I've been asked A LOT lately about dog daycares: clients have been asking for recommendations, how to choose the right one, if it would be a good fit for their dog, etc. I've been struggling with these questions because I don't actually know a lot about doggie daycares: I've never personally taken my dog to one; I've never had to shop around for one; and, therefore, don't really know, specifically, what questions would be good to ask when touring or choosing between daycares.
We all care about our SideKicks and, when submitting our SideKicks into someone else's care, we want to make sure that they're in good hands. So, to find out more and to learn some information I could share with my clients (and the SKDT Blog readers), I reached out to Jamie Schwoerer, the owner of a doggie daycare in Lake Mills, WI. Jamie and I are both members of the Force Free Trainers of Wisconsin (FFTW) and I fully admit to taking advantage of that connection to get more information about dog daycares!
Jamie Schwoerer owns Laughing Dogs Daycare and Training Services in Lake Mills, WI. She graduated from Rocky Mountain Regional Dog Trainer Academy in 2014 and began as a trainer, but now only teaches basic training classes to focus on running the daycare, grooming, boarding, and the walking portions of the business. Jamie shares her life with her fiance and their four dogs: Lacey (Great Pyrenees), Lyra (Great Pyrenees/Saint Bernard), Denver (Great Dane), and Legend (English Springer Spaniel).
How long have you been in the doggie daycare business? What led you to dip your toe in this adventure?
I have been running Laughing Dogs for just over two years now. I never had plans to own a dog daycare - I started out as a trainer and was very mistrustful of dog daycares. I was training at the daycare I currently own, under the former owner. The space was perfect for teaching classes and I loved it. Just over two years ago - February 2017 - the woman who started Laughing Dogs and owned it while I was training there passed away very unexpectedly. It would have been a shame not only for me to lose my training space, but also for the community. It was clear that daycare was needed in the area, so I decided to buy the business from her family to keep it running. It has since more than doubled in size and revenue with the addition of new services.
What would you say is the most important thing you've learned, owning a doggie daycare?
The number one reality check for me, coming from training to daycare, is that no matter how much I thought I knew about dog body language, it was nothing compared to what I know now. I think every trainer should spend some time in a dog daycare or larger group environment, observing behavior directly. It only helped me become more aware of how dogs communicate with one another in a group setting.
I have also learned a lot about the reasons people are seeking dog daycare - and those reasons can vary widely. Some people have great reasons for pursuing daycare for their dogs and some people are looking for answers that daycare just can't (and shouldn't) provide.
What makes for a good doggie daycare? What are specific features of a daycare that make it a "good" one?
This is a good question because many different models of daycares can be great. So, when you're looking for a daycare, don't just look for the fanciest or nicest looking daycare. People with money can easily set up an amazing looking daycare, but that doesn't necessarily mean they know how to ensure safety, appropriate play, staff training, etc. So, look for daycares that have an owner or manager who knows dog body language well enough to articulate what they look for and how they assess dogs for daycare. While cameras that you can view online in real time are nice, the lack of cameras doesn't necessarily mean a bad daycare. But, do ask more questions if there isn't a way to watch your dog.
A responsible daycare will do assessments for new dogs and they will be honest with their clients about their dog's fit within a group setting. Many clients desperately want a social dog, but the reality is that the vast majority of dogs really don't want or need to be in a group setting for a whole day. So, daycare staff need to be able to tell clients what they're seeing in their dog's behavior. Someone on staff should have some kind of experience or education learning about dog behavior and body language.
What might be some red flags for dog parents to watch out for when visiting or touring a doggie daycare?
Daycares that do not allow tours at all could be a red flag; however, keep in mind that some facilities are not set up well to provide a full tour, so it's not automatically a bad daycare if they can't or won't do tours.
Other red flags might be places that have squirt bottles, shaker cans, pet correctors, shock collars, etc. I would at least recommend asking how they use those tools and make sure they're something you are comfortable with someone else using on your dog. Another red flag might be a daycare that has extremely large play groups. Ask a potential daycare how big their groups are, and how many staff they have per group.
A good daycare is going to be willing to answer questions that you have, and will be able to explain why and how they use the equipment and tools that they use. They will also be honest with you about the fact that not every dog is a good fit for daycare. Daycares that claim they can take any dog or almost any dog would throw up a red flag for me - I would want to know how they manage that and what, if any, tools they might be using to make that happen. I would also want to know how much time dogs are spending in their kennels. That said, more rest time might be needed for some dogs, so it really depends a lot on your personal preference and expectations.
Is doggie daycare a better fit for some dogs over others? If so, which dogs?
Yes, absolutely. Daycare is NOT a good place to "socialize" an under-socialized dog. It can be a great place to safely socialize puppies if there's an appropriate puppy socialization program in place, but it's not going to be a place you should take your adolescent or adult dog who has never been socialized, never been in a large group of dogs, or who you know has social issues with other dogs. Daycare will not magically fix an under-socialized dog.
Dogs that are anxious or nervous in new environments, who are generally anxious about life, who are too assertive in their play styles, or who don't want to socialize with other dogs are not going to be a good fit for daycare. Assessments are essential to the daycare environment for this very reason. Just like there are all kinds of human personalities, and being social and active all day long isn't right for every human, the same is true for dogs. Dogs are pretty good at telling us when they're uncomfortable, so a good daycare will listen to and prioritize the dog's well-being, rather than pushing a dog to do daycare to appease the owner.
A lot of people say they want to be able to take their puppy to doggie daycare for socialization; what are your thoughts on doggie daycare for socialization?
Again, do your research and find out what the daycare knows about puppy development and age-appropriate play, and how they socialize puppies. Daycare can be a great place to do this, or it can be a terrible place to do it, depending on how the daycare handles it. A good puppy program will keep puppies separated from the full adult play groups until they are prepared to handle the full groups and have been slowly introduced to the groups.
However, there should be slow introductions done with appropriate adults dogs as well. Puppies should not be allowed to only interact with and play with other puppies because they can actually get to a point where they are no longer learning how to play appropriately, and they learn to play too rough and don't learn how to take cues from other dogs as well. Puppies should be introduced to a variety of other dogs, and the benefit to doing this at a daycare with a good program is that the daycare should know what dogs they have each day that are good "teachers" for puppies.
There are always going to be some dogs who aren't great with puppies, and there are some dogs that are wonderful teachers for puppies. A daycare with a puppy program should know which dogs these are. They should also know that puppies need a lot more rest than adult dogs do, and play sessions for puppies should be fairly short so they don't get over-tired.
What are some questions dog parents can ask when they're shopping around for a doggie daycare (in a call to a doggie daycare or when visiting/touring)?
How many staff to dogs?
Is there a break schedule?
Do you continually work on teaching/maintaining appropriate play skills? If so, how?
What tools do you use in groups, and how and why do you use them?
How do you train your staff?
Do you use treats/food in groups?
The list could be endless - ask the questions that are important to you in terms of how you want your dog cared for/handled. I want clients who ask us a lot of questions. I don't want clients who walk in, look around, and make decisions based on how they think the facility should look. Every daycare does things differently, and the vast majority genuinely care about the dogs in their care. Don't be afraid to ask them the things that are important to you, but I caution people on choosing a facility based solely on how fancy it looks.
Thank you so much to Jamie for answering all of my questions! I learned a lot from her and have more to pass along to my clients. Once I started digging, too, I got even more information from another colleague, who is also a member of FFTW. Jennifer Pratt of Wag the Dog & Company directed me to a blog post on her site about how to determine if your dog would be a good candidate for doggie daycare.
The post also includes a super handy guide with a variety of questions you can ask as you're touring and shopping around for a doggie daycare you and your family trust! (You can also find the guide on the Owner Education page of Wag the Dog & Company's website).
On top of all of THAT, Jamie had a few more things to add to her interview, which we decided would serve well as a whole, bonus blog post! Check out what else Jamie had to say in the post she guest wrote for the SKDT Blog,