Aimee Sadler, renowned dog trainer and founder of “Dogs Playing for Life – A Training Program for Shelter Dogs,” is returning to Mendocino Animal Care Services on Sept. 17, 18 and 19.
The public is invited to the free, three-day workshop, which has vastly improved the well-being of shelter dogs nationwide. “Aimee’s previous training at the Ukiah Shelter was a tremendous success,” according to Sage Mountainfire, shelter supervisor.
Using Sadler’s techniques, shelter dogs receive exercise, stimulation and socialization – activities that make them far better adoption candidates. The program has been in place at the Ukiah Shelter for the past 18 months, and more volunteers are needed so that all dogs in the facility can benefit from the program.
Anwar Verdun, animal facility attendant, runs the Play Groups. He sees incalculable benefits for the shelter residents – benefits that can be transferred to all dog owners.
During Wednesday afternoon’s Play Group, six lively adult dogs had a field day in what was once the county’s HazMat facility. A fenced, covered concrete area, hundreds of square feet in size, contains a few crates and some plastic swimming pools, surrounded by native soil. The site is intentionally sparse so that dogs focus on each other. The dogs, literally, have “the run” of the enormous space.
“We’re running the Play Groups out here, modeling Aimee’s program – getting dogs out, socializing and making them more adoptable. My job is to socialize them,” says Verdun, a shelter employee for several years. Prior to this job, Verdun spent three-and-a-half years training in canine socialization, rehabilitation and pack walks.
“We’d started a little bit of this work before Aimee came on board. Our shelter dogs are mostly strays, with different temperaments and pack dynamics. We let them play and let them be social. The Play Group helps shelter dogs learn to socialize and transition into homes with other animals,” Verdun continues.
Verdun is the lead handler for the program. His goal is getting every shelter dog to the play area. For that, more trained volunteers are needed.
“The program is all about rotation. We’re trying to get through the whole population. We have greeter dogs and other dogs with specific roles. We rotate the groups so dogs don’t get used to each other. Some dogs come and go quickly, so the remaining dogs have opportunities to socialize with many others.
“We need runners – people getting dogs from their kennels, walking them to the play area and bringing them back. I can watch about four to six dogs on my own, but we like to have another person keeping an eye on them when we have more dogs in the play area,” he continues.
When the dogs arrive at the play area, Verdun lets them greet each other at the gate, using Sadler’s techniques. “The dogs give me a general feeling about how things are going to go. I’m here as the overseer. They tell me what’s happening. It’s all about pack dynamics. They figure out who’s who and what the rules are without a lot of intervention from us humans,” he smiles.
All the dogs are ebullient – running, romping, sniffing, tails wagging – behaving exactly like the happy, well-adjusted pets Verdun hopes they will become. “No one rough houses too hard. Usually the dogs tell me if an incoming dog might be a problem. We observe body language, how they greet at the gate, if they’re timid or stiff – it takes a while to know what you’re looking for.”
Verdun points to a young Pit-mix playfully sniffing an older female. “Chanel is being a little inappropriate. We let that go. Dogs tell other dogs what’s OK and what isn’t. We’ve got dogs that bounce into each other. We’ve got a rough and rowdy bunch who love to chase each other and jump into the pools. We train a variety of dogs to get integrated into the pack. We even have some un-neutered and un-spayed dogs –we keep them mixed up, which is fine, as long as we keep an eye on them,” he smiles.
“We like the dogs to correct each other. We’re just here to steer them. We use a water sprayer, our voices and a ‘shake can’ so they understand what they should and shouldn’t be doing.”
“If we have three people in the play area, I’m freed up to work with more challenging dogs. I do muzzle work, and with time, those dogs can come to Play Group. Dogs get more motivated when they’re working their minds, learning pack structure, hanging out with different breeds,” Verdun continues.
“Aimee was a dog trainer who developed an innovative play group program. After doing this work, she realized this was the way to help shelter dogs. Walks are great, but dogs receive maximum benefits through play. Twenty minutes in a play group is an excellent form of exercise and relaxation,” says Mountainfire.
“I learned about Aimee reading Bark Magazine. I contacted her two years ago to see if she’d come to California. We received information about how to apply for funding. The first time she came, fees were covered by the Animal Farm Foundation. One of the stipulations was that you had to be an open admission shelter – meaning you accepted all dogs as individuals, not deeming them unadoptable based on breed. We had a good turnout. It was really inspiring for staff, and particularly for Anwar, because this is an extension of the work that he’d been doing previously. For someone with such excellent skills, it made sense that he coordinated the play groups,” says Mountainfire.
The Play Groups are limited only by the number of trained volunteer runners. “The other day, Anwar worked with 14 dogs, but he could have worked with 30 if he had more runners. Running is not a particularly high-skill task, but you must be physically capable and comfortable handling dogs of all sizes. Our dogs need more runners, and we’d love to have another handler like Anwar. We’re very open to training the right volunteer,” Mountainfire continues.
The goal of the shelter is to adopt every dog. Sadler’s program helps shelter staff understand and work with insecure or stressed animals, which can be due to anxiety, to unfamiliar settings, to bullying by previous owners or dogs, or being deprived of food or shelter. Once allowed to romp, sniff and play, a dog’s natural curiosity and healthy personality resurfaces, followed by emotional decompression. The enrichment of play normalizes imbalances, making once-stressed dogs excellent candidates for forever homes.
Verdun has attended three of Sadler’s seminars. “You can never know enough about shelter life. Shelters are not doggie day care. We don’t always know the history of the dogs we receive. We have to analyze them and discover their temperament,” he explains.
“We do initial evaluations with incoming dogs, observing handling, looking for a tendency to hoard toys and other revealing behaviors. The first evaluation is a meet-and-greet with another dog. We try to drop their leash. If there are tension issues, we move that dog to a higher priority with the Play Groups.
“Are there just leash issues or other behavioral components? Some behaviors are directly related to being on the leash. This is where Play Group is invaluable. By observing and letting dogs play, we can tell adopters that a dog might not be comfortable at the dog park or might be skittish on neighborhood walks, but looks like an excellent playmate if a friend’s dog comes over to visit,” says Mountainfire.
“Anyone who’s interested in this kind of training should attend this workshop. You’ll learn how to let dogs be dogs, about safe and rewarding play – great skills for all dog lovers. Don’t miss this great opportunity to improve the lives of our community’s homeless dogs,” Mountainfire concludes.
“I’ve seen a lot more animals get adopted since we implemented this program. Social dogs are happier, friendlier dogs. Please come to Aimee’s training and learn how to deal with shelter dogs, how to read dogs, how to apply these skills at home and become a volunteer. I’m hoping this inspires people to help, so all our dogs can get out and enjoy quality time with their shelter buddies,” Verdun concludes.
The training will take place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a one-hour lunch break. Pre-registration to the course is required, and attendees must commit to attending the full, three-day workshop. The shelter is located at 298 Plant Road. Register by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (707) 467-6453.
For more information about Sadler’s program, visit her website at https://dogsplayingforlife.com