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:
- Evaluation of new dogs, one at a time, with other prescreened dogs already accepted to assess compatibility
- Identification of appropriate behavior for acceptance, such as friendly responses to people and other dogs without excessive stress
- Description of dog–to–dog introduction procedure step (Be sure to include if dogs are off–leash, on long line or on loose leashes.)
- Requirement of a dog profile from owner prior to evaluation, which should include sections on dog personality, social and obedience training, and any behavioral problems or medical conditions.
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:
- Rotation of matched dog groups between play times and rest periods (an advantage to this method is sharing play area space between multiple dog groups)
- A one–to–two–hour formal rest period mid–day for all dogs
- AM and PM formal rest periods for all dogs on a rotation basis.
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.
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:
- No collars or only breakaway/paper collars allowed (used to identify dogs). If the “no collars” during play is being considered, be sure your facility is set up to greatly minimize the risk of dog escapes and ensures effective dog identification procedures.
- Dogs wear their own collars (must meet facility collar guidelines; exclude leather, chain and any collar not easily cut off).
- Dogs wear collar supplied by facility. In the case of collars being worn, a procedure that addresses equipment and actions to free dogs entangled on another dog’s collar or facility equipment should be in place.
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:
- Large dogs
- Small dogs
- Tiny dogs (e.g., less than 15 pounds)
- Senior dogs
- Puppies younger than 5 months.
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:
- Chasing: Dogs that like to chase and be chased
- Neck biting: Dogs lie down and mouth each other’s face and neck
- Cat–like: Bat one another with front paws; often observed in small dogs
- Body–slamming: Wrestling play of the larger, sporting breeds.
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:
- Obedience cues
- Splitting or redirecting
- Timeouts and rest periods
- Leash walking
Additionally, procedures are required for dealing with dog–to–dog fights. At a minimum, procedures should address the following:
- Prevention: Staff training to prevent fights by observing and recognizing behaviors that can result in dog aggression.
- Termination: Identify tools and techniques to aid in stopping fights and keep other dogs away from the scene.
- Isolation & Evaluation: Identify playgroup re–introduction time–line for dogs involved in fight (if applicable) and describe criteria to allow involved dogs to continue in group play.
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:
- Dogs arriving to playgroup
- Dogs departing playgroup
- Staff shift changes
- Wildlife in or near dog play areas
- Toys or games.
Policies on moving dogs that focus on staff leadership and dog self–control are recommended, such as:
- Physical greeting entry areas and dogs only enter when they are calm, plus dogs in the group are also calm
- Dogs are moved on leash and/or required to sit and wait at gates and doors
- Dogs are released from rest enclosures only when calm (i.e., increase self–control by requiring a sit to open enclosure door)
- Staff use body blocking as a barrier between strangers passing by and dogs in group
- Use obedience cues to redirect dogs when you spot wildlife or other distractions near play areas
- Staff leaders start and end all games.
- Leaders control access to toys (e.g., dogs do not always have access to play with toys).
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.