For anyone not familiar with Aimee's work, essentially, she is, in my opinion (and the opinion of many others) one of the foremost experts in the country at creating playgroups for shelter dogs as a way to burn off extra energy, increase socialization, and reduce the stress of kennel life for shelter dogs.
Shelter playgroups are different than your standard dog park experience. Dogs at the shelter come from a variety of different backgrounds: some good, some pretty bad. And it's often tough to predict how dogs that come out of the shelter environment will behave around each other in a playgroup format. So understanding how to read and match dogs is essential for success. But when done well, the outcome is great.
Before I get into the playgroups experience a bit more, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a bit about the shelter experience for the dogs.
Shelter life can be tough for dogs -- and depending on the shelter construct, it can be a very tough environment for them, even under the best circumstances. Our shelter is like many urban shelters. It's 40 years old. It has one main housing area where all the dogs are kept. In many of the rows, kennels are stacked -- with smaller dogs on the top, larger dogs on the bottom. And every time a dog gets let out by a staff person, or volunteer, the dog and handler go down the row and the dogs on both levels bark: most because dogs are social creatures and they want to meet the other dog and are frustrated because they can't. Over time, this frustration builds until dog=frustration. The more the dogs get out, the better it is, but even under the best circumstances the dogs are in their kennel for 23 hours a day. While some handle this environment fine, it is very stressful for others, even under the best of circumstances.
Over the past 6 months, thanks to some volunteers and supporters, we've been able to build multiple playyards for our dogs (pictured).
Some other volunteers have instituted weekend playgroups for some of the dogs, which has been great. But with Aimee's visit, playgroups are becoming a regular occurrance, and the benefits are telling.
Because of the shelter environment, over time, many dogs develop "barrier reactivity" -- which would be a negative reaction toward other dogs when separated by a barrier (whether that barrier be a fence, a kennel, or a leash). In many shelters, it's easy for dogs that show barrier aggression to be kept separate from other dogs and be labeled as "not good with other dogs". This not only enhances the problem for the dogs, it also makes it harder for them to be adopted -- which at best makes their kennel stay longer, at worst, a candidate for euthanasia.
One such dog for us was a dog named Lucy. She is a Dogue de Boudeaux at our shelter. She was surrendered for having issues with other dogs, and after some time at the shelter, had developed a fair amount of barrier reactivity. She seemed uncertain meeting a dog through the fence, so Aimee muzzled her so she could interact with the dog, but everything would be safe. After analyzing the body language of both dogs, she opted to take off her muzzle. And Lucy....played.
Here's a video of Lucy on her second day of playgroups:
This is the power of playgroups for an open intake shelter like ours -- that dogs can get the socialization they need -- and that they WANT -- as well as much needed exercise. Aimee says that she believes 30 minutes in playgroups is about the equivelent of a 2 hour walk -- and I believe it. It also provides proper mental stimulation and socialization. And the tired dogs also create a quieter/less stressful environment inside the shelter. We also learn a LOT about the dogs, which helps our staff make better recommendations for adopters. And all of this leads to helping make the dogs more adoptable -- which decreases their time at the shelter, and overall, reduces stress. It's a huge win.
There is a lot about Aimee's playgroup model -- in handling play-types, when to interrupt play, how to handle corrections, etc. I think some of this is easily misunderstood if you don't get to hear the 3 hour presentation she gives before going into playgroups that helps define the why's. She is also very big on letting dogs communicate and work out their differences -- some of which she explains in this clip:
Overall, we're working on modifying some things to fit our particular staff and situation, but as a whole, I think playgroups will continue to make life better for the dogs at KC Pet Project. I think our staff and volunteers had a great time with it and are really enjoying seeing the dogs be, well, dogs. And it's also fun to watch stereo-types be bunked as we watch pit bulls playing with Labs, unneutered male dogs interacting well with other male dogs, etc. As would be expected when you start semi-randomly throwing 120 dogs with unknown backgrounds together, but most ended quickly, with a lot of ruckus but not much more than that. Break it up. Play on.
I'm excited about this being added to the curriculum at KC Pet Project. Over the past 9 months we've been able to maintain a 90+% live release rate by instituting programs that have proven themselves to be successful in other shelters across the country. This, is one of those programs.
And a big thanks to Fox 4 in Kansas City who had some great coverage of our playgroups -- in what was a very challenging news cycle last week.
For more on the Play for Life Program:
Serious Fun -- by Best Friends Animal Society
Aimee Sadler changes shelter experience for homeless dogs - Philadelphia Dogs Examiner