Ukiah shelter learns how to let dogs play

Consultant Aimee Sadler watches two dogs interact during a training session Thursday at the Ukiah Animal Shelter. (Nathan DeHart-Ukiah Daily Journal)
Anwar Verdun, an employee of the Ukiah Animal Shelter, works with a group of dogs during a play session Thursday. (Nathan DeHart-Ukiah Daily Journal)


This week was a good time to be a dog at the Ukiah Animal Shelter.

That’s because dog trainer and behaviorist Aimee Sadler and her staff were visiting, meeting each dog and giving them a chance to do something very simple that could change their lives: play.

“Dogs live to play, so why don’t we let them play to live,” said Sadler, a Colorado-based consultant who will be visiting 100 shelters across this country this year to encourage shelters to add play groups to their dogs’ daily lives by teaching them the basics of fostering good doggie social skills.

Sadler calls her program “Dogs Playing For Life” for many reasons, the first of which is that play adds to the quality of their lives, making whatever time they spend at a shelter more enjoyable.

More importantly, though, engaging a dog in play with other dogs gives shelter staff key insights into the dog’s personality and helps them determine what types of homes they would fit into. And, perhaps most important of all, a dog that gets to release pent-up energy during rousing play sessions will likely become much more relaxed and happy overall, meaning he or she is much more likely to be adopted.

“Implementing daily play groups will help any shelter get to a better level,” Sadler said. “A better level of quality of life, a better level of assessment and a better rate of adoption for their animals.”

Recognizing that dogs are “very social beings,” shelter director Sage Mountainfire said she has wanted to add play groups for the facility’s animals for a while, but wanted to make sure her staff was properly trained first.

She said some of the dogs do share kennels, which provides them much-needed time together, but “that still did not meet the need to play. If you watch dogs playing with each other, off leash, you see the tremendous joy the dogs experience. Also, if potential adopters can watch dogs at play, they can more fully experience the potential of the dog they are considering adding to their family.”


Sadler said the best way to create a successful play group is to find “greeter” dogs, which she described as “happy-go-lucky, friendly dogs who like to play, but can also give and take corrections.”

Once you find greeter dogs that you trust, you can have them “greet” new dogs at the gate to their play area, and let their reactions determine if you should let a new dog in. Judging those reactions is more of an art than a science, however. Barking, an erect tail and raised hackles can be bad signs when combined, but aren’t always on their own.

So what you don’t want to do, according to Sadler, is “focus on the minutia,” meaning you decide that a stiff, raised tail is always bad. “You want to look at the whole body, and the totality of the signs,” she said, adding that what is almost certainly never a problem is “a loose, wiggling body and a loose, floppy tail wag.”

One of the biggest mistakes people make when supervising dogs, especially their own, she said, is “micro-managing” their interactions.

“The dogs have to learn how to interact from each other,” she said. “If you’re always intervening, they will never learn how to behave properly.”

That doesn’t mean humans should never intervene, she said, but to understand that they are there to “steer and apply the brakes,” meaning they can calmly correct bad behavior when another dog fails to give or understand corrections, or stop the activity and remove a dog if necessary.

Rather than giving vocal corrections, Sadler and her staff used squirt bottles to get a dog’s attention when they wanted to stop a behavior.

“You want to be just enough of a nuisance that they decide to stop,” she said.

The training she provides is particularly important for shelters, she said, because dogs that have been isolated for a while often lose their social skills when they don’t get the opportunity to use them.

“I think this program is going to revolutionize shelters,” said Sallie Palmer, a certified dog trainer, who has trained hundreds of Ukiah-area dogs and their handlers.

“It is so healthy, both mentally and physically, for these shelter dogs to be able to run and play with other dogs. I could see the dogs transforming in front of me. They went back to their kennels tired and satisfied. I can’t wait until this program is up and running at our shelter.”

Starting next week, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Mountainfire said the shelter is offering a “St. Paddy’s Day” special, meaning any bully breed can be brought home for $50 ($75 if it needs to be spayed or neutered) until March 21. Call 467-6453 for more information.