Most dog daycare and boarding facility business owners are in the field because they love animals and have a special connection with them. Pet business owners truly want to do right by pets and pet owners, but owning a pet business comes with its own set of risks. When you care for people’s four-legged family members, you’re in the line of fire if anything goes wrong—but there are steps you can take to make your business safer and minimize legal liability should the unexpected occur.
Disclaimer: This blog does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. The content below is for general informational purposes only and is no substitute for legal counsel. Only your attorney can provide assurances that the information contained herein—and your interpretation of it—is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation.
- Facility improvements. Your very facility could present a weak point for incurring legal liability, for employees, clients, and dogs alike. Something as simple as stable footing or lack of tripping hazards can literally save your business by preventing a nasty fall.
Many improvements can be made using common sense, but it’s worth looking into what the specific building requirements are for animal care facilities in your state. While it may be expensive to make these changes to your facility, there’s a good chance it’s a bargain compared to the legal fees, fines, and disruption to your business that litigation may cause if a client or employee finds problems in your facility.
- Screen Dogs First. Every great club needs a good doorman. Unfortunately, not all dogs are suited to dog daycares in general or your daycare in specific. Understanding your workspace capacity and employee capability will allow you to preemptively screen dogs that might present problems for your employees and the other dogs. You know what to look for. A dog with temperament or behavioral problems is an obvious no-go in many cases, but it’s also worth considering the physical limitations of your business. Your space may only allow for dogs of a certain size, or perhaps medical needs make it unfeasible for you to responsibly care for the dog without risk. Be sure to lay out clear expectations for dogs to be allowed into your business; it’s one of the best ways to prevent problems before they occur.
- Don’t Forget to Screen Pet Parents too! Things get a little more difficult when it comes to screening your pet parents. It’s more of a judgment call on your part, and you’ll likely want to use your people skills so as not to give the impression that you’re rejecting the prospective client as a person. If done intelligently, you can avoid future headache by only taking on clients who you think will be compatible with your business. For example, while we’re all concerned for our pets’ well being, some pet parents will micromanage and find a problem with everything you do. This tendency to be overly concerned can spell bad news for your business should anything unexpected happen, because oftentimes you’re in the line of fire whether you did everything correctly or not.
If you’ve been in the industry for long enough, you may be able to spot these difficult types of clients early on—perhaps even during introductions—but should the pet parent become difficult later on, it’s wise to have a policy for dropping clients that won’t leave them disgruntled or hurt. Again, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re rejecting the client personally. Think of a few general “red flags” and “green flags” to look out for in prospective clients to better justify your decision to take them as a client or reject them. If you think no good will come from telling the pet parent why you don’t want to work with them, come up with a few vague technical or clerical reasons why you or your business might not have the bandwidth to keep them as a client.
Drafting up a preliminary questionnaire to give prospective clients can help you identify incompatibility early on. This can be a living document that changes as you learn more about what you want from pets and pet parents to create a healthy working relationship and minimize legal liability for your pet business.
- Invest in Employee Training. Your employees are the foundation of your business—if they’re unprepared for possible problems, they’re far more likely to make mistakes and present liability risks when those problems arise. Lay out clear expectations for behavior and simple step-by-step instructions for a variety of situations, likely or unlikely. The proper, safe response to a situation should be reinforced so much that it becomes automatic for your staff to carry out. Examples of this include safe ways to deescalate scraps between the dogs, or remaining calm and efficient during medical events. The Red Cross offers a short online cat and dog first aid training course, to give just one example. With proper training, not only will your employees be more prepared in the event of an emergency, they’ll learn skills that make them more marketable in the pet care industry.
- Plan for Larger Emergencies. When you’re caring for many dogs, an emergency can prove to be far more hectic and complicated to deal with than it otherwise would be. A fire, for example, would mean absolute chaos for a pet business that lacks emergency procedures.
It’s worthwhile to regularly drill emergency procedures so you and your staff are prepared in the event of the unforeseen. Some things to consider are adequate dog transport in the form of crates and leashes, easily accessible dog food and bottled water (oftentimes, vehicles are a great place to store these supplies), and life-saving techniques such as those taught by the Red Cross. If your area sees inhospitable weather such as intense heat or cold, portable shade, water, blankets/coats, and heaters are also great supplies to keep in an accessible place.
In short, you want to ensure that dogs are cared for even if you had to evacuate your facility in an instant.
- Encourage a Healthy Pet Diet. While it’s responsible for every dog daycare or boarding facility to have some extra food lying around in case the dogs are in need, using the food your clients bring in for their dogs may help minimize legal liability on your end. Make sure your clients know that they’re expected to bring food in and let them know what food you have available for the dogs should they need it. With allergies, health requirements, and owner preference, it can be risky to feed the dogs from your own stock. Clear communication of your expectations will ensure that dog owners know the risks if they don’t bring in their own food. Once again, a preliminary questionnaire will help you here. In this case, a questionnaire will help you determine if you’re able to accommodate a dog’s dietary needs and you can also gauge how cooperative the pet’s parents will be when it comes to reliably providing food.
- Maintain and Review Medical Records. Access to pets’ medical records can help you in a pinch, or better allow you and your employees to preempt problems. Allergies and special needs should be discovered as soon as possible, ideally even before the pet’s first day at your facility so there are no surprises. Keeping your own records with easy-to-read shorthand is a good way to ensure you accurately accommodate different dogs’ needs.
Again, a preliminary screening questionnaire can come in handy here, as you can include questions about their dog’s medical history and special needs.
- Keep Clear Lines of Contact with Clients. Keeping your clients up-to-date with the goings on in your daycare or boarding facility creates a sense of confidence and community in the minds of clients. In the event of an emergency, medical event, or simply a moment of ambiguity, having clear channels of communication between your business and your clients will help you avoid making decisions that leave pet parents upset and possibly push them to pursue legal action. Be sure to keep updated files for your pet parents so it’s easy to contact them. While it’s not likely that you’ll be able to reach out to pet parents every time the path forward is unclear, the option is valuable.
Less direct contact is also appreciated, be it in the form of a post on your business’s private social media group or a weekly e-blast. Pet parents want to feel included and informed when it comes to their pups, and a simple update can increase their confidence in your business and earn you the benefit of the doubt.
- Document Incidents and Day-to-Day Occurrences. Keeping a solid record of incidents that occur at your business will create a paper trail that can help you identify high-risk situations or unwanted chemistry between dogs that might otherwise go unrecorded. Should a pet parent inquire about their pet’s experience, it’s always more trustworthy to have periodic updates rather than giving a non-response. In fact, it’s a good idea to record everything, even smooth sailing. If a dog is injured and you suspect the injury occurred under someone else’s care, for example, clear documentation of even mundane events makes it easier to prove that the dog was treated well in your care. When you’re doing everything above board, documenting exactly what happens at your facility can only help you when it comes to liability risk.
- Get Liability Insurance. This one is a no-brainer—it’s in the name. Liability insurance is designed to cover medical or legal fees if you happen to be held responsible for injury or damage to property. At the end of the day, we can minimize legal liability; but even if you’ve prepared yourself and your team using the previous strategies, you can still be held responsible if something unfortunate happens. It’s part of the risk in owning a pet business: people truly love their pets and will seek some kind of justice if they feel their animal has been wronged in some way. Liability insurance, then, is your last line of defense when it comes to liability in your pet business. Like all insurance, you don’t need it until you need it.
By taking these steps, you can minimize legal liability for your business and create a safer environment for dogs. The pet industry is hectic enough without risking your business’s very existence with avoidable litigation. As with all things in law, it is wise to consult a legal professional experienced in liability and/or pet businesses if you have any questions.
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