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Dog Daycare Programming…The Difference Between Good and Great

Not All Dog Daycares Are Created Equal…Your Guide to Evaluating the Best Option for your Dog

Welcome to part 3 in our blog series on how to evaluate and choose a dog daycare.  In our first two posts, we discussed the features of a safe dog daycare and how important proper staffing is for a well-run facility.  Without question, safety is the top priority when considering daycare for your dog.  One of the things that really plays into a safe daycare is the programming that is provided.

Just what am I talking about when I bring up programming?  Quite literally, it is the scheduled events of each daycare day.  What is on the agenda for each dog when they attend Play All Day?  Our programming has evolved over the past 13 years, and we really hit our stride in the past 5 years.  I believe it is what separates us from other daycares in our area.  It was that special ingredient that moved us from a good dog daycare to a great dog daycare.  Prior to 2018, we did have programming.  There were scheduled events throughout the day, but for things like training and enrichment, it was at the Dog Handler’s discretion as to whether or not their group participated.  We paid attention and we saw that those groups receiving the extras in their day did better overall, in terms of arousal control, impulse control, and having a good time in playgroups.  The dogs seemed more relaxed and there was much more focus from some of our overactive kiddos.

With the evidence before us, we saw an opportunity to really improve the experience of all the dogs under our care.  So, we did.  We set expectations with our team, implemented consistent programming across all our playgroups and watched all the positive changes that came along with it.  This post will be structured a little differently than our past two.  Rather than giving you questions to ask a potential daycare, I will be outlining Play All Day’s programming and what benefits it brings to the dogs.

Our programming falls under 5 major categories; Dog management, Training, Free-Play, Observation, and Rest.

Dog Management: This category pertains to the management of the dogs throughout the day to make sure things run smoothly and all the dogs are safe.

  • Check-in and Check-out are prime management times. Other activities such as play and training occur during this timeframe, but the main priority is getting the dogs settled into group in the morning and then getting the dog out of group during check-out.  As mentioned in previous posts, this is a high-arousal time.  Proper management of the dogs, including reading body language, interpreting vocalizations, reading energy levels, and managing space is the goal.  Having the proper physical setup in your facility helps a lot, but human intervention is most important.  We’ll talk more about training later in this post.  But it is so closely tied to management that it should also be mentioned in this section.  Calling the dogs by name (Recalls) during check-in is valuable and is used daily to manage the group as they settle in each morning.  This is a behavior that we teach and work on regularly.
  • Throughout the day, dog management is required. Even the best run playgroup will have times when the energy levels get too high, and the dogs get over aroused.  That is when management is required.  This can be as simple as calling one of the dogs to you and asking for a few training behaviors, with rewards.  This can push the re-set button on a dog who is getting over aroused.  But there are times when the dog is too far gone, and these measures will not help.  The next step is to calmly leash the dog and take them on a short walk around the play area or implement a short crate timeout.
  • There are also times when the whole group, for whatever reason, will just spontaneously get over aroused as a whole. These are challenging times for the dog handler, but intervention usually does help.  The trick is to be attuned to the group and manage it as soon as it is evident.  Intervention can be as simple as opening the door to the outside play area and changing the scenery.  Or it can be handled with a group exercise, such as a group sit/stay.  When all else fails, strategic crate timeouts will solve the issue.
  • Our goal is to not get to the point where management strategies such as crate timeouts are needed. Effective management is catching certain dogs, or the group as a whole, before things get out of control.  If you can catch the dogs while their brains are still working, most issues can be avoided with simple training exercises.
  • Here is a great example of training used in dog management. Zoomie Stop

Training:  Training occurs throughout the day in our playgroups.  As mentioned above, it is a big part of group management.   We also consider training a part of our enrichment program.  It works the dogs’ brains and offers mental exercise.  I believe that mental exercise is every bit as important as physical exercise in dogs.

  • PAD Secret: When we first started training the dogs in our daycare, it was purely selfish.  As a dog handler myself, I did not want 80 # dogs jumping up on me, so I started training them not to.  I saw quickly that the dogs not only didn’t jump up on me, but they started focusing more on me when I offered training.  Now we offer training not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of the dogs and their parents.
  • Our first real efforts with group training exercises started many years ago when we began participating in the Doggie Daycare Olympics. This was a virtual event put on by a daycare professional organization.  Their premise was that any good dog daycare handler should be able to get their dogs to do a group sit/stay, should be able to get all dogs to come when called, and should be able to keep their dogs from charging the playroom gate when left opened.  To be honest, these things seemed impossible when we first started, but we quickly found out that the dogs enjoyed the exercises, and that our groups were much better behaved when we worked on the Olympics.
  • For years, we just did the Olympics once a year and our staff would train these exercises in the weeks leading up to the Olympics and then stop training after they were complete. But some of our staff liked it so much that they kept going with it and eventually pushed the boundaries of what we thought could be trained in a group setting.  Based on the good effects we saw with these groups, we then made it a part of each group’s day, every day.  Training is now part of our employee training, competencies, and continuing education program.  It is a part of our culture.
  • Consistent attendance is key to being able to train dogs in a group setting. Training needs to begin in low distraction environments and in small steps that set the dog up for success.  That can be challenging in a group play setting.  The dog handlers choose their training times wisely and it is usually late in the morning or after the excitement of waking up from nap is over.  By training during these quieter times, the handlers are creating skills that they can use during high arousal times.  It is a process and takes our new dogs several weeks to master.
  • Links to some training videos: Gate Boundary   Leave It   This next video is a really great example of Ciera getting creative and taking our programming to the next level.  Next Level Training

Free Play:  Daycare can’t be all about work and learning.  We are called Play All Day after all!  Our programming does allow for free-play and fun & games throughout the day.

  • Playtime is divided between indoor and outdoor play, depending on the weather. In the summer there are pools and other water activities.
  • Winter provides its own fun with snow play.
  • On rainy days, bubbles provide a fun source of entertainment and enrichment for the dogs.
  • Play equipment is provided in all our play areas. It is fun for the dogs to use the equipment, but more importantly, it provides social distancing for dogs who need it.  When we see a dog go under the tunnel of the play equipment, it usually means that they are trying to create a little distance between themselves and the dog that is interested in them.  Jumping up on the play equipment does the same thing.  By creating distance, the dog is able to slow things down and assess the situation.  From there, they can decide whether to engage in play or take it slow.  Here is a great example from our puppy social.  Nobel & Benny
  • For dogs that enjoy it, we do offer some agility play, using jumps, tunnels, and hoops. Some of our staff are very creative in creating agility courses from what they have in the play areas.
  • Toy play is allowed in small doses throughout the day. Toy play used to be a bigger part of our programming, but we found that it became a crutch for our staff to use to keep the fetchers occupied.  It excluded the non-fetching dogs and replaced time spent teaching training exercises.  Now toy play is a small part of the day for those that love it.
  • Bone time is provided daily. Low value chew bones are offered to the group and oftentimes the dogs will choose to settle and chew quietly for a time.  Chewing is calming and it is therapeutic for a lot of dogs.

  • I’m told that dance parties are a part of playtime as well and I may have seen a video recently of Mae dancing across the screen. Dance Party  The staff has to have fun too.
  • Dog/dog play is a big part of daycare and when supervised properly, provides great socialization opportunities.  Dogs speak dog.  And no matter how well trained a human may be, they can’t speak dog the way a dog can.  I have always likened this to a human living in another country and not knowing the language.  Imagine how excited you would be when someone arrived that finally speaks your language.  We, as humans, can learn to speak dog, but we will never do it as well as another dog.
  • Some dogs don’t love dog/dog play and that’s OK. We find that our non-playing dogs get a lot out of daycare.  They love to sit and watch and be a part of the activity from a distance.  Their parents tell us that they get just as excited on daycare days as dogs who play non-stop do.  Understanding this is crucial for good programming.  Meeting each dog where they are and helping them to have the best day possible is our duty at the daycare.
  • Snuggles, cuddles, scritches, scratches, licks, and belly rubs are all a part of our programming as well and should be included in every daycare’s daily schedule.
  • Here is a link to some beautiful free-play. And here’s more with Clem & Eric.

Observation:  While not as much fun as bubbles and dance parties, observation is a responsibility of our dog handlers.  From the moment a dog walks in until they leave at the end of the day, our handlers are monitoring for physical issues, behavioral issues, and illness.

  • Because of our consistent attendance, our team knows the dogs in their playgroup and sense when something is off. It can be something as simple as a dog not wanting to play with his usual buddy or taking more rest breaks.  Perhaps the dog is drinking more water than usual, or their poops are not the normal consistency.  Is the dog grumpy when others come near?   Is there a slight limp?  These things are noticed by our team and reported to our leadership team and ultimately to the parents.  It is not unusual for our team to notice something that the parent may not have noticed.
  • In addition to observing throughout the day, our team performs hands-on body checks twice a day. The dog is invited up on to the play equipment and the handler checks out the dog from head to toe, looking for injuries, lumps, bumps, or anything else unusual.  Not only does this allow us to find issues that might have happened during daycare, but also may identify an ongoing health issue.  And it is a great exercise in desensitizing dogs to being handled.
  • We are also watching for behavior changes from week to week. These changes can indicate many things:
    • If a dog is in pain, they really can’t verbalize that to us.  But they can show that they are not comfortable with other dogs approaching them or perhaps they do not want to roughhouse play like normal.
    • Just as with pain, illness can manifest itself in behavior changes as the dog protects its body or conserves energy.
    • Vision issues. Aging dogs can have vision changes, and this does affect how they interact with other dogs.
    • Home issues. When we see behavior changes at the daycare, we discuss this with the parents.  Once we rule out a health issue, we often hear that there are many changes going on at home.  New babies in the household, new jobs or moving, long term visitors, new dogs or cats in the home, illness in the family, etc. are some of the home issues that we have identified as a cause of behavior changes while at daycare.

Rest Periods:  I strongly believe that structured rest periods should be a part of all daycare programming.

  • A midday nap in which all dogs are crated is essential to our program’s success. Dogs, just like toddlers, need some help regulating their energy output.
  • In addition to midday naps, some dogs do need a 5-minute rest break here and there throughout the day. This is especially important for puppies less than 6 months old.
  • Who doesn’t love a tired dog at the end of daycare? But I will tell you that there is a good tired and a bad tired for dogs.  A good tired comes from a structured day that has a mixture of training, free-play, and rest periods.  Bad tired comes from exhaustive non-stop play and stress from overdoing it.  Think of it in human terms.  It’s a great feeling of being tired when you have had a nice day outside, busy socializing with friends, and perhaps some hiking or other exercise.  It’s not such a great tired when you have exhausted yourself working  non-stop on a physical and/or mental project.

PAD Extras:  The components of good programming that I have mentioned so far focus on the dogs.  Good programming should also include some fun stuff for the parents.

  • Pictures and videos showing parents what is happening during a day of daycare.
  • Birthday parties, at no extra charge, for a special day.  Buffy’s Bday party
  • Special holiday pictures with silly accessories. OK, I admit it, this may not be the dogs’ favorite thing, but the parents sure love it.
  • Enjoy this little blooper reel of Katydid during our St. Patrick’s Day photo shoot. Katydid

Safety will always be our number one priority at Play All Day.  So many factors play into creating a safe environment.  Good programming is one of those factors.  In addition to creating a safer environment, it also allows for a better overall experience for the dogs in our care and helps us to fulfill our mission of providing a fun, safe, and enriching environment for the dogs in our care.  Join us next week for our final post of this series.  We will address value.  What are you getting for your dollars spent at daycare?  Until then…Woof!

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