About Dogs Playing for Life

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I get to run around the country and teach shelters how to let their shelter dogs play! Play groups have become an obvious way to enhance a shelter dog’s quality of life while kenneled. Incorporating daily canine play sessions has proven to be a “best bang for the buck” canine enrichment, assessment, training and adoption promotion program for animal welfare organizations internationally.

I began in sheltering as a private trainer paid by a heartfelt citizen to work with the dogs at the local, municipal shelter in Southampton, NY. I recognized quickly that efficiency was critical if I was to use my allocated time to help the most dogs cope better and find a family. At that time I didn’t understand how much life-­‐saving impact I would be able to achieve by simply letting dogs play, but I did recognize that getting twenty dogs out of their kennels in an hour was better than four.

I had always been comfortable with dogs in large groups since I was raised on a farm and we rescued many, having up to 17 at one time. It seemed logical to me that socializing in the yard first would better prepare the shelter dogs for their manners and basic training lessons. They would be able to expend excess energy in a healthy and interactive way that countered the common anxiety and frustration caused by life in a noisy, uncomfortable and stressful kennel. My task was to teach them to behave in an appealing and attractive way for volunteers and adopters. Playgroups quickly became the foundation of this work.

Why some animal shelters don’t let dogs play

To my surprise, shelter dogs having social access to one another still raises concerns revolving around safety, behavioral and health risks. As a result, social isolation has been the industry norm for both dogs and cats for far too long. Even more concerning is this practice when so many animals are still being lost in shelters!

The reasons described to me, at shelters of varying capacity and missions, are somewhat consistent:
“This is the way we’ve always done it…”
“The dogs might fight…”
“We might get an outbreak of _________…”
“We need to keep our volunteers safe…”
“We don’t have anyone qualified to let dogs play…”
“We don’t have the time or personnel to get the dogs out every day…”

The above concerns would pertain to all kinds of enrichment, training or behavior programs typically implemented. From my perspective, this reasoning is limiting and not in the best interest of the animals. No shelter boasts enough resources to employ the personnel necessary to adequately care for the animals. Everyone relies upon volunteers and/or community service support. Those who have strong volunteer programs are typically capable of providing the most, and allowing volunteers to handle sheltered animals entails a certain amount of inherent risk, no different than us buckling up and driving a car.

The exciting reported outcome from shelters implementing daily play groups is happily the opposite; that the above concerns happen less. Logically, happier and satisfied animals are generally less stressed which equates to less disease and extreme behavior that puts people and animals at risk. Subsequently, shelter animals (and the volunteers eager to attend to them) are safer in the process, so more animals are finding their way into loving homes.

In contrast with the latter concerns, our programs stress the consideration of the whole animal, physically, emotionally and behaviorally. We treat all animals as individuals. None of our behavior programs discriminate due to breed or category. Whether it is embracing colony housing for cats or play groups for dogs there is no doubt that offering a more natural environment and comprehensive approach helps shelters to better assess behavior, maintain healthy behavior and support better adoption matches. From our approach and our success, we have presented Dogs Playing for Life™ a training & behavior modification program for shelter dogs featuring play groups at animal welfare conferences and to over 40 shelters internationally. The two primary open admission shelters that have implemented Dogs Playing for Life™ in its’ entirety now maintain a canine live release rate in excess of 95%!

Letting shelter dogs play

Consequently, by letting shelter dogs play, we have learned a tremendous amount about canine behavior. Most specifically, we have been able to demonstrate that barrier behavior and on-­leash behavior are not reliable indicators of a dog’s ability to be social with another dog. Due to our measured results, we have been asked to share our expertise and assist leaders in the field such as the ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Society.

Animal welfare as an industry is constantly evolving. Our critical tasks at hand changes from year to year. Organizations, their volunteers and animals are clearly benefiting from the newest trends, as is demonstrated by an overall reduction of euthanasia rates and less discriminatory practices. In the end, this is our primary role as humane societies; to provide care and a safe haven for all companion animals no matter their shape, size or color) and support them into loving homes. Implementing daily play groups has proven to be a win-­‐win for people and animals! And to think that these exciting life saving outcomes revolve around something so simple and natural; let dogs be dogs and allow them to play together.

Aimee Sadler


Dogs Playing for Life™

DPFL Supporter Rockstars

petco foundation

ASPCA Granted us for our shelter dogs

Tortorella Family Foundation