You’ve heard dog day-care horror stories. Here’s how to find a safe one.

As doggy day cares have grown in popularity, so too has the number of dogs some centers take under their care at once. (Getty Images)

Your dog would do anything for you. So, naturally, you want to do anything you can to give your dog the best life possible. If you can afford it, enrolling her in day care, where she’ll play all day with new friends rather than sit at home alone, might seem like a way to achieve that.

But then you hear the horror stories - abuse, alleged negligence, unsafe conditions - and suddenly, the right move isn’t so clear.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

Michelle Reindal, a behavior consultant and certified welfare-based dog trainer, got her start working at a dog day care. While she thinks the idea of day care, in theory, is a good one, she says the first thing all pet parents should know is that unlike human facilities, dog day cares are largely unregulated. “In my city of Seattle, as a dog behavior professional,” she says, “there are only two day cares that I can recommend out of those in the entire city.

The humans, in other words, have to do their due diligence. Reindal says that when sniffing out a quality day care, it’s critical to approach the search with your dog’s experience in mind, rather than your need to keep them occupied all day. After combing through online reviews, schedule a meeting with personnel and take a tour of the facility. (If the day care declines to accommodate either of those requests, take your business elsewhere.) Ask about the dogs’ routine during the day. “We don’t want to see dogs running and playing eight hours a day,” Reindal says. “This is detrimental to behavioral health, because it’s overstimulating and overtiring.” Dogs should have space to rest, and time for enrichment activities such as sniffing. They should also have access to outdoor space, at least to use the bathroom.

As doggy day cares have grown in popularity, so too has the number of dogs some centers take under their care at once. This can make injury and sickness more likely. “Due to the increased number of dogs in day care after the pandemic, we have been seeing more day-care related traumatic injuries and infectious disease,” says Carly Fox, senior veterinarian at the Schwarzman Animal Medical Center in New York. She says bite wounds and lameness - including limping and trouble using limbs - tend to be the most common injuries, plus gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms from infections.

Reindal recommends day cares that take no more than 15 dogs at one time. (She says she’s seen some that take around 60.) She advises seeking out a facility whose staff is trained in dog behavior and body language, and interested in continuing their education.

It’s key, too, to really know your own dog. How do they feel about stimulating environments, other dogs, and new people coming and going? (For my own dog: dislike, dislike, dislike.) Do they have behavior issues, like separation anxiety, they need to work on before entering a challenging environment? What developmental stage are they in? Reindal says adolescents and young adult dogs are often the best candidates for day care, because they have more socialization experience than puppies and may be more socially adventurous than older dogs. Fox says she typically doesn’t recommend day care until a dog is at least eight months old, when they’re fully vaccinated, either spayed or neutered, and have previous socialization experience. But every animal is different. It could be that your dog would be a lot happier hanging out at home while you’re at work, perhaps with a visit from a trusted walker.

I lamented to Katherine Houpt, a professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine who studies domestic animal welfare, that we couldn’t just speak to our dogs when they come home from day care, to ask whether they had fun. She corrected me that, in fact, we could; we just have to understand their language.

One part of the puzzle is noticing how your dog acts when you take her to day care, after she’s gone once or twice. Does she rush forward, with her ears up; is her body language open and excited? Those are good signs. But if she seems scared or hesitant, or is afraid to get out of the car, something is definitely wrong. “Watch when she greets the personnel, too,” Houpt says. “Does she seem frightened with her tail and ears down, or is she eager?” If your dog seems unusually tired or overly stimulated when she comes home, or exhibits behavioral changes, those are also causes for concern. Your dog is communicating with you in these moments, and it’s key that you listen closely and trust her.

Trust yourself, too, if you get a bad feeling about a day care. Houpt says red flags to look out for are the use of aversives like e-collars, spraying the dogs with water or using loud noises to stop fights, and otherwise aggressive behavior from the humans. Reindal agrees, adding that language like “pack leader,” “alpha” or “dominance” may indicate use of long-debunked forceful methods.

A major green flag is transparency. “This means the day care is going to communicate with guardians about how their dog is tolerating, or not tolerating, their day-care experience,” Reindal says. Some day cares offer video streams that guardians can watch during the day - a great perk, but not one that reliably tells the whole story. Communication with the staff should be ongoing, in part because your dog’s tolerance for day care can change over time. Reindal points to the example of a client whose dog showed behavioral changes - namely, appearing simultaneously overtired and unable to relax - so the client reduced the pup’s day-care schedule from multiple days a week to one day. “She’s still getting those social needs met,” Reindal says of the dog, “but in a way that really benefits her.”

Dogs are sentient beings with individual personalities, and their own sets of likes and dislikes; there isn’t anything wrong with them if they aren’t the right fit for day care. “At the day care I worked for, which was extremely ethical, and where the welfare of the dogs was of utmost importance,” Reindal says, “I would say five out of 15 of those dogs would have been better suited to be at home sleeping.”

And to be honest, if I were a dog, that’s where I’d rather be, too.

- - -

Kelly Conaboy is a writer in New York who covers dogs, culture and dog culture.

Related Content

GOP pick for N.C. governor downplayed Weinstein allegations, assault by Ray Rice

The 2024 ‘Deciders’: Who are they and what makes them tick?

Here’s what the Christian right wants from a second Trump term