Seven Tips for Choosing the Right Daycare/Boarding Spot for Spot

In the most ideal of all worlds, we’d never have to worry about finding someone to watch over our pups for us. We’d all have jobs where we worked from home or where our canine kids could come to work with us. After all, it’s the hardest thing to which the domesticated dog must acclimate – being away from its core pack.

The world, of course, is not ideal and the vast majority of dog owners must delegate varying levels of care for their furry kids. From dog walkers to daycare to boarding, the good news is that there are myriad options one can choose to make sure your dog gets the best combination of physical activity and mental stimulation to keep it happy and well-balanced.

That also is the bad news.

Just do a quick search on “dog daycare” or “dog boarding” wherever you are and you’ll find page after page after page of resources … and that’s only the ones that are online. In any town an array of other word-of-mouth only service providers, folks who advertise at coffee shops and dog parks, saturate the ranks of canine care.

One of the most rapidly growing and burgeoning market sectors, the pet care industry not only has remained relatively recession resistant over the last 20 years, it has seen a steady increase. According to the American Pet Products Association the pet care industry was just a tick over $58 billion in revenue in 2014. That’s billion — with a B. Of that figure, just under $5 billion went towards the bulk category of grooming and boarding (into which daycare and other such services are also lumped).

It’s an enormous industry that is probably also one of the least (and poorly, in my opinion) regulated. Put more bluntly – pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves a dog trainer, dog daycare provider or board dogs. It doesn’t help that sites like DogVacay.com and Rover.com have enabled an army of largely uneducated and unqualified people to present themselves as dog care professionals. That most of these folks are operating illegally (e.g. are neither properly permitted nor zoned to operate “kennel” services from their homes) is almost besides the point.

The problem when the barrier to entry is low is that mistakes get made. When mistakes get made, sometimes the results can be fatal.

I’m not suggesting accidents don’t happen, because they do, even at “proper” facilities with the best trained staff and the most strictly enforced guidelines, rules and protocols. Take for example  this death at a Camp Bow-Wow recently in Florida or this horrific situation at a Monterey, CA facility. Both of these were fully licensed, legally operating dog daycare/boarding facilities. They had the zoning, licenses and permits. What they didn’t have were the right operational practices to safeguard against the kinds of things that can (and should) be avoided.

In the situation with Camp Bow Wow, that an item like a plastic wading pool was left leaning up against a wall in an open play area is about as junior varsity an error as there is. Equipment like this should be put away and stored in an area where dogs are not playing. Compound that with the fact that apparently the staff was not watching a dog that was loose in this area. The report talks about the staff at this facility “all being clustered in a corner talking”. While staff certainly should interact with each other while working, at Hydrant Club we have a strict policy there should be no less than 10-15 feet in between any two handlers overseeing a single play group. Their job isn’t to be chatting with each other, but to be minding the dogs. Finally that a dog was able to play with this pool for any length of time is inexcusable and that the dog then was able to get the pool knocked over and thus get trapped underneath it for any length of time, again, inexcusable.

The fire in Monterey, CA was absolutely a tragedy. This was a business that had been around for ages with nothing but great reviews. In fact, when I once was taking a trip to Monterey and thinking about going with my dog, I recall considering this place if the hotel I was to find wasn’t dog friendly. (Instead I found a dog-friendly place to stay.) In this scenario the business operator left for a very short period of time to pick up some other dog guests. They weren’t left alone for long, but in the time that transpired a fire started and the dogs succumbed to smoke inhalation. Some argue that even had a person been on property there’s no guarantee the dogs would have gotten out. Perhaps not, but at least they’d have had a chance.

So what is the solution? How can you entrust a facility or provider with the care of your four footed loved one? We did a post here a couple of months back with some basic guidelines, but with all the questions that have arisen and the other areas to consider, we decided to flesh it out a bit more. There are some basic parameters you should consider when evaluating the place (or person) with whom to leave your dog. The questions to ask vary a bit depending on whether it’s a sole practitioner operating out of their home or a larger scale more “official” facility, but the basics are the same.

  1. Size, because it matters – How many dogs are handled on the facility at any one point in time and more importantly what is the human handler to dog ratio. Some states have laws mandating no more than 1:15. In those states every facility will tell you that’s their ratio. Most of them are lying. The truth is that most facilities that handle 100 or more dogs in a given day are operating at least on a 1:25 or even 1:30 ratio. Demand to see their play groups and see the staffing set up. Sadly the organizations (usually Animal Care and Control) tasked with overseeing this ratio are woefully understaffed and horribly overextended handling strays and such to ever truly enforce these rules.
  2. See the paperwork – This is particularly if you are evaluating a service that is run out of a home or in a residential area. Make sure they have cleared their business legally with their municipality, and they have the business license to operate along with any requisite local permits that might be needed. A basic business license is important, but it doesn’t count. When I opened my business in Las Vegas I got my business license easy peasy … and then had to fill out an application, submit to an interview and site visit by Animal Care and Control in order to get the handler’s permit that is required to operate any sort of kennel, daycare or boarding facility in this town. A quick trip to your local municipality’s web site and a search on “animal permits” or “animal licenses” will not only give you the information you need to know about licensing your own dog, but also the requirements for folks who make their livelihood caring for dogs. If the person is found through Rover.com or DogVacay.com that does not absolve them from the need to have a legal license to operate as a “kennel” from their home or their need to carry a handlers permit (as most cities require).
  3. Handler training – Who are the people who are handling the dogs and what kind of training do they undergo before being allowed to manage the playgroups? Is there a formal training program? How long is it? Are handlers working with dogs on day one or is there a period of education prior to their diving in? How is the staff managed and who oversees them? What type of corrections are they taught (you’ll want to avoid places using water spray bottles, air horns or other such punitive deterrents for managing the pack, also a good idea to make sure you know whether the facility “treat trains”, especially if your dog has allergies).
  4. How is play managed – Is the facility an open format, open play scenario or does the facility break out the dogs by size? Do they use crates, kennels or cages? If so, do they use them to break the dogs out into groups and use them for nap/rest or are the restricted areas used as a punitive measure if a dog is “misbehaving”? What type of corrections are used and how are they applied? Who is making the decisions on the corrections and how is staff being monitored in their application? (See prior points about handler training and handler:dog ratio as those factors play into the type of management that is used.)
  5. Hours of monitoring – Here’s one where I sometimes get into hot water with my dog care professional peers. Many of them do not staff 24/7. Most of those that don’t with whom I’m connected either live on the property, have a manager living on property or are literally within eyeshot/earshot of the facility. I still don’t fully agree that the person isn’t right there with the dogs, but I can at least see the compromise here. Thing is, staffing 24/7 is costly. Very costly. It eats into margins big time. For open format (e.g. crate/kennel/cage free) having 24 hour staff is mandatory. If you only have a handful of dogs boarding, chances are that by staffing 24/7 you are losing money and potentially a lot of it depending on how much the staff is getting paid. You can’t have a bunch of dogs loose and not have someone physically present to mind them. My personal belief is if a facility has dogs staying overnight to not have a human being physically at or within immediate access is careless – whether the dogs are crated/kenneled or not. Think of it this way: If I live next door to you and are babysitting your 4 year old while you’re out of town. I don’t have the kid brush their teeth, wash up and go to bed and then head back to my house next door until morning. I stay at your house or have your kid stay at my house.
  6. Rules and regulations – No dog facility operates with a revolving door. Check what policies are around drop off and pick up times. Are they lax about it? Do they require specific windows for drop off and pick up? The latter means they are strictly managing the stability of their pack and their overall dog play energy. Places like this are likely more boutique/bespoke in nature and often are cage/crate and kennel free. Facilities that allow more flexible pickup and drop off times are likely ones that have kennels/crates and cages as they can isolate dogs, separating them out during the windows of time when dogs are in and out of the facility. No facility will allow you to just randomly show up to drop off or pick up your dog as your booking will indicate a rough time window when your dog is expected. You may find places that allow you to get your dog “at any time” but almost all will require that you at least call ahead before pickup so they can get your dog ready.
  7. See with your own eyes – When you go to the facility to check it out before your dog stays there for any period of time (which you should do), be wary of any facility that has areas where they won’t let you go. Granted there are probably areas they’d rather you not see because they’re not really designed to impress humans. They’re function, utilitarian and spartan storage and such, but that shouldn’t matter. Whether it’s where they put their trash, their bathrooms, grooming area, food prep, staff lounge, boarding area, daycare play, outdoor space – you should be allowed a full tour of all facilities, access to talk with staff and the opportunity to talk with other folks who use the services. Now, be courteous about it. Don’t just show up randomly demanding a tour. Even at Hydrant Club where we are fully transparent and show folks literally every inch of our facility, we only do tours by appointment. This is to insure that we are managing the safety and security of the dogs we’re minding as well as the stability of the space. So call ahead and request a tour. Some places will just say come by but just as you wouldn’t just randomly show up at a lawyer’s office or a school for a tour, keep in mind that while the facility certainly wants to show you their stuff, they also have to insure that they’re taking care of the canine kids already under their supervision.

There are any number of additional things to think about – when you walk through the door, how does the place smell to you? What is the general energy of the dogs you see going in and out as well as the humans dropping off and picking up – do they seem happy? Do they like the place? How is the staff? Are they welcoming? Do they seem to like working there? And most of all, how does your dog react to the space?

Bottom line, trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, that’s probably because it isn’t.