There’s Angel, Motown, Bella, Nibbles and Mr. Nice.
There’s also Epcot, Sincere, Haas, Eugene and Milo.
And on a recent sunny afternoon in the fenced-in backyard of the Kokomo Humane Society, the circumstances that brought them all together in the first place were cast aside as they were all just allowed to do what they do best — be dogs.
It’s called the Playgroup Program, and humane society staff says it’s been a howling success since it was first brought to the facility in 2017 as part of the national initiative “Dogs Playing for Life.”
The playgroup is pretty much just like what it sounds like too, Kokomo Humane Society Animal Behavior Specialist Marissa Shoffner added.
After a 10-day initial assessment on an adjacent lot, all of the dogs are then put into four different groups based on their play styles — gentle and dainty, rough and rowdy, seek and destroy and push and pull.
For six days a week and roughly three hours at a time, the facility’s canines then get to leave their kennels, get a little fresh air and be around each other on their own terms.
“This right here is the happiest time of their day,” Shoffner said, as she leaned down to offer one of the dogs a quick pet behind the ears. “… The dogs are learning that this is a safe place. They are getting comfortable with people and with each other.
“Some of these dogs, they come in, and they’re scared,” she continued. “It’s like being a toddler, being taken to a foreign country and just being left alone. You see familiar things, but you don’t understand it. So for these guys, coming out here, it’s getting them to see at least one familiar thing, that being another dog.”
But there is also some serious science behind all that fun too, Shoffner added.
For instance, one of the main goals behind the playgroup is to socialize the animals with each other in an effort to make them more adoptable to families who already have one or more dogs at home.
“The playgroup also helps with kennel behavior, leash skills, how to put on a collar, things like that,” Shoffer added. “And we also do other tests outside of this playgroup too to see what their drive is. That can tell us if they can live well in a house with cats or small kids. It’s really all about watching them play. It’s just letting dogs be dogs and watching them learn how to be dogs at play.”
For Shoffner, the playgroup also offers the opportunity to reflect on the positive changes she has seen with the dogs over the past few years.
“When I started here five years ago, we didn’t really do anything for the dogs like this,” she noted. “We didn’t really know how to tell if the dogs were good with other dogs or not, so a lot of our population was marked ‘No Dogs’ based on their reaction in their kennels. So dogs weren’t really getting a fair chance. But once we got these dogs out and interacting with each other, we noticed a big change in their behaviors.
“It definitely makes them less stressed,” she continued, “and they are more than likely to know their neighbors or have had a chance to play with them, so there is less cage fighting. After Dogs Playing for Life came here and did an initial session, we found that our [adoption] numbers changed too. More dogs were getting homes. I mean, how many dogs do you know that you can say have been around 18 dogs at once and done just fine? It’s helped a lot.”
The Playgroup Program — along with the humane society in general — is always looking for volunteers too, Shoffner noted.
“We really need volunteers, along with foster families as well,” she said. “These dogs would love to be walked once a day in addition to being in a playgroup or being able to get a little extra love and attention on their way in from their playgroup. Before we moved to our new location, we had roughly 20 available dogs at one time. Now we are usually sitting in the 50s. So we’ve doubled, but our volunteers really have not.”
Shoffner then paused for a few seconds and looked around at the group of dogs surrounding her legs, sharing a few of their stories as she put her hands down for them to lick.
“When Motown came in, he didn’t do well with other dogs,” she said. “That’s a lot different now. That one over there by the gate, she couldn’t even be touched when she came here. El Toro, he was scared of other dogs when he came here, and now he’s one of our assessor dogs. These dogs, I can’t say enough about them. They just need a second chance.”
The Playgroup Program runs Sunday through Friday every afternoon beginning at 2 p.m., and interested potential dog owners are welcome to attend and watch the animals outside of the fenced-in area.
For more information about the Kokomo Humane Society or potential animal adoption, visit the humane society’s website at www.kokomohumane.org or contact them at 765-452-6224.
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