Dog Play Photos by Valen Kester
Have you ever had a moment when you realized that a deeply held belief is totally wrong?
Up until recently I might have told you that I knew a little something about dog-on-dog aggression and introducing dogs – I have dog aggressive dogs at home, and I participated in some dog aggression mythbusting back at Pets Alive Westchester when it was first taken over by Pets Alive. I thought I knew the subject pretty well.
And then, this past weekend, I saw things that blew my mind. I’m accustomed to relatively small play groups of dogs, usually 3 or 4, but I saw large playgroups of the dogs of Pets Alive in Middletown, NY – sometimes 25 or more – and I saw every single dog on the property participate in them. That includes dogs whom I have repeatedly personally tested for dog aggression in a variety of ways and have failed. That includes a former fighting dog, seized from a convicted dogfighter in New Jersey. That includes the toughest dogs that a sanctuary has to offer – dogs with known histories of altercations with other animals. For those of you who know them, that includes Cam, Rem, Molly, Okra. Playing, happily, in large groups.
Trainer Aimee Sadler presented a seminar of her Dogs Playing For Life system at Pets Alive Middletown over this past weekend. It uses dog playgroups as a tool for dog evaluation, socialization, training, enrichment, and behavior modification. It represents a change in traditional shelter thinking where the majority of dog meetings happen in a tightly controlled, micromanaged way and instead allows the dogs tremendous freedom to introduce themselves and to interact in a natural manner, with handlers only stepping in to guide interactions when necessary. And it works.
The benefits for our dogs are endless. Because many dogs can be out together at once, it’s a very time-efficient way of working. Dogs get exercise, social contact, and enrichment. Dogs no longer develop behavior issues out of social isolation, frustration, or boredom – their stress is tremendously reduced. Staff gets to know the animals much better, resulting in better placement. Regular playtime can decrease on-leash aggression towards other dogs and barrier reactivity. Volunteers have dogs to work with who are friendlier, more relaxed, and more receptive to learning. At the end of the first day, a silence settled over Camp Tyler, as happy, tired dogs relaxed and napped after their long day of play.
Watching dogs I had long considered aggressive towards other dogs play happily was the first mindblowing event of the seminar, but it wasn’t the last. We have several puppies, just a few months old, who are semi-feral and very fearful of people. They are so afraid that when a new person approaches their pen, they will all crowd to the farthest corner and shiver in fear. They love other dogs, however, and immediately began to play as soon as they were added to the group – even with three handlers in the pen and 30 people just outside it watching them! By the end of the session, some were approaching handlers in the pen they had only just met and engaging in petting and handling. That’s after just one session! I’m accustomed to progress like that taking weeks! It’s always exciting when you see learning happening in front of you, but I have simply never seen it at this sort of accelerated pace.
There are some people who believe that these playgroups pose an unacceptable risk, as dogs may fight. And that certainly can happen – but we have excellent handlers standing close by who can quickly stop altercations, and we have every confidence that as we get more experience with our dogs and this system that the risk will be reduced even further. The benefits are simply too massive to ignore; it is no exaggeration to say that this is the most exciting development I have seen in dog sheltering in years – the terms game-changing and revolutionary are accurate. We feel strongly that the small increase in carefully managed risk is worth the tremendous benefit to our animals. We not only have an obligation to keep our sanctuary animals alive, but to give them a life worth living – and for our dogs, this is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. This is where we’re going. This is our future, and I expect this to be one of our most important tools – if not the most important – to keep our dogs happy, healthy, and more adoptable. We’re jazzed.
So we’re fully committing to the Dogs Playing For Life system, starting by running daily play groups at Pets Alive in Middletown and eventually expanding to Pets Alive Westchester. We hope you’ll come and join us – we’re going to need your help, too!
Prepare to have your mind blown.