The Power and Importance of Social Play For Sheltered Dogs

"Dogs Playing For Life" is a joy filled enrichment program so dogs can be dogs.

Posted Jul 28, 2018

DPFL
Dogs playing as part of the DPFL program
Source: DPFL

Dogs just want to have fun on the run

"Animal shelters across the country are doing amazing, progressive things to better care for homeless dogs -- training, mental enrichment, environmental enrichment, and exercise -- but the biggest change I have experienced comes from removing the human element and allowing dogs to be dogs."

Many dogs love to play (for more discussion please see Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, "The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun," "It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs," and references therein). I recently learned of a wonderful enrichment program called "Dogs Playing For Life" (DPFL) out of Longmont, Colorado, and after I watched their video called "The Playgroup Change" I wanted to interview the people responsible for this wonderful idea (please also see the NCC Promo video and the NCC Shadow Program video). Gladly, they agreed to answer a few questions. Below is an interview with Aimee Sadler, Founder and CEO of DPFL, and Tucker Eurman and Kodi Sadler, program coordinators with DPFL.1 Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you make your video called "The Playgroup Change"?

"Playgroups are not just for the dogs, but the people as well, and that is 'The Playgroup Change' ... Playgroups have the ability to help address compassion fatigue.”

Tucker: “The Playgroup Change” is meant to detail the drastic behavioral and emotional improvement we see in shelter dogs when they’re able to interact naturally and freely with one another in social groups. Animal shelters across the country are doing amazing, progressive things to better care for homeless dogs -- training, mental enrichment, environmental enrichment, and exercise -- but the biggest change I have experienced comes from removing the “human element” and allowing dogs to be dogs. 

For some dogs, it’s the first time they’ve experienced true freedom, and you can see that emotion written on their faces: sheer joy. Playgroups are so valuable. By simply letting dogs interact with one another, their overall experience at a shelter can be flipped from potentially detrimental (kept alone in a stressful, loud, deteriorating environment) to extremely positive (think summer camp). That change in attitude can impact an entire kennel. At a particular shelter I visited, more than 300 dogs were kept in a large, one-room warehouse space with most dogs being cohoused with 5 or more other dogs. The stimulation and noise was endless, as one dog bark would erupt in a choral chain reaction. Over the course of two days, every dog was able to attend playgroups, many twice. 300 dogs physically and mentally exercised through social interaction. That one room shelter was silent for hours afterwards like the staff had never experienced. 

The positive change that playgroups spark in the animals inadvertently causes a second-tier attitude shift. People enter the animal welfare industry because they wholeheartedly love animals. Unfortunately, there is constant physical and emotional strain due to many aspects of sheltering animals, such as keeping animals in conditions not aligning with our morals, having to euthanize animals for behavioral or medical reasons or worst of all, lack of space. Seeing behavioral deterioration caused by noise and stress, and feeling helpless to make a positive impact can be crippling. 

Regardless of shelter size or available resources, compassion fatigue is real, and it is critical that it be diagnosed and dealt with before negatively impacting the empathetic, loving people in our industry, making them numb to the animals’ experience (for more discussion please see "Empathy Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Among Animal Rescuers"). Playgroups have the ability to help address compassion fatigue. The satisfaction experienced by the dog at play is contagious. Playgroups revitalize energy in volunteers and staff, and create new pathways for positive change and growth. They reduce stress in the kennels, making for a healthier environment for all. And they can unify a team towards a shelters (and DPFL’S) mission: to create a safe haven for lost or surrendered companion animals, and find them homes. Playgroups are not just for the dogs, but the people as well, and that is “The Playgroup Change.”

What do you hope to accomplish and what are your major messages?

Aimee: I want us to be able to make a difference, to have a lasting impact on animal welfare. Our objective has certainly changed as we've progressed; the animals have simply guided and taught us. It seems clear how they can suffer while we strive to help. Life is important, but quality of life is sometimes even more important. This is, of course, a personal ethic, and they can't tell us how they feeL But if we watch them carefully and observe that the experience is negative, there is hope -- something can be done to help them! So, how do we know what's "right" in our work to save companion animals? We are meant to be their friends and family and protectors, and yet sometimes we are the ones causing pain in the name of ”saving them”. We'd like to be a part of making the experience for the animals while sheltered better. If you're a dog and you end up at a brick and mortar facility, our programming is designed for you. What we've learned is that by focusing on providing quality of life while in care, life-saving becomes an automatic and positive consequence. Alternatively, when we focus on life-saving alone, there is a population of dogs becoming "trapped" and we've possibly caused a new level of problem. DPFL is in it for the long haul. 

Tucker: My dream is that one day I won’t have a job with DPFL. I dream that DPFL at some point will no longer be needed, and that playgroups will be a part of every day care. It’s something that Aimee inspired in me when I first met her in 2015. “You feed ‘em, you clean ‘em, and they go to playgroups. Basic care must include enrichment.” That is my personal mission at every shelter I visit -- to inspire a new way of thinking and doing to improve the care of our shelter dogs. I’d like to bring new energy, problem solving, and ideas to those that have lost their inspiration over the years. In an industry that makes it very easy to get stuck in “this is how we’ve always done things,” I’d like to challenge that. That’s why DPFL is such an amazing organization. As a team, we are never satisfied with “good enough,” and are always striving to do better. 

DPFL
Dogs playing as part of the DPFL program
Source: DPFL

It's difficult for me to understand why everyone who is responsible for the well-being of sheltered dogs doesn't incorporate plenty of play time into the daily routine for the individuals who they're trying to help along and ultimately find "a forever home." (Of course, it's also difficult to understand why people who choose to share their lives with dogs who love to play don't give them every opportunity to play.) 

"From my own experience working at a shelter, adding a daily playgroup program was the kingpin in getting ahead of the curve. We saw increased adoptions, increased live release rate, decreased length of stay, and a tremendous decrease in our overall population dropping from 80 dogs to 8 over the course of one year."

Aimee: From my perspective, the biggest obstacle here is personal fear and sense of inadequacy. Those who resist the obvious benefits to the dogs may be struggling with the terrifying reality of "what have I done"? I know I've had that experience time and time again in my career. When I learn something new, invariably I'm faced with the heart wrenching reality that I might have signed off on and "lost" an animal unnecessarily in the past. I try to sit with that and feel it. It really hurts. But then it strengthens. We keep pushing for change in honor of animals who have been lost, possibly from a simple lack of opportunity to play? 

I can accept that I've made  tragic mistakes and I can make amends by striving to keep learning and doing. The more we learn the more we can offer and the more living beings we can positively impact. I imagine that many individuals dodge that pain and recognition for the sake of self-preservation. I think there is legitimacy in that process, but its' not mine. I’m personally working on my ability to create cooperation rather than resistance to hopefully inspire those that deny the research that validates the power of play. I, too, struggle to "get" what the problem is, especially for those that have committed their lives to caring for animals?

Tucker: Adding a playgroup program can be a seemingly unobtainable luxury for some shelters. Across the country, many shelters are in “constant triage,” understaffed and under-resourced, and in a spiraling state of catch-up. I just visited a shelter with over 900 animals. 900! More than twice their intended capacity. They were receiving upwards of 70 animals each day. Unfortunately, kennel space is valuable real estate. Sometimes shelters are left with an overflow of animals, nowhere to put them, and hard decisions have to be made. One of the things we push is that a playgroup program doesn’t necessarily require more personnel, but might take some adjusting and reallocating. There are so many additional benefits to playgroups, including faster and more efficient kennel cleaning, a reduction in in-kennel eliminations, marketing opportunities while out playing, and increased adoptions. However, it can be too difficult for some shelters to get ahead of the daily basic care to even consider adding new programs or moving staff around. 

From my own experience working at a shelter, adding a daily playgroup program was the kingpin in getting ahead of the curve. We saw increased adoptions, increased live release rate, decreased length of stay, and a tremendous decrease in our overall population dropping from 80 dogs to 8 over the course of one year (we're private, limited admission humane society). 

There are some shelters that hold other priorities above playgroups, as well. Some believe that one-on-one training with people, mental enrichment through only positive reinforcement training, and other programs designed to increase dog-to-human engagement are more important than allowing the dogs to play together. I believe the best program incorporates all of these things without prioritizing one over the other. This will lead to more well rounded, sociable, and adoptable dogs. Unfortunately, many shelters are struggling to even walk their dogs daily, let alone spend the time to counter-condition them to strangers or do obedience training. Playgroups are the “best bang for the buck,” enrichment providing so much more than just doggie play time.  

Kodi: Shelter workers and volunteers don’t get paid proportionally to the work load, the compassion fatigue is immense, prejudices and fears create obstacles for progress (within animal welfare as well as outside of it) creating a steep uphill battle. 

How long did it take for the shelter manager/workers to overcome their cautiousness or fear about letting the dogs loose?

"Many 'not appropriate for a home with other dogs"'become their 'Playgroup Rock Stars!"' Many perfectly good dogs are literally being driven crazy in shelters."

"We expose risky behaviors that the shelter might have never seen in dogs they had no worries about previously. If we haven’t won them over in the first day or two of start up by the 3rd day most facilities see a huge drop in kennel reactivity as well as less mess in the kennels since the dogs start preferring to eliminate outside and they are bought in."

Aimee: Most times, it's almost immediate, as soon as they see the first dog they've labeled "dog aggressive.” Many “not appropriate for a home with other dogs" become their "Playgroup Rock Stars!" Sometimes, it takes many of the latter experiences for canine play to become an indisputable benefit to the dogs in care. Every once in a while, there are those who are forever resistant, for their own personal reasons. Either they come from a "different camp,” almost like a different belief system, and often times hidden behind a label of "science". We've heard things such as "it's more important for dogs to be social with people." Or “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." Those who are holding on to such reasoning are missing the point. Many perfectly good dogs are literally being driven crazy in shelters

Dogs deserve the opportunity to play with other dogs. It's the right thing to do, no? What makes a dog who is able and willing to be social with other dogs less social with a person? Doesn't that come down to personal relationship? Maybe not all the time, maybe there are deficiencies in life experiences or genetics or poor health or poor relationship at play with anti-social behavior, but to make the leap that allowing dogs to play with one another somehow weakens their ability to build bonds and to relate to humans seems like a stretch. Furthermore, when life and death decisions are made based on an animal's behavior in a kennel (considered past behavior), where their freedoms are stripped and they are typically isolated and highly stressed, it seems illogical for us to make predictions about their future behavior, especially when placed in a different environment with new relationships. [Note: It is, indeed. Detailed research shows that social play helps to build and to maintain strong social bonds dogs and many other animals, including dogs in  kennels.]

Furthermore, when life and death decisions are made based upon an animals behavior in a kennel, when their freedoms are stripped and they are virtually tortured in highly stressful enclosures, it can be difficult to reconcile our work as animal “welfare” providers. For those who just don't buy into the need to provide opportunity for conspecific play due to fear or “liability”,  "we keep singing our song.”

Kodi: There are always outliers but we win most people over after the first hands-on training. We aren’t coaching handlers in most of the first sessions so the shelter workers can watch our experienced team blow through their population like they have never seen before. An average number of dogs during “startup” would be 30-40 in a 3-hour playgroup session. For most facilities we go through more dog to dog assessments in that day compared to what they would do in a couple of days to a week. And on top of that, they see the dogs getting worn out at a much faster rate than can be accomplished just taking the dog for a walk or tossing a ball. They see the dogs they had concerns about doing great. Additionally, we expose risky behaviors that the shelter might have never seen in dogs they had no worries about previously. If we haven’t won them over in the first day or two of start up by the 3rd day most facilities see a huge drop in kennel reactivity as well as less mess in the kennels since the dogs start preferring to eliminate outside and they are bought in.

Are you optimistic that once people who are responsible for sheltered dogs see your successes they too will begin using what might be called "playgroup therapy"?

Aimee: I am. I live by that optimism. If not initially, I'm confident it will come around in the end. In fact, I think it already has -- the playgroup train is down the tracks! If we never taught another seminar, it seems clear that playgroups for sheltered dogs would continue to grow and hopefully become a standard of daily care to help shelters achieve our "Every Dog, Every Day!" model. If not, I believe there will be significant peer pressure and competitive results pushing against those final holdouts. 

Tucker: I think that the shelters we have visited, more than 230, speak for themselves. They are the ones pushing the envelope and progressing entire communities. Once one shelter begins to see success through playgroups, word spreads fast. Our goal is that we can light the match, but each shelter fuels the flame in their community and it spreads like wildfire. There has been such a profound change in shelters incorporating playgroups, even if only a few times per week, that it becomes impossible not to notice.  

Kodi: Yes. More often than not even critics and skeptics see the value in playgroups after seeing it firsthand.

What are some of your present and future projects that focus on improving the lives of the dogs for whom you are responsible?

Aimee: We provide canine playgroup trainings to animal shelters, sponsored by national organizations, to open-admission shelters at no cost. We are building our teams to meet the supply/demand issue to reduce the wait time and wait list for our trainings. We have also opened our National Canine Center in North Central Florida as a model of a "regional behavior center" to work with un-owned dogs that are behaviorally challenged and facing obstacles to adoption. Our vision is to provide advanced training and behavior resources for dogs who are out of options. We are striving to demonstrate efficient and effective programming to help as many dogs as possible find their way out of kennels and into homes within weeks or months instead of years. We feel strongly that managing behavior programs in adoption centers poses increased challenges as resources are stretched thin between departments. At our center we eat, sleep and breathe "behavior" and are focusing on a 6-dog-to-1-handler ratio to emotionally maintain and progressively train some of the most challenging dogs. This staffing ratio is virtually unheard of in animal sheltering, but is necessary if we are to attend to the needs of sentient beings housed in a traditional kennel environment while instilling behaviors to help them be successful companions in our communities. 

Tucker: My goal is to inspire people for tomorrow, every day striving to do something a little better than the previous. Playgroups are a gateway program that lead to so much more. Once shelters are adequately enriching and attending to their entire canine population, the next step in lifesaving revolves around working with the “difficult to place” dogs. Besides that, I personally would like to continue to develop programs to train shelter personnel in other forms of enrichment beyond playgroups, and ways to further improve the quality of life for dogs living in animal shelters. 

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Aimee: Sometimes I feel as if we take way too much credit, as humans, for the well-being of animals. Maybe we should just get out of their way, maybe they know better than we do? What makes us feel that keeping them in kennels for prolonged periods of time is humane? We must feel that is better than the alternative? This is probably true in some circumstances, but not always. I hope that the future of animal sheltering continues to shift to supporting our communities and adopters as "service providers" more than considering ourselves as experts in animal health and behavior. I think we are an enormous contributor to civil societies by cultivating the human/animal bond and this is hard to accomplish when our companions are trapped in shelters, even the really good ones. They need to be with us in our homes, instead. 

Tucker: Animal shelters nationwide need help! Donate, Volunteer, Foster, Adopt. Stop in and say “Hi.” Thank a shelter worker! Take a dog home for the weekend! See what programs and services your local shelter offers, and see where they need help. A little can go a long way, and if we can all band together, we can make a huge impact for those animals (and people) in our communities needing help.

When dogs are allowed to be dogs and play to their heart's content, it's a win-win for all

Thank you Aimee, Tucker, and Kodi for such an informative and inspirational interview. Each time I read your words of wisdom and watch "The Playgroup Change" I find myself smiling and wondering, "Why isn't there a program like this in all shelters?" It's clear that its significant benefits are not only for the lucky dogs who get to play to their heart's content, but also for shelter workers and people who ultimately rescue these dogs so they can enjoy a "forever home."

Most dogs want to have fun on the run and zoom around here and there with their friends and others. I hope that more and more shelters adopt the Dogs Playing For Life program, and I look forward to hearing of the many successes that come from having happy and well-adjusted dogs going to homes where their humans welcome them with welcome arms. When we give dogs what they want and need and dogs are allowed to be dogs and play to their heart's content, it's a win-win for all.

1I thank Tracie Hotchner for introducing me to the DPFL program.

References

Bekoff, Marc. How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused? Psychology Today, November 29, 2015.

Bekoff, Marc. The Power of Play: Dogs Just Want to Have Fun. Psychology Today, September 5, 2017. 

Bekoff, Marc. When Dogs Talk About Play They Take Turns Sharing Intentions. Psychology Today, June 7, 2018. 

Käufer, Mechtild. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Direct Book Service, 2014. 

Bekoff, Marc. It's OK For Dogs to Engage in Zoomies and Enjoy FRAPs. Psychology Today, September 26, 2017. 

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