On a warm, sunny day at Huntsville Animal Services (HAS), Franny stood patiently outside the gate as a handler held her leash. On the other side of the gate were five other dogs, running, playing and splashing in a kiddie pool.
“We were looking at her for potential euthanasia, but we are fortunate and have some experienced and dedicated fosters who are willing to help” said HAS Director Dr. Karen Sheppard, nodding toward Franny, a shiny, gray pit bull. “She’s beautiful, she’s social with people after she trusts you, but she’s strong, powerful, big and will show dog and people aggression. We want to save her, but she needs a lot more out of us.”
Once inside the play area, Franny sniffed, ran and played with the other dogs. She was more curious about a man standing inside the enclosure with a microphone, but her tail wagged freely.
There was a moment in which Franny growled at another dog, but it was brief. Soon after, playtime resumed.
The premise of “playing” was the reason why the man with the microphone was inside the outdoor enclosure with the dogs, most of which would be considered aggressive breeds by the public. It was all part of a presentation by Dogs Playing for Life, a Florida-based nonprofit organization that has worked with 200 shelters across the country to save dogs’ lives.
The premise is a simple one: when dogs can play together in groups outside their kennels, it alleviates stress and enhances their quality of life. Less stress means fewer aggressive tendencies toward other dogs, shelter staff and – most importantly – prospective adopters.
A common problem
When dogs are surrendered by their owners or picked up by animal control, they wind up in a shelter with dozens of other animals. They’re often stressed and scared, which can make them act abnormally.
It’s a problem HAS is all too familiar with. Compounding the issue is that most shelter dogs are breeds that aren’t necessarily popular with everyone.
“(Shelters) tend to be full of these types of dogs,” Sheppard said as she closely watched Franny. “When it’s a small dog, a friend or neighbor may want it. At shelters across the United States, you find a lot of energetic pit bulls.”
Pit bulls and large-breed dogs often have longer stays in shelters. When shelters are overcrowded, dogs deemed aggressive are euthanized because there simply isn’t room or resources to house them long-term.
That’s why Sheppard, her staff and volunteers welcomed Dogs Playing for Life to Huntsville.
More than 40 people attended a seminar and training sessions. In addition to HAS staff and volunteers, volunteers from local rescue organizations were in attendance. The visit by Dogs Playing for Life was made possible by the Animal Farm Foundation, a pit bull advocacy and training organization.
Assessment and response
The multilayered training sessions were designed to educate staff and volunteers on assessment, which includes how dogs play with others and their level of sociability. Body language is also a consideration, including if a dog’s tail is stiff or wagging or if it raises its hackles.
In addition to learning more about the dogs, the training also allowed shelter staff to provide honest answers to adopters’ questions.
“Some dogs are harder for us to adopt because they need to be taught how to walk on a loose leash, how to sit and those kind of behaviors,” Sheppard said. “After they run and play for 30 minutes, they’re much more likely to learn those things.”
The staff already allows dogs to play outdoors, but it’s usually only two at a time. Dogs Playing for Life’s method is to allow multiple dogs to play in groups, anywhere from 10 to 40 at a time.
“That allows us to get through all the dogs faster and get them the exercise they need,” Sheppard said.
The shelter plans to immediately implement Dogs Playing for Life’s methods. Sheppard is hopeful the training will make a difference and lead to more dogs finding forever homes.
“Dogs can sometimes be reactive or act aggressive in the pen, but they’re actually really nice and friendly dogs,” Sheppard said. “We think they might be aggressive, but they’re really just frustrated.”