Beyond Socialization - Using Shelter Play Groups for Training & Assessment

I’ve been doing various sorts of dog play groups for over ten years. But conducting play groups in the shelter environment is a much more challenging prospect. Having worked through some of those challenges, I’ve decided to share my solutions in an upcoming seminar, Beyond Socialization – Using Shelter Play Groups for Training Assessment. Not only will I be talking about challenges and solutions, but also the potential pitfalls of shelter play groups and how play can be used to better serve the dog and the adopting public.

Here’s an overview of some of the challenges I’ll be discussing:

Challenge: No History – When you’re working with shelter dogs you often don’t have the luxury of finding out what the dog has experienced up until now. It’s possible that they’re well socialized, went to puppy classes, lived with other dogs or went to dog parks. It’s also possible that they spent their entire young life in someone’s backyard, or even tied to a tree. Even when we do have owner surrender information, it can be confusing, misreported or even an outright lie. For instance, I have seen previous owners report that the dog “played well with other dogs”, “fought with other dogs”, “was friendly with new dogs” and “barked at strange dogs” all on the same surrender form. Sometimes, the information you have is no better than having no information.

Challenge: Artificial Environment – Anyone who has sat in on discussions about behavior evaluations in the shelter environment knows that there is a lot of concern for evaluating a dog who is under stress and in an environment that doesn’t relate to the real world. Imagine waking up in some weird, sci-fi world with nothing familiar around you and having your behavior assessed. Would you be acting the way you would at home or at work? I doubt it. For this reason there are allowances and precautions that must accompany play group assessment in the shelter that might not apply in other play group situations. There are also conclusions that should not be drawn or can be misleading when transferring what you see in a shelter play group to what you can expect out in the real world.

Pitfall: Dog-Centric Behavior – Many dogs in the shelter are untrained, stressed-out adolescents. Some have had very few positive interactions with humans and/or do not see humans as a relevant giver of resources. If a dog who doesn’t connect well with humans, but is friendly with dogs, is allowed to play endlessly with no training interruption, we have a problem. There must be a balance between the social outlet and building positive connections with people.

Challenge: Physical Health vs Behavioral Health – If a play group program is going to be successful in the shelter environment you’re going to need the support of the medical staff. Without open communication and understanding on BOTH sides, this can become a stumbling block. Play group supervisors have to understand health risks and disease prevention, while medical staff has to understand the importance of behavioral health and it’s possibly positive effect on physical health.

Challenge: Educating Staff & Volunteers – While many of the people currently working in shelters are excellent at assessing a single dog’s behavior as it relates to potential adopters, fewer of them are fluent in dog play language. There is a great need to educate anyone who is going to be involved in play groups on the ways that dog’s communicate with each other, which is different from the way they communicate with humans. Much of what goes on in a play group will be seen as inappropriate to the uninitiated. Likewise, some very serious red flags can be overlooked and lead to terrible consequences. Even if nothing bad happens, you’ll get more good things happening if everyone understands what’s really going on being the dogs.

Pitfall & Challenge: Arousal, Aggression & Accidents – We can’t control everything when we’re working with groups of dogs with varying behavior and social skill. But there are lots of things we can do to prevent over-arousal, which often leads to aggression. There’s also something to be said for pushing the envelope a bit in order to flesh out issues while the dog is still in the shelter, rather than passing on potential risk that may play out in an adopters home or the local dog park. It’s important to know when to keep going, when to stop and how to push forward safely. Knowing what constitutes real aggression and how play group behavior relates to real world behavior can protect the public and increase the likelihood of permanent placement.

That’s a bit of what I’ll be talking about in my upcoming seminar. It’ll take all of the two days to get through the information and video! I’m honored to share what I’ve learned and eager to see more shelters offering a play group program. I’m certain that as we continue to work in this area we will find more challenges and more solutions, hopefully resulting in better adoptions and fewer dogs languishing in the shelter environment.

If you’re interested in attending this seminar, where there will be LOTS of video, please visit Regarding Rover Seminars for more information and to register. See you soon!