August 26, 2014 marked the 1-year anniversary of the 100% volunteer-run play group program at Rochester Animal Services. It was just over a year ago when, on the cusp of completing Aimee Sadler’s national recognized Dogs Playing for Life! training program, we embarked on this journey and the gates to the play yard were opened forever. Life as we had previously known it, changed for the better. A year later, so much of our work at the shelter is now centered around The Play Yard that it’s hard to imagine life before play groups came to RAS. If you haven’t witnessed a play group, here is a glimpse into our day.

Bright and early, Saturday morning, the play group machine steps into action. The day’s scheduled leader and intake coordinator arrive one hour early to perform shelter rounds. They review the list of eligible dogs and check to see if any new dogs have been approved for play group. All dogs who have successfully undergone their behavioral assessment and satisfied the legal holding period are eligible to attend play group. On any given day, this can range from as few as 15 to over 40 dogs.

Meanwhile, back at the ‘Yard’, other members of the team are getting the yard ‘Play Group’ ready. The intake station where collaring and tagging is performed is set up, pools are filled or snow is shoveled. The Play Yard trailer, our home away from home and play yard remote adoption venue, is being prepped for potential meet-and-greets that are likely to take place throughout the play group session. The entire team then converges at the shelter for a quick 10-minute “detailing”; where the leader gives an overview of what the day ahead looks like. How many dogs are eligible to attend? What foster dogs are we expecting today? The leader and intake coordinator share a list of dogs who cannot attend play group to ensure they too, are given extra time outside of their kennel. Finally, the team is made aware of the schedule so that any potential meet-and-greet with adopter dogs takes in a timely fashion and then the runners’ first dog assignments are given out. Then…..we’re off!

Working in unison, the play yard leader and intake coordinator determine the order in which the dogs come into the yard and in what yard they are placed and communicate this to the runners. Age, size, activity level all play a part in ensuring successful matches. Some dogs need to ease into the yard while others come in as if they’ve never left. On any given day you’ll see a myriad of play styles; including the Rough and Rowdy’s, Seek and Destroyers, Gentle and Dainty and Push and Pull players. We have BIGS and we have SMALLS and then we have the holy grail of them all, the ‘Play Yard Rock Stars’. It is the Rock Stars, far more than the humans in the play yard, who are the influencers and teachers of the other dogs. “Trust in the Dogs”. It’s our mantra. We trust that dogs know what they are doing. We believe that dogs learn best from other dogs. It’s the Dogs Playing for Life! way of life and after a year of implementing the program, we are big believers and supporters of this ethos. We wrap up each play group with a big THANK YOU to the volunteer runners who, without them, the play yard wouldn’t be possible. Then there is a final recap with the team leaders who head up to write up the daily report.

In one short year, we’ve built a program that we are extremely proud of. We’ve executed over 250 play group sessions, provided the opportunity for over 800 unique dogs to play, played a vital role in increasing adoption, decreasing length of stay, securing better adoption placements and improving overall quality of life. It’s taken over 3,000 volunteer hours to sustain this vital and lifesaving program. Our work has extended beyond our local walls and we have received accolades from leading national organizations; including Animal Farm Foundation and Best Friends Animal Society for the lifesaving and life changing work we are doing.

Thank you to everyone who has supported The Play Yard at Rochester Animal Services this past year. Whether it was through your monetary or in-kind donation, volunteer support, adopting a play yard dog, sharing our play yard photos, or simply believing in what we do. You made a difference.

And finally, to the dogs, thank you for showing us the way.