Successful dog daycares understand canine body language and have a systematic process to evaluate potential dogs. Staff members have the resources to determine which dogs are a good fit for the group, and know what types of temperament and play styles tend to do poorly in the daycare setting. Handlers should understand what kinds of play to encourage and how to identify and interrupt rough play.


Create a Company Policy

The best resources for evaluating new dogs, determining what types of play are acceptable, and setting guidelines for when to remove dogs who do not fit in, are defined from within the organization.

Management should collaborate with the staff to write down, in as simple terms as possible:

  • How to conduct a temperament test.
  • What kinds of play are acceptable and should be encouraged.
  • Exactly what behaviors should be interrupted.
  • How to interrupt unwanted behaviors.
  • Where and how to report problematic behavior.

Written policies ensure consistency and help communicate with clients why their dog is a good fit for day care (or more importantly) why a dog is not allowed in the daycare or has to be removed from daycare.

Creating a company policy requires assigning someone to collect these best practices from the staff and put them together into a working document that includes: requirements for temperament testing, what kind of play is acceptable, how to interrupt rough play and what types of behaviors result in a dog being removed from daycare.

The more clearly written the rules are, the easier it is to explain to a dog owner that their dog was given chances to join the group but did not meet the requirements. Also, setting guidelines this way helps increase the perception of professionalism and reduce the perception that a client’s dog is being unfairly singled out.

A clear company policy will protect against potential issues, from bad reviews to lawsuits, and demonstrate a commitment to excellent customer service.


Understanding Canine Body Language

It is essential to come up with an instruction manual to teach the staff what types of play and what kinds of body language should be allowed, and what exactly results in a dog being removed from the pack, or not allowed into the group in the first place.

In addition to having an internal document, we recommend the following training resources for your staff:

Canine Body Language – A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff

On talking terms with dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas

Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behaviors by Roger Abrantes

The Language of Dogs by Sarah Kalnajs (DVD)

Am I Safe? The Art & Science of Canine Behavior Assessments by Sarah Kalnajs (DVD)

Assessing Dog to Dog Interactions by Sue Sternberg (DVD)


Best Practices in the Industry

Time outs (removal from the pack) are given to dogs who are playing too rough. Slip leads are kept by staff to use when removing a rough player from the pack. An area is determined for where to put a dog when they are taken into “time out.”

Helpful tools include:  

  • Slip Leads for every staff member
  • Animal Control Pole
  • Heavy Duty Trauma Shears (to cut through a collar if dogs jaws get locked)*
  • Noise maker (air horn) to help break up a fight (just banging pots and pans can work)
  • Bite stick – can pry apart a dog’s jaws when locked down
  • Bite Gloves – Protect hands when getting between two biting dogs
  • Designated area to put an aggressive dog to safely separate them from the group (pen or crate)

*Although some daycares leave collars on dogs, we do not recommend collars to be left on dogs in the play pens!


Recognizing Healthy Play

It is important for pen handlers to know what kinds of play to allow and encourage. In general, dog play that is made up of bouncy, inefficient, sometimes goofy displays of constant movement such as: running, chasing, and jumping around indicate good play. Dogs should seem comfortable in the pen and have a neutral or “friendly face” and relaxed body language.

Behaviors to look for: Dogs should appear comfortable with you, with the pen, and seem confident when interacting with other dogs. Socially confident dogs tend to engage in a lot of sniffing behavior, pausing to sniff other dogs and allowing other dogs to sniff them. They tend respect others’ space and not stare directly at other dogs but look away frequently.

Good play involves role reversal, where dogs take turns chasing each other, or bowing at each other. Healthy play tends to frequently shift activities from chasing to sniffing, to play bows, and even open mouth play biting. Some dogs vocalize more than others, but some growling and barking is to be expected. In general, good players self-handicap and quickly change behaviors, for example: chasing but suddenly stopping, or coming towards another dog with an open mouth but never biting.

Healthy Body Language: During play a dog’s facial expressions should seem relaxed, often with a slightly open mouth and soft eyes. They may squint and blink often, but not have their eyes pulled wide-open. (Recognizing the “play face” gets easier over time.) They should not have visible tension in their body and face. Usually the tail and ear positions are not held too high or down low, but somewhere in the middle. Their mouth and lips are typically relaxed; sometimes they look as if they are smiling. Good players act in ways to solicit other dogs to play with them and often look goofy in the process.

Meeting other dogs: When dogs first enter the group, they should not be crowded by the other dogs, as good dogs respect each other’s personal space. It can be helpful to prevent the group from rushing to greet new dogs in the pen. Handlers can recognize polite dogs as they meet other dogs by coming over sideways and avoid walking directly towards another dog, coming in too quickly, stalking, or staring directly.  When dogs meet, their jaws and facial expressions should seem relaxed, as should their eyes, often squinting with ears floppy, and the tail waving gently.


Identifying Unhealthy Play

Some dogs are under-socialized with other dogs, so they have never learned how to play well. Other dogs are fearful – of other dogs, of the daycare, of people, or of life in general. While some dogs may learn how to play and become more confident over time, some dogs are not a good fit for your play group.

Dogs who are too rough and do not respect other dogs’ space, boundaries, and social cues can also cause issues in the play group. Dogs have hunter instincts; they are hard-wired to grab, bite, kill, and dissect other animals. Social dogs know not to hunt other dogs. However, sometimes, especially in groups, dogs can experience “predatory drift” where they stop playing and start moving towards the other dogs as if they were prey.

Unhealthy Body Language:

Dogs who freeze and stare directly at other dogs might be fearful, or might be too rough or revved up to play safely. Be on the lookout for predatory behavior: stalking with a lowered head, or staring directly with an intense, fixed gaze. If a dog is uncomfortable in the group, tension in the body is often evident, with the front legs stiff or even braced. The tail might be wagging but held high and stiff, perhaps intensely wagging at the tip.  Assertive players’ ears are often forced forward; however, with a shy dog, the ears can be pinned back, tail tucked, and spine curved.

Behaviors to watch out for:

You can identify predatory drift by what look like pushy, rude, or “bossy” behaviors. Staring, stalking, lunging, or quickly running directly towards another dog, or crowding them by entering their personal space.

Dogs with poor social skills often do not take social cues from other dogs to back off. They might do a “prey bow” (the opposite of a play bow) where with the head and tail held high, they orient their body backward, ready to spring forward in pursuit. They tend to stare at and even lunge towards other dogs, moving decisively and quickly.

Remember, dogs tend to pursue and bite at retreating stimuli, so if chase games seem to be getting out of hand or if several dogs start picking on another dog, it is time to intervene.