Shelter Dog Playgroups: How to Help Set Them Up

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Playgroups for shelter dogs have been popularized (and rightly so) by Aimee Sadler with Dogs Playing for Life. Aimee has written a comprehensive manual (that is available FOR FREE) on how animal organizations with physical shelters can safely implement and start benefiting from playgroups. They also have seminars and a mentorship program that can help, especially if you aren’t familiar with handling large groups of dogs.

I founded a local organization (Citizens for Minneapolis Animal Care) that recently approached our local animal control to discuss starting playgroups and presented them with the pros and cons below. That whole conversation is still in the works, but in the meantime, please feel free to adapt these points and set up an appointment with your local shelter!  Let me know if you need any pointers on how to approach the topic with the organizations near you. It takes time and patience, but once people see playgroups in action they can’t deny the advantages.

Advantages:

  • Shortened Length of Stay
    • Chicago Animal Care and Control noted recently that “available dogs who had been assessed and integrated into playgroups were adopted an average of twenty days faster than dogs who could not be integrated into routine playgroups.”
  • Decreased kennel cleaning time
    • Dogs more likely to relieve themselves running around outside
    • At Indianapolis Animal Care and Control, cleaning time was dramatically reduced when playgroups were demonstrated during the DPFL seminar. When full, the kennels typically took 3-6 hours to clean. During playgroups the kennels were cleaned in just 1.5 hours.
  • More Accurate Behavioral Assessments
    • Dogs act differently off leash and out of their kennels. Dog-reactive and barrier aggressive dogs that could be labeled dog-aggressive often have appropriate dog-dog behavior in playgroups. This can dramatically impact their chances of being adopted or finding rescue.
  • Increased Rescue Interaction
    • Allows rescues to view dog-dog interactions. If rescues can see how dogs interact with one-another in playgroups, they are more likely to pull a dog to put it into their program
  • Improved Live Release Rate in at least 33% of shelters that instituted playgroups
  • Reduced Stress and Quieter Kennels
    • Less frustration barking and barrier reactivity.
    • Dogs in playgroups have gotten out a lot of their energy and are less likely to develop bad habits.
  • Behavioral Health
    • Playing in groups is better for the mental well-being of the dogs and increases their quality of life. Intraspecies play is important to maintaining behavioral health.
  • Better Adoption Matching
    • Adopters are more likely to adopt based on personality rather than looks. A dog’s behavior with other dogs can be seen so that the adopter can pick a dog that would work the best for their own dog’s playing style
  • Increase in Morale
    • Play behavior is uplifting. Both staff and volunteers enjoy seeing the dogs play and feel empowered by their role in supporting playgroups.
  • Community Support and Goodwill
    • Animal controls that have started this program have reported an increase in positive press and community involvement.

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Concerns and Solutions:

  • Fighting
    • Trained dog handlers familiar with dog behavior have complete control over which dogs go into the playgroups.
    • Muzzle any dogs if there are questions. Muzzles can always be removed after dogs have demonstrated good behavior
    • Eliminate anything worth guarding (i.e. use a kiddie pool instead of water bowls, no toys or food)
    • Handlers will be trained in how to prevent and break-up a dog fight without injury to themselves.
    • Veterinary staff (veterinarian, veterinary technician) is on site if an animal were to need medical attention.
  •  Staffing
    • Training for successfully handling large groups of dogs is available for staff and volunteers from Dogs Playing for Life
    • Playgroups are often run by groups of volunteers at other animal controls and humane societies.
    • Staff involvement can be limited with the use of a core, dedicated group of volunteers can be trained to be Group Leaders and Assistants for the playgroups. The volunteers report to staff but staff is not necessary to run each group.
    • New volunteers that are experienced with dog behavior and large groups of dogs can be recruited.
  • Cost
    • Great community fundraising event. Fencing, muzzles, handling equipment could potentially be donated.
    • Grants for Play yards (one from Petfinder for up to $5,000, one from Animal Farm Foundation for up to $10,000).
  • Liability
    • Dogs are property of the shelter.
    • The shelter already has liability insurance for dog bites. Check with insurance company to see if a rider is needed for playgroups and if so, how much it would cost.
  • Intact Animals
    • Intact animals can participate in playgroups. Only females in heat should be excluded.
    • The Group Leader and Assistant can monitor and prevent any mounting behavior
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