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The Rise of Doggy Day Care in Australia

Our hectic lifestyle comes with longer working hours and less precious free time to spend with our dogs. Meanwhile, the new generation of pet owners owners increasingly treats their companion animals as family members so it comes as no surprise to see an exponential boom in dog day care centres, offering state-of-the-art facilities and well-trained staff to cater for our beloved pooches.

Once limited to the inner city, doggy day care centres are now spreading out to outer suburbs allowing more pet parents to head to work reassured that their pets are not locked up in the house or a backyard for 10-12 hours with little physical or mental stimulation.

We asked a number of dog day care centres and a professional dog trainer why they feel these pet services are increasingly popular and also their expert advice on choosing the right provider for your dog/s.

1) Why is Doggy Day Care so popular in Australia?

Doggy day cares are a great option for dogs with separation anxiety, says Ness Jones of Separation Anxiety In Dogs Decoded.

Day care can take the pressure off owners as they won’t feel guilty about leaving their dogs home alone in a state of panic and distress, enabling them to go to work, meet friends or pop to the shops knowing their dogs are having a blast.

Day cares can be amazing places where your dog can thrive and return home exhausted, but fulfilled and contented, or they can be centres of chaos which stress your dog out and unsettle them to the point they need a few days to decompress afterwards.

So it’s important to test the waters and ensure your dog is comfortable in the one you choose. That might be a case of taking them to the centre and staying with them for a while to see if they are actually having a great time or, in fact, shutting down and feeling overwhelmed. Alternatively, drop them off at the day care for half an hour and, if the staff are open to it, ask them to do a live video feed so you can see how your dog is settling in – and obviously return if you can see it is too much for them.

Most importantly, for a dog with separation anxiety that struggles with crate confinement, ask if they kennel the dogs during the day. The last thing you want with a dog with crate phobia is for it to be put in a crate and left to “bark it out” simply because the staff don’t understand the absolute fear and panic your dog is going through." adds Ness.

“Dog day care is definitely a growing industry “agrees Maggie Curr-Smith, co-Director of The Hound Lounge in Annandale (inner Sydney). “With our dogs becoming more a part of the family than they are pets, people are increasingly looking for an option to provide socialisation, supervision and mental stimulation for their dogs while they are out of the house. 

A good dog day care provides all this and more - and is therefore a popular option for those of us who are out of the home for long hours or want to give our dogs the best we can when we aren’t able.” “The Covid-19 pandemic has also been a contributing factor with many owners finding their dogs are having trouble with the transition back to work and spending time alone. 

Day care is a great option for social dogs who don’t like to be alone and can help them learn some independence from their owners and have some play time in the process. Learning independence and having a social and mental outlet is a great option and can even be a stepping stone to dogs becoming more comfortable at home on their own.”

"Doggy day care was once thought of as something for over indulged fur babies, however today it is becoming a normal activity for dog owners." said Neil Roberts from DogFX in Adelaide. "These days dog owners are better educated and want to ensure that their dogs lead a happy and enriched life.

I am yet to find a dog that doesn’t enjoy doggie day care. Some dogs are not into a lot of play but they like to be part of the group or just enjoy following the team member around wanting cuddles and treats.

We are a specialist small breed centre as we know that smaller breeds (e.g. Maltese, Shih Tzu) play very differently to larger breeds so everything we do is aimed at keeping them entertained. Being smaller breeds we offer smaller toys and balls and over the years we have added Doggy TV - DVDs made especially for dogs!"

Steve Rush and his family took over the running of The Dog Ranch in Mona Vale (Northern Beaches of Sydney) which opened in 2020 and also went through a lockdown in early 2021 so he offers a fresh perspective on the pet industry.

"COVID restrictions have led to an increase in dog ownership: with people spending more time at home, they decided to share that time with a loving and loyal companion. 

Many did put their furry friend in day care for 1 or 2 days a week for socialisation, exercise and mental stimulation.

Photo Credit: The Dog Ranch

Interacting with and socialisation of your puppy, with other dogs, is so important for their development during this puppy stage, to learn good behaviour and build confidence.

It also helps them feel comfortable in different environments, helps address separation anxiety and relieves boredom. Now as many people are starting to return to work, we are also seeing more dog owners using day care to ensure that their dogs are supervised in a loving and caring environment while they are at work.”

As with most businesses, he admits it hasn’t all been smooth sailing thanks to the pandemic!

“The numbers have been down in general as more people are at home with less need for day care. Our boarding numbers were also down as many people have had to put their holidays on hold. However, more people returning to work we have seen the numbers slowly increase in the early part of this year and hope this continues.”

2) How to know which Doggy Day Care is the right fit for your pooch?

“Dog day care is a great option for dogs who are outgoing and love to socialise and can provide hours of stimulation and fun.” explains Maggie Curr-Smith

✔️ Dogs who are suited to day care are happy in the company of other dogs and humans and who enjoy a rumble with their canine friends.

✔️ A trial session is an important step in discovering if daycare is the right option for your dog. These short sessions allow dogs a taste of the environment without becoming too overwhelmed and allow the staff to watch your dog for signs of being stressed or overstimulated by day care. This session and the communication offered by the staff are key to making the decision to send your dog to a day care long term.

Some dogs may love day care right away, but many may also need several short sessions to help them settle in at their own pace and ensure that they are having the best time possible.”

“Dogs are typically very social animals. It does however depend on each individual dog as to what works best for them” says Steve Rush

Photo: The Dog Ranch
“Some love to chase balls all day or rumble with the pack, while others find this overwhelming and would prefer to just relax in a small group or have lots of cuddles

It is important to understand what suits your dog.

✔️ At the Dog Ranch, we assess each dog to understand their temperament, and determine how comfortable they are around dogs of different sizes, ages and energy levels. We can then group dogs of similar type together in one of the open play areas or the comfy lounge. 

You get to know each dog’s personality, what they like and what they don’t and with care and attention it’s nice to see how they settle in as they feel more at home and get to know the other dogs. As dogs become more familiar with the Ranch, we can move them around with different groups, under close supervision, to ensure they get the most out of their day.

Dogs are very intuitive and remarkably adaptable. One of our “regulars” is a beautiful Koolie, full of energy and very adventurous. She was unfortunately born deaf and almost blind, but you’d barely know it. When she first came to us, she was a little timid, staying close to us as she took in the whole experience, but she very quickly learned the layout of the Ranch with the help of the other dogs, and now runs around and plays with all the dogs.

It’s amazing to see how the other dogs relate to her. They know that there is something special about her and they seem to accommodate for it. They play differently with her;  they are just that little bit more gentle and more tolerant. It’s beautiful to watch.”

Dogs love unscripted adventures!
Photo: Fitness Dogs
Gustavo Montagut operates two very different but complementary styles of doggy play care: the newly opened Dogs in Town in Alexandria which is a traditional indoor doggy day care centre as well as Fitness Dogs, delivering off-leash dog adventures and real outdoors experiences for dogs.

From his perspective “it can be hard to truly know which day care is best for your dog. Most day cares will say your pup is fine when they actually aren't - whether they're anxious or scared or not playing well with others - so this makes your dog’s experience extremely difficult. 

Which dog would not enjoy a Dogs in Town's
Dogwarts special birthday celebration?
But the day care centres that communicate to you clearly are the ones that are the ‘go to’.

✔️ When they give advice, suggestions or provide resources to help your dog, this shows they truly care for them and just want the best for them.

The new crop of doggy day care centres like Dogs in Town offer a wide range of services: from grooming to special birthday celebrations, off-leash adventures and even doggy pickups in a comfy fully air-conditioned van for all those busy pet parents!

A spokesperson for the Canine Cubby Activity Centre for Dogs (QLD) shared "not only do we offer swimming confidence classes and canine hydrotherapy sessions but our daycare has plenty of running room to help with the dogs built-up energy and we work hard with building their confidence through puzzles and obstacles. 

Our centre allows dogs to dig, play in the rain and under the sprinkler, we also introduce them to home life e.g. with lawn mower noises, blower vacuum, wheel bins, wheel barrow etc."

In addition to their traditional doggy day care, The Hound Lounge also offers obedience training (group and private classes) as well K9 Nose Work - scent detection classes, a great activity to engage dogs physically and also stimulate them mentally. 

Photo Credit: The Hound Lounge

3) What are your tips on how to choose a dog day care centre?

"Always look for transparency when choosing a day care" recommends Ness Jones. "Is the day care comfortable with you touring their facilities? (often this is done out of hours so as not to put undue stress on the dogs having strangers wandering around). If they aren’t prepared to show you the environment your dog will be kept in or are reticent about answering any of your questions, I would run a mile.

Do they provide daily videos or photos, or even a webcam, of the dogs throughout the day? Do the dogs get time-out to rest during the day or is it a free-for-all where the dogs get over-stimulated?

I would also ask what the staff-to-dog ratio is, how many dogs they have in over one period and if the dogs are segregated in terms of size, so the smaller ones aren’t inadvertently injured by a boisterous bigger one. But it’s not just size, dogs with varying play energies will have a better time if they are paired with dogs of the same ilk. If you can find a day care that also does guided activities during the day, as opposed to letting the dogs run wild for eight or so hours, that’s even better.

I think it is really important to also know what experience the staff have, how aware they are of dog body language and their abilities to determine escalation of bad behaviour. Also remember, if they are inexperienced with dogs that can lead to frustration on their part, and this might be transferred to the dogs in their care."

"One important consideration is firstly the location and ease of getting the dogs in and out of the day-care centre" says Neil Roberts from DogFX. "You don’t want to be parking a mile away and having to walk when you are rushing to work in the morning!"

For The Dog Ranch's Steve Rush “it’s about finding a place with caring, attentive and knowledgeable staff, as well as a clean and well-maintained facility with a variety of activities to keep your dog stimulated.

Photo Credit : The Dog Ranch
The Ranch
has a large open space for dogs to run around, chase balls, have a splash in the pond, and rumble with the pack. 

We also provide hours of ball throwing, ramp runs and rope tugs to cater for all energy levels, with an agility course for mental stimulation. 

Some quiet time is also allocated each day to ensure that dogs are not over-tired, and there’s even an air-conditioned lounge to accommodate older, smaller or less active dogs.

✔️ The staff should be able to get to know each dog and provide regular feedback to the owner on how they have progressed. It’s also good to be able to pop in at any time to see your dog playing and regular photo updates are always fun.

But like all doggy day care owners, I’m biased. I would suggest asking other dog owners who use day care and even trialling a few and compare for yourself. Of course, each dog is different and your reason for using a doggy day care may be different, but possibly the best indication of which centre is best for your dog is how excited your dog is to return on subsequent visits.

It’s very rewarding for me to see dogs pulling on their leads to enter, as you greet them each morning, excited for another fun filled day!" adds Steve Rush.

'Frens' that snooze together, stay together!
Photo: The Hound Lounge
Maggie Curr-Smith
 agrees “communication is the key, look for a place that is open and honest about how your dog is doing in the day care environment.

We all love to hear when our dogs are doing well with someone else, but it is equally - if not more important - to know when they may be having a tough time. A good day care will be able to help your dog work through any difficulties they may be having, and help them to settle in, whilst being honest about the progress your dog is making or not making. 

✔️ Staff should of course love dogs, but also be very familiar with reading their body language and listening to what the dogs are trying to tell us. Training and behaviour qualifications and experience are also a massive asset to any dog day care, and staff should be open and willing to discuss any concerns you may have or help you through training issues.

✔️ A good social media presence is something many people look for as it will allow you to see snapshots of your dog’s time in day care as well as see how things are set up and how the dogs are interacting with each other.

Overall look for somewhere that makes both you and your dog feel comfortable, all day care environments are a little different to each other and your dog may be happier in one than they are in another, and that’s okay!" concludes Maggie.

Gus from Dogs in Town agreed whole-heartedly and advised any interested dog owner to “call in and schedule to have a look at the place to see if it's the right kind of environment for your pup, then book an assessment and ask for detailed answers on how the dog did that day. 

If the day care assessment is too quick or the answer dismissive, e.g. ‘yep they're great’ then they may not be the best place for you?
Another red flag is “if your dog starts acting differently or in a negative way, maybe try a different day care if you notice this happening more than once?”

Gus recommends to "start your dog at an early age if possible and also to be consistent to ensure the best outcome".

"Sometimes, a better option for a dog that is overwhelmed by larger day care centres is a smaller, less frenetic home care facility. Again, look for the experience of the person running the home care, how many dogs are present, where they are kept (fencing may be an issue if your dog is an escape artist) and check if your dog is comfortable there before leaving them entirely alone" suggests Ness.

Please Note:

A reminder to dog owners considering sending their dogs to doggy day care for the first time.

✔️ Keep your dogs safe by checking the training and behavioural qualifications of the operator you're entrusting your dog to and also that they use only positive reinforcement training methods (meaning dogs are not punished for undesirable behaviour but rewarded for their good behaviours).

✔️ All dogs must be up to date with their C3 and Kennel Cough vaccinations in order to attend day care, dog boarding and dog training and dog sports classes. 

Some providers understand that an annual vaccination program may not suit all dogs or owners and a copy of titre test results showing sufficient immunity can also be adequate but make sure if you check first what the centre's exact policy is.

We'd like to thank Ness Jones from Separation Anxiety in Dogs DecodedSteve Rush from The Dog Ranch, Maggie Curr-Smith from The Hound Lounge, Neil Roberts from DogFX and Gustavo Montaigut from Dogs in Town / Fitness Dogs and Canine Cubby Activity Centre for Dogs for their contribution to this story.


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