Hope at Work: Shelter Dog Play

Everybody has a list of wants when looking for a new dog. For some of us, it’s love at first sight, and for others, it’s as detailed a process as buying a house. When I adopted Hope it was admittedly love at first sight. Sure, I ran through my list of musts before signing the papers but she definitely had me at hello.

One of the must-haves I did not get a chance to check off at adoption was “dog friendly.” Although Hope had been housed with another puppy – one that was quite annoying actually – I never got a chance to see her around unfamiliar dogs. So, this was the big question mark surrounding our first days together.

Having worked hands-on with thousands of dogs in animal shelters, I have seen dog-dog aggression and know that I don’t want to live with a dog that is dangerous. I also know that behavior can change over time and even our best efforts can’t prevent us from dealing with challenges down the road. Like when my dog-friendly Lucy was attacked and understandably, stopped being so friendly.

Needless to say, the first appointment I made for the nugget was an evaluation day at a nearby daycare. This was the first positive, force-free facility I’d ever come across; a place I’d been eager to try out since moving to Charlotte. I held my breath until her daycare debut where, much to my relief, she received a glowing review. The nugget had impressed the daycare staff with her ability to play with a variety of dogs and take breaks when needed (a skill that many dogs don’t possess).

Hope, it turns out, is a dog’s dog. Naturally, daycare (run by trusted professionals avoiding aversives) became a regular activity in the her weekly schedule.

Hope at Daycare
Hope at daycare; credit J. Cooper

Meanwhile, things shifted for me at the shelter where I work. The old-school model for evaluating dog-aggression in shelter dogs involves a leash. I had been growing increasingly wary of these so-called dog tests because, as my colleagues were also finding, many dogs did not behave off-leash as projected by this traditional test. Hope, for instance, would not be labeled accurately if you judged her by a leashed introduction. I can say the same for every other dog I’d been a mom or foster mom to. The more investigating I did and the more dogs I worked with, the more I was convinced that leashed intros were inconclusive at best and in their worst form, completely unfair. I decided a major change was needed, so shelter dog play groups were born.

Mind you, the decision to try shelter dog play groups was not just based on my personal experiences. Currently, there is research being conducted on the effectiveness of shelter dog play groups in improving behavior, reducing stress and increasing chances at a live outcome (i.e. reducing unnecessary deaths in shelters). Hundreds of shelters have had great success with play groups in all of these areas. Moreover, dog trainers and behavior experts have grown increasingly vocal about what we should be doing to set our companion dogs up to succeed. Putting them on the end of a tight leash while they go nose-to-nose with an unfamiliar dog is not considered a dog parent best practice.

Frankly, I was sick and tired of feeling like I was setting dogs up to fail. So, from one day to the next my assistant and I started running play groups together. A play group, for us, consists of three or more unfamiliar dogs introduced off leash in a yard together. It took us a while to get a good rhythm going, but within a few weeks we were getting several dogs out to play on a weekly basis. There were times I’d ask her to bring a certain dog to the group, and she’d look at me like I had two heads.

“Really? You want that pushy/rude/dominant/<insert other-negative-label-we-all-use here> dog?” she’d ask.

“Yes” I’d tell her with some trepidation in my voice.

There were just as many times that upon first glance I’d assert, “That dog doesn’t look promising.” Then that same unpromising dog would prove to be one of the finest play group participants.

So, far this year I’ve seen 200+ shelter dogs in play groups, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes. I’m quite excited about this considering the shelter does not have the luxury of limiting admission, the way a private shelter or a daycare may. Sheltering is an environment where you literally have to work with the dogs in front of you and whatever behaviors they are exhibiting – in less-than-ideal conditions, no less! This dynamic poses it’s own challenges as dogs are adopted out and new dogs enter the system.

There are some dogs with well-rounded communication skills; I call them play group rock stars. Then there are a whole host of dogs with skills that may require more management in a group setting. Not surprisingly, my play group rock stars have a tendency of getting themselves adopted or transferred to rescue partners, leaving me to pair the remaining dogs up creatively.

One day I decided to bring Hope to work to see if she could round out some of the less-refined personalities in group. At the time, I knew she loved to play, had a gentle mouth, and knew when to take breaks. Through our work together in play groups, I’ve since learned that she is so much more than I ever expected. She is the kind of dog that shows up well. Every. Single. Time. Taking it down a notch if a dog is showing fearfully. Revving it up for the dogs with a lot of energy to burn. Appropriately correcting obnoxious behaviors and then moving on with life. Using friendly gestures to alleviate any uncertainty in new-to-group dogs.

Behavioral Tangent: Notice I didn’t label the dogs fearful, energetic, obnoxious or uncertain, and instead chose to describe the behavior itself. This is because it isn’t fair or accurate to define a dog by the behavior he/she displays in a short or stressful timeframe. Play groups, for me, was born out of a desire to observe behavior under the fairest of circumstances while taking into consideration each dog’s individuality and personal experience.

Hope has proven time and again how to offer the kind of behavior and body language that sets other dogs at ease. For dogs without a sense of security or belonging, how is this not beneficial? I’ve watched first hand as dogs’ communication skills improve over time thanks to carefully constructed play groups that include dogs like Hope.

With the help of volunteers I now have the joy of running shelter play groups three to four times a week. My hope is to continue to increase the amount of time the shelter dogs get to play together. In thirteen years of sheltering, this is the first activity I’ve participated in where dogs are able to express natural behaviors, be with their own kind, and experience real freedom.

Hope doesn’t attend every play group. I bring her in when the dogs are in need of her profoundly developed communication skills. People have asked me if I am worried about disease or injury. Although I agree there are risks, I also make sure to take the necessary precautions to keep her safe. I am also of the mindset that every little thing carries its own risk, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to weigh the benefits against the risk. In this case, the benefits are beyond measure!

Knowing what I know now about dog play, it’s not shocking to me that Hope is a playgroup rock star. There is just something about her that brings out the best in other dogs. Maybe it’s the little tan dots above her eyes, which experts have identified as a reason some dogs are more easily understood (Bennett & Briggs 2008). Either way, I didn’t set out to put my dog to work, but I’m glad we’ve found something she is good at and something she enjoys. She’s even helped run groups in the pouring rain!

For Hope, working in shelter dog play groups will continue to be a part of her life as long as she enjoys it. After all, she was once a shelter dog herself. And if dogs had an understanding of giving back, I think she’d appreciate the way her story has come full circle.

Does your dog have a job? Are you one of the fortunate few that can take your dog to work with you? Do you enjoy helping shelter dogs, too? If so, please share your stories with us!

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