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.