If you are reading this, it is more likely that you are a dog owner or trainer, than a professional soccer player. You might be an athlete, but you are unlikely to be in the top 10% of physical fitness of all humans on the planet. You might be, but it is unlikely. I want you to just take a moment and evaluate your own level of fitness. Are you a typical North American, fit enough to run for the bus, or run for mayor, but not really a marathon runner? Are you a weekend warrior, who plays hard on the weekends, but sits at your desk all week long? Are you a gym rat, making it out to the gym at least 3 days a week? Or are you amongst the elite athletes who seriously exercise each and every day, come what may, even on vacation? Unless you are an honest member of this last group, I am betting that dropping you into the middle of a professional soccer game, 90 minutes of aerobic intensity, would not be much fun!
Oh, the first few minutes might be a thrill, especially if you are a soccer fan. But a whole game would likely be exhausting, overwhelming and possibly frightening. Those guys run REALLY fast! And if you run into one of them, you are likely going to be flattened. And if you have a coach on the side lines encouraging you to play harder throughout the whole game, you are likely going to feel really pressured.
Maybe a soccer practice would be more fun for you. But wait! Being immersed in a group of highly fit, world class athletes who know their work can be pretty overwhelming too. Especially if they are all familiar with one another, know what the other guy will do and already have all their social pecking orders worked out.
This I think is often what occurs to the dogs that get tossed into unstructured play groups, especially in confined areas as you might find in the typical daycare. If you have ten dogs who are already involved with the group, and you add in number 11, the eleventh dog is not really likely to be successful. Dog number 11 will have to be equally fit and socially savvy to make the cut right away. If the eleventh dog is intolerant of other dogs being rude, he is going to pick fights. If he is the kind of dog who harasses other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games, he is going to struggle. If the eleventh dog is either more or less fit than the rest of the group he is either going to tire and get frustrated, or he is going to harass the other dogs in an effort to get them to play his games.
Sometimes play groups have a human who can make matters either better or worse. If the human is very savvy about play, they can intervene and pull out the trouble makers and help them to self modulate. Sometimes interventions back fire though, especially if the human thinks they need to pin the dog to the ground to make the point. Pulling a dog who is causing trouble out should be gentle and allow the dog to decrease his arousal and then re-integrate. Pinning the dog may work, or it may create collar shyness in the dog, who then learns to dart away from the people running the group. Other times, the humans can make matters worse by doing things like throwing objects and creating competition between members of the group, or encouraging shy dogs to get in over their heads.
There is almost nothing I enjoy more than watching dogs play. I love to see them cavort and interact, and large groups are much more fun than small ones, however, there are some caveats about this; firstly, I prefer to have mostly trained dogs that I can control with a solid off leash down, even when things get really active. When we have this sort of a group, I like to hike with the dogs. When dogs and people walk together, we see a lot more normal chasing and then running together sort of interactions. We don’t see the puppy wrestling that people enjoy, but for the most part our dogs are not puppies either. When a puppy is integrated into an established group of dogs who are hiking, it doesn’t matter so much if there are fitter or less fit individuals because the fitter dogs have space to run farther. And the harassment we see in an unstructured group in a confined area doesn’t happen either, because the dogs can get away from that if they aren’t having fun. If the overall arousal of the group gets too high, we can ask the trained dogs to lie down and that solves about 90% of the problems we see.
You may be thinking to yourself “but what about daycare groups” or “but I want to send my dog to a crate free boarding facility”. As with many things there are good alternatives and less good choices out there. Before sending your dog to such an activity, spend a few hours there watching how the staff interact with the dogs. Here are some of the issues we think you should consider:
Are dogs turned loose in an enclosure without supervision?
If the group is a long term group of stable individuals, this may work out. When we think long term, we think of groups that might live in a family. When we had 5 or more dogs who lived with us for six months or more, they might get turned into the yard together alone, but only if they were really familiar with one another and polite together when we were supervising. We didn’t just add a dog to our family and hope for the best. The dogs had to show us first that they were safe to be together outside unattended. When dogs are turned loose without supervision and the group changes every day or even every few hours, there is a high potential for things to turn out badly. We don’t recommend sending your dog to a facility where the dogs are not supervised by people who know what they are doing.
Is there only one person on site?
This is one of the worse ideas we see on a regular basis. When a facility is run by one individual, what is the plan for the dogs in the event of an emergency? People often don’t think of the worst case scenario, and the fact is that something CAN and might go wrong. Years ago, when we did board training, I was alone at home with our three dogs and a guest dog. The guest dog had an anaphylactic reaction and stopped breathing. Luckily, the three resident dogs could stay home loose together without an issue and I was able to carry the lifeless dog to the car and get him to the vet in time to save his life. If I had had more dogs or dogs who could not be left home and loose together, the guest dog might have died.
If you are paying to send your dog to a day care or other play group type of activity, you should be sure that there is more than one person on site, especially when there are many dogs who don’t know one another. There is no hard and fast rule for how many dogs should be there for each staffer, but we know of facilities that have 25 or more dogs on site and only one staffer available. This is dangerous for the staff and for your dog!
Does the facility have a plan for what to do if a dog fight breaks out?
You may be thinking to yourself “surely they would not accept an aggressive dog” however, a fight can break out with even the nicest, easiest going dogs. I saw a fight break out one time in a dog park when one dog caught a tooth in the collar of another dog, and then both dogs panicked and started to scream. A third dog jumped in when the screaming started. The third dog was not caught on anything, but it was really difficult to get these three dogs separated because you could not tell exactly what was going on. Two of the dogs had to get stitches, and one of those dogs ended up staying in the veterinary hospital for several days.
Any place where dogs are being left loose together should at least have a can of compressed air or citronella to break up scuffles and they should also have break sticks and a catch pole available. Staff should also be trained to use these tools.
What does the facility look like?
Many years ago, a dog of mine was killed while in the care of a veterinarian when the tech opened a crate door and the dog got out of the clinic. The clinic had a habit of leaving all the clinic doors open to air out the facility at the end of the day. Every door between the kennel room and the street was wide open and my dog left and was struck in the road and killed. As the owner of a dog training facility, my building is fitted with doors and gates and we include door safety training in our obedience program. Too often I have seen images of day cares on the net where the dogs could easily get over a short flimsy gate, or where the gate doesn’t close completely. If the gate cannot contain your dog, don’t leave your dog there!
How are groups separated and sorted?
Puppies are baby dogs! Any dog under 16 weeks can probably be turned loose in a group of other puppies the same age with very little risk. After 16 weeks though, there are definite age related issues that dogs face. Adolescent dogs can be pushy and bully younger, smaller or weaker dogs; it is the nature of adolescents to do that. Adolescents may also harass adults in the hope of getting them to play. It is best if dogs are sorted behaviourally. Puppies under 16 weeks can be left in fairly unstructured areas (you will see that they spend an awful lot of time sleeping if you do this though!). Young adolescents should be sorted by speed, playfulness and tolerance into groups that allow them to enjoy one another. There are definite play types; dogs who ramble and roam are not going to enjoy chasing one another much. Dogs who race and chase don’t enjoy those who wrestle so much. And adult dogs may not play so much as they did when they were puppies or adolescents. Geriatric dogs should not be left in a group of young fast dogs either; it just isn’t fair!
You may be asking at this point if I think that there is any place for day cares. I do, but you have to choose carefully. Know the staff. Know what their protocols are for trouble shooting. Be aware of their plans. Get to know the staff and the people you will be asking to care for your dog. And don’t be afraid to just skip the daycare and go for a hike; consider what it might be like from your dog’s point of view to be in the set up you are considering. It is very possible that it would be a lot like getting dropped into the middle of a pro soccer game and although you would come home tired, you likely would not come home very happy.