Playgroups are one of the most important ways that animal shelters keep dogs mentally stimulated and socialized. Playgroups allow staff to get to know each dog’s unique play style and behavior. They use this information to find the best home for every dog. 

Playgroups give potential adopters the opportunity to see the real dog instead of the cooped up version in the kennel. Pictures and videos of dogs playing happily with other dogs make it much more likely that these dogs will be adopted. 

Volunteer assists with playgroups

Perhaps most importantly, playgroups are an essential right of dogs, as defined by The Five Freedoms of Companion Animals. Dogs have the right to display normal behavior. For dogs, that means playing and socializing with one another.

Participating in and photographing playgroups is one of the most exciting things that I get to do with shelter dogs. The importance of playgroups has been well documented throughout shelters nationwide, thanks largely to the Dogs Playing For Life program. 

Playgroups allow even shelters with minimal resources to offer dogs high-quality enrichment. One handler can manage several dogs playing at once, and a small group of handlers can manage large playgroups with minimal effort.

This allows for much more playtime and much more enriching time than one on one interaction between staff and dogs who spend the rest of their time in small kennels. Some dogs can even be housed together, allowing for full time normal socialization, as well as more space to live in. 

These ideas aren’t just theoretical. They work. 

Playgroups occur as frequently as possible, but with limited staff, volunteers can be essential so there are enough people present to help control dogs, especially for larger playgroups. Here are a few things that I’ve learned while participating.

How are playgroups organized?

At my local animal shelter, playgroups are organized and overseen by the shelter veterinarian and also conducted by staff. On the clipboard are notes on somewhere around 100 dogs.

All of the information gathered on every dog is important. This includes intake notes, whether the dog was surrendered by an owner or picked up as a stray. It also includes notes about behavior in the kennel, behavior through barriers, behavior on leash, and, if safe, behavior in loose play.

Large playgroup engaged in energetic play

How often are dogs tested, with how many other dogs?

Dogs are tried with other dogs at a set time after intake and repeatedly after that. Dogs are tried with a wide variety of dogs. Gender differences, energy level, play style, confidence, and many other factors are taken into consideration when choosing potential playmates and playgroups for each dog.

Some dogs are more laid-back

What do animal shelters and rescues learn from playgroups?

Staff and volunteers learn so much from playgroups. Sometimes they learn how dogs get along with other dogs. Sometimes they learn that some dogs are too stressed to behave normally in the shelter environment. 

These dogs may need extra enrichment like doggie day outs or they may be a priority for foster homes. Some dogs need extra help at the shelter for behavioral modification or to determine whether their behavior indicates dog aggression. Some dogs may be unsafe to be managed with the minimal resources of the shelter and need to go to a rescue for extra help as soon as possible.

If dogs demonstrate consistent problematic behavior in playgroups, on outings, or in the shelter, rescues are notified and asked to take the dog into a program designed to work on behavioral modification with a foster family who is capable of controlling the dog while working on behavioral concerns.

Private rescues draw on the suggestions made by animal shelter staff to decide which dogs to take into their rescues, whether to take dogs to adoption events and what kind of foster home would be ideal for each dog.

Play bows and relaxed facial expressions indicate dogs who are comfortable together

What about dogs with severe dog-aggression?

For dogs that show persistent and intense aggression towards other dogs, especially in cases where a dog may have a history of fighting, dog-dog tests may not be appropriate. It can be traumatizing to the tester dog to be exposed to a dog showing severe aggression. Furthermore, the possibility of a serious accident occurring is much higher. For these dogs, other information is used to determine the severity of dog aggression.

Loose leash introductions maintain control while eliminating barrier aggression

What does “Dog-friendly,” mean?

We often hear the word “dog-friendly” in terms of, “Is this dog dog-friendly?” or, “I need a dog-friendly dog.” In reality, the concept of dog-friendliness is a bit silly. After all, you wouldn’t say you’re not “person-friendly” just because you don’t like everyone you meet. People get along on a diverse scale. The same is true of dogs. Most arguments don’t result in injury between dogs, and serious fights are rare. 

The way that dogs play and relate together in a group teaches us a lot. We can learn that a dog gets along with a particular gender, personality type, or individual dog. We learn that some dogs get along with most dogs, while other dogs are selective about the dogs they like to be around. Some dogs are great on leash but don’t care for free play, while other dogs are wonderful with other dogs in free play but reactive on the leash. All of this information helps us find the perfect home for each dog and keeps adoption return rate lower. 

Dogs make best friends so quickly

Do playgroups help save dogs?

Information gained from playgroups, along with notes from day outs, fostering, and behavior in the shelter, all work together to form a plan for each dog.

This makes it more likely that a dog will not only find a home, but find the best home for them. It also keep dogs with potentially dangerous behavior problems from ending up in the wrong homes.

Playgroups are just one of the many ways that animal shelters and rescues get to know the dogs that pour into their kennels each week while simultaneously enriching their lives.

How to get involved

Playgroups are so much fun to be a part of. Contact your local animal services, Humane Society, or private rescue to see if they allow volunteers to participate. If there isn’t a playgroup program at your local shelter, see if you can get one started.

Expect to be asked to demonstrate your competence with dogs in the yard and doing leash interactions, perhaps for some time before you can participate in playgroups. Not ready to jump into playgroups? Learn more about playing with dogs in the yard. 

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