Playgroup Programming for Shelter Dogs

Let me begin by saying that I’ve been observing dog play, and facilitating dog play in various settings (puppy classes, adult fearful dog classes, “out and about” classes, sheltering situations, obedience class situations) and for different purposes (building social skills, building response to handlers when with other dogs, enhancing quality of life, imparting remedial social/play skills in older dogs who have very little experience interacting with other dogs, social facilitation for dogs afraid of humans…). I have studied the literature related to dog interaction from various places, attended seminars with people like Dr. Roger Abrantes, Sarah Kalnjas, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Aimee Sadler and her son Cody of Dogs Playing for Life, and a video workshop with Mara Velez, of Shelter Playgroup Alliance, and others. I claim no expertise in the area, aside having done many hours of observation and study.

Given that information, I do want to discuss, compare, contrast, and expand on, the two “systematized” (arranged according to an organized system; made systematic- Merriam-Webster, playgroup options currently available for dogs in sheltering situations. These are The Shelter Playgroup Alliance and Dogs Playing for Life. I have had the opportunity to attend the shelter presentations of both of these systems. I describe them as “Systems” because they have distinct structures which they recommend, and which they promote and bring to shelter facilities and staff for education in their respective system. It’s important that we recognize systems approaches are preferred in larger organizations, as they present a structure that is easy for a facility to adopt across the board, as most shelters and rescues do not have the time, staffing, or capacity, to design their own system. These systems generally claim to be “proven” in some way, either through anecdotal information or specific data.

My initial take on both of these systems is that we/they need to clearly define the end goal of playgroups in sheltering. Are we trying to add quality of life and enrichment? Are we trying to teach new skills to dogs who have few social skills? Are we trying to provide social facilitation opportunities for dogs who are fearful of humans or other situations, but make progress when other dogs are present? Are we trying to gather information on dogs for potential adopters?

Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these systems have clearly defined their end goals, which is part of the reason they are so at odds. I do think that they are operating towards different goals, and within different belief systems.

Dogs Playing for Life has two separate components, the first being playgroups in shelters, the second being their specific shelter, where they train dogs deemed “difficult” or “unadoptable” for tasks and jobs outside of becoming pets. In this blog, I am only going to address DPFL’s shelter playgroup program. I have little experience with their DPFL shelter, though, as a side note, I have spoken with others who have worked there and it appears to me that it’s the structure and specifics of training, rather than the play component, that makes their in shelter program successful.

The basic focus of DPFL is getting ALL dogs in the shelter out to playgroup every day. Regardless of whether the dogs exhibit stress, offensive or defensive aggression, or fear. The demonstrated belief is that dogs will learn from one another and stop aberrant behaviors due to the social pressure of other dogs. Dogs who exhibit aggression are muzzled and sent into playgroups. The language of DPFL is old school dog training language, implying a confrontational relationship between handlers and dogs. In DPFL, the main tools are a shaker can or jug, and a spray bottle. Handlers are instructed not to interact with the dogs, only to spray front feet with the bottle if the dogs approach the handlers or try to engage the handlers, to spray the dogs or shake cans at dogs who are mounting other dogs, to shake the shaker at dogs who are engaging in high arousal behaviors. Dogs are played in large groups, with, ideally, a variety of “play styles”. (Play styles are not something recorded in the scientific literature, according to Shelter Playgroup Alliance, but are popularly discussed among “dog people”. This is something I want to research further). DPFL encourages free for all play for the dogs.

Shelter Playgroup Alliance’s basic focus is providing playgroup dyads as enrichment and an addition to quality of life for the small percentage of dogs who enjoy play (within SPA’s very tight definition of “play”, which I’ll address later). While also providing other forms of in and out of kennel enrichment for dogs in sheltering who are not attending playgroups. The basic guidelines include assessing body language carefully to determine interest and “consent” to play, redirection to handler with a squeaker and food, and short, controlled playgroups. Their basic tools include harnesses, food, squeakers and training in canine body language. Both systems include use of a hog board and water for when things take a turn for the worse in playgoup.

On to my perception of the pros and cons of each system. Please keep in mind I am rating these systems within their usefulness to a typical, open admission, public shelter.

Dogs Playing for Life was the first program of its kind. It promotes dog interaction, which can be very beneficial for many dogs. It promotes out of kennel time for every dog, each day. DPFL claims that anyone can facilitate a successful playgroup with their training. In many shelter situations, this opportunity for dogs to get enrichment and out of kennel time is the only one that really works, due to staffing numbers and space constraints. Implementation undoubtedly benefitted many dogs who otherwise were getting no enrichment whatsoever, and no interaction with dogs or people. Some dogs who may otherwise have been deemed unadoptable may have benefitted from the exercise, outlets of species specific behaviors, and/or social facilitation of other dogs, in becoming more comfortable with people and new spaces. I wish there were any data pertaining to the benefits. There may be some now, but at the time that I attended the DPFL shelter playgroup training, there was no data available.

The every dog in playgroup strategy for enrichment purposes backfires, in my opinion, because not every dog enjoys playgroup. Dogs who do enjoy playgroup initially can become unwilling to participate due to the addition of dogs who are aggressive, rude, bullying or otherwise not fun to interact with. Large group play can be a great opportunity for dogs to practice behavior we don’t want, like humping, grabbing, prey-type behavior and bullying. Many dogs appear to be overwhelmed by large groups of dogs. Many dogs quickly become overstimulated and don’t practice appropriate dog social skills when in a large group setting, some of these might benefit from playing in a smaller group. The large group setting can also be difficult or untenable for unskilled or low-skill shelter workers or volunteers to facilitate, and may lead to an unacceptable number of fights and injuries. On the other hand, this can be a plus for understaffed shelters, where dogs otherwise will be sitting in kennels with no stimulation. Though I think one remedy for that can be in kennel enrichment, although in shelters where animals are group housed, that may not be an option.

The “people factor” of DPFL is not a good path to adoptability. If our end goal is getting dogs into homes (typically pet homes), where they will be primarily interacting with humans, forcing them not to engage or communicate with people during playgroup is counterproductive. Using spray bottles and shake cans may cause humans to become something to be avoided. I believe if we want dogs to build partnerships and relationships with humans, we need to build in extra value for people, through reinforcing interaction. The added lack of structured introduction or reorienting to handler builds the arousal level for the dogs going into PG, and in effect “teaches” them that people aren’t a factor and they should get super aroused and ready to play/interact any time they see a dog. Which I think becomes a problem when we adopt them out and they go for a walk. They think they should play with every dog, and have no value for the handler, so aren’t going to re-orient. I believe we need to give them a headstart on training by interacting and using PG as a reinforcer for other behaviors, even if it’s a very simple re-orient to handler.

DPFL by design works through flooding, placing many dogs together, for relatively long play sessions, with very little interruption or direction of interaction by handlers.

Shelter Playgroup Alliance is coming at the playgroup from a completely different focus. The main objective is to create a more enriched life for shelter dogs, whether through playgroups or other forms of enrichment. SPA’s program is VERY risk averse, which I understand from a perspective of the program being facilitated in the shelter by unskilled/low skilled volunteers and/or staff. Their definition of “play” is narrow, only including behaviors in which both dogs of a dyad are exhibiting behaviors defined in their training (and in scientific literature) as “play” specifically. Dogs who are avoidant, defensive, aggressive, or repeatedly rude to the point that their play partner is avoidant, defensive or aggressive, are excluded from play in that dyad. Unfortunately, this does exclude many dogs who may benefit from play given a slower introduction, an opportunity to watch another appropriate dyad playing, or a different play partner. Though there are recommendations for alternate work such as BAT prior to reintroducing to play, if there is staffing who can do that, and adaquate time in shelter.

All play in the SPA model is done in dyads, which is what research shows as far as “play” observed in canids. However, this is both staffing-intensive and time intensive, and also leaves out dogs who may need to sit on the sidelines and observe, before attempting to engage in play with other dogs. Having more than just a dyad can help with social facilitation. Again, rehabilitation/behavior change is NOT the goal of SPA playgroups, the goal is enrichment.

At the beginning of the SPA workshop, it’s mentioned that only 25% of dogs in their experience WANT to play with other dogs. I think this could be accurate, as many adult dogs show little interest in other dogs, or are defensive toward them (which is likely a learned behavior). But I also think more than 25% of dogs can benefit from play, however, in respect to SPA’s focus on enrichment only, not behavioral change/rehabilitation of the dogs, this number may be accurate. Placing dogs who don’t want to play into groups may result in higher stress and anxiety for them, which is counter to the enrichment strategy.

The SPA webinar/workshop is both free of charge to shelters and individuals, and intensive. The coverage of dog body language is extremely comprehensive, with photos and videos of expressions and body postures in a wide variety of dogs and settings. For someone who is inexperienced in observing canine body language and play, it’s a great resource. Again, it is all defined in standardized, scientific language, but the definitions are quite strict, and dogs who fall outside the strict definition of “play” used in the SPA system are excluded from playgroups. As a learning tool, the presentation is well put together and in-depth, and presented from a scientific POV.

The core concepts of SPA, 1. LIMA 2. Hierarchy of Behavior Change Procedures (Friedman, et al) 3. NO Flooding 4. Managing arousal are IMO best practices for a shelter enrichment program. If the goal is solely enrichment, and the goal must be achieved by unskilled/minimally skilled volunteers and staff, these are a solid foundation.

I found the SPA protocol for introductions to be well planned, slow enough to maintain low arousal and comfort levels for dogs and handlers, and lowest possible risk. Honestly close to what I use with private clients. However, as mentioned above, the staffing needs, and time requirements may be untenable to many shelters, as may the skill level required to handle and read the body language of the dogs.

The use of the squeaker and food to redirect the dogs when the dogs are escalating in arousal is an excellent technique, especially when practiced as they mentioned, upon moving dogs from kennels, while walking them around, in situations when they aren’t in the presence of other dogs. This technique has the added advantage of building value for humans, even in a situation where another dog is present. Teaching a “direct to handler” is never a bad thing, IMO, especially in dogs we are hoping to place in pet homes.

My conclusion on the two programs, DPFL and SPA, is that if I were choosing a program for my shelter, for enrichment purposes only, I would choose SPA, due to their focus on stress free, enriching encounters for the dogs, focus on other enrichment opportunities for dogs who are uncomfortable in the play environment, the in depth training of facilitators, the focus on positive experiences for the dogs with both dogs and handlers, and the safety factor for dogs and handlers. I wish there was a way to make it less staff/time/space intensive. However, if only 25% of the average shelter population is being integrated to playgroups, the time/staff commitment may not be such an issue. Especially if your shelter is utilizing volunteers and staff to provide lots of other types of enrichment, like enrichment yards, sniff areas, walks, and in kennel enrichment, as is recommended by the program.

I do feel that there are other, therapeutic and diagnostic uses for playgroups, and play dyads, but those are not appropriate for the typical shelter volunteer to engage in, and as such, are not considered in the “Enrichment” category. I think both programs have pieces that I would pull into use for specific things, in a shelter behavior program, but not necessarily in an enrichment program.

I like the more controlled structure of SPA, though I would also incorporate small groups and other measures for therapeutic groupings. I really like the “orient to handler” strategy incorporated, and the management of play, heavily managed at first, if dogs are escalating quickly, to much less management, as they exhibit more appropriate play. As stated initially, I think identifying the end goal of the dog-dog interaction is key to how it should be structured, and by whom.

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