The secret life of pups: What goes on at dog day care

Posted by admin | June 13th, 2018
Words and pictures by Jane Cowan

If you listen carefully, for a split second in the mid-afternoon there’s a moment when the barking falls silent.

You get the feeling that Ashleigh Hill, the 25-year-old at the helm of The Pets Hotel in Port Melbourne, has stopped hearing it — her receptors inured to the sound.

She was two when her parents, an industrial chemist and an ex-tax office employee, bought into boarding kennels in Geelong.

Until she was 20 she lived on site, surrounded by dogs.

At the time, canine day care was unheard of in Australia.

Now it’s an exploding industry, perhaps the number one trend in pet ownership.

“We find a lot of people utilise this program to help socialise their pets, help exercise their pets,” says Hill.

It also relieves a bit of the guilt of having to leave their pets at home when they’re out playing or working.

“It might be their neighbours are complaining about the dog’s barking or the dog escapes all the time and then they’re like, ‘Oh hold on a minute, I need to do something about this. What can I do?'”

A modern phenomenon

DogZone, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, bills itself as Australia’s first canine creche, having opened in 2002 — 15 years after the first known day care opened in New York in 1987.

Others quickly followed.

Sam Mendelson is the owner of Ka-Pooch, and opened his first centre in Fairfield, in Melbourne’s north-east, in 2011 after walking away from a brief stint in his father’s debt collection business.

“I remember when we first told everyone we were doing it, it was just like, ‘This is the silliest idea anyone’s ever had’.

Even 15 years ago the thought of sending your dog to day care would have been sort of laughable because people didn’t treat their dogs like kids.

“I used to spend a lot of my time explaining what the hell day care is.”

Now Mendelson has a second centre in Brunswick, fashioned out of a converted mechanics workshop.

It forms part of the hipster streetscape — a coffee roaster two doors up, a textile factory next door and a nine-storey apartment building planned across the street.

More dogs with no backyards.

Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with 62 per cent of homes including a pet.

More Australians live in a household with a dog or cat than with a child.

High density living has collided with our love of dogs to create a niche market.

At 7am in the inner suburbs the uniquely modern parade begins, often-childless young professionals dropping off their ‘fur babies’ for sometimes 10-hour days.

From the office, owners can log on to see Fido cavorting on grainy webcam or starring in photos on the day care’s Facebook page.

Heck, some of the dogs have their own social media streams with Instagram followings as large as 10,000.

But when you hand over the leash in a sleekly fit-out foyer and animals are penned behind closed doors with a carefully-curated image put forward, how can you tell a good day care from those best avoided?

Are the dogs crazy?

Trainers know it as the dog park effect: a whole heap of off-leash dogs running around like mad with no reading of the interactions and little human intervention, disengaged owners.

At one dog park in Melbourne, the humans even bring wine to sip.

“I mean, it can be done well,” says Ka-Pooch’s Sam Mendelson. “But I think largely dog parks are just chaos. No-one can really understand the interactions, no-one’s controlling them or monitoring and intervening, you’re not vetting any of the dogs.

“There might be one or two that are having a great time bullying everyone else, but probably the rest are petrified. I’ve just seen groups of dogs mauling and targeting, chasing other dogs.

Owners are oblivious or they think it’s fun because they see the movement and the colour.

“It’s a very similar difference between a good day care and a bad day care.

“That’s why I say my happiest time is when the dogs are not doing anything and are completely still.

“To an owner that doesn’t know much, they think the dogs are bored shitless. ‘We’re paying $50 for this?'”

A case of anthropomorphism

The very notion of day care for dogs is a case of anthropomorphism writ large, a human overlay.

That dogs will get along is far from a given.

“You have to be very careful,” says former Melbourne Zoo elephant trainer David McKelson, who opened Pro Dog Daycare in West Footscray in late 2016.

The whole concept of putting groups of unrelated dogs together, it’s not something that would naturally occur.

“A wolf pack generally consists of a male and a female and their offspring.”

The modern pack is the human family plus dog, so the day care situation actually represents a combining of individuals drawn from many different packs.

At Pro Dog, McKelson insists dogs come on the same day each week so they’re able to develop a rapport and form relationships, creating a dynamic that more closely mirrors nature.

McKelson, and all of his staff, are either dog trainers or have nearly completed their qualifications.

He also requires them to have a proven track record.

“It’s a real craft,” says the animal behaviourist.

“Managing a group of dogs is at the upper levels of dog behaviour and management. It’s not simple to do it well. You can do it badly at a low level.

“The challenge we have in a group situation is keeping arousal down. That means positively reinforcing calm behaviour and periodically blocking inappropriate behaviour.”

Interactions between staff and dogs at Pro Dog are carefully modulated. The vibe is low key.

“We’re not here for the dogs to make us feel good about ourselves,” says McKelson.

It’s not about you getting loved up by all the dogs. We want staff to be reasonably neutral.

“Usually when we’re getting staff to integrate, we get them to walk circles and not interact much but just kind of blend in. Once they’ve become less interesting to the dogs there can be more contact, but staff need to be very thoughtful in their interactions. They have to be doing it for a reason.

“Often just by saying the dog’s name and calling them over, staff can bring it down a notch. But it requires early intervention.”

Not for every dog

Professional dog trainer Chris Loverseed, who runs Positive K9 Training and is accredited with the National Dog Trainers Federation (NDTF), began examining the dog day care industry when he was considering opening his own place.

What he found gave him pause.

It’s an extremely lucrative industry. There’s no denying this. The problem is people are being taken advantage of.

“With money comes greed. If you run a business, it’s for profit. But there has to be integrity. The amount of stories I’ve heard of dogs going to day care and sitting in a corner all day miserable. But the day cares don’t tell anything to the owners because this is 60 bucks. If you have ten of those a day, that’s $3000 a week, that’s your rent paid.”

Loverseed says many dogs are not right for day care.

“Some dogs are straight-out crazy dog-aggressive, but people want to take their dogs to day care thinking it will solve it. Day care isn’t for this.

“People get upset. Let’s say you bring your two-year-old Dachshund that has had f***-all socialisation and wants to eat other dogs because it’s scared. It’s not going to be suitable.

“You’ve got to think logically, not emotionally. Is my dog truly suitable for this?”

Ka-Pooch’s Sam Mendelson says working dog breeds are less likely to enjoy day care.

There are some dogs that as a breed you can say [it’s] 90 per cent sure they’re going to hate this.

“Kelpies are very clever and they’ve got a really strong work ethic and like to be in control. There’s not enough tasks for them to do. They just go a bit stir crazy.

“As opposed to the oodles — Cavoodles, Spoodles, Labradoodles, Groodles — which are mostly going to love it.”

From anxiety meds to gluten intolerance

At Ka-Pooch, Mendelson has noticed distinct trends.

Forget the thick-jowled man down the street coming to resemble his basset hound. Modern dogs are taking on human quirks and foibles.

When we started there was maybe one dog on medication. Now probably 20 per cent are on some kind of anti-anxiety pill.

“There was maybe one dog with food allergies and now probably 50 per cent of them have gluten intolerance, wheat intolerance.

“Dogs are being transformed and we’re actually morphing them into something else, into kids. Putting our neuroses into them.

“If you think about a dog 200 years ago, it had a specific job like herding sheep or protecting a farm or chasing rats or something. But we’ve now changed them and their job is to keep us company and to be our friends.”

Cute and fluffy isn’t always best

Loverseed — a straight-talker who competes with his German Shepherd, Ninja, in tracking and obedience work — says a scan of a day care’s own website can turn up a sea of red flags.

“What people think is cute and what the dogs like sometimes isn’t in the dogs’ best interests,” he says.

“Wooden furniture? Tennis balls? You can’t sanitise them.

Pictures of dogs springing up two metres in the air on hard floors? This is dangerous. Hyper-adrenalised play? I look at these pictures and I’m on edge.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s what sells.

“Pictures of dogs sitting around looking calm won’t draw people’s interest. People look at it and they don’t comprehend what they’re seeing.

“But a dog chasing a bubble? It’s ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.”

Staff to dog ratios are crucial.

“I went to one day care and … there were about 40 dogs in there, one woman behind the counter and one other in the pen. This is a recipe for disaster,” Loverseed says.

“If two big-arse dogs get into a fight, what are they going to do?”

What to look for

Day cares typically don’t allow owners to enter their ‘back of house’.

Insist on a tour, advises Loverseed.

“Transparency is important. If there’s nothing to hide, the business should be willing to show all areas.”

Access to fresh water 100 per cent of the time in both play and rest areas is a no-brainer, Loverseed says.

Essential, too, is proper supervision.

Every dog should be in plain sight to handlers 24/7. No ifs or buts. It’s game over if they’re not.

A dog coming home exhausted might be what the owner wants, but it’s not necessarily a measure of a good day.

“You can’t say, ‘Hey buddy, are you tired because you’re mentally fulfilled or because you’ve had a stressful day?'”

While qualifications are no guarantee, Loverseed believes a day care should be run by true professionals with experience in dog training and behaviour.

Just because you’re a dog lover and have volunteered at the RSPCA does not mean you’re right for this.

“It’s hard to be perfect. But a lot of these people who have opened up day cares aren’t professionals, they don’t have a strong behaviour or animal training background.

“Ideally staff should have some type of nationally-recognised qualification.”

What workers say

Ex-staffers from several day cares have told the ABC of questionable practices, including overcrowding and lying to owners about whether their dogs were enjoying the experience.

One former day care worker and now NDTF-accredited dog trainer said she and others quit because they were uncomfortable with what they were seeing.

“The majority of the dogs were stressed and did not cope well,” the former worker says.

“Each dog had a note written about their day and what they had done. We were told to make sure these notes were positive.

In most cases owners were not informed when the day care was detrimental to their dogs’ wellbeing.

Based on her experience, she does not believe most dogs benefit from being in the average day care environment.

“Day care is quite full on. There aren’t many places in life that your dog would need to tolerate that level of stimulation for such a long period of time and this can be quite overwhelming for most dogs.”

She witnessed staff frequently misinterpreting dog behaviour.

“Thinking bullying and rough behaviour was appropriate play, that a stressed and panting dog was a happy dog, a shy and nervous dog was relaxed.”

The ABC has been told of day cares keeping dogs in overheated conditions to save money on air conditioning, dogs left unmonitored, dogs lost on outings, dogs injured in ‘time out’ pens and of staff wearing earmuffs and encouraged to listen to music in headphones to ‘zone out’.

“No-one had any training,” said one ex-staffer. “It was almost like the blind leading the blind.

It was a ticking time bomb.

“Dogs are not sheep. You can’t just stick them in pens.

“I felt like I was going to walk in to find a dead dog tomorrow.”

A lack of scrutiny?

Trying to get an accurate picture of what’s going on inside the dog day care industry is an exercise in frustration.

Data appears to be either not collected, not centrally collated or so far out of date as to be meaningless.

Day cares are lumped in with traditional boarding kennels, rendering them invisible in statistics.

Taking Victoria as a microcosm, the State Government doesn’t know how many day cares exist in its jurisdiction. Or the value of the sector to the Victorian economy.

Operators are governed by the same code of practice that applies to kennels.

That code exists under the banner of the State Government, but it’s local councils that day cares are required to register with and it’s up to councils to enforce standards.

Dog trainer Chris Loverseed says the result is weak regulation.

The industry needs a big shake-up and to be held accountable.

“The problem is it’s a relatively new sector. The State Government is caught up with more pressing issues like puppy farms, and doesn’t have the time or resources.”

It’s a criticism the government opted not to answer.

Loverseed goes on.

“The councils policing the rules aren’t 100 per cent sure what dog day care even is.

“They can do random spot checks and drop in unannounced but it needs to happen more often.”

The Victorian Local Governance Association says the dog day care situation appears to be an example of cost shifting.

“Councils must be supported with ongoing education, training and financial reimbursement from relevant State Government agencies,” a spokesperson said.

The industry itself doesn’t seem to have coalesced around any peak body.

The Australian Companion Animal Council, which published a report that noted Australians were spending $375 million a year on dog boarding and minding in 2009, is now defunct.

These decade-old figures appear to be the most recent available, but they don’t distinguish between boarding kennels and dog day cares.

And they don’t account for the massive growth in dog day care since.

The Australian Pet Industry Association’s Glenn Cooke says there is a glaring lack of information on the sector.

No-one really knows how many day cares are actually out there.

Cooke, who himself runs a boarding kennel that also offers day care, would like to see a proper pet industry census with the introduction of federal standards for day cares, and effective auditing.

“Good operators are always good operators. They have an ethical approach and they’re going to do the right thing. They’re employing well qualified people who are able to handle the type of dogs they have.

“[For] rogue operators, it’s more about cramming dogs in and filling the floor space with as many dogs as they can.”

Criminal behaviour

Breaching the code can earn operators a criminal record.

In 2013 a North Melbourne day care proprietor, who ran a centre alternately known as Dog Central and Dogs First, pleaded guilty to six charges brought by the City of Melbourne including two counts of failing to keep dogs in her care safe from attack, stress or injury.

The penalty was a $4,000 fine.

The same operator was later convicted of a dozen more charges, including locking dogs up without water, in too small an area and without adequate ventilation — offences that attracted $8,500 in fines and ultimately a ban on working in a domestic animal business for three years.

Further allegations — including that a muzzled dog was found locked in a cupboard — were referred to the RSPCA on the basis of animal cruelty, but never pursued.

A spokesperson for the City of Melbourne says the council takes the mistreatment of animals in boarding facilities seriously.

It encourages dog owners to become familiar with the code of practice and to report any non-compliance.

‘Cutting corners’

There is no explicit requirement in the Victorian code of practice for day cares to themselves report dog deaths or serious injuries.

Staff from at least one Victorian facility are required to sign confidentiality agreements that prevent them from talking about what goes on.

All day cares are required by law to have a vet on call to attend to sick or injured animals.

The Australian Veterinary Association did not respond to requests for comment about what its members are seeing.

Several vets treating dogs from local day cares were also unresponsive.

There is an Australian Dog Day Care Association.

Ring it and you’ll get Ka-Pooch’s Sam Mendelson who is the founder — and currently sole member.

In his experience, regulation and enforcement is ‘pretty low’.

“There is a code but I don’t even know if most day cares know about it. It’s pretty loose.

There is a lot of shonkiness.

What he’s prepared to say on the record backs up what some of those who’ve worked in the industry have shared on condition of anonymity.

“It’s very easy to lie about how dogs go and tell the owner it’s doing one thing, it’s having a great time when it’s not at all. Places have accepted dogs at all costs.

“They’d then get the staff complicit in lying to the owners about what the dogs were doing.

“A lot of places make the mistake — because you get thousands of people who want to work with dogs, who’ll almost do it for free — so they’ll cash in on that and get casual staff, cut corners on staff, underpay people and use free labour to make a higher profit.

“I think it needs someone to actually come in and say, ‘This is what good dog day care is and these are the things you should actually look for’.

“I’d like to set a benchmark between those that are doing it well and those that aren’t.”

Original Article…

 

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