Dog walker vs dog daycare: Which one is best for your dog?

April 7, 2020

Dog parents who work outside the home often stress about leaving their fur baby home alone all day. These worries are justified: dogs typically shouldn’t be left alone for eight or more hours, says Annie Hudson, owner of dog-walking company Hudson’s Hounds in New York City. 

Leaving a dog alone for this long without a mid-day break can result in boredom and destructive behavior, she says. And some dogs can’t comfortably go that long without a potty break. 

Hiring a dog walker or sending your dog to daycare are two common options to give your dog some much-needed attention while you’re away, but they’re not ideal for every dog. Here’s what you need to know before hiring a walker or daycare center to take care of your pup.

Understanding the options

While dog walkers and doggie daycares are popular ways to get your dog some attention during the workday, be aware that there are many different options within these categories — especially as new apps and dog-friendly businesses have surged in popularity. 

For example, doggie daycare used to mostly consist of sending your dog to a doggie daycare or boarding center with a large group of dogs. But now, through apps like Rover, some people offer in-home dog daycare with smaller groups of dogs, or in some cases, just your dog(s). Plus, daycares each run their centers differently, some with more expertise than others. 

Also, not all dog-walking is the same. Some dog-walkers, like those you might hire on Rover or Wag, may just take your dog(s) out on a stroll, which can be ideal if your pet is dog-aggressive. But other professional dog walkers take groups to enhance socialization; Hudson says her company never takes dogs on solo walks. “We walk three dogs at a time; these small pack walks are the best since your dog is still getting some stimulation,” she says. 

Keep in mind that it’s not all or nothing, either — you can use a combination. Hudson believes doggie daycare is too stimulating for most dogs to go to daily, but some benefit from going once or twice a week to romp around. She has several clients who send their dogs to daycare a couple times a week and use her dog walking services the other days. 

Dog day care pros

Plenty of exercise

The best candidates for dog daycare are young, active dogs that are friendly with dogs and strangers, says Carolyn Grob, a board certified behavior analyst currently living in Seattle. Grob has a masters degree in behavior analysis and spent five years working with a veterinary behaviorist before she transitioned to work with humans with autism. A passionate dog owner herself, she says dog daycare can be a fit for young, gregarious dogs with a lot of energy.

“There is nothing that tires a dog out more than romping with buddies — and good mental stimulation from being moved around to different play areas and practicing commands,” says Rebecca Brannian, owner of Austin Dogtown Boarding & Daycare in Austin, Texas.   

Social engagement

Just like humans, dogs are social creatures, and daycare can be helpful for particularly sociable dogs. “Socialization is key — letting dogs interact with each other in a controlled environment helps build confidence and expel a great amount of energy,” Brannian says. “Having knowledgeable staff on-hand to monitor the play helps teach pups the ‘proper’ way to play with friends.” 

While some dogs may not want to play with others very much, Brannian says, it could still benefit them: “Some dogs enjoy just being around the pack and watching from the sidelines,” she says. 

Helpful for separation anxiety

While daily daycare can be too much for the average dog, Hudson says, it can be helpful for dogs who have severe separation anxiety and can’t be left alone. “We’ve had dogwalking clients with severe separation anxiety, and it can be a hard thing to correct,” she says. “It’s hard if you’re in a place with neighbors and get noise complaints, or you live in a rental and they’re destroying things. At daycare they’re not left alone, and that can be a useful tool.” 

Dog day care cons

Potential for aggression

Daycare is not for all dogs, Brannian says, so don’t be offended if your dog does a trial day and is told it’s not right for them. Dogs that are aggressive toward other dogs may benefit more from one-on-one walks, she says, since it’s important in an open play daycare environment that the dogs all do well with other dogs. 

Brannian says some dogs do well with other dogs in small group play, but large open group play can be too much stimulation and lead to excitement aggression. “It doesn’t mean they are bad dogs, just that they need to be in a small-group daycare,” she says. If that’s the case, it’s important to find a daycare that breaks the dogs into smaller groups. A high-quality daycare will have employees who know how to look for aggression and stop it before things get out of control. 

Too much stimulation

Based on her experience working in a dog daycare center for four years and then being a dog walker for seven years, Hudson believes only a small percent of dogs thrive doing daycare on a daily basis. That’s because many become overstimulated when it’s all day, every day and it can stress them out. “Most dogs are not cut out for that, and they might end up getting into fights or sitting in the corner and staring at the wall,” Hudson says. 

Hudson says some dogs, like those who truly love being around other dogs and can tolerate a lot of annoyance (like dogs playing while they’re trying to sleep) can do well in daycare. But she’s found that many dogs are happier relaxing at home and having someone come by midday to take them on a walk for a potty break and intentional stimulation and socialization.  

If you do send your dog to an all-day daycare, it’s important to find out if they have mandated rest periods built into the schedule to avoid overstimulation, Grob says. “This may seem counterintuitive as owners send their dogs to play with other dogs; however, even kindergartners do not do well if given eight hours of recess.” She explains that while daycares offer opportunities for exercise and play, rest periods are just as important. Be aware that some dog daycares offer a half-day option if a full day seems like too much for your dog. 

Less flexible

When you use a dog daycare, you have to drop off and pick up at their location and on their schedule, and this could be challenging depending on your job. Some daycares are more strict than others; for example I’ve used one where dog drop-off and pick-up isn’t allowed from noon to 2pm since it’s nap/rest time for the dogs. If you use a dog walker, it requires less effort and time on your part — and it can actually be less expensive than daycare, Hudson says. 

Dog walker pros

Ideal for dogs with special needs

Grob says some dogs do much better with a professional walker than going to daycare, especially “dogs that are fearful and/or have any problem behavior such as aggression to strangers or other dogs, play aggression, resource guarding or a history of biting.” A dog with these issues might not pass an evaluation at daycare, but an experienced dog walker will be able to handle their needs. 

More personal attention

Some dog daycares wrangle as many 30 dogs at a time, and many have too high a ratio of dogs to employees, Grob says. Some dogs do better with the personal attention that comes with a solo or small group dog walk. Grob was wary of sending her Labrador, Annabelle, to daycare; while her dog was friendly and outgoing, she had gotten into scuffles at dog parks.

Knowing her dog needed a midday walk, Grob opted to hire a carefully vetted dog walker who could provide personal attention and take care of her dog’s specific needs and quirks. “A responsible dog walker follows an owner’s instructions on how to set that particular dog up for success,” Grob says. In her case, that meant asking her walker to keep her dog separated from other dogs just in case, and “to keep an eye on Annabelle’s vacuuming tendency to pick up anything/everything even slightly food-related while walking.” 

Fresh environment

At a dog daycare, while the dog is being stimulated by other dogs and people, they’re often stuck in the same building all day, Hudson says. Some dog daycares have large facilities with multiple playrooms and outdoor areas, but others don’t.

Hudson says walks can be better since “dogs enjoy the act of travel — the sniffing and gathering data,” she says. She’s found that dogs really enjoy traveling with you, and sometimes the pack. Not every dog enjoys dog daycare or playing at dog parks, “but every dog likes walking,” she says. 

Dog walker cons

Not as much exercise

Having a dog walker doesn’t provide as much opportunity for exercise as going to daycare, Grob says, but there are ways to supplement if you choose to have a dog walker. “I’ve seen some dog walkers open to actually running with your dog for extra money,” Grob says. There are plenty of options out there; Hudson says she’s heard of some dog walkers who will take dogs hiking, and in some places like San Francisco, she says it’s common for dog walkers to pick up their dog clients in a van and take them to play at a beach. 

Grob says mental stimulation and enrichment is also a fantastic way to tire out a dog, so you can talk to your dog walker about setting up an enrichment activity during the visit, such as some form of play. 

Additionally, keep in mind that you can add another walk if one isn’t enough for your dog. Hudson says one client’s dog was still engaging in negative behaviors that indicated boredom when receiving one walk a day (she says these look like whining, crying, destruction, peeing in the house). “We suggested adding a second walk with us, and it corrected everything.”  

Less socialization

At a dog daycare, your pup will be exposed to a variety of different dogs and people. If they go on a walk with the same person, and perhaps the same pack, every day, it’s not as much variety and socialization. But for some dogs, especially dog-aggressive ones, this is actually a good thing. 

Vet your dog walker or doggie daycare

Since dog walkers and daycares have vastly different policies, practices and experiences, it’s key to ask questions based on the points above before you hire one. Find out their philosophies, policies and how they handle any issues. Remember, while they evaluate your dog for fit, you are interviewing them too. 

Ask for references and trust your dog’s reactions, especially if it’s a daycare facility. For example, Hudson says, excessive panting or yawning are signs of stress and overstimulation. “But if they’re yanking you through the door, they are happy to be there,” she says. Brannian adds that it takes some dogs a few visits to warm up to daycare, so you may want to try a few times before making up your mind on the best fit for your fur baby. 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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