Are Your Pets Having Fun?
By Susan Briggs
What would your life be like without fun and games? Think about life without theme parks, sports arenas, or clubs. Our fun factor would definitely take a big hit. Your pet resort should be the place for fun-seeking cats and dogs. Have you stopped lately to observe how much fun is happening in your resort? How would you rate your current fun factor? Every pet center can increase the fun factor and profit from it.
Why focus on fun? It’s good for your business! Fun activities with pets should be a separate revenue stream in your business. The service offerings of fun activities and games that clients will pay for is only limited by your imagination. Check out the types of activities offered in children’s camps and daycare centers for ideas. Many of these can be adapted to games, crafts, parties, and events for pets.
These fun activities are also great marketing tools for your business. Take advantage of the time and energy you invest in maintaining a high fun factor by taking photos and video and by completing client report cards. This is great content for social media, so tweet and post on Facebook about pets having fun with you. Clients love to share these items with friends, family, and coworkers. Guess the first place these people will call or recommend when they need pet care. Your place, where they know pets have fun!
Your business also benefits from healthy and happy pets. Games and play are very important for every pet’s physical and emotional well-being. You’ll find when you focus on fun, there will be fewer cases of illness in your center. Tired and happy pets don’t get sick. You will create a very loyal client base when they know their pets enjoy being at your center and come home healthy.
A focus on fun will also improve employee retention and job satisfaction. Who would not want to get paid to play? In most employee surveys, job satisfaction is tied more to the overall work environment than their level of pay.
It is important to ensure there is the right balance between fun and safety. As pet professionals, safety is our first priority in providing pet care. Be sure to document in procedures the rules and boundaries related to safe and fun pet play. A trend noticed lately is too much focus on safety at the expense of fun in pet care. Be sure that your company tone outlines clearly that professional care requires both safety and fun. Employees can’t read our minds, so it’s important to outline specifically what behavior is outside fun play with pets. To get you started, the following is a list of things fun pet play does not involve:
- Your body as a toy
- Games that tease, frustrate, or teach a pet not to trust you
- Rough tumble or wrestle play styles between people and pets
- Physical games using your hands
- Increasing the emotional arousal levels of pets
Have you created an environment where your employees feel safe to play? This can be a challenging balance to achieve. We emphasize a professional pet care environment that is very adult-like and serious for our clients to trust us. Now we also want fun, so tell staff to find their inner-child, release a joyful spirit, and play! To our employees, these can feel like opposing expectations that can’t coexist in one job.
Does your employee training curriculum include pet play? You may think that we should not have to teach staff to play with pets, but in my experience it is important for consistency. You’ve outlined the play boundaries, but in addition, your training should include these additional tools on pet play:
- Play postures for people, cats, and dogs
- How to initiate play with cats and dogs
- Importance of praise in play with pets
- Good, vigorous play with short breaks to keep pet emotions in check
- Using obedience cues in dog play
Taking time to train staff on professional, safe, and fun pet play will provide consistency in your fun factor. Your staff will build better relationships with the pets in their care and enjoy their jobs more.
The final step to raising the fun factor in your center is providing the right tools. Games and toys are required for fun. It is important to have a variety of each for both cats and dogs.
Fun for Cats
Fun for cats involves releasing the inner hunter, so movement is very important in their games. Dawn and dusk are the natural times of day when cats have the most energy and are in playful moods, so consider this when scheduling cat playtimes. Dimming the lights can also simulate their hunting time. Cat games should vary in speed and direction, and you want to let the cat win but not too easily. The following are cat play styles to focus on in your games:
- Bird games – wave toys, requiring cats to leap in the air and capture flying objects in their front paws
- Pounce games – cats leap on an object moving on the ground (think fingers under a blanket or newspaper)
- Rabbit games – the cat pulls a toy to its belly while on its back and kicks with its back legs, shakes, and bites the toy. Toss the toy across the floor for the cat to grab and play. (Catnip mice and lightweight fur toys with feathers can appeal to this play style.)
- Hide and seek games – unleash the predatory nature of the cat, so toss the toy when the cat is hiding, or hide a favorite toy from the cat to find.
Cat toys are inexpensive, and some are recyclable products. Favorite toys include ping pong balls, corks, newspapers, paper bags (remove handles), cardboard tubes, or boxes. Just be sure to exclude string, paper clips, rubber bands, and plastic bags.
Fun for Dogs
Fun for dogs will vary with breed makeup, which determines the games and toys they prefer. It is important to have a variety of toys and game ideas outlined for staff. They also need to know how to initiate play with a dog. Studies confirm that running away from a dog, tapping your chest, and a forward lunge are all effective play behaviors. Vocalizations are also important and should be fast-paced and higher in pitch. You need to be silly and more interesting than anything else in the area to get a dog’s attention. Good games with dogs include the following:
- Chase – Train staff to run always away from the dog so the dog does not learn to run from you. There are other times when it will be important for dogs to come when called to staff members.
- Tug – Recent studies have confirmed the benefits of tug games with dogs, especially when the person keeps the toy at end of the game.
- Fetch – We all know this one, but an interesting twist is playing rapid-fire fetch with multiple balls. This game works best when the dog knows a drop cue that you deliver when they bring the ball back close to you. Now you throw the next ball in another direction.
- Find It – Hide a favorite toy in the play area and have dog search and find it. Start easy and increase difficulty as the dog improves skills.
- Hide and Seek – A person hides from a dog in the play area. (Remind them to always keep their eye on the dog.) Start easy where only a part of you is hidden and call the dog to you.
More game ideas can be found in books marketed to dog owners and written by dog behaviorists and trainers. You will need to help adapt them to the professional pet care environment. Dog toys need to be durable and easily disinfected. Your procedures need to ensure that toys are examined regularly for wear and tear and are replaced when pieces could be ingested.
You can maintain a high fun factor with a balance of safety and fun. Pets and the people that care for them all win. Pets are healthy and happy, clients are loyal, employees enjoy their job, and you profit from it all!
Susan Briggs is co-founder of Urban Tails, a large multiservice pet care center in Houston, Texas. One of the first cage-free sleepover and dog daycare centers in the country, Urban Tails evolved into a training resource for pet professionals on safe daycare operations. Staff training is a passion for Susan, resulting in the development of Crystal Canine, a consulting and training resource for the pet industry (www.crystalcanine.com). Her first book, Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun, co-authored with Robin Bennett, was published in 2008. This successful book inspired a dog body language poster set and pocket guide tools for pet professionals using the traffic signal safety colors. It was also the resource for Knowing Dogs Staff Training, a two-volume “staff training in a box” program on dog body language and group play produced in 2012. All resources are available from Dream Dog Productions (www.dreamdogproductions.com). Her newest venture provides a one-stop online resource for safe off-leash dog play tools and education. As “The Dog Gurus,” Susan and Robin’s mission is to improve safety in the dog daycare industry. Check out their new site at www.TheDogGurus.com.