Living and Learning Through Play

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done, and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” ~ Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Last weekend, we brought in a team to teach us – or rather, reteach us – that a strange new thing really could be done.

Years ago, play groups for the dogs were a somewhat regular occurrence. When the trainer who ran them moved out of the area, we lost the confidence to continue them.

We became more cautious and adopted an approach that kept the dogs safe – but mostly at a distance from each other, with a few exceptions.

Recently, a few volunteers re-started the play effort with a small group of dogs. Seeing the difference it made, they wanted to expand it to all of the dogs in our program. The skeptics were many. The thought of putting 8-10 dogs whose backgrounds are unknown into a play group can be understandably disquieting.

So the team sought expert help – and for two days last week, we humans were the ones that went to school. Bringing in the nationally recognized “Dogs Playing for Life” group, we learned how to categorize and match play styles and safely introduce dogs into play groups.

As we watched dogs that we thought could not get along with other dogs play together, we learned not to judge a dog by its cover – or by the reactions we see on leash and in kennel.

As we watched volunteer after volunteer step up to try on the role of play group leader, we surprised even ourselves with our ability to be in control of a group of dogs.

Following a consistent set of roles and guidelines, we worked well to get out each and every dog – not once, but twice in a day for play sessions that left them (and us) exhausted! But in the best way possible.

We learned that Duchess is a great go-along, get-along dog;

that our little Ariel can put much bigger, more obnoxious dogs in their place; that Mason can actually be the life of the party without a tennis ball; and that Molly – paired with the right dogs – can truly enjoy the company of canine friends.

Brand new arrival Dustin went from being uncatchable in the morning, to walking on leash to his play date in the afternoon; he was so anxious to get there.

Riley survived an entire day of play without having to rely on a toy companion. And Copper, who had been a protective screamer at other dogs turned into a wallflower when actually placed with those dogs.

We gained confidence in differentiating between a dog “discussion” and a potential problem, and when and how to intervene with low, calm tones, body language, appropriate tools, and tactics when trouble does arise. (All this snarling and gnashing of teeth was in good play as you can see from the photo progression.)

And we learned that play is for serious learning: our learning about the dogs – and for the dogs to communicate lessons to each other what we humans just can’t quite seem to relay.

“Dogs Playing for Life” is a nonprofit founded by professional trainer Aimee Sadler. The program has been introduced in more than 175 shelters and rescues here and abroad. We were # 176. The lessons we learned will enhance the dogs’ lives, help us to understand them better opening up their adoption options, and enrich our own lives as well.

Leaving us to ask…’Why didn’t we do this centuries ago?’ 🙂

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I am a nascent gardener, rescuer, and photographer, chronicling the journey of the dogs at Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue and Sanctuary near Sacramento, CA - and the Memorial Garden we have devoted to them.

16 thoughts on “Living and Learning Through Play”

  1. Fabulous, amazing, really! Kind of reminds me of Carmel Beach – where all dogs are off the leash and just go for it. Fun!!

  2. Yes, indeed. Exceptional shots of encounters, canine conversations and disputes. I have to say I love the second image where everybody is focused and attentive, and then in the left-hand corner, we see a black lab completely blissed out!

  3. Outstanding!! Imagine the healing and joy that HBGRR now brings to the residents. And the strength that is brought to dogs that are learning a new life. Love this story. Kudos HBGRR for taking this (scary) step.

  4. So happy we stepped out of our comfort zone and saw the magic of the possible, just an amazing two days!

  5. Oh! My! doG! How I wish I could have been there!! My sweet 😇 Callie taught me so much about canine play styles, body language, and so on that I’ve tried to retain over the years; but sometimes I feel like I’ve failed her by forgetting some of those lessons. Refreshing my memory would be a big boost to my confidence that I indeed have not failed my girl.

      1. Thanks! I tried to look at it on my iPhone (SE), but only the cover would load. I’ll try on the laptop later. Have a great Sunday playing with all the pups!

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