Waffles stood in the pool, Steve was on the move in a pink collar, and Fifi posed at the front of the pack.
Nearby, Mace, a little beagle, calmly checked out the other canines during the first part of the dayâ€™s group playtime.
A few weeks ago, the dogs would have spent the majority of their time apart, much of it in kennels, with shorter, lonelier stints in the fenced-in play area at the Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center.
Sure, there were people and toys and affection, but there were limited occasions to nuzzle with their own kind.
Recently, however, the dogs have had opportunities to play and socialize as part of a change implemented at the Tamarack Boulevard facility on the North Side.
“To be able to do this, like this, is just incredible,” said Erin Frost, the shelterâ€™s animal-care manager. “Theyâ€™re so much happier, theyâ€™re calmer in their cage, they present better to the adopters. Theyâ€™re more relaxed.”
The animals arenâ€™t the only ones feeling better: Volunteers and paid staffers also are getting to know one another better.
“Different departments that didnâ€™t used to work together have been brought together by this,” Frost said. “Weâ€™re interacting more, we know more about the dogs, we can tell more about each dog to people coming in.”
She added, “Everyoneâ€™s just a little happier. Behaviorally, itâ€™s helped all of us.”
Thirty-one staffers and volunteers from the Franklin County shelter were trained in late July by Dogs Playing For Life, a Colorado-based nonprofit group. The sessions were fully covered by grants.
The shelter didnâ€™t take the effort lightly. Director Kaye Dickson said publicly owned shelters often donâ€™t have the staffing, training or desire to deal with the liability issues that can come with providing unfettered interactions among bigger groups of dogs.
“If some of these big dogs get into a fight and you go in there to try to break it up, it can be very dangerous,” Dickson said.
The setup isnâ€™t complicated: For a few hours every day, dogs are rotated through an outdoor play yard, where they can run and interact. Itâ€™s a mostly dogs-only affair inside the fence, with a few people on hand in case something goes awry.
During the first couple of weeks of the program, there have been as many as 12 dogs in the play area at a time. There have been a few minor scuffles but nothing out of the ordinary or worrisome.
“Fights are, unfortunately, inevitable, just like with people,” Frost said. “But itâ€™s not the norm â€” itâ€™s few and far between. This whole week, weâ€™ve had nothing, and weâ€™re dedicated to keeping it that way.”
The play times have been structured to group dogs with similar personalities. Thereâ€™s a time for the calmer animals, another for the herders that like to chase and push and pull, and one for the “rough and rowdies.”
“Itâ€™s a lot of blaaaahaaa and rolling around,” Frost said of the latter. “Theyâ€™re having fun, and itâ€™s mutual. We make sure that theyâ€™re having fun; itâ€™s never at another dogâ€™s expense.”
Kelly Degroat and Patrick Dimler, who are regular volunteers at the shelter, said theyâ€™ve seen the difference the group time has made. A couple of dogs, including one that had been at the shelter more than 200 days, were adopted on the spot after their new owners saw them in action, Degroat said.
“The people looked at them and walked out the door with them,” she said. “To see their personality and not see them in the kennel trying to lunge or jumping up. … They see them out here playing, and they see the actual dog. I think itâ€™s awesome.”
Dimler said the dogs are more relaxed.
“I never really knew all of these dogs could play together, because itâ€™s so many different personalities,” he said. “And you get them together. Sometimes you wonder a little bit, but they pretty much talk (to each other), they figure it out, they do what they do. They interact.”
Frost added, “Itâ€™s not 12 dogs at your house or my house. Itâ€™s 12 shelter dogs. It was unheard of before.”