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!