Picasso and Purty Girl have no idea it’s Sunday morning. They know only that once a week, the doors to their kennels at the Louisiana SPCA open, and they head for the outdoors where they romp with their peers until they are panting in ultimate joy. It’s the equivalent of a child confined to a windowless classroom scampering out to recess.
Just as kids don’t think of playing with other children as learning socialization skills, dogs, too, are oblivious to the value of learning to play well with others. For some, it’s pure instinct. For others, it’s a new experience. But for all canines living in a shelter, it is stress relief.
“There are some dogs here that never would have made it to their adoptive homes without the assistance of a playgroup,” said Lynda Friedmann, a retired corporate attorney and a longtime LA-SPCA volunteer. She oversees the playgroups that are strategically organized by the sizes and temperaments of the dogs, from “small and gentle” and “small and rowdy” to “big and gentle” and “rough and rowdy.”
Picasso falls into the last category, but is a canine Will Rogers of sorts, having never met a dog he didn’t like. The 6-month-old pit bull/terrier mix rolls over on the ground, his four feet in the air, as two other pups gnaw at his ears and take turns jumping over him. Picasso’s pink tongue falls out the side of his grinning mouth.
The dog recreational area is equipped with awnings for shade and separate fenced areas so that new dogs that are fearful or aggressive can view from an enclosed area before they fully participate. The team of three volunteers stands by with a spray bottle of water should a conflict arise during playtime, but they take seriously the role of observer so as not to interfere with natural dog interaction.
A play group setting is a way for dogs to teach one another their limits.
“It gives dogs their best feature — another dog,” says Robert Patience, a retired healthcare manager who is part of the volunteer team for the weekly activity.
“We learn by watching them,” says Friedmann. “Dogs have high emotional intelligence and are much better at sizing up a situation that we humans are.”
It is evident that Pebbles, still a pup at 9 months, had recently given birth to a litter. But she is still in her own formative months of puppy wonderland, where playtime means running free in a fenced yard and choosing new canine friends along the way.
Not all dogs in the play group started out with such a carefree attitude.
Volunteer Jarren Duplantier, a student, recalls Gladys, a feral dog he carried around and held on his lap for days while she just watched other dogs. It had taken hours for SPCA staff to rescue the 5-month-old shepherd mix from under a house.
When she arrived, Duplantier could see the “adorable” side of the traumatized dog. But Gladys had more fear than curiosity. Experiencing life for the first time outside the dark underbelly of a house had left her catatonic. But after a few days in Duplantier’s arms, Gladys began to join her new world.
“The shell around her just started to melt. She began to sniff the air. She just started to wake up to what was around her,” said Duplantier.
Gladys soon found her way to the play group — and recently to a forever home.
There is a marked difference between the dog being introduced to a play group and one that has already been acclimated, said Patience.
“Animal personalities are as diverse as the programs and services that we offer at the Louisiana SPCA,” said LA-SPCA CEO Ana Zorrilla. “Play groups allow us to see a different side of the dog that we might not see while it’s on the adoption floor.
“In addition to direct benefits a dog receives from participating in a play group, it also plays an instrumental role in helping us determine an ideal home environment,” Zorrilla said.
Although shelter dogs get daily walks and exercise with staff or volunteers, Friedmann would like to see more volunteers for the play group team so that it could be offered more than once a week. Anyone wanting to volunteer goes through the LA-SPCA’s general orientation, then partners with a veteran volunteer.
At that point, a volunteer can sign up for any volunteer activity of interest. The canine play group is one of those areas where more training and supervision is required.
For more information on volunteering, visit la-spca.org/page.aspx?pid=619