The Dog Daycare Games

By Abbey Schoenfeld
Linda Thompson practices a warm-up for The Daycare Games with five dogs
Linda Thompson practices a warm-up for The Dog Daycare Games with five dogs

With quiet authority, Linda Thompson stands in a play room containing six enthusiastic dogs—none of whom belong to her. “Sit,” she commands, and one by one, dog butts hit the ground until only one dog is standing, looking a little sheepishly at his playmates.  “Five out of six,” says Thompson, Monadnock Humane Society’s Boarding and Daycare Manager. It’s a gold medal warm-up to the 2017 Daycare Games, which begin February 1st.

At MHS, Thompson and her staff are participating for the third time in this annual competition. The format was devised by Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs, authors of Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun and the founders of an online pet care facility resource called The Dog Gurus. Initiated in 2015, The Daycare Games offer three competitive events designed to hone skills that are essential to keep off-leash dog play from turning into bedlam: Dog Recalls, Group Sit, Managing the Gate Boundary.  Last year, over sixty dog daycare facilities across the country participated in this opportunity to demonstrate their staff’s effectiveness in managing their clients’ beloved pets; Bennett and Briggs anticipate the number will grow by 15% this year.

More Dogs; More Danger

Dog daycare is a booming business with top dog status going to facilities that balance safety and fun for their clients’ pets. Industry analysts, such as IBISWorld, lump dog daycare into their predictions for the Boarding and Grooming Industry, which has seen 8% growth from 2011 to 2016 to a current level of $7 billion annually. “Luxury” services such as dog daycare are the hot trend fueling this growth, in partnership with the increasing sense of our pets as family members.

At dog daycare, Deb Watson asks four of her daycare clients to sit
Deb Watson asks four of her daycare clients to sit.

Despite this trend to humanize pets, the fact remains that dogs are dogs.  Dogs playing off-leash may get overly excited—and an overly excited dog may use teeth, not words, to express themself.    “Redirection” is the term pet care professionals use to explain what happens when a human hand gets in the way of a dog fight. Three years ago, before MHS Dog Daycare implemented the skills-based protocols they use daily today, thirteen stitches were needed to close the wound on Deb Watson’s arm when a daycare client redirected on her.

Today, thanks to the resources developed by Bennett and Briggs, MHS Dog Daycare staff have reduced risks both to themselves and to the dogs. Thompson says proudly, “it’s a very different program than it was three years ago. Today, I know that the dogs go home happy and in a better state of mind than when they arrived. We have the skills to keep everyone safe and happy.”

Simply Doing What They Love

Watson’s role as Senior Daycare Tech is most recent in a pet care career that’s included working as a groomer and as a Vet Tech.  “I love dogs,” she says. “Most days, the dogs will cheer you up. My family thinks I’m a little crazy, but they know working here is a good fit for me.”  This year will be her third time participating in The Daycare Games. She’s looking forward to it. She explains “The events are things you’re doing all the time in the yard anyways.” Her favorite event is the Dog Recalls. She explains that being able to call a dog to you is also being able to call a dog away from a situation where the arousal levels may be getting too high. Typically, she rewards the dogs who come when called in a variety of ways including food, playing with toys, and always “a whole lot of love. You build a relationship. They like to please you,” she says. When performing Dog Recalls for The Daycare Games, competitors are limited to non-food, non-toy rewards.  Last year, Deb won a gold medal in Dog Recalls; she’s hoping to equal her performance this year.

Sue Lewis, also a Daycare Tech at MHS, is new to The Daycare Games. She’s been at MHS for almost a year and is working towards a Vet Tech certification after leaving behind a twenty-three-year career in Nursing. “The dogs give me joy,” she says about being out in a daycare yard with between six to ten dogs that belong to other people. She sees The Daycare Games as a logical extension of the skills she uses every day when working with the dogs. “It’s important that play at daycare doesn’t become chaotic. When you maintain control, the shyer dogs can interact more,” she says. Recalls, sits, and other interactions ensure that all the dogs have a chance to build a relationship to you. She’s looking forward to the challenge the competition offers—a chance to quantify and record her daily successes in keeping chaos at bay.

All three women agree, the trickiest part of working with off-leash groups of dogs is getting them through doorways and gates. “There’s less room for the dogs, so most squabbles start there.” says Thompson. She says this is her best event, Control at the Gate Boundary that asks competitors to demonstrate that their charges will wait to go through an open gate until invited. “Less words work better,” she says, “and remaining calm.”

The Judgement’s Out But Success Is In

The Daycare Games are a way daycare providers across the country demonstrate their staff’s effectiveness with the dogs they care for. They’re also a fun way for staff to practice skills that are essential for keeping off-leash dog play from turning dangerous—Recalls, Group Sits, and Gate Control.  For pet owners, the skills a dog practices at day care translate into better behavior at home. After all, if your dog can wait patiently at an open gate with eight of his good buddies, then not bounding out your front door becomes a piece of cake.

Sue Lewis works with client Oliver in training class.

Teresa Yarus, whose dog Oliver attends MHS Dog Daycare three days a week, recently commented, “Since he’s been attending daycare, we’ve noticed he’s calmer and his obedience has improved tremendously. And he gets so excited when he knows he’s going to daycare. He loves it.”

Competition runs throughout February, with the final results and awards ceremony on or before February 27.  For more information, contact MHS Boarding and Dog Daycare at (603) 352-9011 ext. 105 or Boarding@humanecommunity.org.

This article originally appeared in The Keene Sentinel’s ELF section on January 26, 2017