on. It’s just unnecessary and a poor decision.
Floors And Fencing – What type of floor is your dog lying and playing on? The surface should be non-slip, cushioned, and easy to clean/sanitize as I mentioned when The Washington Post Interviewed me about the best flooring for dogs.
Typically, washable rubber mats on the floor and walls may make a good choice. Although I am not a fan of dog parks, a good dog park will have double-door entry and exit ways, preferably multiple ones per play area, with rounded enclosures, so dogs don’t get backed into a corner, bullied or feel trapped or bum-rushed at doors.
These safe gates introduce new dogs to the group the safest way. They prevent the mobbing effect of a new dog and prevent dogs from escaping. In addition, any fencing should be high enough to prevent dogs from jumping over and should be opaque to block visual stimulation. Needless to say they should go at least 1-2 feet below the earth if on soil to prevent escape artists from digging a hole out of Alcatraz.
Behavior Control – How does the daycare facility control the dog’s behavior? Ideally, they do not need to manage a very well-trained and behaved dog’s behavior that much which is why the initial investment in a training session and temperament test is so important.
Does the daycare have proper supervision by Certified Behaviorists and Trainers and staff members on the floor at all times, and are the conspecifics ever left unattended?
It’s not good enough that someone is observing dogs from a bank of cameras. Dog behavior and communication are complex in themselves and then when you add the dynamics of a group in the mix it makes behaviors even more complicated.
Does the facility use or allow punishment (alpha roles, reprimands, scruff shakes, squirt bottles, loud horns, citronella anti-bark collars, practice debunked dominance theory, or use shock collars)? If so, I would not leave my dog there. However, a caveat to this is to have some type of spray to halt fights if they ever occur (however they should never occur in a properly run daycare).
Don’t forget to ask to see the written policies on how scuffles are handled. If you hear answers such as “we don’t use food treats” or “food treats cause fights,” that may be an indication of their lack of dog training knowledge and skill or perhaps lax intake policies. Investigate and ask questions. Although not having food and toys in a large room of unfamiliar dogs all with behavior issues and quirks, ideally your dog should never be placed in this position to begin with.
If your dog is in a safe, and healthy environment with their best friend and both dogs don’t have behavior and training issues having food and toys out is not a problem. It’s only a problem in traditional dog boarding and day care facilities that run on volume-based business models.
Floor Plan Layout – How many rooms or play areas are there for dogs? Are there fresh clean water stations in each play area? Dogs are individuals and come in many different shapes, sizes, and ages and have varying temperaments, play styles, energy, sociability and fear levels, etc.
Every individual is different and lumping them all into one or two rooms is detrimental to their health and olfaction. Do you think your 10-year-old senior dog wants to be bothered with a mouthy, boisterous 1-year-old adolescent (even if they are the same size)? Or the playstyle variances between a Border Collie, a German Shepherd, and an American Bull Dog? They all express themselves very differently and would not all make ideal play partners.
Location of the Facility – Is the daycare in a commercially zoned area (most are) with trucks going by or a highway next to the building? There have been many studies of dog shelters next to loud environments such as airports, and commercial noisy areas that have been shown to stress dogs out from the constant noise (And pollution) of the location of the daycare. Even dogs barking in the daycare is stressful for most dogs!
Ratio Of Certified Dog Behavior Consultants (CDBC) And Certified Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT) To Dogs – There should be a minimum of one qualified CDBC certified by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and CPDT, or CAABs for roughly 5-10 dogs.
Those numbers can fluctuate depending on the temperaments of the dogs and the skill and experience of the dog handler and how well each dog and handler know one another but generally speaking, the higher the ratio of qualified CPDT trainers, CDBC or CAAB’s specialists to dogs the better.
A separate playroom for small dogs, young pups, and the elderly is safest.
Small dogs, even amenable confident ones, are at much greater risk of injury in a room full of large energetic dogs.
Furthermore, some adolescent dogs get overwhelmed by all the debauchery, energy, and activity and they become reactive, impulsive, and stressed out. Stress is a common dog daycare problem that is often mistaken for happiness by pet parents.
Other Daycare Precautions – Caveat emptor, you may want to avoid any daycare that only provides limited information or is cagey about providing any of the above information. While not advised to break up your expertly planned dog’s routine and well-planned-out play, nap, feeding, and training schedule, you should be able to at least see the environment through video or pictures of where they will be staying.
After all a commercial daycare and boarding facility is not someone’s personal home so there is no need for privacy.
I would also be cautious of traditional daycares that don’t allow you to observe playgroups (from video cameras) and tour the entire facility before committing. It is not appropriate for parents to come and go all the time, or to be in the exact space where all of the dogs are, especially if their dog is reactive, shows resource guarding behavior, or becomes antisocial, obsessed, or attached to the parent, however a visit now and again that does not disrupt the playgroup would be OK.
Parents are not allowed in the dog daycare space for legal reasons, but also because great dog daycares will have carefully planned out your dog’s entire stay to the last detail. This includes customized play sessions with dyadic partners, nap times, feeding times, massage times, petting, training, and other enriching games. Breaking up this continuity is not in the best interest of your dog.
Overcrowding is common, unhealthy, and very stressful for any dog (or human). It has been well documented in scientific research that dog boarding kennels, daycare, and overcrowding raises cortisol (stress) levels and is a precursor to aggression and many behavioral problems.2-4
A rule of thumb for a dog daycare facility is at least 100 square feet per large dog and 50-60 square feet per medium and small dog.
Lastly one must consider all of your dog’s somatosensory faculties. Noise is shown to stress out dogs and raise cortisol levels. The noise of a daycare and boarding kennel with dogs barking, HVAC systems, staff members, etc., is overwhelming and stressful for a dog’s sensitive hearing.
Dogs are shown to be able to smell urine, feces, cortisol, and unaltered dogs from miles away and for many weeks after the incident. How safe do you think it is for your dog’s extremely sensitive nose to be in a veterinarian daycare, dog boarding kennel, or “spa”? It’s not. Would you go on vacation to a hospital? I wouldn’t.
Your dog can smell and sense other dogs’ stress from great distances. Other dogs’ anxiety will cause your dog to be stressed through emotional contagion and limbic resonance.
Is It Safe to Send My Dog To Dog Daycare?
When is it OK to send a dog to daycare?
There are pros and cons to doggie daycare. Mostly I’ve discussed the cons because there are way more than the pros for the overwhelming majority of dog daycares.
I would first choose to send a dog to a behavior-knowledgeable trainer or in a one-on-one home environment rather than a commercial facility with several other dogs.
However, if you don’t have a great dog walker or dog boarding home to send your dog to you can always ask a pet sitter to come to your home.
Or if you are able to bring your dog to work or you can come home for a long lunch to be wth your dog that would be sufficient for many dogs as well.
A dog who is reactive or has dog aggression, or any other serious behavior disorder would not be safe or appropriate for a traditional daycare or boarding facility.
The only exception when it may be better to go to daycare is if none of the previously mentioned options are viable and your dog has separation anxiety.
In this case, if a dog’s fear anxiety and stress from being left alone is elevated, this might outweigh the cons of a traditional daycare and your dog might benefit more from being in a less-than-ideal daycare environment than suffering at home with tremendous stress and anxiety.
Dog daycare and dog kennels are not suitable or appropriate for most dogs as shown by peer-reviewed research of dogs’ stress levels in these environments and many other aforementioned reasons.
Most daycare facilities are primarily concerned with profits and not the health or well-being of your dog. There is often a conflict of interest, and the volume business model will conflict with your dog’s health and well-being.
Volume and health are inversely correlated. Many daycares are stressful places for even highly socialized dogs but can be a nightmare for nervous, shy, apprehensive, or jittery dogs or dogs with any behavior or obedience issues.
The barking and loud noises, noxious smells of cleaning chemicals, poop, pee, and lack of fresh air, temperatures, spacial concerns, overcrowding, and all of your dog’s somatosensory issues are all detrimental to your dog’s health.
Most dog daycare facilities are opened by people with good intentions and business minds but who have very little background or advanced education in animal behavior or dog training and simply slap supervised by a “trainer” or “behaviorist” on a shingle and open shop.
The majority of dog daycare and pet service businesses are opened by autodidact dilettantes who are out of work, don’t want to work in a corporate environment, or had a pet dog when they were a kid and try to make a quick dollar or conclude that because of their love for animals, they could dog train, open a daycare or boarding facility.
In most states, there are no laws that regulate the staff of dog daycare facilities and licensing is nonexistent.
Often I hear stories of daycare, kennel, and dog boarding businesses that brag that they never have the dogs off the play floor or are always uncrated.
These businesses misunderstand and obfuscate their responsibility to provide a balance of play activities and quiet time rest and decompression for each pet in their care. Ideally, each dog has a quiet, clean, comfortable, and secure individual “sanctuary” room, kennel run, or large crate in which to rest for a nap. A time-out is as necessary or more than the playtime.
Dog Daycare Conclusion
Most daycare models work on volume and do not offer catered, individualized or specialized care. Socialization is extremely important for dogs but what many people don’t understand is the most essential part of socialization is gradual exposure to novel unfamiliar stimuli.
This only occurs if your dog is already extremely friendly to all begins and stimuli. If your dog is hesitant or shows any apprehension around beings or stimuli you would not want to socialize or introduce them to them without desensitization and counterconditioning behavior modification.
If your very friendly dog is going to the same place and playing with most of the same dogs day in and day out, week after week, there is nothing novel or unfamiliar about this experience.
Furthermore, if the temperament test and intake of a dog are not ultra-selective and, if a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or equivalent ethologist or behaviorist is not supervising the pets in very small groups, it would not be safe or effective at all at achieving anything but unencumbered chaos. You are unconsciously doing your dog more harm than good by sending your beloved friend to learn inappropriate behaviors and consequently put their health and life at risk as an outcome.
1. Jessica M. Hoffman, Kate E. Creevy, Daniel E. L. Promislow. Reproductive Capability Is Associated with Lifespan and Cause of Death in Companion Dogs. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (4): e61082 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061082