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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Shelter helps dogs behave by giving them free play first

The Columbian
Published: June 5, 2015, 12:00am

PHOENIX, Ore. — Dogs need to play.

That statement may seem elementary, but local pet adoption officials say it’s crucial in identifying a dog’s real personality away from a more stressful shelter environment, especially for canines who appear to be more aggressive or problematic at first glance, which make them harder to adopt out.

“It’s an opportunity for us as staff and volunteers to get a better assessment of the dogs and what their true personality is like, which will better help us find a home for them, that’s better suited to them,” said Jackson County Animal Care & Control manager Barbara Talbert.

Recently staff and volunteers from several area pet shelters and humane societies gathered at Jackson County Animal Care & Control and the Southern Oregon Humane Society to learn about the impacts of letting canines play together. The event was hosted by Dogs Playing for Life, a Colorado-based nonprofit whose mission is to encourage playtime and socialization among groups of shelter dogs, calming them and increasing their chances of being adopted while living in shelter facilities.

“What we’re learning here is that dogs have a pretty good ability to discipline themselves if the humans get out of the way and intervene only when it becomes necessary,” Talbert said.

Aimee Sadler, founder and CEO of Dogs Playing for Life, has been working with shelter animals since 1998, but worked with animals professionally for many years before that. She came up with the idea while working as a private trainer at a shelter in Southampton, N.Y.

“When I started working with dogs in shelter environments, I realized that trying to help (dogs) be more mannerly was like an exercise in frustration for most of them,” Sadler said. “They’re coming from adverse conditions in the kennels, and because I was really comfortable with dogs in groups, it seemed really natural and normal to me to ask the shelter’s permission, ‘Can I go use that yard out there and let the dogs play first?’ And then any kind of individual training sessions will be fun for them. They’ll have gotten their ya-yas out, they’ll have appropriate access to dogs, which should be healthy for dogs. That’s where the whole thing started.”

The group started touring around the country in 2010. Their Rogue Valley stop was attended by officials and volunteers from the Jackson County Animal Shelter, Southern Oregon Humane Society, Sanctuary One, Roseburg’s Saving Grace Adoption Center, Bend’s Central Oregon Humane Society, and Salem’s Willamette Humane Society. Attendees gathered around the county animal shelter while dogs from the shelter were brought in a few at a time. The animals romped, sprinted, barked and ran. Almost like a recess.

“We’re able to put them in a more natural environment and see their personalities come out,” said Friends of the Animal Shelter volunteer Sherrie Bolin.

Kenn Altine, Southern Oregon Humane Society director, used Snooker, a female German shepherd that recently came to SOHS, as an example. At first, the dog leaped at the cage and barked whenever Altine approached the cage. But her demeanor changed when she was allowed to roam and play freely with other animals.

“That was fully transformational,” Altine said. “(Her) behavior at the gate is not the behavior. It’s a reaction to an environment.”

The method is reportedly making an impact, with multiple shelters across the country seeing a boost in their live release rate of up to 20 percent. Talbert wants Jackson County’s shelter to shoot for about 95 percent, up 10 percentage points from their current live release rate of 85 percent.

“We will save lives if we get this program,” Talbert said.

Altine added he believes it will also decrease length of stay for adopted animals, as they will learn dogs’ true personalities at a quicker rate and be able to pair them with new owners accordingly.