Personality, playfulness shine through in dog playgroups

Published on August 25, 2017

There are the “gentle and dainty” dogs who are calm and laid back. The “push and pull” dogs who enjoy chasing and driving others. The “rough and rowdy” dogs who love to get physical, tumbling and wrestling with one another.

And then, there are the “seek and destroy” dogs, who are aggressive and provocative.

“They’re the ones you’ve got to watch out for,” said animal care attendant Debbie Hawley, who along with colleague Nancy Magana runs the canine playgroups at Placer County’s Animal Services Center.

For larger dogs with lots of energy, like pit bulls or labradors, being cooped up in a kennel all day creates stress, often leading the dog to bark and posture fiercely. Potential adopters can be turned off by this behavior. Walks alone don’t provide sufficient exercise, mental stimulation or touch for many animals.

Hawley and Magana launched the playgroup enrichment program at the previous shelter after attending a training, but in the new facility it has blossomed with the help of spacious dog runs, kiddie pools and catch pens where each dog is initially held to gauge their temperament prior to being let loose with the others. Staff introduce dogs into the group one by one and match them by play style.

The program is based on the “Dogs Playing for Life” model that is growing in popularity at animal shelters across the nation.

Hawley and Magana take safety precautions and arm themselves with corrective tools: a spray bottle filled with water, a metal can full of rocks that rattles and a loud horn that startles the dogs. Over time and with multiple corrections, a dog’s behavior will improve.

Hawley recalls one German shepherd with a tendency to bite and growl. He didn’t respond to the spray bottle or the shaker can, so she brought out the air horn — and that did the trick.

“By the end, after four or five horn blows, he wasn’t doing it anymore,” she said. “He was getting along with everybody.”

Other times, attendants discover a new side to a dog’s personality. A dog that might have been aggressive with others while on a leash or behind a fence could be perfectly docile when set loose with other animals — a phenomenon known as barrier aggression or reactivity.

Once the dogs are in a more natural environment, staff take detailed notes and even video as they observe how each dog fits into the pack. A bat of the paw, a downturned tail, a rigid spine: All are clues to a dog’s psychology.

“Dogs are amazing. They’re very emotional creatures, and they’re very intelligent,” Hawley said.

“It’s so exciting to do this because we get to know what these dogs are really like,” Magana said.

As staff gain a better sense of a dog’s social skills, they can be matched with families or rescue groups who have other pets without worry. The dogs are also better behaved in meet-and-greets with potential adopters and other animals.

The program is just one of the reasons the county’s dog adoptions have increased 54 percent over last year.

“It’s a fantastic program for the adopter, for rescue groups and for us as staff in placing the dogs,” Hawley said.