The Huntington Town Animal Shelter has begun implementing Dogs Playing for Life, an internationally recognized program that creates play groups for shelter dogs, in its effort to make dogs in its care more adoptable.
The program helps dogs burn off energy while counteracting the stresses of shelter life and provides better indicators for shelter staff in classifying dogs for adoption.
On a recent rainy Monday morning, as Stewy, Arnold, Lola and Dixie frolicked in one area at the shelter, Timmy, Buddy, Fawn and Eli did the same in an area next to them.
All the dogs, mostly pit bulls and mixes, were oblivious to the weather and to the importance of their uninhibited playtime.
"The program brings down their stress levels, they act better in the kennels; they show better, and it gives us a lot of tools to figure out everything the dog has," said Gerald Mosca, shelter director for 30 years.
"We can tell a potential adopter if the dog is great with males, maybe not so much with female dogs, the style of play the dog has, either rough-and-tumble or more on the dainty side. It's given us a lot more avenues for getting the dogs adopted."
The program has been in place for about two months. The shelter's dogs, about 25 in all, are let out for an hour twice a day.
Aimee Sadler, who now lives in Longmont, Colorado, created Dogs Playing for Life after a private client paid for her time to work with dogs at the Southampton shelter in 1998.
"The inspiration was to try to help as many dogs as efficiently possible," Sadler said. "As a result of thinking 'How am I going to help this many dogs and have it work and stick and be efficient,' it just seemed obvious to me to let them play together first before trying basic obedience training."
Sadler said she has been working professionally with animals including dolphins, sea lions and horses for two decades. The program is now in shelters in the United States and Canada. Sadler and her team are set to present it to 50 shelters this year.
The training program includes a classroom presentation, the demonstration of safe handling techniques and fundamentals for successful play group experiences.
The roughly $6,000 cost of the program is being shared by the town and the League for Animal Protection, whose volunteers have worked with dogs at the shelter for many years.
Mosca said in most cases municipal shelter dogs are in their kennels for all but 15 to 20 minutes a day, which is terrible for their stress levels and behaviors.
"It's a play group," Mosca said. "Being able to get them out for a couple hours a day, we see the difference, and it makes it a lot easier for us to train them."