A look at how the dog daycare concept got started, and how it has evolved over the last three decades.
Doggy daycare facilities can be a godsend for those whose busy lives don’t allow them to be with their canine companions as much as they’d like to. If you and your partner work, for example, a daycare gives you the consolation of knowing your dog is spending his days in a busy and stimulating environment where he can enjoy the company of people and other dogs, rather than lying around bored and lonely at home. Nowadays, nearly every community boasts at least one doggy daycare, but until just over 30 years ago, there was no such thing. How and why did the dog daycare idea get started, and why has it become so popular over the last few decades?
The beginnings of dog daycare
Joseph Sporn is credited as the inventor of dog daycare in the United States. Back in 1987, the vet tech and dog walker opened Yuppie Puppy in New York City, attracting the attention of scores of dog lovers along with media heavyweights such as The New York Times, 20/20 and CNN. After that, dog daycare facilities started popping up all over the continent; in fact, Joseph says he has observed the whole canine care industry expand and become more sophisticated after the advent of daycare.
“Before daycare existed, the pet industry was very different,” he explains. “Back then, when dogs were boarded or had to stay overnight for a vet visit, they always stayed in cages, whereas nowadays that’s often not the case. Also, there were no public dog parks or dog runs. That’s all changed since daycare became popular.”
Now, over three decades since the introduction of the concept, countless dog daycare centers operate throughout the US and Canada. According to the American Pet Products Association, more than nine million American dogs spend their days in daycare! And it’s no wonder, when you consider the benefits (see sidebar below).
The doggy daycare setting and how it has evolved
In the past, many daycares were casual, informal places where dogs were taken for the day to be looked after by one or two people who may or may not have been trained in dog care. But in the three decades that daycares have been around, how the facilities are run, the expectations for canine behavior, as well as the slate of services offered to the doggy clientele, have all changed dramatically. Today’s dog daycare facilities are a lot more sophisticated, and the owners and staff much more savvy about the social needs, well-being, safety and comfort of their canine charges.
Catering to the needs of individual dogs
To ensure the best outcome for the dogs, for example, veterinarian Dr. Lori Huag says that daycare employees must be trained to help skittish dogs adapt to the new environment. And indeed, daycare businesses nowadays train their employees to recognize dogs that may be having trouble adapting, and have also developed techniques to make the animals more comfortable. Many employees are specifically trained in caring for anxious or nervous dogs, or can recommend specific training programs or a more specialized daycare if the dog in question would benefit from additional help.
Joseph says his employees take extra time with nervous dogs, greeting them warmly, making eye contact, touching their heads and ensuring the owners properly bid them goodbye. He cautions that females in heat, unfixed dominant males or human-aggressive or dog-aggressive canines won’t be accepted.
Emily Davis, a manager at Ruff Dog Daycare & Boarding in Nashville, Tennessee agrees that not all dogs may make the cut at their facility, in the interests of safety and well-being. “We are very honest with our clients if their dogs are struggling,” she says. “In those cases we’ll refer them out to training or to another type of daycare.”
She adds, however, that their facility is set up to accommodate the different needs of various dogs. “We separate our dogs by size and temperament,” she says. “We have three rooms labeled ‘Mellow’, ‘Average Joes’ and ‘Young and Fun’.”
Dr. Huag cautions that not all dogs will thrive in a daycare setting no matter how many accommodations are made or how skilled the staff. Joseph and Emily are both aware of this, and as a result, their daycare facilities will not accept dogs that will be unhappy in daycare or who don’t get along well with other canines.
Mental stimulation, exercise and socialization
Emily says that mental stimulation as well as physical exercise and socialization is a big part of the activities at Ruff Dog. Canine regulars at the facility engage daily in group sits, recall exercises and games of “follow the leader”. The pups are also trained not to bark, taught to stay in their designated rooms, and are rewarded with treats when they master a new skill or respond appropriately to daycare staff.
“We’re really big on working the dogs’ brains rather than just letting them run around all day,” she says. “We do group work, teach them new tricks and give them lots of mental stimulation.”
A growing number of dog daycares have also incorporated extra services into their businesses over the years. Nowadays, you can drop your dog off during the workday not only for play and socialization with his canine friends, but also for grooming, ear cleaning, teeth brushing, nail trimming and brushouts. Some facilities also offer homelike boarding options so you have a familiar place to leave your dog if you’re going away for a weekend or even longer.
Emily states that these changes arise from how people view their dogs – as family members rather than just pets — and what they’ve come to expect from daycare.
“People definitely treat their dogs like their children, so they want the best daycare services for them,” she says. “They are also way more educated about what dogs need.”
Despite the changes that Joseph has seen in the daycare industry since it started back in the mid-80s, he says he’s gratified to see that the basic premise has remained the same.
“Sure, you can take your dog to daycare and have him groomed or get his toes painted,” he says. “But the service itself has stayed pure in that we’re offering a safe space where dogs can run around, exercise and socialize.”
Carissa Lamkahouan is a freelance magazine and newspaper journalist based in Houston, Texas. She has 20 years’ experience covering business, small government, the arts, animal welfare, and religion for publications in the U.S. and abroad. She also spent a year living in and blogging about Marrakech, Morocco.