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Fear Free Shelters: Lower Stress for Dogs Via Play

Heather E. Lewis

Healthy play is necessary for the wellbeing of all animals, including humans! For sheltered dogs, play has become increasingly important for many reasons:

  • We are more aware of the need to provide quality enrichment to sheltered animals.
  • Shelters are providing more behavioral care for dogs.
  • Play reduces fear, anxiety, and stress.
  • Play helps dogs feel more comfortable in the shelter environment.

We love designing for play. There are many small design nuances but here are some basic highlights:

  • Play Group Space. Play groups must be set up with the support of staff and volunteers, with proper training, as well as within the proper environment. Ideally, play groups will have the following:
    • A series of interconnected yards (rather than one large yard) to customize play groups based on dogs’ sizes and size needs.
    • Visual barriers between yards and kennels.
    • Double-gated entrances for safety.
    • Access to water via kiddie pools for the dogs to cool off and to provide a large water source that is less likely to be guarded.
    • Shading and reasonable surfaces are important as well. K9Grass (a brand of faux grass) is our favorite, but only if it is installed correctly so that it drains and does not collect water. It also needs to be shaded or it can get too hot for paws.
    • Safe fencing that keeps dogs contained without risk of escape.
  • Water Play. Water play works well for dogs who enjoy play groups and for those who do not. We have started incorporating splash parks for sheltered dogs (see photo). It is spectacular to witness a formerly fearful sheltered dog interacting playfully with water. Splash park plans must be created by people who know how to design for dogs, as they have different types of plumbing, surfacing, and play structures than those designed for children. When we design a splash park, we consider the following:
    • Incorporate additional space around the water feature so the dogs can go in and out of the water. This enhances choice.
    • Safe surfacing is critical. Our favorite is a soft, grip-textured surface designed for dogs.
    • The water itself should be safe. It is not recirculated, so it is best to have the water provide watering to landscaping once it has been used in park fountains.
  • Individual Play Spaces. We know that some dogs do better with one-on-one time than they do in groups, and we know that water features cannot be used during cold winters. Therefore, do not forget to provide these spaces for your sheltered dogs:
    • Walking Paths. These should be loop type with multiple forks along the loop, so that dogs do not have to pass each other side to side. Good walks provide exercise, connection, and some Fear Free training opportunities.
    • Ball Throwing Areas. We like to provide a larger yard (60’ long minimum) for flying disc or ball throwing.
    • Small (20×20, for example), more fully enclosed yards. These are great for gentle socializing with fearful dogs who may retreat in large yards, or for adoption meet and greet.

As we continue to improve the Fear Free shelter, dedicated play areas are a critical part of the design. It is best to designate outdoor areas for play so everyone gets fresh air, but if your shelter is land constrained, or in an urban location, playrooms can be indoor if necessary.

Regardless of your resources, find ways to incorporate play. For a dog, and especially one who is fearful, play is an important and often shorter path to happiness and comfort, as well as to finding the right forever home.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Heather E. Lewis, AIA, NCARB, is a principal of Animal Arts, an architectural firm that has exclusively designed animal care facilities, including veterinary hospitals and animal shelters, for more than three decades.  She has worked on dozens of projects across the country, both large and small in her 19 years with the firm.  Heather is a member of the Fear Free℠ Advisory Board and assisted in creating the Fear Free facility standards for veterinary hospitals.  Heather is a regular contributor to various veterinary industry magazines.  She has spoken on the design of facilities for the care of animals at dozens of national and regional conferences including Fetch Hospital Design Conferences, the UC Davis Low Stress Animal Handling Conference, and the Humane Society of the United States Animal Care Expo.
Photo courtesy Humane Society of Southwest Missouri

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