Um, do you guys know about dog daycare?

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My husband, Vic, and I adopted a puppy last year, a pint-sized guy of unknown origins who we named Spanky. According to a DNA test, he’s a mix of German Shepherd, terrier, retriever, and pug. Thanks to that odd genetic cocktail, Spanky has a long torso, stubby legs, an oversized head, and a feathery tail that explodes from his backside. Our vet says he looks like a dog constructed from the spare parts of other dogs. 

For the record, I don’t think Spanky looks like he’s made from spare dog parts. Instead, I think his body is aspirational. It’s like each breed in his DNA wants him to be nothing but that particular breed. His broad head, with its big, pointy ears, says he’s all German Shepherd. His shoulders, which are so muscular they look like they were sculpted by Michelangelo, are trying to manifest a terrier. His plume tail shouts that he’s a RETRIEVER, dammit!

The end product is a smart, affectionate, stubborn pup who sashays his way through trips to dog-friendly stores (shout out to Home Depot), soaking up admiration from strangers who tell him he’s a good boy and speculate about his roots. “Corgi, right? Look at that long body,” said a grizzled man in a Carhartt ballcap as he appreciatively ran his hand down Spanky’s back. When we explained there was nary a drop of Corgi blood running through Spanky’s veins, Mr. Carhartt shook his head in disbelief and wandered away toward the ceiling fan section. “Oh, a German Shepherd puppy!” a soccer mom exclaimed in delight in the paint aisle. “Sort of,” we told her. “Except, he’s a year old and part pug.” This exchange was met with a blank stare followed by, “Huh. Really? A pug? How did that… even…happen?” Sister, we have wondered the same thing many, many times.

Baby Spanky. I mean…

Shortly after Spanky moved in last year, our lives changed. Vic’s and my jobs became hybrid, which meant we were suddenly away from home two days a week. Given Spanky’s ability to cause mayhem, leaving him unattended for entire workdays would have been an act of insanity, so we quickly searched for a place he could hang out. That’s how we discovered Camp Bow Wow, which is a dog daycare and a type of business I didn’t even know existed pre-Spanky. 

Spanky. A normal workday.

Camp Bow Wow is magical! The facility consists of several big, connected rooms where the dogs play, roam, and defecate freely while camp ‘counselors’ keep an eye on them and mop up the defecations. Armed with water-filled spray bottles, the counselors meander around, spritzing the dogs whenever they engage in questionable behaviors like aggressive wrestling or play-humping. Play-humping, in particular, is wildly entertaining to the dogs. One will start humping another, others join in, and suddenly the room is filled with humping dogs. This causes the counselors to rush into the mix, wildly spritzing in every direction until the dogs scatter apart. It’s a real hootenanny, and anyone who thinks dogs don’t laugh has never witnessed a group of them being spritzed for play-humping.  

Occasionally, some dogs will play too rough, resulting in more spritzing. Those moments have a Real Housewives vibe. They’re like the episodes when the women celebrate someone’s birthday and throw furniture and accuse each other of being strippers. It’s brief, performative conflict.

Like the Real Housewives, dog daycares are very popular. In fact, research says they are now as popular as child daycares. That certainly feels true at Camp Bow Wow. Some days, there are more than fifty dogs in attendance, a figure I was able to calculate thanks to the best feature of the daycare: the webcams. Multiple cameras are placed throughout the facility; owners can tune in online to watch their dogs anytime. Not gonna lie; those webcams are addictive. Spanky has been going to daycare for a year, and I’ve spent a significant (read: embarrassing) portion of it watching him from my laptop. (That’s how I learned about the spritzing and play-humping.)

After months of watching the webcam, there’s something that has really surprised me. Apart from the occasional outbreak of play-humping, the dogs don’t seem to get into a lot of shenanigans.  Given Spanky’s lunatic bursts of energy at home, I had assumed the same would happen at the daycare, only on a much bigger scale. Instead, the dogs spend the bulk of their time just…milling around. Milling and sniffing and play-humping. That’s a day at Camp Bow Wow in a nutshell.

Spanky and his sister, Lucy. Not best friends. Yet.

While dogs incessantly milling around is strange, what’s even stranger is the amount of time their owners spend watching them do it. It’s like we’re all observing an endless, uneventful focus group. It’s certainly addictive, though. Multiple times a day, I open my laptop and navigate to the Camp Bow Wow webcam, where I anxiously scan the grainy image for a glimpse of Spanky. If I spot him, my heart leaps with joy. He’s usually just milling around, but if he’s wrestling with other dogs, my heart pounds with excitement. It’s the same kind of adrenaline I feel when watching an episode of Yellowstone. And if Spanky isn’t on camera, I have the urge to call the daycare and demand that someone immediately usher him to a webcam. (This self-involved drama is actually on par with an episode of Yellowstone, now that I think about it.)

All this to say, daycare is stimulating! It’s so stimulating that when we retrieve Spanky at the end of the day, he immediately lays down in his car seat and goes to sleep, emitting snores, whines, and groans of exhaustion during the drive home. A tired dog is a good dog. An exhausted dog is AMAZING!

Ultimately, the biggest lesson I’ve learned during my Camp Bow Wow era is that, in some ways, dogs are better than humans at navigating their way through life, and it’s really because of some simple behaviors. Here are a few examples:

When we drop Spanky off at Camp Bow Wow, he can barely contain his excitement. In fact, he doesn’t contain it. He telegraphs it to the world by wildly wagging his tail, which swishes back and forth with such ferocity I’m surprised he doesn’t levitate off the ground like a helicopter. The other dogs do the same, but amid all the wagging, they watch each another closely. They take each other’s emotional temperature with quick sniffs and little overtures, like the well-known ‘play bow.’ This is a common way dogs signal to each other that their intentions are playful. If the dog on the receiving end of the play bow is receptive, a game of wrestling (or play-humping) begins. But if the dog isn’t receptive, the ‘bower’ typically walks away, no harm, no foul. It would be great if we humans behave similarly. Imagine if we started approaching each other with obvious receptivity and then took the time to observe, understand and respond in ways that created the right physical and emotional space each individual needed. So many conflicts and misunderstandings would be avoided.

When we drop Spanky off at Camp Bow Wow, he can’t get in the door quickly enough. And when we pick him up at the end of the day, he races to get back in the car. I love the way he greets each experience like he’s certain it will bring him the same amount of joy. I’m trying to emulate this behavior in my own life, and it’s challenging because being confident that happiness lies ahead is a leap of faith. It requires not being so attached to the present that I’m unwilling to move forward. I’m hoping that if I practice this behavior enough, it will become an instinct, because what a great way to live!

When collectively milling around, the dogs often look as if they are a harmonious wave. Yet, within that wave, they leave space for spontaneous, individual choices. For example, one of the dogs might, oh, I don’t know, unexpectedly decide to break away from a particularly amusing round of play-humping to take a nap. Another might suddenly leave a wrestling match because everyone else has decided to run – REALLY FAST – in one direction, for no obvious reason, and that feels like a REALLY GOOD IDEA! Dogs seem to realize that communities aren’t static. Instead, they’re organisms that continually form and re-form. If you embrace that concept, it’s possible to have the best of both worlds: You can move through life alongside your pack, and now and then, you can also break away to focus on things that are meaningful to you as an individual.

During complicated times (and complicated certainly is the defining feature of this era), it’s nice to stumble across simple solutions. If (like me) you’re finding yourself confused and overwhelmed by the state of the world, I encourage you to look up a dog daycare on the internet and tune in to their webcam. The experience of watching dogs carousing will, at the very least, lift your spirits. You might even see the gentle, straightforward wisdom that’s often evident in their behavior toward each other, and you might be inspired to emulate it in your own life. (Whether that includes play-humping is, of course, your choice, but, as I’m sure the dogs would say, you do you!)

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