The Trouble With Off-Leash Play Today

by Dog Guru Robin on July 25, 2013
socialize your dog

The Dog Gurus can still remember one of the first American Boarding Kennel Association (ABKA) conventions Robin attended. She had been invited to speak about running a dog daycare and was sitting at a convention dinner with Susan Briggs and a few other ABKA members.  At one point during dinner, someone asked for a show of hands of all those boarding facilities who offered off-leash play.  We were in a room of several hundred people, and only about four of us raised our hands: Robin, Susan and two other people who were also sitting at their table.  Twenty years ago, daycare was virtually unheard of and pet care facility owners rarely took dogs from different families and put them together.  It was considered foolish and dangerous.  (And let’s be honest…it can be dangerous and foolish if the right measures are not taken…those pet care operators weren’t wrong about that part!)

Fast forward a couple decades later and we find the pendulum has swung to the opposite direction. Not only are dog daycares and playgroups a common service in pet care facilities, they are often a big demand by the public. Dog parks have sprouted up everywhere and what seems foolish now is having a dog that can’t play off-leash. There is a tendency to think dogs are natural friends who will all get along together and it’s almost seen as a stigma to a dog owner to have a dog that can’t go to daycare.

Somewhere along the line, society, at least here in America, has completely embraced the concept of off-leash play.  So much so, that it became expected for dogs to play off-leash.  It became fashionable for dogs to go to daycare.  It became a necessity for a dog owner to take their dog to the dog park.  And if you couldn’t do those things, you were told to fix your dog, socialize your dog more, or spend money to train your dog. If that didn’t work, you were ashamed of your dog.

And you know who is suffering because of all this?  Everyone.  The dogs are suffering because many of them are put in situations where they are not happy. The owners are suffering because they are dealing with emotions of guilt and shame as they try to fix a problem that really isn’t a problem at all. And pet care centers who run excellent playgroups are suffering because every time they dismiss a dog who is not a good fit for their center they get a barrage of angry owners who think the pet center is biased or unfair.

The Dog Gurus want to help get the pendulum back in the center and we hope our members will help.  We want to provide you with some great resources that you can use to educate owners about the environment of off-leash play.  We’re working on a FAQ page covering dog socialization and off-leash play evaluations and overview of a good off-leash play environment and dog fit criteria. You can include these in your information packets, on your website, or give to owners when they have an evaluation.  We will be providing these resources starting in August.  So be sure to check your member only resources link to find them once they are available. (Oh yes…and of course if you’re not a member, this would be a great time to join).

In the meantime, please read a recent blog Robin wrote about this topic and don’t miss the comments left by dog owners. (check your members resource page as well…we’re providing our members a special PDF version of the blog to use in your facility).

The blog comments are encouraging because there are many dog owners who want the valuable information you are providing them during your evaluations.  You will feel supported by the other daycare owners who understand the value of selecting only certain dogs for playgroup. But you will also see why the education is needed.  So many dog owners are trying to do what society is telling them is right and you can help to set the record straight.

We strongly believe life can be better for all dogs when we work together to raise the bar of safety in off-leash play.  That is our vision and our goal. We hope you’ll join us.

25 Responses to “The Trouble With Off-Leash Play Today”

  1. alexandra July 26, 2013 at 10:04 pm Permalink

    excellent POV

  2. Christina July 27, 2013 at 5:51 am Permalink

    Great topic and good info to pass along to clients who get dismissed or don’t pass Evals

  3. Suzann July 29, 2013 at 5:11 pm Permalink

    What about mixing small dogs and large dogs? Large dogs are intimidating to chihuahuas.

    • Dog Guru Susan July 29, 2013 at 8:22 pm Permalink

      Suzann, you are correct that large dogs can be intimidating to some small dogs. We definitely recommend that small and large dogs be separated during off-leash dog play. In the group environment there is a high risk of injury when large and small dogs play together. It’s important for all dogs to enjoy the experience and we’ve observed that matching playmates by play style, size and age does make a positive difference to the dogs.

  4. Megan July 29, 2013 at 7:24 pm Permalink

    This article and Robin’s blog are just what people are looking for! I frequently encounter parents that are desperate for ‘solutions’ to ‘fix’ their dog that is unfit for daycare. Usually they are not a good fit for reasons other than aggression or any serious behavioral issue. I do my best to reassure them that many behaviorists and trainers would likely recommend a change in environment rather than a behavior management program or training. It helps hearing you echo this and i’m sure it will put many dog owners at ease as well.

    On a separate note- In one comment on the blog article “Erin” commented “Eventually she (her dog) became dog reactive around the age of two. I wish I’d paid more attention to the warning signs.” I’m curious if you have any additional info or personal experiences regarding behavioral changes occurring around the age of 2 in dogs? Another manager and I have a theory that something does happen to some dogs as they hit that adult age of 2 , and we have seen dogs display new behavior tendencies to their repertoires (usually perplexing or unwanted behaviors). Do have any insight into this?

    • Dog Guru Robin July 29, 2013 at 8:07 pm Permalink

      Hi Megan, Thanks for your comments. Regarding the behavioral changes, there are two pretty distinctive times that trainers receive calls for “suddenly my dog starting doing X, Y, Z” behaviors: around 6-7 months and again around 18-24 months. The first is the beginning of an adolescent phase where it’s not unusual for a dog to start testing his confidence levels. Also during that time many dogs go through a fear impact period where they can become suddenly nervous with new experiences. This can lead to a dog showing some unusual behavior during this time (and incidentally it’s also the time many dogs get neutered/spayed and often the vet’s office gets a bad rap for causing the problem..which is not generally the case). This is when many owners first start noticing their dog barking at the door, or barking at something unusual. Then, around 18-24 months dogs are reaching maturity and any type of aggressive display usually becomes even stronger. So it’s not uncommon for dog behavior to look more serious at this point. Dogs that were already showing fear or confidence will still have those issues, but it will start to be manifested in more outward and serious ways. So yes…you and your manager’s theory is correct.

      • Johnna Stanton March 12, 2015 at 9:21 am Permalink

        I really appreciate this article. I’ve dealt with both shame and guilt b/c my dog is unpredictable at dog parks. I thought it was my fault and continued to try to force the issue there and at doggy day care until I finally realized I was making my dog miserable. I don’t take him to either place anymore. We take lots of walks and I only socialize him with the two dogs I know he will get along with. He is happy, and I am happy. Thank you for the encouraging article.

        • Dog Guru Robin March 24, 2015 at 7:14 am Permalink

          Hi Johnna, I’m glad the article helped. There is no reason to feel shame or guilt and I’m sorry you have been left with those feelings from time to time. There isn thing wrong with your dog and it’s great you can see that other options are more fun for him! You are a great pet parent!

  5. Charles September 23, 2014 at 2:50 am Permalink

    Today, I went to the beach front with my kids.
    I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said
    “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.

    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely
    off topic but I had to tell someone!

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  7. Johnna Stanton March 12, 2015 at 9:18 am Permalink

    I really appreciate this article. I’ve dealt with both shame and guilt b/c my dog is unpredictable at dog parks. I thought it was my fault and continued to try to force the issue there and at doggy day care until I finally realized I was making my dog miserable. I don’t take him to either place anymore. We take lots of walks and I only socialize him with the two dogs I know he will get along with. He is happy, and I am happy. Thank you for the encouraging article.

  8. Carol March 12, 2015 at 9:31 am Permalink

    Love this article and agree. I have spent time with playgroup training with court case dogs and others and while I see some great value in dog play, I agree the pendulum has swung way too far. In the words of a mentor and inspiring trainer “dog parks are like nightclubs where everyone’s been drinking ….it can be a really good time or a disaster”. Also dogs are for the young and social just like nightclubs but so many owners insist in every dog bring a dog park dog. Just not so and very unfortunate for the dog.

  9. Jack Bobeck March 28, 2015 at 4:24 am Permalink

    In an effort of fairness, we run a Dog Daycare in NE Florida. We are pro dog daycare. No not every dog belongs in daycare, as we have had to turn away some owners and their dogs because their dogs are not a good fit in a dog daycare. Its not the owners fault or dogs fault, but the dogs do not play well with others. Case in point this week, we had to let an owner know that their dog was not welcome back after the dog lunged and bit one of our staff, after the dog had done this twice before, of course the owner worked on this with our trainer, but the dog was not showing signs of improving. We cannot have our staff leaving us because of fear of dogs on the floor, so we asked this person to leave the daycare group.

    Dogs were bred to be active, to herd others and engage. They were never bred to sit on a couch and sleep all day. We believe that dog daycare has a place in society, a controlled meetup of dogs and a place where dogs can act like dogs. But the stimulation of on the daycare floor, off the floor, on the floor, listening to commands, challenges the dog on a daily basis. This is the stimulation a dog needs, instead of sleeping all day at home. We’ve seen great stories of dogs that become more social by being around other dogs, other leaders, and we have great stories to tell. We should all tell them so that others will follow in their footsteps. – Jack

  10. Susan Taylor April 8, 2015 at 7:16 am Permalink

    Does anyone have tips for effectively training staff when the turnover rate in this industry is so high? I spend a lot of time and money training only to have staff leave after 3-4 months due to the isolation, low wages and no future in dog handling. Seems like I keep repeating myself over and over but not moving forward. Anyone else have this problem?

    • Dog Guru Robin April 8, 2015 at 7:49 am Permalink

      Hi Susan, This question has lots of different aspects to it. First I would make sure your hiring process is finding the right people: those who are friendly, have good chemistry with your current staff and who are eager to learn. I would also look for people who want some ability to move ahead in your organization (and make sure you have a process for that to happen). Then, there needs to be a good formal training program in place that helps the learn and get better. A good training program should build confidence and give the staff responsibility which hopefully keeps them motivated and thy understand the importance of their job. (for the canine body language part we obviously recommend Knowing Dogs ) Having a staff that truly buys into the values of your organization is key! Lastly, being a good boss and helping to encourage your staff can help. So lots of ideas and I’m not sure there is one simple answer. Hope that helps a bit. Good luck!

    • Dog Guru Susan April 8, 2015 at 9:08 am Permalink

      Susan, your post is one that many owners share and Robin beat me in her reply to really step back and look at your hiring process. In case you missed it we did focus on hiring during September 2014 and the bonus item outlined a process that should help you identify the prospects Robin described. You need to “connect-the-dots” for prospects to see a career in pet care. Working in dog daycare is a super training environment for anyone interested in being a dog trainer. Help your staff see this possibility for their futures and share that the training you provide them is valuable. Hope this helps and good luck, Susan

  11. Al April 8, 2015 at 11:06 am Permalink

    Susan, this is a problem throughout the entire boarding and daycare industries. But it doesn’t have to be. As both Susan and Robin pointed out, hiring the right people is key. However, that is just one piece of the pie…well, maybe half of the pie anyway! The rest lies with really taking a look at your business itself. Are you paying everyone the same or do you “pay for performance” which gives the staff a game worth playing? Is your pricing appropriate to give your staff the pay they deserve? What are your Key Performance Indicators showing you? Where does the business do well and where does it need work? Employee hiring and retention are very much intertwined with all of these things and more. I know that Susan has begun to offer coaching where I’m guessing a lot of these things are looked at in depth. After two years of really diving into our business metrics, I can tell you that I have gone from 2 employees with sparatic hours to 7 full time employees (plus my wife and I) that are on fixed schedules and no fluctuations in their hours during the entire year. I maintain a labor to revenue figure (including owners) of less than 40% and that takes into account taxes, insurances, SS and the whole lot! I was hesitant to raise prices (aren’t we all?) but found out that our services not only offer value but our clients value them and didn’t flinch when we raised them 4 times over 2 years. That in itself is a result of educating our clients which my staff does daily. My average tech stays with us for over 5 years. Our revenue has doubled in a little over 2 years. I can go on and on, but my advice would be to contact Susan for some coaching. I will tell you that I have done this (through another individual) and once I got out of my own way, things moved quickly in the business’ favor! Good luck! There are multiple solutions to these issues…find the one that works for you and your demographic! Oh, one more thing…don’t look at the cost of coaching as “something that is expensive” but rather, think of how much you are willing to spend to increase your bottom line by $25K…$50K…$100K! Would you be willing to spend $5,000 to see your employees stay longer and perhaps see another $20,000 in your pocket? More? Less? Call Susan and have that conversation!

    p.s. I am a HUGE fan of both Robin and Susan, but in no way connected to them financially.

    • Lori Davis April 8, 2015 at 1:06 pm Permalink

      –Al, first of all, congratulations on the successes you describe in your comment above. Retaining good employees is a testament to the type of culture you’ve created in your businesses, which absolutely translates into increased customer retention and REVENUE! Awesome!

      –Susan, I agree that Susan Briggs is a great resource! You may be also interested in taking a look at the two modules I created specifically for Susan, Robin and The Dog Gurus members. They’re located on the “courses” page. While they are labeled together as “Pet Industry Customer Service Training,” the first module is actually written for owners and managers only, with a focus on how employee engagement and loyalty translates into exceptional customer experiences and loyalty. Susan and Robin asked me to create a customer service module and I made the decision to add the owner/manager module. My reason being that even if you hire and train great people, it’s up to owners and managers to lead by example, keep employees engaged, make them feel valued, and as Al mentioned, setting performance expectations, goals and rewards plays a big part. Without those key components, training will not stick, and neither will employees. As much as I love talking about this subject and could go on and on, I have copied the course description below for you to review. Feel free to call me or email me if you have other questions…As I said, I love talking about this subject and am thrilled when I can help business owners get past the frustration and on to creating or enhancing the business they dreamed about! My best, Lori

      –Success Through Employee & Customer Engagement (Written for Pet Care Business Owners & Managers)

      –Course Description:
 Set your business apart from the competition by creating a company culture that fosters exceptional employee performance and delivers exceptional customer experiences. These strategies will help you develop a loyal following of devoted and profitable customers.
      –Discover the correlation between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction.
      –Create customer loyalty and success in your business by creating a high performance work environment.
      –Learn to engage and empower employees so they become your committed partners who consistently represent your vision and goals.

  12. Joy Jones March 29, 2016 at 5:37 pm Permalink

    Hey guys–I am a member and I cannot locate the promised PDF of Robin’s blog article that’s mentioned. Can you send me a link to it?


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