Dog Daycare: A Fun Past Time, or a Creator of Bad Behavior?

Six well-trained dogs pose for a photo on a hiking trail during a Dog Dynamix training trip.

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We want to briefly revisit our regular dog trainer TED talk… Reactivity in daycare dogs. We see daycare offered as a management tool for separation anxiety and other trouble behaviors, as well as “socialization”, but at Dog Dynamix Ohio, we almost never recommend it to our clients. A vast majority of our leash reactive (see: lunging and barking at other dogs on leash) cases attend dog parks and daycare, regularly. After over ten years of watching the pattern unfold, our best explanation is this:

A young dog attends dog daycare and either enjoys it initially, or doesn’t. Either way, the dog slowly becomes overstimulated by the sight of other dogs, and begins to expect every dog it sees is a potential playmate (or threat, if they do not enjoy the group setting). Out in public, the dog owner may let them meet other dogs on leash (please don’t), but maybe not. We then tend to start to see a decrease in neutrality, being able to ignore other dogs, on walks via whining, barking, going towards, or otherwise acknowledging the other dog in an obsessive way… All of which is not polite behavior for a dog out in public. As the months go by, that same dog begins to get frustrated whenever they see another dog — it expects to meet it as it does when it is at daycare or dog parks, or expects it to run over and greet them — and frustrated dogs eventually tend to exhibit aggressive displays or behaviors. So, the sweet labrador retriever who “loves other dogs” and “just wants to say hi”, bites another dog it meets on leash in public. Weird, he’s never done that before…

The most unfortunate part about the whole scenario is that these are well-meaning dog owners who truly feel like they are doing the right things by “socializing” their dogs. Our brain tells us that if our dog just meets a bunch of dogs and people, he will not see them as a threat and therefore can go anywhere and do anything with us. The reality is, most daycare and dog park dogs are a mess in public, can’t be trusted off leash if another dog shows up, and certainly can’t settle at our feet at a dog-friendly brewery.

The issue is that most people have the definition of how to socialize a dog wrong. Most socialization should not include interaction with the other dog, person, or thing of interest. It is equally, if not even more so, important for a dog to learn to ignore dogs and people as it is for them to learn to interact appropriately. The problem is, most daycares, and certainly most dog owners at dog parks, do not know what appropriate interaction looks like. As a result, we are slowly ruining our dogs’ impulse control and ability to maintain composure under distraction, and then get frustrated with their behavior when distractions exist. 

At the end of the day, we all have to make our own decisions on what we think is best for our dogs. Most people, when explained how the cycle happens, are relieved to find out this is a common issue and that their dog isn’t a vicious animal. Others, however, feel such a need to make excuses for their dogs behavior, and aren’t willing to give up the daily off leash mosh pits… and in that case, we often can’t help them or their dog. 

Dog owners who need dog care during the day should do their research and choose a dog care professional wisely. Here is a great article on how to choose an appropriate dog daycare or day training center for your dog. There are also great alternatives to dog daycare out there, including dog jogging and hiking companies, pet sitters that will do mid-day breaks, and dog daycare with training, run by dog training professionals.

If you’re dealing with the downfalls of dog daycare and now have a reactive dog, contact us for reactive dog training in Ohio. We are happy to help you get your canine back on track.

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A malinois dog chases a frisbee at our training field in Ohio.
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