Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Play Groups and Enrichment

You may have noticed that we spend a significant amount of our time and resources investing in teaching shelters about kennel enrichment and play groups. If you’re wondering how promoting kennel enrichment and play groups fit in with our mission to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs, this blog is for you!

Providing kennel enrichment and play groups isn’t specific to fulfilling the needs of “pit bull” dogs. Of course, we know ALL dogs benefit from these activities. “Pit bull” dogs are not unique in their needs for mental and physical activity! However, teaching shelters about the importance of kennel enrichment and play groups and how to implement both, fulfills our mission by addressing two key issues:

  1. Increasing “pit bull” dog adoptions in shelters.
  2. Teaching shelters how to think and communicate about “pit bull” dogs as individuals.

Both of these issues are interconnected. Here’s how:

It’s a common misconception that there is a secret recipe for boosting “pit bull” dog adoptions or that extraordinary measures are needed in order to increase their adoption rates. Not so!

In our experience, along with lifting restrictive blanket policies, when the staff and volunteers view and communicate about each dog as an individual – free of stereotypes and assumptions – adoptions will increase in quantity and quality.

When we marginalize, restrict, or stereotype the dogs in our care, it slows their adoptions by relaying a message to the public that “pit bull” dogs are different (deviant) from other dogs. To increase adoptions, there first needs to be an internal shift in the way the staff views the dogs. When that happens, everything shifts: observations, marketing, adoption counseling, training, etc.

Asking people to change the way they view “pit bull” dogs typically challenges their own deeply held beliefs and personal experiences. It’s nearly impossible to shift someone’s thinking just by throwing information at them.  In order to have a major shift in thinking – one that resonates deeply and influences their behavior – people often need to see it for themselves.

The most impactful way to affect people’s attitudes toward any particular group of dogs (or humans) is to give them a positive personal experience. The role of direct experience in changing attitudes and opinions cannot be underestimated.

Enter kennel enrichment and play groups! Both are a real life experiences that helps the staff and volunteers see “pit bull” dogs in a new way.

For example, seeing “pit bull” dogs interact with other dogs in the yards helps shelter staff to understand that a dog’s behavior in their kennel isn’t an accurate indicator of a dog’s social skills. Many dogs are labeled “aggressive” due to their kennel or on leash behavior. This label may go unchallenged if it confirms an already present (sometimes unconscious) bias among the staff that “pit bull” dogs aren’t capable of being dog social. We can tell them that kennel and leash behavior is not an accurate indicator of off leash social skills, but that’s hard to believe. So we stopped telling and started showing!

When shelter workers see the dogs interact in play groups, their eyes are opened: dogs that were mistakenly labeled “dog aggressive” because of kennel behavior or based on breed labels are now seen behaving in a social manner in play groups.

Play groups have the power to shift deeply entrenched thinking. After seeing play groups, staff members quickly grasp that the behavior generalizations they’ve been making about the dogs may not have been correct and may have prevented the dogs from getting adopted.

Further, seeing “pit bull” dogs happily and safely socializing with other dogs translates into a perspective shift that helps staff and volunteers let go of breed-based stereotypes and myths that may have influenced their decision making and the information they share. When they witness one “pit bull” dog after another displaying appropriate social skills and enjoying play with other dogs of all kinds, a big light bulb goes off!

Suddenly, it becomes clear: “Pit bull” dogs ARE individuals.

all breed playgroup

Animal Farm Foundation Play Group

Once the staff recognizes that “pit bull” dogs are individuals too, then the dogs are provided with fair, unbiased treatment and care. This kind of “individual first” way of seeing the dogs will lead to increased adoptions.

Adoption rates will increase for ALL dogs when the dogs are calm in their kennels and/or when the public can view the dogs in a more natural environment than just the kennels.

For example, seeing dogs interact with one another in a play group is a joyful experience. It’s much more fun and less intimidating for adopters to watch dogs play outside than it is to walk through noisy kennels.

When potential adopters are allowed to view “pit bull” dogs playing with other dogs, it busts through their preconceived notions, allowing them to see a side of the dogs they’d never get exposed to while sitting in their kennels. And while it’s best if the public can see the play groups in person, if that’s not possible then photos of play sessions shared on your website and social media will help too!

Chicago Play Group

Chicago Play Group

Even if the play groups are not open to public viewing, play sessions support the mental and physical health of the dogs, reducing behavior problems in the kennels by allowing them to get to know their canine neighbors and tiring them out so that they can relax.

With or without play groups as part of the rotation, daily kennel enrichment, such as meals in Kongs, quiet time with volunteers, and training games will also exercise and support the dogs’ minds and bodies. This leads to calmer behavior in their kennels, reduced barking, and better kennel presentation overall. Adopters are more likely to choose dogs that are pleasant and quiet in their kennels.

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Enlist volunteers to help teach dogs polite kennel manners

When an adopter passes on the chance to meet a “pit bull” dog available for adoption, it’s important for staff to consider: Was the dog well behaved in their kennel or bouncing off the walls? If the dog wasn’t calm or happy, it may not be accurate to blame their breed label for the public’s lack of interest. It’s more likely that the dog’s individual behavior was a turn off.

Luckily, we can do something about that through enrichment. Give the dogs activities to keep them busy and tire them out, before and during visiting hours. Help them present well in their kennels and the public will notice them!

ice treat intern pic

Busy dogs are quiet dogs at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington

If there’s any “secret” to increasing “pit bull” dog adoptions, it’s in teaching the staff to see all dogs as individuals, to support the mental and physical health of all dogs during their stay in the shelter, and to help the public see the dogs in a better light. The “secret” is to help people (adopters and the staff) have a shift in perspective.

Kennel enrichment and play groups provide the direct, positive experience that allows for this change in attitude. And that’s why investing in kennel enrichment and play groups supports our mission to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs!

 For more information, please visit out website

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About Animal Farm Foundation

Animal Farm Foundation, Inc., a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to securing equal treatment and opportunity for "pit bull" dogs. For more information, visit: www.animalfarmfoundation.org
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3 Responses to Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Play Groups and Enrichment

  1. at the shelter where I volunteer more than one dog is not allowed in the play yard unless they are kenneled together-pits are rarely kenneled together-therefore no play group.
    Two pits were picked up in the field together and were housed together, the male was very laid back and submissive, the female was younger and more playful. They loved each other, When the male was tired he would lay down and the female tried to prod him into playing. Granted they played rough, just about as rough as my Chihuahuas. the female was put down for dog aggression-that was WRONG WRONG WRONG!!!! She was killed for wanting to play.
    this incident reinforced the policy that pits should never be housed together, So they live their short lives in solitary confinement.

  2. Pingback: Plenty of homes for 'all the pitbulls' | Thatmutt.com

  3. This is a great and helpfull article!I hope many rescues follow these advices!! :-)

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