‘Dogs Playing for Life’ team helps make shelter canines happier, more adoptable

FOTAS Volunteer Bonnie White (left) and Canine Coach Darling Rios manage a canine playtime session at the Aiken County Animal Shelter.

by Bob Gordon, FOTAS Director of Communications

Nearly every morning, a small team of volunteers heads to the Aiken County Animal Shelter’s play yard and gathers dogs from the kennels so they can exercise together. The canines romp, wrestle and chase each other while the team observes and oversees their joyous activity.

“The play groups make the dogs more adoptable,” said FOTAS Volunteer and Board Member Ellie Joos. “They give the dogs a chance to interact with each other and learn important skills and behavior that improve their self-esteem.”

While group interaction may seem like an obvious way to enhance a dog’s quality of life while kenneled, social isolation is still the norm at most shelters across the country. Organizing group play for dogs is a cutting edge approach and a big step forward for the shelter. Until introducing “Dogs Playing for Life” in May of last year, all the dogs were walked on a leash or brought into the play yards for solo exercise.

“The intent of this group play approach is to reduce the overall stress, anxiety and frustration of shelter life,” explained ACAS Adoption Coordinator Traci Deaderick. “Most of the dogs come in as strays with unknown backgrounds. But play group allows us to determine how well a dog will socialize with other dogs and pass this information on to prospective adopters – and this greatly improves their odds of being adopted to the family or person that best suits them.”

Running the playtime sessions is much more challenging than it looks. It takes skill, confidence and keen observation to mix dogs that get along and have the same playing style.

Canine coaches Chris Newell and Darling Rios usually lead the sessions, introducing dogs one at a time and combining canines like field generals running a team practice. Traci, FOTAS Volunteer Bonnie White and FOTAS Programs Coordinator Kathy Jacobs also consistently help manage the sessions.

While one-one-one time is still vital to every dog’s development, group play complements leash exercise. It has especially helped painfully shy dogs find their confidence and overly aggressive dogs discover how to play with others.

“Sometimes dogs have to learn how fun it is to play and get used to interacting with other dogs, Chris said. “For many, it’s a new experience.”

“But the first time you see a sad, shy dog break out of his shell and run full speed in play group and start to get a happy look on his face…there’s just something about that,” he adds, beaming like a proud parent. “It warms your heart.”

For more information on the Dogs Playing for Life program, go to dogsplayingforlife.org. To learn how to participate in the play group training at the shelter, please contact FOTAS at info@FotasAiken.org.

Their lives are in our hands.

 Canine Coach Chris Newell takes notes on the dogs during their play session. These observations help FOTAS and the shelter staff to assess animals and their adoptability.

Canine Coach Chris Newell takes notes on the dogs during their play session. These observations help FOTAS and the shelter staff to assess animals and their adoptability.

FOTAS Volunteer Bonnie White (left) and Canine Coach Darling Rios manage a canine playtime session at the Aiken County Animal Shelter.

FOTAS Volunteer Bonnie White (left) and Canine Coach Darling Rios manage a canine playtime session at the Aiken County Animal Shelter.

by MartinTest