Pet parents need to do Daycare homework

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

For dog lovers, choosing the right dog daycare and boarding facility is important. Your dog’s happiness and well-being depend on it. 

While the facilities are important, the staff make or break the daycare center. I was appalled to see a local dog daycare employee immediately put a newly-rescued shelter puppy in with a group of dogs — without evaluating the pup or giving him any time to settle in. Fortunately, the puppy didn’t get hurt, but it may not have turned out so well.  

Dallas Dog Palace client Jinx really enjoys the Zoom Zone.
Photos courtesy of Dallas Dog Palace

I spoke with Jennifer Duffy, a former Spanish teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, who recently opened the Dallas Dog Palace, a daycare and boarding facility in East Dallas near the Baylor Medical Center ( Jennifer started taking her dog Jules, a Brittany Spaniel, to daycare during the pandemic, but sometimes witnessed overcrowded playgroups and a lack of space for outdoor play. An animal lover, Jennifer wanted to spend her days with dogs — who doesn’t? — and knew she could provide a better experience. After months of planning and construction, she opened the Dallas Dog Palace, whose motto is, “Where your dog is royalty!” 

Duffy described several similarities between teaching high school students and caring for dogs. Both roles require extensive curriculum (activity) planning, including developing a contingency plan if something doesn’t go as expected. For example, when the construction work in one of the play yards wasn’t finished on schedule, Duffy had to rearrange the schedule and play groups. Setting a positive, relaxed tone starts with observing the behavior of children or dogs with different backgrounds and social skills — then creating an environment that helps each one succeed. 

Duffy shared several questions to ask when choosing a dog daycare facility:

What vaccinations are required? Rabies, DHPP and Bordetella (kennel cough) are standard requirements for daycare and boarding. Some facilities may require proof of negative heartworm status, flea and heartworm preventative, and/or other vaccinations such as canine influenza.

Are there any size or breed restrictions? Are male dogs required to be neutered? What training do the staff have? 

Duffy stated that, ideally, staff should have training in dog behavior, including how to interpret body language and anticipate and handle aggression. Staff should also be trained in canine CPR and first aid.

A play yard is adjacent to the other dogs so they can interact through the fence.

How are dogs evaluated for play groups? 

Your dog should undergo an “interview”/behavioral evaluation to determine whether s/he’s suited for social interactions with new people and dogs. At the Dallas Dog Palace, dogs attend a free orientation day where trained “Pack Leaders” evaluate their temperament and play style. The new dog first spends time in a play yard by himself, allowing him to adjust to the new environment without the stress of interacting with unfamiliar dogs. Then the dog hangs out in a play yard that’s adjacent to the other dogs so they can interact through the fence. Finally, the new dog is introduced to a small group of compatible dogs. The process is similar to introducing a new foster dog to the resident dogs. You allow the dogs to smell each other (via urine in the yard) before seeing (through the fence) and then finally interacting with each other.  

What is the staff to dog ratio? Appropriate ratios may vary based on the dogs’ age, size, energy level and play style. A group of older dogs with a gentle and dainty play style may not require as much supervision, while young, rough and rowdy big dogs need more attention. Regardless of the dogs’ temperament, having only one staff member supervising more than 20 dogs can be a recipe for disaster. In general, Dallas Dog Palace aims for a staff to dog ratio of 1:10 or less. 

What indoor play areas are available? Where will your dog spend the day if it’s too hot, rainy, or cold to be outside? Are the indoor play rooms large enough to safely accommodate the play groups? Are there kiddie pools for water-loving dogs? What is the daily routine? 

Dogs, like children, thrive on structure and routine. Look for a mix of activities, including play time, snacks and rest/sleep. Most dogs need a break from the activity to avoid becoming overstimulated and grouchy. Meditation music soothes the Dallas Dog Palace dogs during their rest time. 

What information will I receive about my dog’s day? 

If you like to check up on your dog, look for a facility whose staff provides report cards (e.g., eating habits, canine friends) and pictures and/or video feed of your dog doing her thing. 

What happens if my dog gets sick or injured? 

Staff should contact you immediately and, with your permission, transport your dog to your regular veterinarian for care. Ask what emergency vet clinic they use for after-hours emergencies. 

What are the emergency plans for handling disasters, including a) fire; b) tornado warning; c) power outage? What happens if the facility loses power (and consequently heat or a/c) for several days? This question is particularly important when you’re boarding your dog and can’t pick up your dog immediately if there’s an emergency. Daycare and boarding facility staff must have backup plans to handle these crisis situations, and staff should participate in regular fire and tornado drills. 

By doing your homework and choosing a daycare facility that focuses on your dog’s comfort and safety, you can feel confident that your dog will come home happy and healthy.

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