One of the dilemmas of owning a dog daycare business is whether or not to accept dogs commonly categorized as bully breeds. These are breeds who are prone to dominant, sometimes aggressive behavior because of the jobs they’ve been bred to fill. The best known are the Pit Bull (American Pit Bull Terrier,) the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Bull Terrier. People often call all three breeds Pit Bulls, or Pitties. But there are numerous others: Boxers, Bulldogs of all kinds, Bull Mastiffs, and even Boston Terriers and Pugs. To these I would add three breeds that were developed largely as guard dogs: Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds.
The question arises as to whether to accept these breeds because all of them make gentle, loyal, affectionate pets, especially when owners pay attention to training and socialization. Thus, they do show up, requesting daycare on a regular basis, and business owners have to make decisions about whether to include them in play groups.
There are several approaches to bully breeds in the dog daycare business. Some businesses just don’t take any of them. Others take some breeds and not others (Pit Bulls are the most commonly black listed). Still others evaluate bully breed applicants and make decisions based on the individual dog. Finally some dog daycares will take bully breeds on a trial basis to see how they behave in active groups of playpals. Business owners arrive at their policies through their knowledge about and experience with the various breeds, and there’s no commonly accepted practice.
The most difficult part of not accepting bully breeds, or rejecting them after an evaluation, a trial day, or even an extended period of daycare is that owners are often flabbergasted at their dog’s report card. I often hear, “He wouldn’t hurt a fly;” and “He’s a marshmellow at home!” Owners have trouble believing our descriptions of their dog’s behavior and, if they do believe us, feel terribly confused. “I trust him with my toddler,” one woman told me. Some challenge us: “Well, what happened to make him do that?”
Owners’ objections and confusion are completely understandable, because bully breeds are wonderful pets and even play well in small groups. Many are used as therapy dogs, or seeing eye dogs because they will walk away from aggression or provocation from another dog rather than fight. One on one, I’ve seen Pits and Boxers simply ignore aggression from others, just as I’ve witnessed Bull Dogs allowing children to maul them mercilessly. Bully breeds even play peacefully off leash in dog parks.
So what’s the problem in daycare? The answer is that unlike all other situations, daycare causes dogs to revert to instinctual behaviors, and those behaviors can and do override training and socialization. That’s because the play groups are really packs, which cause dogs to revert to their most basic instincts. If you breed a dog to fight or to guard or to defend, he or she will eventually do those things in a pack. Particularly in indoor facilities, where dogs spend the day enclosed in groups of ten or more, a unique situation in a pet’s life. Behaviors that pet owners never see at home quickly emerge.
In daycare, hunters can attack older, weaker dogs, which is why dogs must be separated into groups based on size, temperament and play style. Fighters will chomp and hold, making it difficult to pry open their jaws if they’ve grabbed another dog. Herders will bark, use their bodies to reposition other dogs, and nip at heels. Terriers will grab and shake, as if to kill the rodents they were bred to control. Any breed can in fact revert to the pack behavior of copying the alpha, which means that if an attendant yells at a dog, other dogs may go after the one being reprimanded.
The way reversion to pack behavior is countered in good daycares is that the whole play group knows that humans are alphas, no exceptions allowed. Human commands must be obeyed or a dog loses his or her play privileges momentarily. Humans also model behavior, so gentle handling, safe play, affection, and good will can become the norm if attendants consistently display such propensities. But the main rule of dog daycare is that human attendants need to be trained to know the early signs of aggression and to stop it before it can escalate. They must also know how to behave as loving, protective, dominant alphas. In such a situation, dogs of most breeds will play peacefully and safely, and can be handed over exhausted to grateful owners in the evening.
My own experience at The Doggie Den has led me to change my policies over time. At first I evaluated all comers and took those who passed. One always wishes to be democratic and see people’s pets as individuals. One wants to believe there are no bad breeds. However, I began to notice that some dogs who do well during the evaluation change for the worse in daycare, and these are largely bully breeds and guard dogs. Reluctant to eject a dog before trying to correct the problem, I sometimes continued with dogs that eventually attacked or bit others. I’ve also had to accept that every Pit Bull of every variety that I’ve ever admitted, started out fine after a great evaluation and became dangerous to his or her playpals within a couple of months. So now I don’t take Pits at all. I find the hardest thing a business owner has to do is to tell a customer that after weeks, his or her dog has flunked out of daycare. Some never forgive you.
With other breeds, my experience is mixed, so I continue to evaluate them on a one-off basis. I had a Rottweiler who began snarling at others within a week, while I hosted a female Rottie for years who was one of the sweetest, most accepting dogs I’ve ever met. About a third of the German Shepherds I’ve admitted have been ok; the rest get aggressive over time. Boxers vary greatly for one to the other, so I still evaluate them. I’ve had generally bad luck with Dobermans, so, as with Pit Bulls, I don’t take them at all. On the other hand I’ve never had to refuse or eject a Boston Terrier, a Rat Terrier or a Pug. All of those tend to rough play, but are fine if well supervised.
If you own a large bully breed or guard dog breed and want doggy daycare, my advice is to look for one where the dogs play in large, open spaces, preferably outside. The space allows the more submissive dogs to run away, which can dissipate an attacker’s aggression. It also reduces aggression just because there’s more territory. Most important of all, you should ask what the attendants know about your breed, and what’s been that business’s experience with it? It’s always best to ask lots of questions when chosing a dog daycare for your pet, and especially so if you own a bully breed.