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(MNN) -- Picking up my nephew up from his day care recently, I was reminded of the odd similarities between day care for kids and facilities for our four-legged friends.
On that day, a gaggle of toddlers greeted me. After a day of coloring, noshing and napping, they looked eager to escape the confines of their classroom walls. As I lifted my nephew, I noticed a dash of something yellow crusted on his T-shirt and sticky dots of fruit punch along his right ear. Hanging out with his buds at day care definitely leaves a mark.
It's not so different from the scene at my dog Lulu's day care facility. Dogs spend the day hanging out with their buddies and, occasionally, look a little different during checkout.
Unlike my nephew, who is ready to run around for another six hours, Lulu is completely spent. She's often knocked out before we hit our driveway -- and a tired Lulu is a well-behaved Lulu.
What's offered at a dog day care facility can vary greatly. Some provide all the comforts of home, including a good rubdown, snacks and toys galore. Others simply focus on creating a supervised play space for pooches as their owners head off to work.
Finding an option that works for you and your pet's temperament requires time, effort and a little knowledge about how dog day cares operate.
Before you place your beloved pet in someone else's hands, Robin Crawford, owner of Dogma dog care in Smyrna, Georgia, and Joann Schwartz, owner of Kirkwood Bark and Lounge in Atlanta, share a few secrets that pet facilities may not tell you.
Not every dog is suited for doggy day care
Most reputable facilities conduct a trial visit to evaluate the dog's temperament around other people and pooches. Your dog will typically begin by interacting with one or two mellow ones, and the facility will slowly increase the number as your pet gets accustomed to the surroundings.
"We actually ask [pet owners] to hang out," Schwartz says. "If the dog is not in day care or has no experience in a dog park environment, 15 minutes is all we need."
If the pet hides in a corner or snaps at everyone who walks by, Schwartz says that a slow introduction may be necessary. Some dogs also get too rambunctious and have to calm down.
"We do give time-outs of about five to 10 minutes," she says. "These dogs know they've done something wrong. Dogs are very, very smart."
Dogs that don't behave get three strikes at her facility, and Schwartz says that very few have been banned. In most cases, she offers pet owners an opportunity to pursue training and then have the dog return. But some dogs simply do not adjust to doggy day care -- and that's OK.
"Don't force your dog to go because you think he'll like it," Schwartz says. "If they go to a dog park and don't like it, I can almost guarantee your dog won't like doggy day care."
For most dogs, this is a major lifestyle change
Crawford says that many first-time clients can't believe how dog-tired their pets are after a day of play. But the sprawling 10,000-square-foot facility nestled on two acres of play space provides plenty of opportunities for frolicking.
"New parents to doggy day care or boarding really need to ask what to expect when dogs start visiting," she says. "It is a dramatic change in lifestyle, especially if the pet has been sedentary at home. It's healthy to get exercise and socialization -- and [dogs] should be tired at the end of the day just like we're tired."
Schwartz adds that early socialization can set a good foundation for younger dogs.
Schwartz notes that, just as kids come home with scratch marks from playing too hard, dogs come home with bite or scratch marks from playing with other dogs. What's most important is ensuring that the facility has the people and tools in place to quickly resolve a situation.
"The customer is fine once we explain that [the dogs] are playing," she says. "I also have doggy cams and I record everything. If there is an incident, I can show footage to the owners so they know that attendants are there."
Find out who's watching your pet
Crawford and Schwartz are hands-on owners, working at their respective facilities. They suggest that pet owners ask tough questions about who will be handling pets, especially during the holidays and busy summer months when doggy day cares typically fill up.
"Safety is important; ask the facility about the number of dogs to handlers," says Crawford, who maintains one handler for every 25 dogs. At Schwartz's smaller facility, the ratio is one handler for every 15 dogs.
"It's a hard job for attendants," Schwartz adds. "People think they sit and just watch dogs, but I tell them, 'Come hang in the back for an hour,' just so they know what goes on."
In addition to monitoring pets, attendants often administer medication or help pets of elderly clients get much-needed exercise. From time to time, they also make some interesting discoveries.
"I had a dog that vomited a pair of underwear," Schwartz says. "We are always on the lookout for anything a customer tells us to watch for, as well as anything unusual."
Man's best friend needs (four-legged) companions
Many of Schwartz's clients travel extensively or work long hours. They opt for doggy day care so that their pets can socialize with four-legged friends and take the occasional potty breaks.
Crawford, whose three dogs and pet bird visit the facility regularly, says her clients range from busy professionals to empty nesters -- and even a few families with multiple pets.
"We like to think [dogs] need just us, but that's not true," she says, noting that one client adopted a dog after finding her facility. "People need people; dogs need other dogs. It's good for mental stimulation and makes for a better pet all the way around."
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