How to Find Quality Boarding or Daycare for Your Dog
I'm often asked if I can recommend a good daycare or boarding facility. So much in fact, it makes sense to share my response here in hopes it will benefit a wider audience of dog people. OK, I'm also practicing a bit of self preservation. Now I can just point inquirers to this post.
Though my answer is most often for a local client here in Charleston, SC, where I can recommend specific places, my online clients elsewhere make the same inquiry, wondering what to look for when searching for such a place. I'm always thrilled to be asked. You see, not everyone thinks to ask. Too often dog people assume that if someone has hung out a sign saying they offer service "A" for dogs that they must be qualified to provide service "A." Oh, my friend. Not so. Sadly, very much not so. Not all pet service providers are created equal. See our YouTube videos about screening trainers. I beg you.
You see, for me, there's not a quick answer... though I do have a screening list for you to use. I care very deeply about the prospect of having any dog stay anywhere away from home. In fact, full disclosure, I always have someone stay in my home to take care of my beloved dog when I have the rare chance to vacation. For my current dog, he would absolutely not fair well staying in a boarding facility. He's far too sound sensitive and, though now recovered from separation anxiety, the isolation and time spent in a kennel in the evenings would be more than he could handle.
Given my daily training and behavior work with dogs and depth of experience with their needs, I am super picky about this topic. Generally, for any pet, I do recommend finding an in-home care provider when you need to be away. Your dog will be afforded the opportunity to remain in their home where all of their known smells, sounds, toys and other comforts are consistent. Routine and consistency is key for a pet's well-being. I also have experience working at a highly rated, fancy facility that offered both services, so I have behind the scenes experience to offer about what your dog will likely experience should they stay at a boarding facility or spend time at the daycare associated with their boarding stay.
At one time I entertained opening my own daycare and boarding haven for hounds, so I went to work at one to explore all that would be entailed. I can tell you it's no easy feat to run such a place. The level of detail, organization and knowledge that's required to successfully, and ethically, run such a beast is astonishing. As with training dogs, it's not a "I want to play with doggies all day, so I'll open a daycare," type of reality. The intensive physical labor involved is enough to give the bravest entrepreneur "paws." Yep, I went there.
Puns aside, the reason I am so seriously particular about this is that I know a dog's perspective and I know what they will experience in these environments. The best, and I mean those places that are at the top of their game in boarding and daycare care, cannot prevent your dog's exposure to a very active, sometimes even frenetic, environment that can be loud and over-stimulating. Caretakers must think and act for the greater good of the dogs they serve and the business. This means moving swiftly and concisely to complete the day's tasks and keeping everyone safe at the same time. I don't know where these people get their endurance and fortitude, really. It's pretty awe inspiring. I had this opinion even when I was fifteen years younger and was that person scrubbing kennels and managing daycare play groups. I realized pretty quickly that I was not cut from the same cloth and those better than I were more suited to the work.
I want to give you a list of items to be sure to consider when selecting a daycare or boarding facility. I love the concept, with several caveats.
When exploring options, it's important to keep all of the following guideline and tips in mind to find quality, safe providers:
- Is In-Home Care Best for Your Dog?
As a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT), I caution you to not place your dog into this environment for boarding if they have separation anxiety or isolation distress. If your dog does do well away from you as long as they have a party going on, then daycare may be an option. For overnight care, please allow your dog to stay at home with a caregiver. The isolation of a kennel at night away from you is too much to ask of a dog that suffers from these issues. Also, if your dog is sound sensitive or easily frightened, this is not the option for them either. Did you know that dogs with separation issues have a very large propensity for sound sensitivity, even sound phobia?
- Assessment & Introductions
Most daycares and boarding facilities require dogs that are new to their care undergo an assessment visit first before being accepted into their care program. Because not every dog is a good candidate for the off leash group play time, that even most boarding dogs take part in, this is an important first step. In this initial meeting the staff want to determine, as best they can for a first encounter, if your dog is social and has good dog-to-dog body language communication skills. They also want to discover if, when needed, they are easily interruptible by use of calm vocal guidance or a soft touch to the body. Ask, "What specifically happens during your assessment?" "What are you looking for in order to determine if my dog will be a good fit?" A proper introduction to a play group will entail that the staff brings your do ginto the play room with one of their "greeter dogs," a dog that is very well mannered, even tempered and possesses these qualities. If this goes well, they gradually bring other dogs into the group to see how your dog acclimates to a larger group.
- Consistent Monitoring
Daycare should have a good dog to human ratio, meaning no more than 10 dogs to one human taking care of them at any given time.
They must also have a person's eyes on them at all times! Some places actually monitor from a video monitor(s) at the front desk or have personnel occasionally walk around to different areas where the dogs are playing, but there is not a person in the play area at ALL times. Full and constant monitoring = safe play and interactions.
- Sniff Test
The facility MUST not smell of urine or any other foul odors. If it does, turn and leave. Bad smells are, unfortunately, all too common, but unacceptable. I only know of two places locally, out of about fifteen, that pass this test. Bad smells = bad cleaning protocols and health risks for our dogs.
- Behavior Management
It is important how the daycare and boarding workers are trained to manage any tension building between dogs. In such a stimulating environment, there will be misunderstandings between dogs and rowdy behavior. Ask the question, "Which source do you use for your staff training?" and "How do you handle any inappropriate behavior between dogs?" If they reference Robin Bennett as their source for training staff, that's a good start. Robin is the source for daycare and boarding places to learn how to do it right. Her in-person and online training courses help facilities set-up for success with safety in mind and educate staff on dog body language and caretaking. Remember, the staff are there to run a daycare and/or boarding facility. They are usually familiar with dog behavior, but not on a pro level. However, they must have had specific training for the needs of this environment for you to be satisfied.
Ask "If there's a bit of tension between any of the dogs, how does the staff manage the dogs' behavior?" In other words,
- Do they clap, yell or use a squirt bottle of water to spray the dogs to stop the behavior? WRONG.
- Do they calmly, verbally interrupt, then body block or use a small board to separate the dogs? BETTER.
- Do they make use of "Time Outs," in which they remove a dog(s) from the play area for a break then reintroduce them? GOOD.
- Rest Period
Do the dogs have a nap/rest time mid-day? Many places don't, but I believe this is optimal, so dogs do not become over-stimulated or tired which is when and why fights and injuries occur. This can come in many forms; soft piano music played mid-day for a calming period when dogs will organically settle and nap, lights lowered for a calming effect, dogs separated out into smaller groups to calm and encourage relaxation and quiet time.
- Tour the Facility!
Be sure they allow you to take a tour including seeing ALL of the facility, not just the front end of the space. If full transparency is not evident, move on. Daycare and boarding services should be proud to show off the entire space.
- Play Groups
Are they divided by size and play style? This is important. There are exceptions. Some smaller dogs do well playing with larger dogs and even prefer it. However, usually smaller dogs should be grouped with smaller dogs. In the best scenarios, the groups are then even broken down into play styles from there; chasers, rough and rowdy, chillers, etc. However, this adds to the cost of care and isn't always possible.
These are the key pieces I review, and I ask you to insist on the same. If the cost of care is higher at the places that provide this level of care, pay it. The businesses that provide the requirements listed are taking on the costs related to this level of care, so they can ethically give your dog their very best. Not only will your dog be safer, but happier. Any daycare or boarding facility I recommend for clients, or choose for my own dogs, must meet the above qualifications, full stop, no exceptions.
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