All Played Out
This installment in our monthly series on enrichment is brought to you by the ASPCA’s Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, CPDT, Director, Applied Research and Behavior.
Most dogs enjoy the companionship of their own kind. If you’ve watched the action at a dog park or daycare, you know that playtime with friends is a wonderful way to keep canine brains engaged and active, while burning off excess energy. A tired, socially satiated shelter dog tends to show better in his kennel, and be more appealing to adopters. Finding ways to highlight how well a dog plays with others can also promote him to adopters looking for a companion for their dogs.
How can you give the sociable dogs in your care some of the social time they crave with other canines? Two shelters in different areas of the country shared their playgroup strategies with us.
Danielle Bender of Champaign County Humane Society in Urbana, IL, says that at her shelter, play groups help with adoptions by “providing mental and physical exercise and stimulation to reduce overall stress levels”—making the dogs more mild-mannered in their kennels. Play groups, which are run by staff members, interns and experienced volunteers, also help maintain & develop proper dog-to-dog social skills.
Mikey Likes It
Case in point: Meet Mikey, an 8-month-old bull terrier mix who wasn’t showing well in his kennel at CCHS.
“He was always extremely rambunctious and energetic, often turning off potential adopters because of his out-of-control behavior in his run,” explains Danielle. Although the staff had worked on his manners and kennel presentation, this basic training was not enough. “We started doing play groups with him, and we found that the more often we let him burn off his energy in the playgroup sessions, the more calm and well-mannered he behaved in his kennel. We also discovered that he played very nicely with a variety of different dogs, and this is what seemed to finally close the deal on his adoption. We advertised the fact that he was such a great dog playmate!”
Cindy Bruckart, CPDT, of Multnomah County Animal Services in Troutdale, OR, runs MCAS’ play group program. There, all dogs are eligible for play groups regardless of size, age or breed. Intact dogs are allowed in play group, but females in heat may not participate. “The point of play groups,” says Cindy, “is to give the dogs a break from their kennels, allow friendly dogs to socialize and identify issues that need more specialized work—aggression, resource guarding, impulse control, ignoring humans when other dogs are around.”
Rules of the Game
Cindy explains how she and her team evaluate dogs for playgroup potential:
- “From the kennel to the play yard we look at the dog’s level of connection to people. Does the dog make eye contact? Does the dog respond to human voice? Does the dog like to be petted or mind having his collar gently grabbed?”
- “Once the dog is in the play yard, gets his sniffing and his potty business out of the way, we check again for a connection to humans. If there is none, and that’s not very common, we may wait a day a two for the dog to receive plenty of Open Paw training before we allow them in playgroups. We want to have some sense of connection and verbal control once the dog is in a playgroup. Humans need to be relevant to the dog.”
- “Next, we bring out a friendly dog and let them meet through the fence. We watch for any signs of sociability or playful body language (loose, wiggly body, ears back, squinty eyes). We have noted that dogs who are aggressive at the fence are often more likely to be aggressive off-leash, so we give them time to adjust if needed.”
- “If we see some desire to interact on-leash, we introduce the dogs in the same play area, dropping the leashes to use as a drag line.”
- “We remain close to the dogs as we’re getting to know them and interrupt even the best of play every 30 seconds to a minute with recalls, or walk-throughs with a ‘cool it’ cue. If the dogs have lost all connection with us, we use the drag lines to separate them for a few seconds’ break.”
- “Because our population is changing all the time, we tend to start with our ‘core group’ of known friendly dogs and add in newcomers as we go. Each dog added can change the dynamics of the group.”
- “Sometimes we have lots of easy dogs who can all play together; other times we need to do groups of two or three at a time with a constant rotation.”
How’s the program working? Cindy reports that structured play groups help get dogs adopted by improving their basic manners like recall, sits, not jumping up, attention and impulse control—and they display better kennel presence. “They also let staff and volunteers get a better look at the dog outside the kennel and see what kind of adopter might be the best match,” says Cindy. “Dogs often behave quite differently outside of the kennel environment.”
Are you using play groups to keep your shelter’s dogs happier or to promote their adoptability? Please tell us about it!
Update: Check out Trish’s July 12 webinar (if you miss it, you can access the recording here:)