Pet Boarding & Daycare

Group Play Policies to Keep Your Daycare Safe

Group Play Policies to Keep Your Daycare Safe

By The Professional Pet Boarding Certification Council

Any time you have multiple dogs in a single space, you are taking a risk. But dogs are social animals and enjoy the company of their own species, and dog owners like to see their pets in a happy state (not to mention, a tired state, when they themselves have had a long day). It is imperative that daycare policies are established and followed through by your staff in order to keep your 4–legged clients on their best behavior to ensure their safety, as well as that of your staff. The following are some suggested policies to implement in your daycare business.

Dog Evaluation Policy

The first important policy to set your groups up for success is to establish your evaluation process and clearly define the dogs that will be accepted for play. Your dog acceptance policy should clearly outline the behavior, size, age and health requirements for dogs that are candidates for group play.

Your dog evaluation process should be designed to screen for inappropriate and/or aggressive behavior to exclude these dogs from your groups. It is helpful to obtain background information about the dog from the owner prior to evaluating them for group play. The information received should confirm that the dog has had positive prior experiences in social dog environments and enjoys the interactions.

It is important to outline a formal evaluation process that is consistently performed prior to adding any dog to a playgroup. The evaluation should start with an assessment of the dog’s response to new people. During group play, it is very important for dogs to listen to leader cues and direction. Staff will need to be able to safely leash, walk and handle all dogs that participate in play.

The most important part of the evaluation process is the observation of a dog’s greeting and social skills. Safety is your primary focus, but your policy should also address:

Any dog combined with non–family dogs for group play should be formally evaluated. This includes dogs that are lodging and participating in short dog play activity groups. The only way to keep all dogs safe is to take time to perform a screening assessment on their social skills and tolerance of the dog play environment.

Play Schedule Policy1

A policy on play schedules is also recommended. The physical play areas available and your acceptance policy will both be factors to your final schedule. For good health and emotional well–being of all dogs, it is highly recommended that formal rest periods are included for all dogs during the day. Options for providing formal rest periods for dog play include:

Some clients may be concerned if their dog is not participating in play during a full play–day visit. As a pet professional, you can help educate dog owners that it is not natural or healthy for dogs to play non–stop for a full day. You can point out that well–managed play is focused on quality of the play sessions, not quantity of time spent in group.

Quality play sessions include physical activity, mental stimulation and work for all the dogs participating. The result from centers that operate quality play sessions is a tired, healthy dog versus an exhausted dog from over–stimulation or stress.

Scheduling morning play sessions to start after lodging, feeding and cleaning is completed is a great way to cross–utilize staff members. Play sessions can also be scheduled to end prior to the start of evening meals and potty walks for lodging dogs. Fitting play sessions around lodging dog care allows for sharing space and staff between services.

Collar Policy

Establishing a policy on whether dogs wear collars in play or not is an important safety decision. Dogs play with their mouths and there have been tragic accidents and deaths of dogs as a result of getting collars caught in the mouth of another dog. Each operator must decide the risk of dogs playing naked versus wearing collars for identification.

Acceptable dog group collar policy choices include:

Food Policy

It is recommended that no food or treats be allowed in dog groups. This includes human food for staff, dog food or dog treats. Dogs that get along socially can resource guard or become aggressive when food is present. To ensure safety, no food should be allowed during group dog play sessions.

Dog Grouping Policy

Another important safety policy to establish is how dogs will be divided and assigned to playgroups. To achieve high safety levels and have dogs enjoy participating in dog play, consider separating:

Mixing dogs of varying sizes increases risk of accidents and injury. You will also want to match dogs for similar play styles together. The typical play styles observed include:

Sizes of groups can vary from very small groups of 5–8 dogs to very large groups of 30 plus dogs. Be sure you provide adequate physical space and staff leadership to keep play safe for all dogs participating. In larger groups, it is more challenging to keep arousal levels low and keep play safe and enjoyable for all dogs.

Dog Management Tools2

Staff leaders will require guidance on the tools they should use to manage the dogs during group play. Dogs respond best to good leadership and a positive approach and early intervention. Encourage staff to be proactive and set dogs up for success. Physical handling and manipulation should not be required if you have good dog evaluation policies and staff training protocols. Recommended dog management tools to use for group management include:

Additionally, procedures are required for dealing with dog–to–dog fights. At a minimum, procedures should address the following:

Policy for Managing High–Risk Events3

An important aspect to safe group play is keeping dog arousal levels low. Arousal and aggression are closely linked, so events that increase the excitement and arousal of dogs need to be identified and properly managed. These events frequently trigger over excitement and arousal levels of dogs, which can be considered high–risk:

Policies on moving dogs that focus on staff leadership and dog self–control are recommended, such as:

To be effective, the above suggested policies need to be consistently followed by all staff that lead playgroups. This will ensure all measures are being taken to keep your daycare dogs and staff as safe as possible.


1,3 “Off–Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun” by Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs.

2 “Knowing Dogs 201” by Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs.