Monday, March 21, 2011

Bone up before putting pooch in day care

They feature rambunctious noise, nap times and play areas. A child care center, you say? Try dog day care centers. In many regions across the U.S., day care centers provide a place for owners to leave their canine companions with while they are away at work.

Jeffrey Lasker and Brian Howell drop off Cleo, a 17-week-old Havanese, at Metro Dog in Richmond, Calif., before going to work. They brought her into their Albany, Calif., home two months ago.

"Havanese dogs are especially human-centric and need human companionship, so it's a great place for her to go during the day. She loves going there. You ring the bell to get in, and she starts wagging her tail and just pulling me to go in. She definitely has a good time, and also the socialization with other dogs is good," said Lasker, who learned about Metro Dog from a friend's recommendation.

A recommendation from a fellow dog owner, a veterinarian or dog trainer is great starting point when it comes to choosing a day care center for your dog.

"I think the first thing you could do is talk to friends and get some recommendations. Talk to dog owners and people who are using the service," said Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Per-day rates in the Bay Area range from $25 to $40. The price typically does not include the dog chow, which is either provided by the owner or by the center for an extra charge. Dog care centers also offer monthly passes or packages of 10 or 20 visits that can reduce the cost of the service for frequent users.

Lasker and Howell opt for Metro Dog's 20-visit package. The $510 cost brings down the per-day charge of $35 to $25.50, and it provides flexibility. Cleo gets taken to day care three or four days a week but does not go when Lasker is working at home.

"It gets cheaper the more you buy. It makes sense to get a package. That way you don't have to pay each day," he said.

The centers offer more than day care. Some offer grooming and training. "Get a clear understanding upfront of what's included in the price, and what falls outside of that. (Ask) if training is included. If not, what kind of training is offered," said Ingrid McKenney, spokeswoman for the East Bay SPCA.

Dog day care centers meet the needs of a dog-greet-dog world. However, don't expect to find a similar offering for other pets such as birds and cats that don't have the same social needs for interaction. Dogs go through a behavior screening process before they are accepted. Although a dog care center is a fun place to be -- what with dogs barking happily and playing -- not all dogs are the right candidate, Zawistowski said.

"Some dogs don't get along well with other dogs," he said. "Sometimes, with dogs as they getting older, they are less and less ready to be involved in boisterous playing. They want to go for a walk in the morning and curl up on a cushioned chair and spend the day sleeping."

Diane Livoti, co-owner of Metro Dog, said a dog day care center is place to bring a dog that is already socialized, as opposed to a place for a dog to become socialized. "A dog who has poor social skills, who can't play with other dogs, is not a good fit for a playing situation," she said.

One of the most important things to consider is how dogs are divided up into play groups, said Sara Scott, owner of What's Up Dog?, an Oakland, Calif.-based dog training service.

"You want to look for someone who divides dogs up by size and temperament," such as an active dog group, a puppy group and an older dogs group, she said. "You want to look for someone that does humane training techniques that is based on positive reinforcement." Dog day care is not all about play. Make sure they are rest times.

"You don't want the dog playing eight hours a day," Scott said. As with choosing a child care center, a dog owner needs to ask a lot of questions before making a commitment. What is the ratio of employees to dogs at the day care center? How many dogs are in a play group? When does the place open and close? What kind of training do employees receive? What happens if a dog get sick? The list goes on.

As far as the overall staff-to-dog ratio formula goes for a dog day care center, there should be "anywhere from one person to 10 to 15 dogs, or 20 at the outside," Zawistowski said. Play groups, however, should have six to 10 dogs.

Make sure the center has vaccination requirements, along with a policy for handling emergencies such as when dogs get sick or injured. "If something happens, it's good to know there is somebody in place that can do some basic first aid. They should have a vet on emergency call," Zawistowski said. Check to see if some of the personnel that work with the dogs are Certified Professional Dog Trainers, he said.

When visiting a center, don't bring your dog, he stressed. "If you are going by yourself, you are going to be able to see stuff instead of watching our dog," he said. In addition, don't just look to see if the dogs look happy and the place is clean and secure when taking a tour.

Make sure the staff members look happy and are engaged in what they are doing, said McKenney of the East Bay SPCA.

"It's just a good indication of how a business is run. (Employees should) enjoy what the are doing and enjoy working with animals. You could read a lot from those interactions as well," she said.

Once you select a place, bring your dog in for a half-day visit, then evaluate him afterward to see if he is good spirits when you pick him up.

"The important thing to do is when you take the dog out to find out how they do afterward," Zawistowski said. "You'll have a feeling about your dog. Are they stressed from having spent time there or do they seem relaxed?"

What to Avoid (Bad dog day care! Bad dog day care!) Overcrowding: A good rule of thumb for the optimal size of a dog day care facility is 100 square feet per large dog, and 50 to 60 square feet per small or medium dog.

Limited access: Avoid any day care that prohibits dog guardians from visiting their dog at any time, with or without advance notice, and those that do not allow you to tour the entire facility and observe play groups before signing your dog up.

Unwillingness to meet your dog's needs: A conscientious day care will accept and honor your request that your dog receive a special diet or medication. Poor customer service: Loving dogs is not enough. Staff members also should be courteous and friendly to human clients.


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