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  • Jennifer Giesbrecht

Why we give breaks

At Paws Pet Pad, our responsibility is to design a day for each dog that is safe, healthy, and supportive of their wellbeing—whether in a group or on their own. Our primary method of addressing behaviours and interactions that aren’t conducive to a dog’s wellbeing or to a group dynamic is redirection.


By redirection, we mean getting a dog’s attention, redirecting them to a desired behaviour and reinforcing that behaviour. This is the foundation of our effective programs and for building your dog’s confidence, our relationship with them, and their comfort in our facility.

When a dog engages with us and responds to us, we know they’re in a positive mindset conducive to group interactions and to their own wellbeing. As a dog becomes more stimulated, aroused, hyperaroused, stressed or anxious, their ability to respond to our redirection and reinforcement lessens and even stops.


It’s at that point that we see inappropriate interactions, reduced inhibition control and behaviours inappropriate for a social group . And this sets the scene for unsafe encounters.


The excitement of daycare

Daycare is an inherently exciting place. It’s filled with stimulus: best friends, new dogs, a million smells, favorite people, new people…it’s as dynamic as a preschool.


But excitement itself is a form of stress, and in a dog daycare setting it can actually be a form of stress called eustress, which is a positive stress with potentially negative implications. In human terms, that stress would be like winning the lottery, but with it comes heart palpitations, sweats, and the stress of managing it all. It’s an exciting reason to be stressed and is emotionally positive, but physiologically the body responds the same.


For dogs in daycare, this means that although each day is exciting, they are also experiencing hormonal effects of stress. Stress hormones in a dog remain for up to six days after a stressful event, meaning that the excitement and stimulus they experience at daycare accumulates with all the events that happen in their regular lives.


The result is dogs come to daycare not with an empty slate, but loaded with their unique stressors and experiences and potentially with a build-up of stress hormones.


Out-of-daycare factors that can create stress in a dog’s life

  • Having guests over

  • Your stress

  • A move

  • A new baby

  • A change in schedule

  • A neighbour’s dog

  • Changing work schedules

  • Going for a walk (for anxious or reactive dogs)

  • And many many more scenarios

We are acutely aware of how life affects each guest and know never to assume that the same dog will act or engage with others in the same manner from day to day.

Dogs are dynamic, which is why your dog may be in social group one day or may be in our private park program another. We watch their behaviour and give them what they need and are telling us they need.


We are aware of the eustress effects of daycare and how it combines with each dog’s life and each day watch closely for each dog’s level of excitement, of arousal, and of where they may be in their stress threshold so we can mitigate their becoming hyperaroused.


But what is arousal and hyperarousal?

When we talk about arousal, we are referring to a state of physiological alertness and readiness for action.


Arousal is also a form of stress, and arousal can come across behaviourally as “being excited.” This might take the form of being mouthy, grabbing clothes or arms, spinning, barking, or fixating on one item, one dog or one person.


When we talk about hyperarousal, we’re referring to the state of being where a dog cannot calm itself. This occurs when a dog has reached its threshold, with the threshold being the limit a dog can handle before it crosses over from one emotional state to another.


The two go hand-in-hand: hyperarousal and hitting the threshold.

Why it’s important to manage arousal

If we don’t manage the arousal, it escalates to hyperarousal and to a dog being in a state where they are no longer able to be engaged with and redirected from a situation that is escalating a dog’s emotional state.


They see, but they are overwhelmed and physiologically responding to their environment and are no longer clearly thinking. They are just doing.

  • When a dog experiences a lot of stimulus or a stressful encounter or situation, they remain in an aroused state for an extended time, and the hormonal effects of that stress can stay in the body for up to 6 days.

  • When a dog experiences multiple stressful situations in succession, the physiological effects accumulate and we call it trigger stacking, with each subsequent situation bringing the dog closer to its threshold.

  • Stressful events outside of daycare come to daycare with the dog and play a role with how the dog engages with others and responds to others. It impacts their tolerance of and enjoyment of others and their desire to engage.


How we manage excitement

In order to ensure positive experiences, help dogs manage their excitement and ensure we aren’t contributing to trigger stacking, we have decompression breaks for all our guests and we also have private parks to give restful yet engaging activity times for dogs without the stressors of others. We have set rest times built into our programs and we watch very carefully if a dog is exhibiting any signs that they are becoming hyperaroused or potentially reaching their threshold.


If we allow a dog to remain in the environment contributing to their hyperarousal, we are reinforcing that behaviour, fostering an unhealthy mental state and creating an unsafe environment.

A dog in a hyperaroused or trigger-stacked state isn’t enjoying itself and isn’t benefitting from the program. By staying consistent in our programs with breaks, by being aware of every guest and by closely watching their responses to others and behaviours, we create an environment within which a dog learns to regulate their own play, take breaks and de-escalate their responses.


When do we give a dog a break?

In addition to our standard program breaks, dogs with escalating behaviours and who are no longer able to be redirected through positive management are given breaks or opportunity in our private parks for activity time without the stressors of others.


Behaviours:

Behaviours which we watch for and introduce breaks for:

  • Not reading other dogs’ signals for space

  • Mounting

  • Fixating on one dog

  • Reactivity

  • Exhibiting resource guarding

  • High intensity play without self-regulation or calming signals

We get to know our guests well and are proactive in creating environments that limit or reduce known triggers. We have our private play parks to support our guests as well when group engagement isn’t the right activity for them on a specific day.


Triggers:

Triggers can be a variety of situations or stimulus that can elevate stress for dogs. Pick-ups and drop-offs are a known trigger of excitement that ripples through the energy of the entire building, which is why we limit our lobby hours, rest all guests during these high-energy times and limit our tour hours. Known triggers include:

  • Pick-ups/drop-offs

  • Play group rotation

  • Shift change

  • Meal time

  • New people

  • Pools/hoses


Special cases:

We keep comprehensive play profiles for each dog and have personal programs for dogs needing more consistent breaks to be successful in group play. We communicate among our trainers and attendants and are especially aware of specific situations that we know can impact a dog’s overall thresholds or arousal. Special cases include:

  • High-anxiety dogs

  • Dogs with low thresholds who are successful with short spurts in groups

  • Dogs who are at daycare five days a week

  • Young/adolescent dogs with developing skill sets

  • Overnight boarding dogs

  • Long-term boarding dogs

  • Dogs who haven’t been with us recently

  • First-day dogs


Dogs are dynamic, complex and amazing. And we’ve dedicated our lives to creating programs that acknowledge their complexity and appreciate their autonomy and which advocate for their wellbeing.


We know daycare is an inherently exciting place that is but one part of their daily experience, which is why we watch so carefully for how each dog individually is responding to the day and engaging with others.


And this is why we have no set program for one dog ever.


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