WHY DAY CARE CENTRES OR GROUP DOG WALKS AREN’T ALWAYS THE BEST CHOICE FOR YOUR DOG…
You would be forgiven for wondering why a professional dog walker might write a blog on this subject, it could seem a little bit self-defeating! However, the truth is that some group environments simply aren’t suited to every dog and any pet professional who genuinely has your dog’s best interests at heart will always be willing to tell you that.
In the last year, there has been an explosion in the number of households in the UK welcoming a puppy or dog into their family but there have been some concerning statistics reported by the Kennel Club. According to their research, a quarter of new owners admit to buying a puppy during the Covid-19 pandemic with little research and a fifth don’t know whether their dog will suit their lifestyle after lockdown – citing worries about behaviour, time and costs. Naturally, this is translating into more people considering the need for a pet professional to help care for their new best friend.
The truth is that everyone wants the very best for their dog but knowing what that is can be a total minefield! Socialisation is a word that you hear over and over again as a new puppy parent – you see checklists of experiences your pup needs to have by a certain age and can get caught up in a frenzy of trying to achieve them all before they are 12 weeks old, easily losing sight of whether it is overwhelming to your pup or whether they are actually being introduced to new things in the right way. You can feel the need for your new puppy to meet every single dog you come across and well-meaning strangers at the park or in Facebook community groups can add a whole other level of stress for first time puppy owners with their solicited (or often un-solicited!) advice.
In my opinion, lockdown has presented some new opportunities for puppy owners to get things right from the start, but it has also created gaps in learning opportunities for your new best friend. Most people want their dog to be ‘socialised’ with other dogs but don’t necessarily stop to give consideration to why or what that might look like. What better time that now to stop and give it some thought?
You can start by thinking of dog’s you have met over the years, where you have thought to yourself “If I had a dog, that’s exactly how I would want them to behave”. And then think of dogs who have caused you to think the opposite. What exactly was it that those dogs were doing that made you think this way? Really take some time and get down to the nitty gritty. I would imagine that part of your answer may involve how they responded to their owner and to other dogs nearby. Did they listen to their owner and do as they were asked? Did they meet other dogs in a friendly manner or were they jumping all over them and ignoring their poor owner who was yelling at them from 100 metres away to come back?! It is important to remember that your dog is learning all the time, and that also includes when they are in the care of pet professionals. So how they are allowed to play and interact whilst with a walker or day care service can have a huge impact on which of those dogs you just visualised your dog turns out to be most like!
More and more people need or want a pet professional to help care for their dog and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that (thankfully for me!). In the right circumstances, a pet professional can add a whole other layer of enrichment, joy and fun experiences for your best friend. They can help build your dog’s confidence, teach them how to interact correctly with other dogs and give you a much-needed break from time to time. However, the wrong help can have a massively detrimental effect on your dog and sadly this isn’t always something a new dog owner might consider until the damage has been done.
A group environment can be excellent for your dog, under the right circumstances. A small group of regular friends can help build their confidence and teach them how to interact politely. In circumstances where the pet professional has a great relationship with the group and can recall them easily from play, then it can be a fun and enriching experience for your pup. When the professional has the time to get to know your dog as an individual, they can spot any health or behavioural issues (sometimes even before an owner would), and can really tailor the experience for your pup. A day care facility where you pup has the space to remove themselves from the group if they choose, and have some quiet time to themselves can be ideal for all dogs, but especially for those who are a little more timid or anxious. When all these circumstances are met, a group dog walker or day care facility really can be a brilliant choice for your dog.
However, there are some things that owners must be aware of and look out for. A group environment can be very overwhelming for some dogs, especially smaller breeds or those with a more nervous disposition. If they are in a large group without the opportunity to retreat and have some alone time throughout the day, they can learn to use warning signals to be left alone. This may start as subtle signs such as lip licking, yawning or trying to walk away, but can quickly escalate to barking, growling, snapping or even biting to try and get some peace. You might notice your dog acting differently at home, becoming nervous about going out and starting to growl or bark at dogs you meet whilst out on walks.
Sociable dogs, especially younger ones, can go to the opposite end of the spectrum and become very over aroused by other dogs when in a group environment – wanting to constantly play and chase every dog they meet. This can lead to less interest in humans and, therefore, a decline in their recall or loose lead skills. It can also lead to dogs who find it really hard to switch off when they get home and who really can struggle to settle or relax.
Sadly, anxiety and ‘undesirable’ behaviours in dogs can take years of work to reverse and sometimes the damage can never be fully undone and this is why it is so important to make the best choices for your individual dog. They can’t choose who they spend time with and they can’t tell you in words when they aren’t happy – but they can try and tell you in their behaviour and body language. They need you to learn their language and make the right decisions on their behalf.
The great thing for dog owners here in Edinburgh is that there are so many options available when looking for help with their care. We have hundreds of solo dog walkers, group walkers and day care centres, so whatever environment will be best for your dog, there are options out there for you to investigate. If you need help choosing the right professional or team for you, please feel free to check out this blog I wrote last year on how to choose the right pet professional for you.