November 1, 2011

Q & A: Playing with a Purpose

Aimee Sadler shows shelters how to socialize dogs through play groups

By James Hettinger

Aimee Sadler, an animal trainer who specializes in play groups to socialize dogs and straighten out problem behaviors, finds an attentive audience at Longmont Humane Society in Colorado. Pamela Pierce

At the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS), animal care attendant/enrichment coordinator Brian George has a simple summation of the play groups the shelter began running earlier this year: “It’s about letting dogs be dogs, you know?”

Dogs in the BARCS play groups run and play in fenced yards furnished with hoses, small plastic swimming pools, sand, beach umbrellas, basketballs, volleyballs, and tennis balls—“everything we can think of,” George says.

“When they’re out in play group, it’s great stimulation for them physically and mentally,” he explains. “So when they’re back in the kennel in their cages, their cage behavior is just really improved. The better behaved they are in the cage, the better their chances are of getting adopted.”

The play groups, which have quickly become an essential part of the enrichment program at the shelter, grew out of a two-day training session conducted at BARCS last spring by Aimee Sadler, a veteran animal trainer specializing in behavioral problems.

The director of training and behavior for both the Longmont Humane Society in Colorado and the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation in New York, Sadler travels the country teaching shelters how to implement play groups. Having grown up in a home with multiple dogs, she says the approach comes naturally to her. Some shelters resist the idea, fearing that fights will break out. Sadler shows them that the groups can be run safely, no matter what breeds you have, if you divide the dogs according to compatible play styles.