The Importance of Routine & How It Benefits Your Canine Clients
By Kama Brown
If things go right, a boarding or daycare experience will be a positive one for visiting dogs. Dogs will display behaviors that indicate they are happy and unworried, like running up to your door, eager to get inside and wagging their tails. Owners will notice this and feel confident that their pet is cared for and loved when they are under the care of your facility.
For some dogs, this excitement comes easily and naturally when visiting new places and they are happy to explore the unknown. However, for a lot of dogs—especially shy and anxious dogs, or very young or old dogs—creating a routine during their boarding or daycare experience can create confidence and a feeling of safety. Feeling safe and confident will provide the dog the foundation they need to develop calm, happy, tail-wagging behaviors.
Dogs notice nuances in human behavior and they anticipate everything. All dogs use the cues in the environment around them to predict what will come next. In dog training, we call these cues “antecedents.” Antecedents can be anything, but are often the people and places they see and smell, and the words and phrases they hear. Another antecedent that is not as obvious but just as important is time. The time of day (morning, afternoon, evening) and time between events, such as meals or treats, is something dogs can and do notice. Dogs use routines and schedules to make predictions and respond with emotions and behaviors.
Familiarity means safety and security to a dog, and routine sights and smells are very important in creating positive experiences when dogs are away from their owners. There are some instances where routine is more helpful than others. Knowing what to expect is important, but when a schedule is too strict, deviating from it can cause anxiety and worry. It’s important to create variety in a routine and schedule while maintaining a framework for the dog’s day that creates confidence.
Schedules should be quite strict for puppies who are potty training. Puppies need be given the chance to potty frequently while they are awake and kept to a schedule for sleeping in a safe enclosed area during naps and overnight. As the puppy grows, they will begin to signal that they need to potty and their signals should be followed until they are physically mature enough to align their schedule with their owner’s.
When young puppies come for daycare or boarding, it’s important to discuss sleeping and eating schedules with their owners so the staff can do their best to mimic the puppy’s at-home routine. Many puppies still eat three meals a day and would need a meal even during a short stay.
Feeding meals on a schedule is another way to keep a dog happy. Feeding is a routine that should be regular but flexible. Feeding meals around the same time each day, but not at the exact same time each day, creates an easy-going and happy dog.
Dogs who are fed on a very strict schedule may become anxious or hyper if the schedule changes. Owners often like to sleep later on the weekends, or have a short-term evening commitment, so it’s good to build flexibility into meal times. Often I achieve this by having the dogs receive their meals in opposite order day to day, or vary the feeding routine by 10-30 minutes each day.
Something to keep in mind with long-term boarding clients is that their caloric intake needs may change in a new environment. Checking for body condition is important to keep a dog from losing weight. Often at home, dogs are getting extra calories from treats. And often at daycare, they are burning off more calories than they would at home, so it is common for dogs to need an increase in their daily food allowance if they spend weeks or months in boarding.
Another variable in the routine of feeding is the type of food being given. Most dogs need time to transition to new food and should be fed the same food they eat at home to reduce stress on their stomachs. However, it’s possible (and encouraged for most dogs) to add variety to their diet through treats and fresh foods. Giving high-value treats during a dog’s stay is a great way to use classical conditioning to reduce stress. My personal favorite treats are fresh foods such as green beans and carrots, single-ingredient treats like duck breast or lamb lung, and dehydrated raw food toppers.
One of the common goals of daycare is socialization among other dogs. Successful socialization for pet dogs does declare the need for new situations but should be balanced with familiarity. Try to maintain a ratio of 80/20 when creating dog play groups. In a group of ten dogs, eight of them should already be familiar with each other and two of them should be new. Rotate two dogs out and two dogs in after a few play sessions.
To get the most benefit from socializing with each other, dogs need to be around the same dogs multiple times. This is particularly important for adolescent dogs between the ages of 16 weeks and three years. The time of each session should also be scheduled but varied slightly. Keeping the length of the play sessions similar but slightly varied each day creates tolerance and good social skills. Keep in mind that a tired dog is a good thing, but an exhausted dog is often irritable and short-fused.
When bringing the dogs inside to rest, bring the most energized dog inside first. The dogs who are no longer playing will teach younger or overly energetic dogs how to calmly sniff and hang out in a lower–energy setting. Daycare socialization should not just create intense play; it should create dogs who are happy to simply be around other dogs in a passive and calm way too.
How play groups are routinely set up will create good or bad habits in young dogs, so it’s important to be intentional with the personalities being put together. If young dogs are only exposed to play with dogs similar in age, size, energy level and play style, these dogs will expect all the dogs they encounter to meet this criteria. To get the most positive behavioral benefits from daycare, dogs need exposure to many different dogs, but they need this exposure during a time when they already feel happy and secure.
The frequency and length of downtime should also be considered when creating a schedule. There should be a routine for going inside and outside, and handling should be consistent. If dogs are put on a leash and then walked, or a slip lead is used, or they are walked by their collar, this should all be intentional and routine. Keeping these situations the same will reduce stress, as the dog will always know what to expect.
Throwing a treat into individual enclosures after play is a great routine to build excitement about coming inside. Feeding an hour before playtime is another good routine since hunger can make a dog irritable and short-fused.
Employees should keep similar schedules if possible, and work in teams that stagger so that one person leaving doesn’t mean two new people at one time. Dogs can become anxious or nervous with new people if they are brought upon them suddenly.
Whatever routines are chosen for your facility and staff, they need to be consistent. Dogs are creatures of habit and thrive on routine. Antecedents that remain constant create a feeling of safety and familiarity. When dogs know what to expect each day and when to expect it, they show less stress behaviors. Create a set of routines and let your customers know the steps that are being taken to create a home-away-from-home for their dog.