What to expect from dog daycare

What is dog daycare? Most of us have an idea of what it is, but dog daycare has come a long way from being a convenient place to ‘park’ your dog for an afternoon. Modern dog daycare has grown up. No longer is it merely the kinder option to kenneling your dog. Today’s dog daycare facilities, like A Walk in the Park, strive to provide your dog with a positive, enriching experience that goes far beyond merely looking after your dog.

This is daycare designed from the dog’s perspective. At A Walk in the Park your dog will play with other dogs with similar play styles and energy during the day, while at night he will curl up next to his favorite playmate.

Bottom line, dogs like to play, to hang out, and to enjoy company, but they may need some help to allow the unfamiliar to become familiar. This involves some risk so we want everyone to understand how dogs ‘work’, from a social perspective, and what to expect in an environment where dogs are allowed to socialize off leash.

Dog daycare arises from the need to occupy the dog safely while the owner is busy or from the need to provide exercise and stimulation. This has at its core two important considerations:

1. dogs need social interaction.

2. a dog’s world is divided up into the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Many factors influence how these two basics show up: in individual breed, early pup-hood, social interactions, home situation, health, just to name a few. What this means in a daycare context is that dogs have many ways of playing. All dogs are hardwired to feel best in a group, that group may be human and/or canine. When they are introduced into a playgroup, everything is unknown. So, it boils down to how well each individual dog is equipped to deal with a new situation.

Different breeds were bred to do different tasks. To accomplish that different parts of the dog’s prey drive cycle were either amplified or diminished. What is the prey drive cycle? It is the cycle of behaviors that a dog uses to hunt. Some dogs use scent (think bloodhounds), some dogs use sight (greyhounds), some grab and retrieve (Labs), all parts of this cycle.

Because of this, different breeds have different playstyles. Bulldog type breeds usually like a lot of body slamming. Retrievers are often very mouthy in their play. Herding dogs on the other hand, don’t really enjoy those things, preferring instead to chase and move other dogs around, occasionally coming close to a playful nip. The herders do not like dogs coming into their personal space, let alone slamming into or mouthing them, even though the bulldog and the retriever are clearly inviting them to play.

A dog needs to know what his rank is in the group, what he can get away with, who wants to play, and who needs space. In the play area are many “resources” - things like water bowls, beds, even people - that dogs value. Some dogs can be quite domineering about these resources, not wanting to share with others, or wanting to have first access. If the other dogs defer to them then there is no problem, but if they don’t then a ‘debate’ occurs. The dogs will use lots of posturing and signaling until one gives way to the other. If neither is willing to back down then the ‘debate’ may become physical, and a fight occurs.

An additional factor besides breed is age. Just like humans, dogs go through different emotional stages during their development, and just as with humans, dogs will be teenagers, too! During this time adolescent dogs can exhibit different behaviors that adults might not find acceptable. Other phases may see a buoyant, playful pup grow into a reserved and hesitant ‘pre-teen’, and then into a full blown teenager. So you can see it’s important to know which stage of development each dog is in so we can match them up with the right playmates for a fun, safe time. This is crucial for young dogs to learn the social skills they need to be happy, well-adjusted adults.

When the dog’s needs go unmet or unrecognised the dog may become stressed. Stress is a natural, hopefully fleeting reaction to many factors such as figuring out status in the group, unfamiliar dogs, people or items in their environment. Dogs also experience what you might call positive stress, the result of having “too much fun”, becoming over-excited. All of these situations require specific handling.

Now we know about the different factors that can affect dogs’ needs and attitudes, but how can we tell what each canine is experiencing and expressing? Dogs communicate mostly with their bodies (yes, even that yipping Chihuahua). How they move, how they hold different parts of their bodies, subtle and overt facial expressions - all these tell one dog what another is thinking, how he is feeling.

All dogs learn these cues through proper socialization. But most humans do not know these cues. In fact, many behaviors, postures and forms of greetings we humans consider polite are actually signals of aggression or dominance among dogs.

In order to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for dogs at daycare we humans need to understand all of these elements. We are the ‘life guards’, the ‘playground monitors’ helping to keep the dogs’ energies balanced, helping to redirect conflict, diffuse tense situations and misunderstandings. The presence of calm, knowledgeable humans in the group helps the dogs to feel safe, providing a figure of authority who they can rely on to maintain balance in the pack.

All of the staff here at A Walk in the Park undergo extensive training in dog communication and development, add to that years of combined experience and you have a support team well equipped to see that each dog’s daycare or boarding experience is positive.

All the experience and training in the world cannot prevent injuries from happening. Dogs’ emotional states can change quite rapidly as their nonverbal conversations are nearly constant. In fact, some dogs give few to no signals that their emotional state has gone from relaxed to provoked. Dogs who did not socialize early or who experienced significant traumatic events at critical stages in their development may not give any warnings at all.

This is not to say dogs who exhibit aggressive behavior are bad dogs! Please note - modern dog psychology tells us that while individual dogs may act or react aggressively, or exhibit dominance behaviors, the dog itself is neither inherently aggressive nor dominant. Without these behaviors the species would not have survived.) Some dogs are more easily stressed or more prone to react to other dogs and/or specific situations. When a dog is stressed enough, his whole being is geared to surviving, he is not able to respond to commands. Reflexes, not thoughts are directing his behavior. So keeping arousal and stress levels under control is extremely important.

Not all injuries are the result of negative interaction either. Some are the result of exuberant play - a leap and a twist on a paw can result in a sprain, wrestling with a best friend can result in small scrapes or nicks. The importance of play for the health and development of the dog can not be overrated.

We want everyone to understand these risks. These are, by and large, natural occurences that would happen in any group of dogs when interacting. They don’t happen often but are always a possibility when two or more loose dogs are together. If you feel that the possibility of injury is too much for you to feel comfortable then kennel free boarding and daycare might not be for you and your dog.

We think the benefits far outweigh the risks. Dogs love to play and it is important for their physical and emotional development, it relieves stress, allowing them to fully engage their instincts and breed traits. Through play they learn how to communicate and to become empathic to other dogs’ signals of discomfort or stress. They learn how to become a dog and have a much richer emotional and social life. The dogs that come to the ranch are excited because their friends are here and because they can be themselves!

Paws paws paws - the lowdown on paw injuries

Dogs don’t wear shoes, at least the majority don’t. Instead they have pads. Pads are made up of specialized skin that protects the dog’s feet as he walks across various surfaces. This skin is though, but not indestructible. Sometimes things can get stuck in between the toes or even lodged in the skin of the pad itself - things like splinters from branches, tiny stones, etc. Things like these can even cut the paw pad. In the winter the salt spread on walks can cause pads to dry out and crack. When injuries happen the first step is to inspect and clean the paws, then remove any foreign objects, and lastly to apply appropriate medication - such as antibiotic cream in the case of wounds and salve in the case of sores or burns (from salt or friction).

If the pad becomes severely abraded you may see the entire top layer of the pad come off. Though this is often seen in situations where the dog encountered something not completely '“pad-friendly” (such as rocky terrain or de-icing salt), sometimes pad injuries are the result of too much of a good thing: lots of playing after long periods of inactivity or exercise on soft surfaces only.

Think of it like this: you love to walk barefoot in the grass but you’ve spent all winter indoors, maybe even with nice thick socks on; then on the first warm day you throw off your shoes and run around in the green spring grass, for 8 hours. Your feet will probably be sore, even if you had an awesome time!

Here at a Walk in the Park all our surfaces are designed to be dog safe and dog friendly. Inside our floors are linoleum. They are cleaned and sanitized on a daily routine. All of the areas are restricted (no dogs allowed!) as they are being cleaned, and kept dog-free until dry and safe. So the likelihood of a dog coming in contact with a cleaning agent is not a factor in paw safety at our location.

Outdoors one of our four yards has screening (gravel), the rest are blacktop, and our dog pathway is poured concrete. While the blacktop can get hot in the very hottest times of summer we water the surfaces down to cool them as long as the weather is still comfortable for the dogs. This has the added benefit of being very fun for many of our furry friends (doodles and retrievers, just to name a few). But the water can make unconditioned paws softer. So we are always keeping our eyes out for subtle changes in gait when dogs are in our care.

Large breed, young dogs are especially susceptible to ‘playing their pads off’; in the worst cases the pads (the top layer) coming off completely. That’s a lot of weight, pivoting on a layer of skin. This is very painful but does not cause lasting injury. For this reason we are particularly careful with our young giants, watching that they take time off from boisterous play and examining their paws throughout the day.

So how do I get my dog’s paws in shape for spring time play? The good news is there are several ways! The easiest and least expensive way (read: absolutely free!) is to begin walking your dog on different surfaces before spring gets here. On your daily walk step off the grass and onto the sidewalk for short intervals. Walk up and down rougher terrain for short times. To make this even more effective combine it with any one of specially made paw conditioners (we use a brand called Tuff Foot). These are products long used by hunters to prepare and protect their dogs’ paws in all sorts of terrain - wet or dry, grassy or rocky.

Since hard surfaces are easiest to sanitize all of our surfaces are hard. We will monitor the dogs to see if discomfort is developing. Please let us know if your dog has been showing signs of paw tenderness, or is prone to paw sores. By taking action before the spring time “crazies” are in full swing together we can see that your dog has a safe, enjoyable time, throughout the year.

Food and Treats: How to Make Good Choices

The following article is written by animal behaviorist, Cori MacGregor:

One of the best things you can do for your dog is feed him a highly nutritious and balanced food. If you feed your dog the proper food, his skin and coat will be sleek and shiny, he will have a strong immune system and it will promote good digestive health.

When you walk into a pet store to buy food for the first time, it can be overwhelming with all the options that are available. How do you know what to choose? First, you want to make sure you have the correct formula for your dog’s age, breed and lifestyle. Puppies will require a higher caloric content that senior dogs because their energy level is higher, and they are growing at a rapid rate. Larger breeds will need a different nutrient balance than smaller ones. Overweight dogs will need a formula geared toward weight loss, whereas a dog at a healthy weight will need a formula geared toward maintenance.

The label on the back of the bag has more information about the quality of the food than you may realize. There will be certain key phrases you will want to watch for. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has established guidelines to regulate the claims a pet food company can make on its label regarding the quality and content of the food.

If the food claims to contain a single ingredient, such as beef or chicken, it must contain at least 95% of that ingredient, not including water (including the water content it must be 70%). For example, if the food claims to be made solely of beef, beef is required to make up 95% of the food. Phrases like dinner, platter and entrée means the foods must contain at least 25% of the that ingredient.

If the name states “with” a specific ingredient (such as “with cheese”) only 3% of the ingredient is required. Foods that have specific “flavors” need to contain only a trace amount of that ingredient. The phrase “complete and balanced” also has a lot of weight behind it because of the minimum amounts of specific nutrients the food must have in order to be advertised as such. The fat to protein ratio is another key element to evaluate. The size of your dog and his breed will need to be considered but adult dogs should intake 15%-30% of their diet in protein. Recommended fat intake should be around 10%-20% of their diet. All of this information can also be found right on the label.

Also take a good look at the actual ingredients listed. By law, the pet food manufacturers must list the ingredients in order by weight. This means that the first ingredients on the list are what the food is primarily made up of. Find a food that lists a protein source such as chicken, beef, salmon, etc. as it’s first ingredient.

In addition to that protein source, you will want to look for whole grains and vegetables as well. Unlike cats, dogs are not true carnivores and these plant materials provide many of the micronutrients dogs require that they cannot get for protein sources alone. There will also be ingredients that you want to avoid.

If you find an abundance of these ingredients, reconsider purchasing that food. These ingredients will include artificial preservatives, colors and flavors. There could also be “filler” ingredients such as corn meal, brewers rice and beet pulp included as well. Corn could be another source of protein in the food but should not be listed as the first few ingredients.

Puppy's First Night Home

The following article is written by animal behaviorist, Cori MacGregor:

Congratulations! Bringing a new puppy home is certainly a very exciting time for your family. What you may not realize is that it can be a very frightening time for your new puppy. Put yourself in his paws…up until now, he has never left his first home and has never been separated from his mother and littermates. Understanding this, you can anticipate his reaction to his new surroundings.

When your puppy first comes home, you would be doing yourself a great favor by having all his essentials ready to go. These items should include:

  • A kennel, not too large or one that has a divider that can be used as puppy grows
  • A bed or special blanket for bedding
  • A play pen to reduce indoor accidents during potty training
  • Baby gates
  • Pee pads
  • Tough toys for chewing (useful during teething)
  • Food and water bowls
  • Food and treats (see discussion regarding best choices)
  • Nylon leash and collar/harness
  • Log book to keep track of puppy’s eating and bathroom habits
  • Enzymatic carpet cleaner for accidents (there will be accidents!)

Your home should be calm and quiet, at least for the first few days. It would not be a good idea to throw a “Welcome!” party for puppy because that would be scary and very overstimulating. The quite time at home will give your puppy the opportunity to explore his new surroundings and meet his new family members. 

That first night (and probably many nights after) will be the most difficult for your puppy because he will be extremely aware of his new “aloneness”. He will not be able to have physical closeness to his mother and siblings that he is used to. He will likely call out for them by whining, howling and squealing. He will be very restless and having difficulty sleeping, which is to be expected and is a natural reaction to feeling vulnerable.

The best thing to do would be to set up a comfortable sleeping space in his crate and place it next to your bed. You will need to take puppy out to relieve himself during the night as a puppy’s bladder doesn’t have the capacity to “hold it” for the entire night. Keeping him close by will make this easier on you. Give puppy a soft toy to cuddle with as it may help alleviate some of the loneliness he will be experiencing. Be prepared to lose a lot of sleep yourself as puppy reacts to his new situation. 

You may be tempted to move puppy to a location far from where you can hear him but this will only increase his sense of insecurity and vulnerability. He may develop anxiety about being kept in a crate, which will become an important training tool in the near future. You may also be tempted to get puppy out of his crate and let him sleep with you in your bed. You may find that having a dog in your bed long-term (especially a large one), is undesirable. Allowing puppy to sleep with you from the beginning will create a habit that will be very hard to break down the road. Also, remember that puppies won’t be able to “hold it” for very long…

Over time, your puppy will adjust and so will you. Good luck and enjoy your new companion!

Why You Should Clean Up After Your Dog

Nobody enjoys the smell of poop. It can make us nauseous and is just plain unpleasant. But when your dog goes, you must clean up, whether it’s in your own yard or out in public.

Not only can it be disrespectful to your neighbors (or anyone walking by), but leaving your dog’s business laying around can also be a health hazard.


A Hazard to Health

Dog poop can sometimes contain dangerous parasites and bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and campylobacteria, and can also spread parvovirus and corona virus to other dogs. Not only that, but it can also contain hookworms, tapeworms and threadworms in addition to coccidia and giardia – single celled parasites. A number of these can even be passed on to humans!


Not a Fertilizer

While some people may think that any animal’s waste can be used as manure, it’s important to note that dog poop is not a fertilizer! 

Dogs are omnivores which means that the meat in their diet won’t break down easily. Leaving out your dog’s business can quickly attract flies that will use it as a place to lay their own eggs and can also attract rats that may eat it if they’re having trouble finding food.

Dog poop can also contaminate water. When it rains, the bacteria it contains are washed into the drainage system, ending up in local waterways.


Always Pick Up After Your Pup

When we hold walks at Sidecut Park or at the farmers’ market, we always make sure that everyone cleans up after their dogs. 

Luckily, we hardly ever have to say anything, because everyone attending is responsible, but even if one dog owner doesn’t clean up, we can all suffer the consequences. 

Taking dogs out in public is a great way to socialize any pup, however, if a dog’s waste is not cleaned up, dogs can be barred from returning to the places we like to take them to. No one likes to step in poop, so do the right thing and clean it up!

Why you probably should not use a shock collar on your dog.

There are a lot of training methods out there and a lot of opinions on how you should train a dog. It seems like dog training almost has been caught up in the culture war with people being very passionate about their beliefs. I don’t want to get caught up in that, I just want training that is scientifically sound. 

One school of thought that keeps falling in and out of favor, is the idea of dominance. There was the idea, that wolves were led by an ‘alpha’ who basically told everyone what to do. However, scientific research into wolf packs has shown that their relationships are much more complicated and basically discredited the dominance theory. 

Another school of thought was inspired by Behaviorism, the study of how we respond to stimuli and how we learn. The popular training method that came out of this is positive reinforcement training. 

The use of a shock collar falls in the first category. You punish unwanted behavior and force the dog to restrict his impulses. Sometimes a sound is used to warn a dog, like in an invisible fence collar, but the sound represents a threat: the next step is a shock. Some people say it’s effective, some people are abhorred by this. Now there is a study that sheds some more light on the use of these collars.

In the study* dogs were divided into different groups and trained with and without the use of shock collars. The researchers found no significant difference in the immediate results; dogs seemed to be following commands just as well having been trained with or without these collars. But they saw signs of stress in the dogs that had been trained with the collars.

Also, when the owners were asked if they were confident continuing the training, the owners that had been using positive reinforcement were very confident that they could continue, whereas they owners whose dogs had been trained with a shock collar were much less confident. And here lies the rub. Average dog owners will probably not be as capable using these collars, getting the timing right and they might be tempted to overcorrect if they don’t get the desired response. 

Use of these collars can have devastating effects in dogs that are having anxiety and fear issues. Dogs can shut down or become aggressive. I’ve personally seen dogs become aggressive after being trained with these collars and I strongly recommend people to stay away from them. It’s a lazy way of training, your dog is not some kind of device you can control with a remote. Having a well behaved dog means you have a strong bond with your dog, based on spending time and working with your dog. It’s based on trust, not on fear. 


*”The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Training Collars in Comparison to Reward-Based Training”, published in peer reviewed scientific journal Plos One, conducted by researchers at the University Of Lincoln in the UK.