For animal shelters around the country, innovative "real-life rooms" provide a break from shelter stress for pets waiting for adoption and a chance to learn skills that will set them up for success in a home.
We spoke with 3 organizations that have used these helpful spaces for years—The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina, and the Oregon Humane Society in Portland. Staff from these organizations shared how they utilize their rooms, the benefits and challenges they can present, and recommendations for other shelters interested in creating a real-life room.
The Anti-Cruelty Society
The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago designed and installed a real-life room in 2010 for both dogs and cats. A grant covered the costs of furniture.
Melissa Klett, senior animal behavior specialist for the ACS, says the room is often occupied by dogs and cats (not at the same time) who are nursing litters of puppies and kittens.
“The room’s main purpose is to reduce stress, as animals are in a quieter and less busy area,” says Melissa. “For litters, the room provides easy access to our behavior staff for abundant socializing.”
The room also helps staff determine litter box usage needs for cats with a history of house soiling and provides space for cats frustrated by being in cages.
For dogs, the room is utilized for behavior modification and to determine the severity of separation anxiety.
An animal may spend anywhere from a week or two in the room, while a family of up to 8 could spend from 2 weeks to 2 months in the space.
Charleston Animal Society
Charleston Animal Society’s (CAS) 2 real-life rooms, installed in 2018, are primarily used to give dogs a break from kennels. The rooms—18 ft. by 12 ft. and 15 ft. by 8 ft.—were designed with recommendations from other shelters and customized to match CAS’s goals and objectives.
“We focus on high-energy dogs who are at risk of mental deterioration,” says Donya Grace Satriale, director of behavior. “We use these rooms to practice handling, study reactivity, and conduct behavioral evaluations.
“Removing a dog from an environment that promotes stress allows for better mental health and a better behavioral assessment,” Donya adds.
“Dogs who display fearful or reactive behaviors can become worse if left with no intervention.”
The construction of CAS’s rooms was funded mostly by a grant, and CAS purchased a plastic couch and decorated the rooms with donated items. She says 10 to 15 dogs are rotated in and out of the real-life rooms weekly.
“Dogs who spend time in our rooms are more willing to approach people, allow petting, and engage in attention-seeking behaviors or play,” Donya says. “Our goal is to have dogs in these rooms continuously. We’re also growing our cat enrichment program and may open the room to felines in the future.”
Oregon Humane Society
When the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) added a medical center and training halls to their existing shelter in 2007, they also added a 10 ft. by 14-ft. real-life room with a window.
The room was inspired with ideas from Sue Sternberg, the renowned canine behavior and shelter dog specialist, and is mostly furnished with donated furniture from volunteers.
According to Tanya Roberts, senior manager of behavior and training, the room houses animals who need a quiet spot away from kennels and helps familiarize pets with an indoor home setting. It’s also used to introduce potential adopters to shy pets and to train pets who are anxious when left alone.
The room is “pretty much in use all the time,” Tanya says, adding that up to 3 animals a day benefit from the space. “Cats like to perch and look out the window. And it especially helps our more fearful pets adjust to being in a home-like setting.”
Dogs who spend time in our rooms are more willing to approach people, allow petting, and engage in attention-seeking behaviors or play.
Real-Life Room Recommendations
All 3 shelter professionals offer unique suggestions for creating real-life rooms based on their organizations’ needs and experiences.
“Choose a space that’s quiet but still exposes the animals to people and everyday noises and allows for control of that exposure,” says Melissa, who adds that the ACS installed an airlock for the safety of pets and people.
CAS is working on staffing real-life rooms with volunteers so that when animals are in the room, they have company.
“Some dogs whine, bark, or try to escape if they’re left alone,” says Donya, who also recommends that rooms not be too far from kennels.
“The trade-off may be a tranquil location near an administrative area, but for some fearful dogs, strange noises and the presence of people can be more stressful than a kennel.”
Donya also recommends installing plumbing to accommodate drainage and hoses to help avoid cross-contamination while cleaning.
At OHS, their real-life room adjoins two offices with one-way mirrors so staff can observe pets.
“We can see which dogs chew on furniture or bark at passers-by,” Tanya says.
Paramount in creating a real-life room is considering the animals’ perspective and potential experience in the room.
“Will electrical cords be in easy reach for chewing?” Melissa asks. “Will placing a cat tree next to a shelf permit scared cats to get into a drop ceiling? These are important things to consider.”