Dogs are social creatures, but sometimes we expect them to go against their very natural state in order to socialize with large, non-familiar groups of other dogs, all with varying ranges of ages, sizes, and temperaments. It is completely unrealistic to expect all dogs to just fit into large groups without issue. A lot of times dog owners think that they are doing a good deed by taking their dogs to the dog park or to daycares, when in fact they could be causing many issues, which may in turn lead to increased reactivity towards other dogs, especially if they are put into situations in which they feel helpless and tap out from being overwhelmed. Dog parks are not supervised by anyone but owners, but did you know that roughly 40% of owners have difficulty reading their very own dog's body language? This can spell trouble when multiple dogs are showing signs of stress or frustration in a group - and the owners do not know what they are looking at. There are accidents at dog parks often, and sometimes those accidents leave lasting scars on the dogs involved. The scars are not always physical and bad experiences can help shape a dog in ways we do not intend. This is the Good Deed gone Wrong. Some bad experiences hit dogs so hard, they have difficulty for weeks or months after, and some even longer. Some result in owner frustration and damaged relationships between dog and owner. This is always a tragic aftermath of such an event. Daycares are usually supervised, and while some supervision is better than none, be weary and avoid exceptionally large groups being supervised by just one person. No one person is prepared to deal with thirty dogs if a fight breaks out. Even two people in this situation is not enough for that many dogs. See, I have an analogy that a fight breaking out in a doggy daycare or dog park is remarkably similar to a bar fight in the worst part of town. It only takes two to start it, but you better believe the whole town will jump in. Soon you have bottles being broken over heads and tables smashing! While of course the dog world is different, when two dogs engage in a fight it triggers a lot of other dogs, their stress levels increase, and fight or flight kicks in for them too. It suddenly becomes a clever idea to jump in and fight too, even though the initial interaction had nothing to do with them. This makes places with low supervision of large groups very, very frightening. I recently had been contacted about helping a dog overcome the aftermath of being mauled by another dog in a daycare. This dog had gone to a smaller, supervised, and well-run daycare facility for years, and is a well-socialized, dog tolerant type of dog. When a bigger daycare opened near their house, the owner decided to try there since it seemed more convenient. Sadly, it was not long after that their dog sustained some physical and mental wounds. There just were not enough people to stop the attack quickly, and even with multiple people, the knowledge of quickly stopping a fight simply may not have been there. Fortunately, with a little work and positivity, the dog has since recovered well and has returned to his original smaller daycare and is doing great there. Some dogs do not want to go to daycare though - and it is so important as owners to understand why and respect their wishes. It, simply put, is not a natural environment for them. Many dogs absolutely do not do well in daycare and as they get older, they become less and less tolerant in these situations. Some of the clues may be very subtle like avoiding the other dogs, hyper-salivation, dilated pupils, sitting in corners, etc., while some may be more evident, like barking, snarling, lunging at multiple dogs in multiple situations, overarousal issues with inability to self soothe and so many more. When we step back and look at the whole situation, we have to ask - are you putting your dog in daycare for them or for yourself? This is a pretty loaded question so let's explore it a little further. If you are putting them in daycare for them then you are aware of their sociability levels and have no reports of incidents. They are being enriched by playing with other dogs and seem to enjoy the time there. They may get breaks to nap and settle, especially if they are young. Photos or video at daycare show a wiggly dog that is enjoying interaction. You are also prepared to change things up if staff reports that your dog is struggling. If you are putting the dog in daycare for yourself then you are hoping it tires them out, so you do not have to deal with them later. You feel guilty about leaving them at home, so you want to put them somewhere where they will not be alone - which does not equate doing it for them if it does not benefit them. Overriding guilty feelings about long work hours by forcing a dog into daycare is not doing it for them - especially if your dog has been really struggling in social groups. I think it may be time to recognize that this too is the Good Deed gone Wrong. When people think they are adding something beneficial to their dog's lives, but in reality, they are simply doing it because they feel bad, and they do not know what else to do. This makes the daycare all about the human and not about the dog at all.
There are plenty of different things you can do to help your dog if you feel you are at work too long or if you are looking to add something enriching to their lives. Many professionals, including myself, offer drop in visits to sit with, play or walk your dog during the day, enrichment visits can be done and more. There are numerous ways to address these issues that do not entail large groups of unfamiliar dogs.
In closing, please be your dog's advocate. Listen to staff at daycares if they have concerns and always research the facility you are getting involved with. Ask a lot of questions or book a tour if one is available to you. Do not just trust your dog anywhere, because the cost for a mishap is always too much. Most importantly, listen to your dog. Learn their body language and hire a professional if you need help. Behavior professionals are here to help you!