Monday, December 17, 2012

Play groups in shelters

Though I may myself be a nervous wreck when it comes to rowdy dog play, others have been using it to great advantage in the shelter system.

The Washington Humane Society, Star's alma mater, faces all the challenges that you would expect in a municipal, open-access shelter in a major metropolitan area: high volumes of intakes, a large quantity of pit bull-type dogs, limited funds to spend on state-of-the-art facilities. Lately though they have been implementing some new programs that I think hold great hope for the animals housed there. 

Earlier this year, Florian and I went to the shelter to observe and learn from a play group session held by Aimee Sadler of the Longmont Humane Society in Colorado. At that shelter, regular play groups have played a role in reducing the canine euthanasia rate by 60% since 2004, even as intakes increased over the same period. Sadler has been touring the country to train shelters for free in holding regular play groups for canine residents, in hopes that more shelters can begin using creative ways to save more lives. 

It appears that getting out for supervised, unstructured play time with other dogs can have dramatic effects on shelter dogs' behavior and adoptability. Shy dogs can come out of their shell in the presence of others of their kind, and their new confidence transfers to their interactions with humans. Dogs with poor social skills learn better ways of interacting from dogs who are more socially savvy. All the dogs get nice and tired so they are calmer when meeting prospective adopters, and shelter staff get to learn things about the dogs in their care that they would not otherwise have known--like energy level, play style, and comfort with all sorts of other canines. 

One concrete benefit in terms of lives saved is that with the knowledge gained from play groups, shelter staff can pair up dogs in kennels based on compatibility--so the shelter has greatly increased capacity. 

Play groups are beginning to be recognized, as demonstrated by this post in Dog Star Daily, as a powerful tool for shelters to increase adoptions and improve animals' lives. The Washington Humane Society now has regular play groups, supervised by staff members and volunteers, for as many dogs as they can get out. Can you imagine the improvement in quality of life for all the animals who are spending hours a day playing outside, instead of in the shelter all day? Makes me happy to think about.

The Longmont Humane Society's live release rate for dogs is now an impressive 92.5%, compared to 78% in 2004. Can we get there in DC? I certainly believe we can, and hope the shelter will continue aggressively pursuing any and all means to get there. 


  1. You should come see the play groups at BARCS (Baltimore) sometime! They happen almost daily.

  2. How nice to have playgroups for the shelter. We think that's a great idea.

  3. The Tompkins County SPCA invites recent adoptees to their play groups. I found it really helpful for exposing my last dog, Shadow, to other dogs in a safe setting.

    I hope your shelter gets something set up.


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