Playgroups are undoubtedly a beneficial practice in shelters and rescue groups, and over the past few years they have increased in popularity. As with most tools, though, playgroups can be implemented with varying degrees of skill, or misapplied altogether. While my experience is by no means comprehensive, I have either assisted with or led hundreds of playgroups, parallel walks, and dog introductions, and have seen them implemented in a variety of ways. I would like to share what I’ve learned over the years.
The Goal of Playgroups
First, we need to have a clearly defined goal for what we hope to achieve by hosting playgroups. The general consensus among playgroup proponents seems to be that they increase adoptability, and perhaps they do, but without any solid research to support such a claim, we can’t base our decision to implement playgroups entirely on that notion. Even if such research does eventually happen, adoptability is a more distant goal with multiple contributing factors. We need to articulate what our more immediate, and certainly more measurable, goals are. I believe the aphorism “behavior is a study of one” applies as much to organizations and communities as it does to individuals, so it is highly probable that each organization’s goals will differ. For the sake of this discussion, though, these are my personal goals:
- To get dogs out of their living areas and provide enrichment with a more efficient dog-to-handler ratio than walks or training sessions (although those are important, too!).
- To assess the intraspecific skills of dogs whose history is unknown or partially known.
- To give dogs with good intraspecific skills the opportunity to practice those skills while waiting for a home environment.
- To reduce dogs’ stress while living in a stressful environment.
That last bullet point is a big one for me, and is arguably the lens through which I view all protocols and decisions surrounding playgroups. But more on that later.
Candidacy for playgroups
Not every dog is suitable for playgroups, and in my opinion, it’s important not to try to make every dog a playgroup dog. Additionally, candidacy may vary based on the organization itself.
For example, sanctuaries and other organizations that are equipped to keep dogs for extended periods may be able to tackle the long-term project of helping a dog who likes other dogs and wants to play with them, but plays rudely and may sometimes escalate to a fight, to learn better play manners — to listen to another dog’s corrections and respond appropriately. But that type of training requires time, skill, dedication, and the ability to do a lot of parallel walks and one-on-one dog intros with that type of dog until they’re ready to be in a small playgroup. For a typical shelter, though, that doesn’t have the means to successfully implement such a training plan, trying to put those dogs in a playgroup and simply punishing them for undesirable behavior may work in the short term, but what effect is it achieving in the long run? What goal is being met by doing so? Are we increasing or decreasing the dog’s stress level? Are they having fun? Is that enriching for them? Are other dogs becoming a predictor of pleasant or unpleasant stimuli? In my experience, forcing dogs like that into a playgroup is a recipe for ruining whatever dog skills they had. Better to find other means of enrichment for them instead.
Any dog who doesn’t like to be around other dogs — whether or not they have a history of aggression towards dogs — should not be a candidate for playgroups. If they don’t enjoy being around other dogs, a playgroup is going to be stressful and unpleasant for them, which defeats the entire purpose.
Bearing all of this in mind, what types of dogs do I put in playgroups?
- Dogs with great intraspecific skills.
- Dogs whose skills can realistically be improved within the constraints of the organization.
- Dogs with unknown skills but whose behavior indicates they may enjoy playgroups.
In other words: dogs for whom playgroups are indeed enriching, good practice, and stress-relieving.
Safety First and Always
Before the playgroup itself, it’s important to make sure the environment – including the people participating in the playgroup – lends itself to a successful encounter. For many dogs, all it takes is one bad experience to have a devastating impact, so we want to take every precaution to prevent that from happening. And of course, we also want to protect the humans involved.
For this reason, when I’m running playgroups, the only people allowed to assist are proficient at reading and accurately interpreting dog body language. This is one of many reasons I offer free quarterly body language workshops, and I recommend every organization do something similar. Also, if anyone is nervous or uncomfortable about the playgroup, they are not allowed to assist. They may watch from outside, but a person who is stressed is more likely to make counterproductive decisions. There’s also the possibility that one or more of the dogs may detect the person’s stress, which could increase their own stress.
Finally, everyone assisting must be familiar with the safety criteria I use, which I co-created along with my colleagues in Dogtown at Best Friends Animal Society:
The one major caveat to the protocol above is that if a large dog grabs a smaller dog, they can do serious — even fatal — damage in a matter of seconds. There is no time for the protocol above. That’s why I never, never, never, never, never do playgroups with mixed sizes. Small dogs play with small; medium play with medium; large play with large. Period. End of story. No exceptions.
Before the playgroup begins, we walk through the entire enclosure and pick up all toys, treats, or trash that dogs might try to guard. We make sure to have full water buckets, and everyone has a leash with a carabiner attached to the wrist loop. We also make sure that the safety equipment mentioned in the protocol above is readily available.
At last, we are ready to begin our playgroup.
Running a Playgroup
In my experience, many shelters seem to feel this overwhelming pressure to cram as many dogs into a playgroup as possible, as if somehow, when it comes to dogs in playgroups, more is more. In actuality, less is more. It may seem counterintuitive, because the more dogs we can get into a playgroup, the more dogs we’re helping, right? In theory, yes. In practice, however, too many dogs in a group creates a stressful environment in which none of the dogs enjoy themselves — it instead becomes something to be navigated and endured. In the long run, more dogs will be helped by focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of the playgroup.
So, to start, we bring in the dogs with known good skills and either immediately drop leashes or remove leashes altogether. I tend to remove leashes right away if the dogs already know each other, and drop leashes at least for a couple of minutes if they’re meeting each other for the first time. After they’ve been given a few minutes to settle in, we’ll introduce one or two new dogs. My strong preference is to immediately drop leashes to prevent trigger stacking due to either frustration or the perceived inability to escape. However, if we have a dog who tends to be rude or overwhelming, we will keep that dog leashed and let the dogs who are more likely to be overwhelmed off leash so they have better opportunities to escape the rude dog while they’re first getting to know each other. It’s still important to follow the rude dog around to prevent leash tension as much as humanly possible, though. If the rude dog is prone to, or shows signs of, trigger stacking on even a loose leash, we can alternately put him on a long line so he’s still tethered to us and we can quickly intervene if necessary, but he doesn’t feel constrained to within a 6-foot radius of his handler. Regardless, the goal is to drop leashes as soon as the dogs have adjusted to each other, and remove leashes as soon as they are clearly comfortable in the group.
After the group has settled in with the newest additions, we’ll add more, using the same steps described above. We will continue to do so until the group hits its saturation point. What I mean by this is the moment when suddenly the stress level of the entire group increases. It really does remind me of those high school chemistry experiments where you add a chemical to water one drop at a time, and all of the sudden, after that last drop, the water immediately changes from transparent to a bright blue. That one extra dog was one too many. When the group reaches that point, I look for the dog or dogs that would best benefit from leaving. Who that dog is and why they should leave varies. It could be that they were playing for a long time and now are looking for a place to relax or escape. They may be sitting by an exit point. They may, conversely, be hyperaroused and harassing another dog. They may have become a ring leader and rallied a whole posse of otherwise polite dogs into harassing another dog. Whatever the case may be, we rotate them out and allow the other dogs to return to the relatively calm and appropriate rhythm of a playgroup. I’m always looking for signs that it’s time to take a dog out of the group, or to stop adding dogs, before that saturation point is reached. At the same time, it’s important not to be too cautious and potentially deprive dogs of a chance to play.
Over the next 15 to 20 minutes, other members of the group often show signs of tiring and can be removed. If there are other good candidate dogs for the playgroup, we can rotate them in at that point. Other times, we’ll just let the group dwindle. In either case, by rotating dogs in and out as their body language indicates, we end up being able to provide more dogs with a fun and happy playgroup experience than if we had simply thrown all those dogs into the group at once and made them stay there for the entire hour. But even when that isn’t the case, it’s better to give, say, 70% of the candidate dogs a good playgroup experience this time around and have 30% of them wait until the next playgroup than to give 100% of the candidate dogs a stressful, overwhelming experience.
Ideally, shelters will document the dogs’ overt behaviors after playgroup to determine whether we have actually achieved our intended goals. We want to look for signs that the playgroup did reduce the dogs’ stress and increase their sense of well-being: How much did they rest afterwards? Was there a reduction in barking, pacing, jumping, and/or barrier reactivity? Are they able to focus on their handler more or do they seem more stressed and distracted? Even if they played well with other dogs in playgroups, if the net result is an increase of stress afterwards, it may be worthwhile to reconsider whether they’re a good playgroup candidate.
The Human Element
One of the biggest challenges of running playgroups is being mindful of our own behavior in the group. Obviously, we are in this field because we love dogs, but we must practice self-restraint when in playgroups. My instructions for people who are new to playgroups are as follows:
- Stand along the periphery of the group, watching from outside. Try not to mill around in the midst of the group.
- If a dog or dogs approach you, do not pet them. This is their time to be with each other, not with you. Also, it is possible to cause fights by creating a highly valuable petting resource the dogs will guard from each other.
- If dogs are running towards you, bend your knees! A large dog slamming into a locked knee at full speed is a one-way ticket to orthopedic surgery and months of post-op physical therapy.
There are many reasons I want people to be watching from outside. First, people can block the view of dogs from other people, making it harder for everyone to see what’s going on with the group. Second, people can instigate or exacerbate conflict among the dogs. But most importantly, we humans have a strong tendency to over-manage and over-interfere. It is so, so important to let dogs navigate their own interactions and only step in when necessary. There is such a strong temptation to have a knee-jerk reaction to every lip curl, growl, and air snap that we can micromanage a playgroup to death. Dogs need to be able to communicate with each other without fear of reprisal from humans. They need to be able to correct each other, and to have the opportunity to respond to others’ corrections. We can create more problems than we’re solving if we’re too trigger-happy with our safety tools. The easiest way I’ve found to circumnavigate the trigger finger issue is to keep the humans on the periphery. If they’re right next to a dog with she growls, it’s easier for them to bust out the airhorn or pet corrector and blow it in the dog’s face. If they’re on the outside edge of the group, by the time they get to the dog in question, she and her counterpart will have either resolved their own issue or may actually require intervention. Either way, by giving people the space and time to move past their initial reaction, we’re making it easier for them to respond more appropriately. Antecedent arrangement.
One Final Note
I know many people have strong opinions about leaving collars, harnesses, and leashes on dogs during playgroups. There are pros and cons to each one. Although none have occurred frequently, I have seen dogs get tangled in each other’s leashes, in each other’s harnesses, and in each other’s collars. I’ve also seen dogs who had nothing on get in fights and be so difficult to catch that by the time people were able to catch up to them, wheelbarrow them apart, and put slip leads on them, they had done serious damage to each other. For this reason, I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another. No solution is a panacea. In my personal experience, I’ve seen more damage from dogs wearing harnesses or wearing nothing than when wearing a collar and leash, which is why I choose the risk/reward scenario I do. But I also understand that my experience is not empirical evidence, nor is it universal. I encourage everyone to make the decision that makes the most sense to them personally and as an organization.
As discussed at the beginning of this article, until the various facets of playgroups are thoroughly researched and we have evidence-based guidelines, we may all have varying preferences for how – and why – to run a playgroup. In the meantime, the best we can do is share our experiences in an effort to create a more safe, fun, and effective experience for everyone.
Emily Strong, CPBC, CPBT-KA is the owner/operator of From Beaks To Barks in Salt Lake City, UT. She works with all species of companion animals.