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New playgroups at MCACC help get shelter dogs out of kennels and into homes


Elizabeth Medora

PHOENIX – What do dogs love? Playtime! The homeless dogs at the Maricopa County shelters are getting a new opportunity to play and interact with each other, giving them needed time out of their kennels and letting their individual personalities shine.

Maricopa County Animal Care & Control has implemented Dogs Playing for Life, an enrichment program that lets dogs socialize in playgroups, allowing staff to assess the dogs’ sociability with each other and learn more about the dogs’ personalities.

MCACC Communications Supervisor Melissa Gable noted that the county shelters have multiple playgroups to suit the individual dogs’ activity levels.

“This gives them the chance to get out of the kennel and get some exercise,” Gable explained, as several dogs played in the yard at the MCACC west shelter on the morning of March 23.

Some of the dogs zoomed around the play yard, obviously thrilled with this chance to run as much as they liked. Others grouped together, chasing each other in a game of doggy tag.

This playgroup was an assessment playgroup; staff members were gaining insight into each dog’s behavior, from the energetic pup who couldn’t wait to run around, to the shyer newcomer dog who watched the others play before deciding to join in, to the two dogs who were fast friends and were now playing together in the yard.

Training devices, like spray bottles and noisemaker cans were at hand if needed, but for this playgroup, the dogs got along well, with staff closely monitoring and redirecting them when needed.

If a dog doesn’t handle the playgroup environment well on the first try, staff will try again at a later date. To welcome new dogs to playgroups and model good behavior, ‘doggy ambassadors’ who perform well in playgroups help greet playgroup newcomers.

Maricopa County shelters have been participating in Dogs Playing for Life for just over a month, and the program has been a huge success so far and received support from the community.

Gable said the playgroup program has been “really, really beneficial” for the dogs, helping them find the right adopters. Afternoon playgroups showcase the adoptable dogs, and anyone looking for a dog is welcome to observe.

“Dogs have been adopted directly from the play yard,” Gable noted.

Helping dogs find the right homes is a focal point of the Dogs Playing for Life program, and allowing the dogs time to play outside their kennels relieves stress and improves behavior.

“It’s our mission to utilize playgroups to get every dog out of their kennel every day,” said Emily Grossheider, Dogs Playing for Life Director of Development.

Grossheider noted that the shelter is a confusing, frightening place for a lot of dogs, and being around other dogs and being able to play is comforting for them.

“They can really be themselves, and I think that gives us a better shot at finding them the best home we can,” Grossheider said.

Dogs Playing for Life began nearly 20 years ago, when private dog trainer Aimee Sadler was contracted by a client to work in a local shelter. Sadler wanted to maximize the impact of the training she could provide and began a playgroup program at that shelter. As Sadler’s work began showing great results in the dogs’ behavior and adoptability, the same caring donor sent her to an additional shelter, and Sadler developed an enrichment behavior program.

Dogs Playing for Life staff now travel around the country to help shelters implement the playgroup program. Grossheider noted that they try to provide the program training for free, and sponsors can also be utilized, adding that Maricopa County Animal Care & Control was able to secure grants and private funding for the program.

“We’ve been to 175 shelters now,” Grossheider said. “We’re working hard to be everywhere we can.”

Since many shelter dogs are brought in as strays, the shelter staff has no information on the dogs’ personalities and sociability, and playgroups allow them to spend prolonged time with the dogs and help fill in some of those gaps in the pets’ histories.

“Playgroups give them a chance to get to know their dogs better,” Grossheider explained.

“You see so many transformations,” Grossheider said of the dogs in playgroups, noting that her favorites are the shy dogs who blossom once they’re out of their kennels and free to play.

Dogs Playing for Life staff is returning to Phoenix this week and again in April to continue support and training for MCACC and other animal rescues’ staff. Grossheider noted that MCACC Executive Director Mary Martin has emphasized that the shelter wants to keep going in the Dogs Playing for Life training, saying that Martin is “working her tail off to bring those progressive programs here.”

Grossheider also praised the hard work of staff involved in the program and noted that MCACC will need continued support from volunteers with the large number of pets they care for every day.

“It’s too big of an issue to tackle alone with so many pets for adoption,” Grossheider said.  

Spring and summer are typically the busiest months at the shelter, and volunteers and fosters are greatly needed. Anyone interested in volunteering can go online to