MUSKEGON, MI — Hildy looked nervous when she was removed from her cage and introduced to a group of funny-looking strangers.

As soon as they let her go, the German Shepherd bolted, managing to slip her head through the gate of a fenced-in play area. She was an extreme case of under-socialized dog at Pound Buddies Animal Shelter & Adoption Center in Muskegon.

There is hope for dogs like Hildy. The shelter received a $10,000 grant to train with Dogs Playing for Life, a four-day program that taught staff and volunteers how to implement play groups and socialize animals to help them deal with life in the pound.

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“(Being in a shelter) is not a natural environment, so all of our interactions with the dog are based on reducing stress,” said Pound Buddies Director Lana Carson. “Being in a confined location is unsettling and they can panic. People have the luxury of access to psychologists, but dogs don’t.”

The program instructed more than 50 volunteers and Pound Buddies staff how to teach sheltered dogs basic manners with structured kennel routines and leash walking skills. For dogs up for adoption, a stressful shelter environment can reduce their chances of finding a good home.

Shelters implementing 20 minute play groups each day have happier and more satisfied animals that are generally less stressed, which equates to less disease and extreme behavior that puts people and animals at risk, according to officials. Shelter animals and the volunteers who tend to them are safer, so more animals are able to find their way into loving homes.

“Letting dogs get out and play has always been a part of dog training, but it should be standardized,” said Ali Waszmer, director of program development for Dogs Playing for Life. “We see a considerable difference in the dogs, which lets them present better when people visit at shelters and help them be matched with a family.”

Dogs have a wide variety of personalities and are inherently social just like humans, Waszmer said. The Colorado-based non-profit organization visited Muskegon to work with dogs and determine their behavioral issues. Carson said this is especially helpful because dogs are often dropped off or found without any knowledge of their personalities.

Before the session on Friday, she walked out of the main office to find a dog tied up by the front door without any identification.

“We know nothing about them when they get here. We have to find out their behavior to make a good match and save their life,” she said.

The shelter is dealing with 92 dogs, but accommodates an excess of up to 108 during the summer. Founder Connie Karry said the shelter works with up to 2,000 dogs each year.

“When you can’t help them behaviorally or if there are space issues, a decision has to be made about euthanization,” she said. “There hasn’t been one animal put down here in about a year and a half, which is a testament for how hard this shelter works to save them.”

Pound Buddies also invited several shelters from across West Michigan to participate in the training for free. Noah Project, the Humane Society, Hearts of Hope, Harbor Humane Society, Al Van Animal Shelter, Canine Companions and Humane Society of Midland attended the training.

For more information about play groups, visit dogsplayingforlife.com

Malachi Barrett owns a five-year-old labrador and covers community news for MLive Muskegon Chronicle. Email him at mbarret1@mlive.com and follow him on Twitter @PolarBarrett or on Facebook.

By Malachi Barrett | mbarret1@mlive.com
on June 20, 2016 at 11:15 AM, updated June 20, 2016 at 11:16 AM

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