Never was the saying, “The more the merrier,” more appropriate than in the Betty M. Bowes dog park at the Pennsylvania SPCA.
There, dogs of all sizes, breeds, ages and temperaments get to run, romp and roll together – as a group.
“Playgroups are beneficial because you can get a large number of dogs out at a time for exercise, socialization and to burn off some pent-up energy,” says T.J. Cunningham, who runs the playgroup program at the PSPCA. “A 30-minute playgroup session for a dog is about the equivalent of a 2-hour walk, so in the shelter setting, one playgroup session would be like 4-6 volunteers taking the dog out during the day.”
Besides being a more efficient way to exercise the animals, playgroups provide a behavior benefit as well.
“Since I started running playgroups, I have been able to successfully rehab a number of dogs,” says Cunningham. “Dogs that lacked any socialization with other dogs, some that had some aggression issues toward people, some that were simply dubbed as not good with other dogs.” When Cunningham first began the program, about half of the dogs in the PSPCA adoption center came with caveats like “needs to be the only dog in the home.” After gaining some experience in playgroups, the same dogs flourished to the point where they were able to be around other dogs without issue.
One of Cunningham’s success stories is a dog named Rosie.
“When I started, Rosie was barely taken out,” he says. “She was looked at as a lost cause. I didn’t come across anyone that was on Team Rosie or even advocating for her. She was not looked at as a dog that should live with another dog and had never been considered for playgroup.” With a little help from Cunningham and a few dedicated volunteers, Rosie became involved in more playgroups than any other dog in the building. She loved them! She loved the dogs, loved playing and loved the pools. She became a “model” playgroup participant for other behavior staff at the shelter, as well as a favorite of some senior volunteers. Eventually, Rosie started attending events, found a foster home, and was finally adopted. “It likely would not have happened had Rosie not been able to show people just how amazing she was around other dogs, where she could just be a dog.”
The dog Cunningham is most proud of, however, is named Holly.
“Holly was adopted as a pup; I had evaluated her at that time and said she needed socialization and positive interactions with dogs. I felt she could be an issue if this did not occur. More than two years later, her adopters returned her. When I tested her, she lunged and tried to bite other dogs. Her behavior showed a complete lack of socialization; she likely never got to interact with other dogs. Despite her troubles, I felt she had potential. We started working with her by trying pack walks with other dogs, but they were too controlled for her. One day during playgroup, I had asked for a dog named Honey, and they brought out Holly. I felt we might as well see what happens. Holly did well overall, a little rough around the edges, but we brought her into a couple other groups, and not only did she do well with the dogs, her behavior with people improved. She was a low-impulse control, high-arousal type – not always easy to handle. After some time and experience with the playgroups, she became a more balanced and easier to handle dog. She was adopted and hasn’t come back. Hopefully, whoever adopted her will give her a chance to be around other dogs.”
Learning how to properly socialize with other dogs is essential for a happy, well-balanced dog. But it is not just dog-to-dog relationships that benefit; sometimes the playgroups help dogs with people issues, too. Cunningham cites several cases where he has been able to use the playgroups to help rehab a people-fearing dog. His philosophy is simple; let the dogs figure things out. He explains that when you have a group of fairly balanced dogs, and they’re fine around people, the fearful dogs will usually pick up on that, relax and say “hey, this person’s not so bad.”
That’s exactly what happened to Jamison, who was returned to the shelter for growling and snapping at people. His fear-based aggression toward people was so bad that he wasn’t able to be placed into the adoption center because he was growling and baring teeth at staff. Cunningham dog tested him and he did well, so he started putting Jamison into playgroups.
“It couldn’t have worked out better,” he says. “Jamison started opening up to people so much so that he was able to be moved into the Greenhouse [adoption center]. He still showed some uncertainty with certain people, and some kids, but overall, was doing excellent. I used him as a test dog for behavior evaluations, and used him to help bring some dogs out of their shell. One of those dogs that Jamison helped me help was actually Holly,” Cunningham remembers. Jamison was adopted not long after.
It’s clear that the playgroup program at the Pennsylvania SPCA is helping its residents lead richer, more satisfying lives while they wait for new homes, but the program depends on volunteer support for survival – and there aren’t always enough volunteers on hand to help.
The Pennsylvania SPCA accepts volunteers on a rolling basis throughout the year, so you can sign up anytime to begin training if you’re interested in becoming involved with the program. The playgroups take place every Sunday from 10am-12pm, and will resume on weeknights at 5pm after Daylight Saving Time begins on March 10th.
As we look ahead to spring, think about how you might be able to make life a little brighter for the animals cooped up in Philadelphia shelters waiting to go home. Whether you can lend a hand with playgroups, stop by to take a dog for a walk, or carve out some time to keep a cat company, tails will wag when you walk in! For more information about volunteer opportunities, check out the following organizations: