Lots of play helps sheltered dogs socialize

New outdoor areas at city kennel will keep strays healthy, improve social skills

April 12, 2012|By Bridget Doyle, Chicago Tribune reporter

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After watching a 2-year-old mutt named Ruben play with a group of other dogs for just 10 minutes, trainer Matthew Valentino can tell he’s a people pleaser.

“He’s highly obedient. He’d open the door for you if you asked,” Valentino said. “He just wants to please.”

Dogs like Ruben used to be confined to cramped kennels at the city of Chicago’s shelter on the Lower West Side. Now the dogs have outdoor spaces where they can run and play in groups without leashes, part of an effort to increase the social skills and adoptability of abused and neglected animals.

Chicago’s Commission on Animal Care and Control showed off the first outdoor play lots for shelter dogs Wednesday at its headquarters. Four grassy areas, the largest 100 feet by 40 feet, are separated by chain-link fencing and provide places for dogs to romp and interact.

“On-leash greetings between dogs are usually artificial and cause strife and angst,” said Janice Triptow, lead trainer and behavior consultant for Safe Humane Chicago. “In the play lots, we can see how a dog interacts with others and even have potential adopters bring by their current dog to see if the two are a good match.”

The play lots, which cost about $30,000 to create, were paid for with a grant from the Animal Farm Foundation, a nonprofit animal rescue group dedicated to humane treatment of animals.

Triptow said the play areas will give shelter staff and volunteers a clearer picture of each dog’s personality, which helps in placing them in appropriate homes. The space also helps the dogs maintain healthy personalities, she said.

“This is physical, mental and behavioral stimulation for the dogs,” Triptow said. “A lot of shelter dogs become kennel-crazed. The outdoor play and exercise will help them maintain themselves in a shelter setting.”

Before getting to play in the outdoor areas, dogs are assessed to see if they’re ready to socialize with other dogs. If so, they are put into play groups with dogs of similar personalities for up to an hour.

“Some are delicate and dainty, others are rough and ready,” said Cynthia Bathurst, executive director of Safe Humane Chicago. “They’re separated by their play type; it’s all about personality.”

Animal Farm Foundation and Safe Humane Chicago brought in dog trainers from around the country for three days to teach shelter volunteers the basics of safe canine group interaction.

Aimee Sadler, executive director of the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation in Southampton, N.Y., said her goal is to train volunteers how to use the space safely and to appropriately read the dogs.

“The volunteers are managing the play groups and helping set these dogs up for success,” Sadler said.

Valentino, Southampton’s lead trainer, said they’ll train the volunteers to act like security guards or bouncers in the play areas, in a hands-off approach.

“We’re here to let the dogs be dogs,” Valentino said. “Dogs are better at correcting each other’s behavior, so it’s better for us to let them work out conflicts themselves. When necessary, the volunteers should step in.”

Triptow said she thinks the new outdoor space will help make dogs easier to adopt because they’ll be more attractive and happy after interacting with other dogs.

“We’re going to end up saving more lives,” she said.

bdoyle@tribune.com