Doggy Day Care
At the risk of seeming like the 30-year “veteran veterinarian” that I am, I don’t have to think very hard to remember when there was no such thing as “doggy day care.” Or to remember so many of us rolling our eyes and thinking that the whole idea was just a little bit crazy.

That didn’t last long, though, at least not for me. That’s because all my life I’ve wanted to learn more and see more, and that means I am always open to new ideas. So while I’m guessing many an Idaho farm boy (which I once was) would have no use for day care for dogs, as a veterinarian who loves any idea that helps people, pets and the profession, I am onboard with the whole idea.

Day Care’s Not for Every Dog

That doesn’t mean I believe day care is a good thing for every dog. The dogs who benefit most from it are those who are outgoing, playful and need more exercise than other dogs might.

I have to note here, however, that very few dogs get enough exercise, and this leads to health and behavior problems, and certainly to the obesity crisis we see in our veterinary practices. But there are always dogs who just cannot stand being anything but busy, especially as adolescents and young adults. For these pets the half-hour daily dose of heart-pounding aerobic exercise I recommend doesn’t even scratch the surface. They need to keep busy, and if you’re at work they’re going to be unhappy — and so, likely, will you.

Day care is a place for dogs who like to be social, but it’s not ideal for socializing dogs. My friend Liz Palika, a San Diego–based dog trainer and author of many outstanding pet care books, shared her perspective, and I think it’s good information.

“One of the biggest problems we see comes from dog owners who have dogs who weren't adequately socialized as puppies and perhaps now have some social issues — fear of other dogs, fear aggression, or so on,” she says. “The dog may be one, two, three years old or older — past the age for puppy socialization — and the owner decides doggy day care is the thing to do. The end result is either a dog who is even more fearful of other dogs or one who fights.”

For dogs who aren’t well-socialized, there are other exercise options. Making sure you put time in your schedule for a good game of fetch every day might be one choice, or if time is your problem, you might check around for someone who can walk or run your dog regularly.

Choosing the Right Doggy Day Care

Even if your dog is a good candidate, you’ll still need to find a good day care. In a large metropolitan area, you may have quite a few choices. That’s certainly true in San Diego, says Liz Palika, who has seen the best and the worst in these businesses. She says that before you bring your dog in for an evaluation, you need to visit on your own.

“I recommend that you check it out several times,” she says, “ask other dog owners for referrals, and ask your veterinarian or a veterinarian who practices close to the day care for their take on the place.”

From the point-of-view of this veterinarian, I need to see clean — and smell clean. A business that’s looking out for the people and pets will be what I call “smell-neutral” — clean but not smelling of strong cleaning products. And it ought to be pretty obvious that the people working there love dogs (and aren't smoking around them, anymore than they should at a child's day care). You should be able to pick up a “pawsitive” vibe! Many day cares offer streaming video so you can check in on your dog anytime, and this is a really good selling point.

A good day care will evaluate your dog as an individual and with other dogs. They will not accept your dog if he won’t be a good fit. There’s nothing wrong with your dog if he’s not “the day care type,” but you do need to accept their decision. They don’t want your dog to be hurt or to hurt anyone else.

What a Day Care Will Ask From You

If your dog passes the evaluation, you should expect to be asked for proof of vaccinations, all your contact information, and your veterinarian’s information too. Most day cares require pets to be altered, to help reduce certain behaviors that can lead to fighting. Yes, fights do happen, but a good day care manages their guests to minimize the potential, watches the dogs carefully and constantly — and knows how to end a fight quickly.

But chances are if you’ve chosen well, you’ll never get a call with bad news. What you will have, every day you pick up your dog, is a happy, tired dog who can enjoy some snuggle time on the couch, dreaming of the next day he's with his pals at day care.