Five Ways Play Groups are Saving Lives in Chicago

In 2011 Safe Humane Chicago (SHC), with the help of grant support from Animal Farm Foundation, assisted in the building of play yards at Chicago Animal Care and Control (CACC). 

We had the pleasure of attending the opening of the play yards last December, joined by CACC’s Director, Sandra Alfred, and Cynthia Bathurst, the Executive Director of SHC, who both worked very hard to make this project happen! Together, we celebrated their accomplishment, as the dogs enjoyed their first off leash fun.

Animal Farm Foundation also sponsored a hands-on, multi-day workshop with Aimee Sadler, creator of the Success Through Socialization program, for volunteers and staff members to learn how to run the play groups.

Now that it’s been a few months, we checked in with Cynthia to find out how the Court Case Dogs (a Safe Humane program that supports dogs who have been relinquished by defendant owners charged with animal abuse or neglect and are housed at CACC, sometimes for very long periods), are doing and how the play yards at CACC have impacted their lives.

Here’s what Cynthia told us in a nutshell: play groups are saving lives.

Prior to building the play yards, the only options for exercising the Court Case Dogs (or any dog residing at CACC) were to walk them outside on-leash, play in narrow, concrete runs, and on-leash exercise in the training room. This meant that the dogs did the majority of their socializing, with other dogs and people, through on-leash meet-and-greets. It wasn’t enough.

The new yards and play groups allow the dogs to socialize and exercise in a more natural setting. Cynthia reports that with the new yards, “The dogs get more exercise, plain and simple. They can be dogs. This gives them a better quality of life.” 

Lower stress levels, due to increased socialization and exercise, translates into the dogs showing better when they interact with people.

There’s no doubt that play groups and their benefits are having a direct impact on the number of adoptions. Cynthia tell us that, “…we saw a noticeable increase in the number of dogs placed, compared with previous months and for the same period the year before. In particular, we have placed as many dogs as of August 31, 2012, as we placed all year in 2011 – and we have four months to go in 2012.”


How exactly do play groups do so much good? Here are five ways that shelters can benefit from play yards and play groups:

Maximize Staff Time: Staff members exercise and interact with multiple dogs at one time, while the dogs get the mental and physical stimulation they need to feel less stressed (think less jumping, barking, and pooping!) once they’re back in the kennels. It’s a win-win for the dogs and staff.

Evaluating dogs for placement in play groups, then seeing them interact in the yards, speeds up the overall process of evaluating their social skills. Staff also learn that a dog’s behavior on-leash or in their kennel isn’t always an accurate indicator of a dog’s social skills. As Cynthia points out, “Shelter staff members learn that they can mistakenly label a dog as “dog aggressive” because of his/her kennel behavior… then learn that the same dog exhibits social skills in play groups.”

Get to Know the Real Dogs: Play groups allow observers to gather relevant, helpful information about the dogs. In particular, it helps staff, volunteers, and rescue partners learn more about the social skills of each dog, which in turn, helps them speak more confidently and accurately about the dogs. Cynthia says, “We know who is social. We can identify much more about their personalities and who they are as dogs. Because they get much more exercise – physical and mental – and can just be dogs, they “show” oh-so-much better — sometimes even on-leash.”


Make Better Matches: Play groups give visitors a chance to observe the dogs in action. By seeing them off leash in a yard or interacting in a play group, adopters and rescue groups can more easily find the right match. In Chicago, rescues are invited to observe dogs in the yards.

Cynthia tells us, “During a recent Court Case Dog Program celebration of our rescues, we had a lower turnout of rescues than before, yet we transferred more dogs that day because they were able to see our dogs in play groups – and several rescues commented that seeing the play groups is why they decided so quickly to take the dogs they did. We will continue to invite rescues to observe dogs in play groups as part of our relationship building with the rescue community and to help further identify appropriate matches. The general public is invited to watch our Sunday play groups as an additional way to help them select a dog to adopt.”

Bust Myths: Whether its staff members or the visiting public, getting to see “pit bull” dogs socializing with other dogs breaks down negative stereotypes. Seeing is believing! “Dogs who people may think look like big, scary, pit-bull dogs are playing no differently than any other grouping of dogs who are playing. Court Case Dogs tend to be among the “pit-bull” grouping. Seeing groups of the Court Case Dogs playing speaks louder than the negative media-driven stereotypes, “says Cynthia. Other myths busted: that large, open admission shelters can’t do play groups. CACC is one of many urban municipal shelters that are employing this kind of socialization.

Achieve Long Term Success: “Since play groups began and as our play group facilitators have become more experienced and play groups larger and more frequent, we can show an increased placement rate for the dogs, ” Cynthia reports. By observing the dogs in the yards, it’s easier to determine better matches for foster homes, volunteer programs, and rescues. Cynthia says, “…we can identify play style, specific quirks, likes, dislikes, and so forth on a dog-to-dog level. Over time, this should lead to more long-term foster and adopter situations, leading to more forever homes, less moving around and stress for the dogs once they leave the city shelter.”


In case you were wondering: Are there any restrictions on which dogs are allowed to participate in play groups?

Not based on breed label. Cynthia says, “All dogs who are social or comfortable with other dogs, or with particular dogs (depending on play styles and compatible personalities), can participate in play groups. It depends on the individual dogs. Any restrictions are set by the play group volunteers themselves and are the result of individual observations or individual limitations, such as a dog’s medical condition or play style or lack of social skills.”

AFF sends a big “Congratulations!” to the compassionate, dedicated staff and volunteers of Chicago Animal Care and Control and Safe Humane Chicago for their work in creating a better world for “pit bull” dogs and their friends!

To see the dogs enjoying their new dogs, check out this fun video of a recent play group at CACC.

For more on play groups, including interviews with Aimee Sadler, please see our website!