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Meet Aimee Sadler of Dogs Playing for Life

Today we’d like to introduce you to Aimee Sadler.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Aimee. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that we get to run around the country teaching shelters how to implement playgroups – what a dream job! Playgroups have become an obvious way to enhance a dogs quality of life while kenneled. Incorporating daily canine play sessions has proven to be a “best bang for the buck” canine enrichment, assessment, training and adoption promotion program for animal welfare organizations internationally.

I began in sheltering as a private trainer paid by a heartfelt citizen to work with the dogs at the local, municipal shelter in Southampton, NY. I recognized quickly that efficiency was critical if I was to use my allocated time to help the most dogs cope better and find a family. At that time, I didn’t understand how much of life‐saving impact playgroups would ultimately have on animal welfare, but I did recognize that getting twenty dogs out of their kennels in an hour was better than four.

I had always been comfortable with dogs in large groups since I was raised on a farm and we rescued many, having up to 17 at one time. It seemed logical to me that socializing in the yard first would better prepare the shelter dogs for their manners and basic training lessons. They would be able to expend excess energy in a healthy and interactive way that countered the common anxiety and frustration caused by life in a noisy, uncomfortable and stressful kennel. My task was to teach them to behave in an appealing and attractive way for volunteers and adopters. Playgroups quickly became the foundation of this work.

To my surprise, shelter dogs having social access to one another still raises concerns revolving around safety, behavioral and health risks. As a result, social isolation has been the industry norm for both dogs and cats for far too long. As a result, we’ve built our enrichment programming model around our motto, Every Dog, Every Day! – time out of their enclosure every day is what every shelter dog deserves.

The concerns described to me, at shelters of varying capacity and missions, are somewhat consistent:

“This is the way we’ve always done it…”

“The dogs might fight…”

“We might get an outbreak of _________…”

“We need to keep our volunteers safe…”

“We don’t have anyone qualified to let dogs play…”

“We don’t have the time or personnel to get the dogs out every day…”

The above concerns would pertain to all kinds of enrichment, training or behavior programs typically implemented. From my perspective, this reasoning is limiting and not in the best interest of the animals. No shelter boasts enough resources to employ the personnel necessary to adequately care for the animals. Everyone relies upon volunteers and/or community service support. Those who have strong volunteer programs are typically capable of providing the most, and allowing volunteers to handle sheltered animals entails a certain amount of inherent risk, no different than us buckling up and driving a car.

The exciting reported outcome from shelters implementing daily playgroups is happily the opposite; that the above concerns happen less. Logically, happier and satisfied animals are generally less stressed which equates to less disease and extreme behavior that puts people and animals at risk. Subsequently, shelter animals (and the volunteers eager to attend to them) are safer in the process, so more animals are finding their way into loving homes.

In contrast with the latter concerns, our programs stress the consideration of the whole animal, physically, emotionally and behaviorally. We treat all animals as individuals. None of our behavior programs discriminate due to breed or category. Whether it is embracing colony housing for cats or playgroups for dogs there is no doubt that offering a more natural environment and comprehensive approach to wellness helps shelters to better assess behavior, maintain healthy behavior and support better adoption matches. From our approach and our success, we have presented Dogs Playing for Life™ an enrichment program for shelter dogs featuring playgroups at animal welfare conferences and to over 230 shelters internationally.

Animal welfare as an industry is constantly evolving. Our critical tasks at hand change from year to year. Organizations, their volunteers and animals are clearly benefiting from the newest trends, as is demonstrated by an overall reduction of euthanasia rates and less discriminatory practices. In the end, this is our primary role as humane societies; to provide care and a safe haven for all companion animals no matter their shape, size or color) and support them into loving homes. Implementing daily playgroups has proven to be a win-win for people and animals! And to think that these exciting life-saving outcomes revolve around something so simple and natural; let dogs be dogs and allow them to play together.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There have absolutely been struggles along the way! One of DPFL’s biggest challenges is meeting the increasing demand for shelters that want to do better by their dogs! We have been so fortunate to earn the support of Animal Farm Foundation, the Petco Foundation, and the ASPCA to be able to teach more shelters about playgroups, but the waiting list continues to grow of more shelters who want to learn. We have been working fast and furiously to add to our team to be able to reach these shelters, more expeditiously.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Dogs Playing for Life – what should we know?
Dogs Playing for Life specializes in improving the quality of life for dogs while sheltered. DPFL has the unique perspective of working with over 230 shelters internationally, giving us a disproportionate level of experience working with shelters serving all different functions. We are able, unlike most other national consultants, to work directly within the operations of animal shelters and alongside staff and volunteers to demonstrate what is possible. DPFL is known for treating all dogs as individuals to give them an opportunity to show us-and potential adopters-the best version of themselves. When DPFL works with a shelter, we start by providing a classroom presentation to staff and volunteers and then hop in the shelter’s play yard with their staff and volunteers and start calling for dogs. At first, the people tend to be nervous, but then the vast majority of dogs demonstrate that they are better at being dogs than we are! By the end of our time together, DPFL’s team has identified and coached handlers that will be able to provide this invaluable opportunity for their shelters dogs. In our follow up with shelters implementing playgroups, one hundred percent of respondents believe that the benefits outweigh the risks and over 95% believe that playgroups improve the quality of life of dogs while sheltered. DPFL is incredibly proud to be a part of this paradigm shift in sheltering and to be recognized by national organizations such as the Petco Foundation (with their inaugural Love in Action Award) and Maddie’s Fund Maddie’s Hero Award.


  • $100 Donation helps DPFL get one shelter dog a week of playgroups!
  • $500 Donation trains a staff member or volunteers to support playgroups at their shelter
  • $1,000 Donation sponsors a staff member to attend a mentorship, where they’ll learn how to implement playgroups at their shelter.
  • $10,000 Donation brings playgroup training to an open admission shelter so that they can work towards playgroups for every dog, every day!

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Dogs Playing for Life

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