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Donna Jackel

Donna Jackel is a freelance journalist specializing in animal welfare, health and caregiving.

Dog's Life: Humane
Shelter Play Groups
Enriching lives and reducing stress for dogs in shelters

Jimmy didn’t know it, but he had a death sentence hanging over his head. The barrel-chested, squat stray, ears cut to look fighting fierce, had failed a dog-to-dog temperament test at Rochester Animal Services, a city shelter with a high intake rate. But this sunny morning in upstate New York, Jimmy got a second chance. He was escorted to the shelter play yard, where about 20 dogs tore around, chasing and jumping on one another, taking breaks to cool off in a plastic kiddy pool.

Jimmy leaned over and licked the volunteer trying to fit a muzzle over his broad head. Then, the Pit Bull mix was released into a pen, where he was reunited with his sister.

Firefighters had found the pair roaming the city streets and brought them to the shelter. The siblings sniffed one another, tails a-blur. A volunteer released an unneutered male into the pen. Jimmy showed no signs of aggression. Muzzle removed, he stood calmly while the dog playfully jumped on his back. After romping in the larger yard with the rest of the dogs, Jimmy was deemed a sweet boy. A few days later, he was adopted.

“Many dogs in shelters are misdiagnosed as dog-aggressive,” says Aimee Sadler, founder of Dogs Playing for Life (DPFL), a program that uses playgroups to exercise, socialize, evaluate, train and save as many dogs as possible. “My number-one goal is to train dogs effectively, and then get them out of the shelter as quickly as possible,” says Sadler bluntly. “Dogs behaviorally deteriorate when they have been in a shelter too long.”

There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort, says Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the Humane Society of the United States. “Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show,” she says.

Whether it’s an anxious giraffe in a zoo or a stressed-out dog or cat in a shelter, providing some type of enrichment is essential to the well-being of animals in captivity, says Vint Virga, DVM, author of The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (Crown, 2013.) “The whole idea of Dogs Playing for Life is wonderful,” says Virga, who has worked with dogs and cats with behavioral issues and is currently a behavioral consultant to zoos and wild animal parks. “It gives dogs an opportunity to have more social interaction as well as to practice appropriate play behavior in a controlled setting.”

Dogs need both dog-dog play and dog-human play, observes Virga. The two serve different purposes. “If you try to make the enrichment one-onone with the keeper, you are not coming close to offering what dogs can offer one another. As much as we try, we still don’t understand the nuances of dogs’ cues, signals and behaviors, whether they are running, tumbling or dashing.” And while many dogs will happily fetch a Frisbee for us, dog-dog play is less object-focused, more rough and tumble, Virga says.

Sadler, too, has extensive experience working with domestic and wild animals, including a job monitoring the training of animal actors for the American Humane Association and training animals for television and music videos. Sadler says she has applied those 25-plus years spent interacting with dogs, horses, marine mammals and wild animals to developing Dogs Playing for Life.

Yet, Sadler didn’t set out to become a shelter playgroup guru. She was working as a private dog trainer when a client hired her to train dogs at the Southampton Animal Shelter in Hampton Bays, N.Y. She had three hours to work with 25 dogs.

“I thought, What is the most efficient way to help them get all their ya-yas out so they will be better prepared for their learning session?” Sadler recalls. She decided to first let them play together in the shelter yard. Not only was the training successful, but the dogs were quieter and calmer when they returned to the shelter.

Sadler moved to Longmont, Colo., in 2005 and continued running playgroups at a much larger shelter, the Longmont Humane Society. It wasn’t until she began receiving enthusiastic feedback from shelter staff that she fully realized the program’s potential. “People were inspired. That was invaluable in stimulating change. It allowed them to see for themselves, instead of [me] trying to convince them that what I was doing was correct.”

Sadler’s reputation grew, and she began speaking at major animal welfare conferences. She met shelter directors who were trying to reduce their euthanasia rates and hired DPFL to train their staff and volunteers to run playgroups. Many shelters that could not afford either Sadler’s services or the cost of a play yard received grants from Animal Farm Foundation in Bangall, N.Y., a nonprofit that has advocated for the humane treatment of Pit Bull-type dogs for nearly 30 years.

A typical Dogs Playing for Life training begins with a classroom presentation on the theory behind the play. Next, it’s out to the play yard for a hands-on training session. Runners bring the dogs from the kennel to the yard and, at the instruction of the DPFL lead handler, move dogs from one pen to another if the chemistry isn’t working.

Deciding which dogs will play well together is an art, not a science. “We make decisions based on their body language and how dogs already in the yard are reacting to them,” Sadler says. “I look for dogs to tell me a lot about each other. Any dogs who need smoothing out, we send away and then circle back to them.” Because many shelters receive new dogs every day, staff will muzzle a dog if there is a concern that the dog might behave aggressively in playgroup.

The two pillars of any effective playgroup, says Sadler, are a human group leader who is calm, confident and willing to be assertive with the dogs, and canine helpers who Sadler refers to as “rock stars,” dogs who are good communicators, confident and super friendly. They teach the fearful or aggressive ones how to play—how to pick up cues that other dogs are feeding them.

The group leader closely observes the play, while allowing dogs to be dogs —in other words, to work out minor squabbles for themselves. Mounting, bared teeth and raised hackles are all appropr iate ways for dogs to communicate, says Sadler. The leader should intervene only if there are clear signs of aggression. “You are looking to see if there are stimulus control issues preventing dogs from responding well to one another,” she explains. “You are watching how they respond to the other dogs’ social cues.” Should play turn ugly, the group leader is well prepared. He or she wears a handyman’s belt stocked with a filled spray bottle, a can of coins and an air horn, all devices to distract an errant dog.

Not all animal welfare professionals embrace this approach, but Sadler is steadfast that corrections are as necessary as positive reinforcement. “I think there is an irrational fear of the use of correction—that it will do damage to the animals. When I watch animals communicate, they are correcting one another all the time, effectively, without damage being done. We use reward for behaviors we want to happen more, aversion for things we want to happen less.”

Some shelter administrators are terrified there will be dog fights. Sadler straightforwardly addresses the issue: “If you do playgroup on a daily basis, you will have altercations. That’s part of working with animals.” She stresses that over a seven-year period at Longmont, injuries to dogs and people have been minimal. Once a shelter is holding daily playgroups, Sadler and her team can be hired back for more advanced training.

Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark Shelter, a no-kill shelter in Hastings, Minn., was ahead of the playgroup curve—his staff had been exercising small numbers of dogs in its play yard for years. But after hearing Sadler speak multiple times and watching her videos, he decided he needed to “think bigger.” For two years, Animal Ark has been running large playgroups, and the results have been dramatic, says Fry.

“Dogs who showed barrier aggression in the shelter, barking when people or dogs passed their cage, were not aggressive when playing in a natural environment. Dogs who are not well socialized to people learn by watching other dogs interact with people in the playgroup. Dogs learn better from other dogs.”

Playgroups also save money and limited manpower. Instead of one person walking one dog, you have a few people, often volunteers, exercising many dogs. “A dog going for a walk on a leash is very restrained,” Fry says. “Compare that to 12 dogs ripping, running, rolling around and doing circles over each other. You are using fewer resources and getting better results, which is what all nonprofits should strive to do.”

Playgroups have resulted in an increase in live release rates (adoptions and dogs taken into foster homes), a trend that benefits animal welfare overall, says Kristen Auerbach, director of communications and outreach of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Va. Thanks to its playgroup, which Sadler helped them start last year, Fairfax was able to move more dogs in a shorter space of time and had room to take in several hundred dogs from area shelters. Fairfax was also able to reduce its reliance on rescue groups by 50 percent, freeing up those rescues to pull dogs from other shelters.

Since the play yard opened, Auerbach says she looks forward to Saturdays, when the public is invited to visit. “When people go to the kennel, they feel sad. They’re trying not to cry,” she says. “When they go to the playgroup, they are laughing and excited. Many people go home with a new dog—dogs who maybe you wouldn’t have noticed in the kennel. They’re not beautiful, maybe they’re older, but they’re adopted based on personality, and that’s what we want.”

News: Guest Posts
Case to Protect ADA Rights
A little girl and her service dog vs a school board

The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday against a public school district in upstate New York for refusing to permit a student with disabilities to attend school with her service dog unless the family pays for a dog handler to accompany the pair.

The lawsuit alleges that the Gates-Chili Central School District in Monroe County, NY, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a public entity must permit the use of a service animal by an individual with a disability, except under specific exceptions.

The child at the center of this debate, Devyn Pereira, 8, was born with Angelman Syndrome, a rare disorder that results in developmental delays, seizures and autism. Her mother, Heather Pereira, a single mother of two, spent more than a year raising the $16,000 for Hannah, a 109-pound white Bouvier trained to perform numerous tasks for Devyn, including alerting school staff to oncoming seizures, preventing Devyn from wandering or running away, and providing support so she can walk independently. 

Pereira, has spent three years trying to convince school officials to allow her daughter’s one-on-one school aide to provide periodic assistance in handling Hannah—primarily, tethering the service dog and issuing limited verbal commands. The dog is trained to last the school day without food, water or bathroom walks.

The lawsuit requests the school district permit Devyn to act as the handler of her service dog, with assistance from school staff. It also seeks compensatory damages of about $25,000 for Pereira for the ongoing cost of the dog handler.  

Announcing the suit this week, Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “Honoring an individual’s choice to be accompanied by her service animal in all aspects of community life, including at school, promotes the ADA’s overarching goals of ensuring equal opportunity for, and full participation by, persons with disabilities.” In hearing the news of the department’s decision, Pereira responded, “knowing the United States of America is not only sympathizing with our situation, but willing to take this all way to the top to fix it is an amazing feeling.” And she added, “I have so many dreams for my little girl and with the DOJ’s help, they are all within our reach. It is so exciting to think we are blazing a trail for all those that follow with service dogs.”

For more information about this lawsuit, or the ADA, call the Justice Department’s toll-free ADA Information Line at 800.514.0301 or800.514.0383 (TDD) or access its ADA website at www.ada.gov.  Complaints of disability discrimination may be filed online at http://www.ada.gov/complaint/.

 

 

 

Dog's Life: Humane
Saving City Dogs
Helping dogs, one community at a time.
PAWS founder Matt Piccone (top right) greets a dog with a new dog house in Rochester;

Matt Piccone maneuvers his van through the streets of Rochester, a mid-sized city in upstate New York with the fifth-highest poverty rate in the nation. Beside him sits Hillary Cardin, a veterinary technician. He pulls the van to the curb in front of a beige, two-story, wood-frame house, and he and Cardin each grab an armful of straw from the back of the van. Piccone struggles to open a wooden gate obstructed by thick snow. Two Pit Bulls, Henny and Diamond, charge them.

“Hey, guys, get back in!” he shouts, hurriedly shutting the gate. As Piccone and Cardin drop the straw into two dog-houses, the dogs, tails wagging frantically, compete for attention. Henny steals a glove.

Cardin laughs at their exuberance. “Their energy level is a good sign. It means that they’re getting enough food to keep their body heat up in this weather.”

Before Piccone became a fixture in their lives, Henny and Diamond were underfed and had only a board slanted against the house for protection. The doghouses, built by apprentices in the local carpenter’s union, are doublewalled, fully insulated and raised six inches off the ground. The straw helps the dogs retain their body heat. “I climbed in a doghouse on a singledigit day and the temperature was 52 degrees,” says Piccone. The shorthaired dog nestled inside was warm to his touch.

The dogs’ owner, Anthony McBride, emerges from the house, wearing a wide smile. After some small talk, Piccone says, “Hey, Bro. Are you going to get Diamond spayed?” Henny is already neutered. The man nods, but is noncommittal as to when. “This would be a good time of year to do it,” Piccone offers, no trace of judgment in his voice.

Piccone is the founder of Providing Animal Welfare Services (PAWS) of Rochester, a fledgling animal welfare group. PAWS’ motto is “outreach, education and assistance.” By delivering doghouses and straw and providing free spay/neuter surgeries and low-cost vaccinations to city residents, PAWS has become a welcome presence in neighborhoods where pet owners can’t afford health care for their animals. To receive the doghouses and other perks, people must agree to sterilize their pets. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s a yes,” says Piccone.

Not surprisingly, it’s the backyard breeders who resist altering their pets. “I might get a solid ‘no’ for a year, but I’ll keep talking about it,” Piccone says. One of his proudest accomplishments was convincing a woman who had been breeding Pit Bulls for 20 years to have her three dogs altered and allow them to live inside. “Pointing fingers will get you nowhere,” says Piccone. “It’s a matter of time, patience, asking the right questions and knowing how to ask them.”

Before PAWS, Piccone worked as a security technician for Time Warner Cable. His job was to drive around city neighborhoods and locate households illegally tapping into cable services. Peering into back yards, Piccone, an animal lover, was often disturbed by what he saw: dogs tied on short chains, dogs who were sick and malnourished or who had fresh wounds from dog fighting. Dead animals dumped at the curb also haunted him.

For eight years, he made thousands of complaint calls to animal control and the local humane society. Either help never came, or a dog would be removed from the home, only to be replaced. “I was directly affected by what I saw,” Piccone says. “There was a lack of compassion for [poor] people. They had been written off as bad pet owners.”

One frigid winter day, Piccone saw two dogs in a back yard, one in a metal crate with a plastic bag over it, and a second lying on concrete, covered by a wooden box with no bottom. Piccone called animal control. “I was crying. I insisted someone come down.” The animal control officer who came said the shelters were sufficient. Piccone rang the front doorbell. “I was afraid the dog’s skin would freeze to the concrete. I was so overcome with emotion I didn’t even know what I was going to say,” he recalls. When a man opened the door, Piccone blurted, “Your dogs can’t live outside like that. Can I bring you two doghouses?”

Piccone and his father built the doghouses in less than a week, and PAWS was born. Two years later, Piccone and Cardin are still the only paid employees; Piccone’s wife, Laura, volunteers as the group’s grant writer/office manager. But with local donations and almost $130,000 from the national ASPCA, PAWS now operates a mobile spay/neuter clinic and a standing clinic, which provides wellness care (vaccinations, deworming, etc.) for $25 per visit. By June, Piccone plans to begin offering at the clinic high-volume, high-quality spay/neuter services, free to city residents. In less than two years, the nonprofit has sterilized 139 dogs and 55 cats. The ASPCA liked PAWS’ “caring, personalized approach to helping atrisk animals in the community,” says Jill Van Tuyl, a community initiatives director. “In a typical animal control response, the animal would be removed from the home and placed in the already overburdened shelter system. By offering ongoing support and education … PAWS is giving pet owners the resources they need to care for their pets and keep them in the home.”

Community-Based Help
PAWS is one of many grassroots animal welfare organizations partnering with the ASPCA and the HSUS to keep pets safe, healthy and in their homes, and to dramatically increase spay/neuter rates in communities without veterinary care.

The ASPCA created its Safety Net program in 2008 to enlist the public in reducing the number of abandoned animals. Initiatives include free and low-cost sterilizations, vaccinations, and online animal-behavior and rehoming advice.

Sterilization is a cornerstone of the campaign. Last year, the ASPCA awarded more than $5 million to grassroots organizations for spay/neuter programs, and that amount will increase each year, says Emily Weiss, PhD, the organization’s vice president of shelter research and development. The euthanasia rate is decreasing, but as many as four million pets are still destroyed in shelters each year. This is a rough estimate, as there is no central registry to track data, Weiss says.

To spend money most efficiently, the ASPCA is using a new geographic information system that pinpoints the neighborhoods sending the most dogs and cats to shelters. Those areas are then targeted for intervention. ASPCA staff have also conducted in-person surveys to find out why people surrender large dogs, who are the least adoptable and the most likely to be euthanized, says Weiss. At a Washington, D.C., shelter, pet owners cited a shortage of affordable housing that allowed dogs weighing more than 30 pounds. While this was also a problem in New York City, a larger issue was a shortage of low-cost veterinary care.

Austin, Texas, has become a model for reducing shelter deaths through aggressive spay/neuter services. The city’s per capita shelter intake is currently at its lowest in its history, and the number of homeless animals coming into the shelter each year has dropped from 23,351 in 2000 to 18,668 in 2013, says Amy Mills, chief executive officer of Emancipet (emancipet.org), Austin’s community-based spay/neuter and preventive care organization. These feats are impressive, given that Austin’s human population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2014, from less than 500,000 to 859,814, according to Austin officials. Mills credits this progress to the city’s emphasis on prevention efforts and a strong collaboration between Emancipet, the ASPCA, the city of Austin, Animal Trustees of Austin and the Austin Humane Society, a nonprofit shelter.

In 2005, Emancipet built a clinic with money from the city, Petsmart Charities and a local foundation called Impact Austin. In 2013, they opened a second clinic in Pflugerville, just north of Austin. The organization also operates two mobile clinics that cover a 70-mile radius, providing free spaying and neutering and other low-cost services four days a week. The city subsidizes most of the free services provided by Emancipet through a contract.

Using ASPCA data, Emancipet targets areas with the most homeless animals and complaint calls. “The real barriers are cost, understanding the [sterilization] procedure and trusting medical care,” Mills says. “What we’re finding is that vet care is not part of their family neighborhood culture. They never saw their parents take pets to vet.”

However, a little education goes a long way in changing attitudes. “We tell them their pet will have a longer, happier life and [the surgery] will keep them from having unwanted pets,” says Mills. “Some dog owners are worried the surgery will be painful. When I tell them we have good docs and pain meds, they’re okay.”

To reach more people, Mills and staff began attending Austin’s free rabies drives, approaching owners who brought their unaltered dogs. “When I asked people if they had ever heard of Emancipet, almost everyone said yes,” Mills recalls. “And when we offered to have their dogs fixed that day, 90 agreed and another 100 followed up the next week. Most people don’t say no when you are offering them a free surgery, right now, today.

“We feel now that we have infrastructure to get to anybody. Pet owners are having good experiences. They are treated with dignity and respect. We love their pets. We want to give them an incredible experience so their friends and neighbors will come.”

Emancipet was there for Maria Shofestall and her five cats when she couldn’t afford veterinary care. “You don’t have to make an appointment or spend lots of money,” she says. “They care about the animals, not about the profit.” Now, Shofestall volunteers for Emancipet, driving people and their pets to the clinic.

The ASPCA has given Emancipet a grant to replicate their clinic model in other communities using a state-ofthe- art semi-mobile clinic facility. In February, the group opened a new clinic in Killeen, Texas. “Once that clinic is sustainable, we’ll transition into a permanent location and then we’ll go on to the next community,” says Mills. “We have something amazing here—if we can export [it], we can save lives.”

Pockets of Poverty
When Amanda Arrington was growing up in rural eastern Texas, chained dogs were just part of the scenery. “You grow up thinking it’s completely normal,” she recalls. “It’s all you know. My grandfather chained his dogs.”

Arrington is now founder and executive director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs (unchaindogs.net), a Durham, N.C.– based organization that builds fences for low-income pet owners so dogs can exercise freely in their back yards. Owners must also agree to have their dogs sterilized.

An articulate, tireless advocate for animals, Arrington is also director of Pets for Life, an HSUS program that is improving access to veterinary care in underserved communities. Pets for Life staff run outreach programs in four cities, providing sterilization, vaccination and other services. And through a partnership with Petsmart Charities, Pets for Life provides in-depth training and grants to animal welfare organizations in 19 additional cities. The program altered 16,000 pets in 2012 and 2013.

Says Arrington, “If you are living in poverty, you [often] don’t have a car; the closest vet may be 10 miles away. You can’t take pets on public transportation. If people are struggling, their pets will struggle too. Even a $25 spay or neuter is out of reach for some people.”

* * * * *

For many dog lovers, it’s incomprehensible to think of leaving a four-legged friend outside in extreme weather. But boots-on-the-ground animal activists know it’s a mistake to judge someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. “It’s really about making a human connection … inspiring trust,” says Amy Mills. “People have a lot going on in their lives. It’s our job to be kind, nonjudgmental friends.”

Matt Piccone has no doubt that Anthony loves Henny and Diamond. He also knows that Anthony’s landlord won’t permit the dogs in the twofamily house. If the dogs are removed, there’s a good chance they will end up in a shelter and be euthanized. In the meantime, Piccone tries to make the dogs comfortable, safe and healthy— and sterile.

On January 7, with wind chill driving the temperature down to -34 degrees, all Rochester schools were closed for the day. The cold was so severe, said the local meteorologist, that bare hands could sustain frostbite within five minutes. That morning, Piccone received calls that three dogs were outside in non-insulated shelters. He got in his van to bring them straw, gave the dog owners information about PAWS and took down their contact information. “I see it as an opportunity to move in and talk to people about why their pets are outside and give them an opportunity to get their pets inside,” he says.

Piccone cannot forget the hours he spent sitting in his cable truck feeling helpless. “I had a list of 500 houses where dogs needed help,” he says. “Now I have something to offer people.”