Hope at Work: Shelter Dog Play

Everybody has a list of wants when looking for a new dog. For some of us, it’s love at first sight, and for others, it’s as detailed a process as buying a house. When I adopted Hope it was admittedly love at first sight. Sure, I ran through my list of musts before signing the papers but she definitely had me at hello.

One of the must-haves I did not get a chance to check off at adoption was “dog friendly.” Although Hope had been housed with another puppy – one that was quite annoying actually – I never got a chance to see her around unfamiliar dogs. So, this was the big question mark surrounding our first days together.

Having worked hands-on with thousands of dogs in animal shelters, I have seen dog-dog aggression and know that I don’t want to live with a dog that is dangerous. I also know that behavior can change over time and even our best efforts can’t prevent us from dealing with challenges down the road. Like when my dog-friendly Lucy was attacked and understandably, stopped being so friendly.

Needless to say, the first appointment I made for the nugget was an evaluation day at a nearby daycare. This was the first positive, force-free facility I’d ever come across; a place I’d been eager to try out since moving to Charlotte. I held my breath until her daycare debut where, much to my relief, she received a glowing review. The nugget had impressed the daycare staff with her ability to play with a variety of dogs and take breaks when needed (a skill that many dogs don’t possess).

Hope, it turns out, is a dog’s dog. Naturally, daycare (run by trusted professionals avoiding aversives) became a regular activity in the her weekly schedule.

Hope at Daycare
Hope at daycare; credit J. Cooper

Meanwhile, things shifted for me at the shelter where I work. The old-school model for evaluating dog-aggression in shelter dogs involves a leash. I had been growing increasingly wary of these so-called dog tests because, as my colleagues were also finding, many dogs did not behave off-leash as projected by this traditional test. Hope, for instance, would not be labeled accurately if you judged her by a leashed introduction. I can say the same for every other dog I’d been a mom or foster mom to. The more investigating I did and the more dogs I worked with, the more I was convinced that leashed intros were inconclusive at best and in their worst form, completely unfair. I decided a major change was needed, so shelter dog play groups were born.

Mind you, the decision to try shelter dog play groups was not just based on my personal experiences. Currently, there is research being conducted on the effectiveness of shelter dog play groups in improving behavior, reducing stress and increasing chances at a live outcome (i.e. reducing unnecessary deaths in shelters). Hundreds of shelters have had great success with play groups in all of these areas. Moreover, dog trainers and behavior experts have grown increasingly vocal about what we should be doing to set our companion dogs up to succeed. Putting them on the end of a tight leash while they go nose-to-nose with an unfamiliar dog is not considered a dog parent best practice.

Frankly, I was sick and tired of feeling like I was setting dogs up to fail. So, from one day to the next my assistant and I started running play groups together. A play group, for us, consists of three or more unfamiliar dogs introduced off leash in a yard together. It took us a while to get a good rhythm going, but within a few weeks we were getting several dogs out to play on a weekly basis. There were times I’d ask her to bring a certain dog to the group, and she’d look at me like I had two heads.

“Really? You want that pushy/rude/dominant/<insert other-negative-label-we-all-use here> dog?” she’d ask.

“Yes” I’d tell her with some trepidation in my voice.

There were just as many times that upon first glance I’d assert, “That dog doesn’t look promising.” Then that same unpromising dog would prove to be one of the finest play group participants.

So, far this year I’ve seen 200+ shelter dogs in play groups, with overwhelmingly positive outcomes. I’m quite excited about this considering the shelter does not have the luxury of limiting admission, the way a private shelter or a daycare may. Sheltering is an environment where you literally have to work with the dogs in front of you and whatever behaviors they are exhibiting – in less-than-ideal conditions, no less! This dynamic poses it’s own challenges as dogs are adopted out and new dogs enter the system.

There are some dogs with well-rounded communication skills; I call them play group rock stars. Then there are a whole host of dogs with skills that may require more management in a group setting. Not surprisingly, my play group rock stars have a tendency of getting themselves adopted or transferred to rescue partners, leaving me to pair the remaining dogs up creatively.


One day I decided to bring Hope to work to see if she could round out some of the less-refined personalities in group. At the time, I knew she loved to play, had a gentle mouth, and knew when to take breaks. Through our work together in play groups, I’ve since learned that she is so much more than I ever expected. She is the kind of dog that shows up well. Every. Single. Time. Taking it down a notch if a dog is showing fearfully. Revving it up for the dogs with a lot of energy to burn. Appropriately correcting obnoxious behaviors and then moving on with life. Using friendly gestures to alleviate any uncertainty in new-to-group dogs.

Behavioral Tangent: Notice I didn’t label the dogs fearful, energetic, obnoxious or uncertain, and instead chose to describe the behavior itself. This is because it isn’t fair or accurate to define a dog by the behavior he/she displays in a short or stressful timeframe. Play groups, for me, was born out of a desire to observe behavior under the fairest of circumstances while taking into consideration each dog’s individuality and personal experience.

Hope has proven time and again how to offer the kind of behavior and body language that sets other dogs at ease. For dogs without a sense of security or belonging, how is this not beneficial? I’ve watched first hand as dogs’ communication skills improve over time thanks to carefully constructed play groups that include dogs like Hope.

With the help of volunteers I now have the joy of running shelter play groups three to four times a week. My hope is to continue to increase the amount of time the shelter dogs get to play together. In thirteen years of sheltering, this is the first activity I’ve participated in where dogs are able to express natural behaviors, be with their own kind, and experience real freedom.


Hope doesn’t attend every play group. I bring her in when the dogs are in need of her profoundly developed communication skills. People have asked me if I am worried about disease or injury. Although I agree there are risks, I also make sure to take the necessary precautions to keep her safe. I am also of the mindset that every little thing carries its own risk, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to weigh the benefits against the risk. In this case, the benefits are beyond measure!

Knowing what I know now about dog play, it’s not shocking to me that Hope is a playgroup rock star. There is just something about her that brings out the best in other dogs. Maybe it’s the little tan dots above her eyes, which experts have identified as a reason some dogs are more easily understood (Bennett & Briggs 2008). Either way, I didn’t set out to put my dog to work, but I’m glad we’ve found something she is good at and something she enjoys. She’s even helped run groups in the pouring rain!

For Hope, working in shelter dog play groups will continue to be a part of her life as long as she enjoys it. After all, she was once a shelter dog herself. And if dogs had an understanding of giving back, I think she’d appreciate the way her story has come full circle.


Does your dog have a job? Are you one of the fortunate few that can take your dog to work with you? Do you enjoy helping shelter dogs, too? If so, please share your stories with us!

Life After Death, Part 2

“How’s the puppy doing?” our friends asked eagerly. 

I felt my eyes roll in my head as I blurted out my response. “I only have lukewarm feelings about her. She’s a good puppy but she’s not amazing.”

For a moment, the table fell silent and I saw my friends jaw drop a little. “Are you serious?” She exclaimed in disbelief. 

I laughed awkwardly and glanced over at my husband, who proceeded to rescue my overshare with some normal-person commentary and promptly change the subject. But as the conversation continued, I got lost in my head for a moment. Did I really just say that out loud? What kind of a dog lover says that? I am such a terrible mother! 

The truth is that Hope, like Lucy, was a dog that on some level I didn’t really want. Lucy hadn’t even been gone long before the hubs was asking for a new pup. To be exact, it had only been three weeks. I was crying a lot; my thoughts, a never-ending rollercoaster. And every day my body felt like it had been hit by a Mack truck. My schedule was pure chaos. I was working overtime in a high-stress job and enrolled in a time-consuming dog training program. The holidays were on the horizon and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was starting to succumb to compassion fatigue. The last thing I wanted in the middle of all this was the responsibility of a shiny new puppy. 

Puppies are overrated

Puppies are a lot of work. And to me, they’ve always been overrated. As a shelter worker and rescue volunteer, I’d spent a great deal of time focusing on the animals that others overlook. I prided myself on ignoring that new puppy sheen and instead setting my sights on the ugly, old and stinky variety of dogs. Besides, I have way more in common with these less-than-perfect pups.

My husband on the other hand, a man unashamed of his taste for finer things, wanted a new puppy. To be exact, he wanted a Doberman Pinscher that would one day grow up to be as big as I am. His desire for a shiny new dog went beyond looks; it was about starting fresh. There is a certain weight to rearing the young. For better or worse, you have the power to shape a mind, a life, and all things that come from it. It’s like holding the future in your hands; a challenge and responsibility that Ryan confidently welcomes with open arms. I, however, am not so enthusiastic because I know all too well what happens when rearing the young goes terribly wrong.  

Ryan's idea of a new puppy
Ryan’s idea of a dog

I don’t have fond memories of my childhood. I never enjoy looking back. All I remember about being little is feeling trapped and terrified. Every. Single. Day. I’ve come a long way from those formative years, but I still bear the scars of my past. What I’ve learned from twelve years of working with homeless animals is that people aren’t the only creatures susceptible to the scars of wrong-rearing. Having spent my adult years helping society’s throwaways, it’s hard for me to get excited about the period of life that I’ve seen go terribly wrong too many times. There’s too much at stake during those formative years, and I’d much rather adopt an older dog, scars and all. 

Pointing fingers

I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy (VSA) intensive when my perspective shifted drastically. Victoria was lecturing on new research in dog cognition when she started pointing her finger. Did you know that dogs are the only other species that are born knowing how to follow a pointing human finger?, she teased, her English accent adding to the suspense. She went on to explain that not even apes know how to follow a human point. Apes can be taught, but puppies are born already knowing it. 

In my mind, I traveled back to the Texas sanctuary where I’d befriended some rescued chimpanzees. Their eerily human-like mannerisms and tendencies had left quite an impression on me. Being so close to them, it was hard not to feel like they were somehow familiar. To think now that they could be so similar and yet not as close to me as a dog was unreal. Sure, I might have more in common with a chimp, but science has proven that dogs and I were meant to communicate. 

During the break after this lesson, I stumbled across the little nugget that would end up coming home with me. As I walked up to her kennel, she paused from wrestling with another puppy to look up at my face. I smiled and watched as she looked down to my feet and then to the floor; her little brow furrowed as though deep in thought. Suddenly, her bottom dropped to the floor and she lifted her gaze to meet mine again.

Clearly, this dog had been trained by someone. What intrigued me wasn’t that she chose to sit without being asked (dog trainers call that an automatic sit) but the thought that went into the decision. It was as though she was working out a puzzle of some sort. I sat down in front of her and started to point my finger in different directions. Sure enough, the nugget’s expressive gaze followed where I pointed. I. Was. Tickled. 

Raising Hope

It turns out that raising a puppy can be exactly what Ryan hoped it would be: thrilling, invigorating, a gift. It was also a welcome distraction from my grief over losing Lucy. There was no time to wallow in my guilt or give ear to the “should haves” running through my head; I had a puppy to raise.  This time around I drew on methods I was learning from VSA and the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior.

I used positive reinforcement and relied on food’s intrinsically rewarding powers to help the puppy understand the world she’d been dropped into. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, all our training sessions were turning us into partners – the kind of friends that know exactly what each other is thinking just by the way one tilts their head or raises an eyebrow. Even though I still missed Lucy deeply, and often times found myself looking for her in the next room, Hope was carving out her own place in my heart.

Grief is a storm, dog is a lighthouse

Is there a right way to grieve? I don’t really know. What I do know is that Hope’s presence gave me a safe space to feel intense and uncomfortable emotions that I didn’t have the courage to face otherwise. In the time between Lucy and Hope, I sobbed a lot. I bawled when I woke up, as I brushed my teeth, and on my drive to work. After bringing Hope home, I put a stop to all that. There were things to get done and no time for tears.

Instead of feeling, I started stuffing down my emotions, until I was angry most the time. One day I came home from work and plopped on the couch exhausted. I had barely acknowledged her when Hope climbed up into my lap, claiming her napping place on my stomach. She did this so intentionally. It practically melted the tears out of me. As the floodgates opened, I realized Hope was providing a lighthouse in the storm of a grief I did not know how to bear. 

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Second chances

I say Hope was aptly named because well, she gave me hope. Renewed hope in something I’d lost. Something I thought I might not get back again. There were times after I first brought the nugget home that I resented her a little. She was so innocent, so full of life, so carefree. It was a reminder that not everyone is that lucky and life isn’t fair. But as her sparkle and energy rubbed off on me I realized that Hope was giving me a second chance to get it right.

With a shiny new puppy, the slate was wiped clean and I could set myself up – as any clever dog trainer would – to be the bearer of all things amazing in her world. With Lucy, my track record of leash jerks, choke chains, squirt bottles and alpha rolls (the hallmarks of my early training style) had taught her that inside of me lurked an unpredictable monster. I know now that I gave her very clear reasons to fear. But with Hope, I had a chance to change my actions and reactions so that she had more reasons to trust me than fear me. 

The thing with second chances is that I’m still human and perfection just isn’t real. Although I have put a lot of effort into remaining patient and calm when the nugget gets on my last nerve, there have been a couple of times that I slipped up and started telling her off before I realized what a complete ass I was being. As a perfectionist, these slip ups remind me that I’ll always suck at pet parenting. But as I said before, perfection isn’t real. Real life involves mistakes – big ones, little ones, stupid ones, catastrophic ones. What I’ve found in all my latest erring is that mistakes teach us about forgiveness. You can’t live a good life without learning how to forgive and be forgiven. 

Dogs may not have the same reasoning capacity as we do, but living with them involves a lot of forgiveness from both sides. The Jean Donaldson in my head tells me that it’s probably less likely that my dog is practicing forgiveness when she looks up at me eagerly after one of my mistakes, and more likely that her ability to live in the moment and bounce back from stressful situations is what makes her eager to look to me again. Either way, living with Hope is teaching me that life isn’t about getting it right all the time. It’s about trying your best, asking for forgiveness and forgiving yourself when you get it wrong, and sincerely trying to do better the next time around. 

Hope can’t bring back my dead dog and she certainly can’t replace her. What Hope has brought is a second chance. She gives me second chances all the time. When I know better but still act like a jerk, she’s still there eagerly awaiting my next move. When I think I’m communicating clearly but am actually confusing the hell out of her, she’s still there trying to connect with this silly monkey. And when I fail to set her up to succeed, she doesn’t hold it against me. Her forgiveness is beyond my comprehension, but it inspires me every day. 

As it turns out, Hope is pretty amazing. Like Lucy, she is one very good dog. And good dogs inspire us to live well and do good unto others. Even after they’re gone. 

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Life After Death, Part 1

Version 2

Last October, Lucy died.

To the world, Lucy was just a dog. To me, Lucy was my world. Before you go writing me off as another crazy dog lady, I can admit that Lucy wasn’t my entire world. She was, however, an important piece of the puzzle that gave my life stability and forward motion.

The irony of those words is that Lucy was the dog I swore I would never adopt. She was a rambunctious, disobedient, house-soiling foster dog. A misfit. A problem child. But after a few months, her mischief had grown on me and I adopted her. It wasn’t that I felt a strong connection with her at the time. It was more that I felt I “knew better” and any other adopter wouldn’t be able to handle what this dog dished out.

Over the next eight years, Lucy and I connected. More than that, she became a permanent fixture in my life. So much so that when she died my mother admitted, “When I think of you, I think of Lucy, not your husband or anything else. You and Lucy, you’re a part of each other.” Indeed, Lucy had become an extension of myself. And now she was gone.

Bracing for goodbye

The last three years of Lucy’s life were spent trying to keep her walking. We tried every remedy out there as arthritis slowly wore away at her joints. Her silent killer was the plain, old generic variety of arthritis. It was happily tamed by NSAIDs, but the NSAIDs were no match for Lucy’s frail system. Instead, she was prescribed a cocktail of supplements and pain relievers to keep her comfortable, and she kept a regular schedule of walking on the water treadmill and cold laser therapy to keep her moving. But I eventually came to find that “arthritis always wins in the end.”

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For three years, I quietly prepared myself for the reality that this appendage I called “my dog” was one day going to die. I had come to the realization that telling myself over and over again, “I don’t know what I’ll do when she dies,” was foolish planning. And I am a planner. So, instead of setting myself up for desperation, I made an effort to shift my perspective and accept that one day Lucy wouldn’t be here anymore.

Despite all my all my efforts at mentally preparing for her death, when the time came I simply wasn’t ready to let her go. For weeks, as she declined I agonized over when “the right time” would be. Once her legs finally gave out and she could no longer lift herself into a stand, I couldn’t agonize anymore; the time was now. We arranged for our vet to meet us at our house. And as Lucy drew her final breaths, I felt the earth shift under my feet.

More than “just a dog”

When I first met Lucy I thought she was a train wreck and impossible to fall in love with. Over the years though, that’s exactly what happened. Like any relationship, our bond was made stronger through shared experiences, but also through the understanding that only time can cultivate. She spent the better part of my twenties watching me grow up. And as I got my life together, I grew to understand her better as a dog.

By the time she passed, Lucy had seen me through the worst of times. There were periods when she was the only constant thing in my life. She was the one I could count on to still be at my side after the dust settled. This crazy, neurotic dog needed me; a fact that shaped my everyday. In my darkest moments, she alone was the reason I knew I had to “hang in there.” In my brightest moments, she reminded me, like any good dog does, how to live in the moment gloriously.

Lucy Me 5 KISSBLOG

Only in her old age did I start to realize all the mistakes I had made as a dog mom. I was taking dog training seriously, reading up on current research and science-based methods for teaching dogs new tricks. What I learned contrasted sharply with the harsh methods of traditional training, which had shaped the beginnings of our relationship. The more I learned, the more I desperately wanted more time with Lucy. More time to make up for all the horrible mistakes I had made with her.

But I’m sad to say that her final moments weren’t what I wanted them to be. She was the same fearful dog I adopted, if not more fearful thanks to my early heavy-handedness. Though we made Lucy’s passing as peaceful as possible, I knew that I had failed her in so many ways.

Grieving

When Lucy died I was careful about with whom and how I shared my grief. Grief over a dog is still stigmatized. And if life only pauses when we lose close human family members, it barely blinked when I lost my dog. I put my head down and went back to my everyday. But inside I felt wrecked and lost. I didn’t have any one I could work through that with. Even my husband, for all his trying, can’t understand why Lucy’s passing took such a toll on me.

The closest I came to sharing my grief happened months later. I was driving back from a long day of learning with two classmates from the Victoria Stilwell Academy when one of them said something that shook me at my core. We were talking about why we want to be dog trainers and she said something along the lines of “all we can do is pay it forward for all they’ve given us.” She didn’t realize it at the time but that was the life raft I needed to stay afloat when the Lucy floodgates opened.

Lucy’s death left me feeling angry and ashamed for all I didn’t know when I first adopted her; for the ways I had failed to build her confidence, even though I thought I was “curing” her disobedience. After all, caring for Lucy had become an intricate part of my purpose in life. As ridiculous as that may sound to some, it was the thing that lifted me out of dark holes and turned me back onto right paths. So, realizing in the end that I had failed was devastating. And with her gone there was no way of undoing what I had done wrong.

But Anne’s words gave me a spark of hope that had been clouded by my grief. All I can do is pay it forward. Lucy is gone and I can never repay her. But I can pay forward everything she did for me. Pay it forward. Everything dogs have done for me. I don’t think you have to be a dog person to understand what I’m saying here. If a dog has ever warmed your heart, made you laugh or licked tears off your face, you know what I’m talking about.

Life goes on

The hope of paying it forward wasn’t given to me until several months after Lucy left. What did come quickly was the addition of a puppy to my life. Aptly named, Hope was a dog I didn’t really want. When Lucy died I told my husband we would not be adopting a dog for at least six months. I don’t know where I came up with that arbitrary timeline but I do know why I didn’t want a dog. Another dog would be overshadowed by the loss I felt. Another dog would never be as good as Lucy. And I could never love another dog as much as I loved Lucy.

But three weeks after Lucy died my husband admitted to me that he was eager to adopt a puppy. Maybe I wasn’t as good at hiding my grief as I thought. Our home and our lives were too sad and boring, he said. He thought a puppy would liven things up. [Now, I can already hear the activists clamoring about “wrong reasons” to adopt a dog. But let’s lay our judgments aside for the sake of a story here.] I couldn’t disagree; a puppy would indeed liven things up. A puppy would also keep me busy. And if I kept busy, then the Lucy floodgates stayed closed.

That’s when I stumbled across a little black and tan nugget sitting in a kennel at the Georgia SPCA. I was at my first Victoria Stilwell Academy intensive learning more about dog cognition and positive training methods. My brain was lighting up in all sorts of exciting ways, and I’m willing to bet this was part of the reason I opened up to the idea of a puppy. At the end of each day of training, I visited the puppy. I played games with her, snuggled her, facetimed my husband with her. After much mulling, we decided to adopt the little nugget.

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As I loaded her up in my truck for the drive home, I remember thinking “here goes nothing.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m too much of a planner to just wing anything. I had already planned our schedules, instructed the hubs on how to set up the house, and gone on a supply shopping spree. But in my mind, I was still a little unsure about the timing of this puppy. I still missed my dog so much. The kind of longing that makes your chest throb. And I just wasn’t sure there was room in my heart for a shiny new puppy.

After all, this puppy was nothing like Lucy. I met Lucy after her formative years and although I wasn’t sure what had happened to her, there were hints that she had been through some rough times. Add in my early heavy-handed, alpha-dog “training” style and this dog undoubtedly experienced trauma. That was something Lucy and I had in common, we were both survivors of trauma. Surely, this shiny new puppy knew nothing of the dread, pain and desperation that Lucy and I had been subjected to. Shiny new puppies are innocent, fearless and stinkin’ adorable. Shiny new puppies and I have nothing in common.

But if nothing else, I had a new mission. Never repeat any of the mistakes I made with Lucy. Looking back, I suppose it was more of an un-mission. It took time for that un-mission to morph into something greater. In the meantime, I filled shiny new puppy’s life with all the things Lucy deserved but didn’t get enough of: a predictable schedule, positive reinforcement, puppy play dates, and a house full of enrichment. In all I was trying to give her, little did I realize what the shiny new puppy was giving me back in return.

To be continued…Don’t miss our next post where we share how things turned out with the shiny new puppy! Here’s a hint: Lucy’s legacy lives on.