Dogs Playing for Life: The Brilliance of Thinking Outside the Cage

Sadlers, Group Photo

Dogs Playing for Life: The Brilliance of Thinking Outside the Cage

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you had a longtime friend who won the equivalent of a Nobel Prize? Suppose you had an old pal whom you’d lived through decades of life alongside — knowing each others’ men and horses and children and dogs, dogs, dogs — and she were to emerge as a major force in her field and a big prize winner? Maybe you always thought she had great above-average energy and optimism, but over time you didn’t really notice how far ahead of the pack she was moving with her attitude and talents, which emerged incrementally? Well I’m proud to say that very thing has happened to me with Aimee Sadler — champion par excellence of quality for life of dogs in shelters, and the creative genius behind the nonprofit Dogs Playing for Life (DPFL).

If you want to hear Aimee’s philosophies and how they have blossomed, I have been saluting her work going way back. I seem to have interviewed her more times on my NPR radio show DOG TALK (and Kitties, Too!) than any other person in the companion animal universe! From my podcast library, putting her name in the search bar you’ll find this interview about the launch of DPFL in February of 2015, again here in April of 2015, then this interview about the reliability of temperament evaluation tests in shelters, followed by an update on DPFL in September of 2017, and most recently here in June of 2018, when we talked about DPFL as the national beneficiary of the NY Dog Film Festival. The Festival is traveling to over 30 cities nationwide, often in the same locations where DPFL has visited a municipal shelter to show them how to get dogs out of their cages and into playgroups.

Amiee (bio photo)I personally watched Aimee develop her revolutionary idea at Southampton Shelter (from where, with her help, I adopted one of my Weimaraners, Scooby Doo) where she was the director of training. I watched with trepidation — along with the staff and other volunteers — as Aimee let a number of pit bulls and others,dragging short leashes, out into an enclosed grassy play area. She boldly predicted that given a chance, dogs would play, not fight, if they were allowed to safely run loose together. I saw for myself that these dogs could play well together and relieve the stress and tension of being in runs and cages — and everybody’s perception of the dogs (especially potential adopters) changed for the better. I could also see that shelter staff and volunteers felt better about their work because the dogs’ lives were better, plus their chance of being adopted increased. This was way back in July of 2013 when I interviewed her about this unique experience.

Now for the part about the Nobel Prize. Aimee’s work was saluted by Susanne Kogut, the head of the Petco Foundation, which chose DPFL last year over hundreds of other candidates for the “Love in Action Award,” specifically for saving more dogs’ lives nationwide in pioneering an idea about how to make life more bearable for incarcerated dogs while they waited for a forever home. Aimee and DPFL were celebrated recently by no one less than the great author/scholar/teacher/dog aficionado Marc Bekoff, who is an unparalleled world-renowned “translator” of the canine mind. After I introduced Marc and Aimee by email (turned out he is one of her heroes in the animal cognition universe), Marc immediately understood the value of the work being done by Dogs Playing for Life and wrote another great article about it in Psychology Today called: The Power and Importance of Social Play For Sheltered Dogs.

But I still get bragging rights! I knew Aimee first (I was actually her first dog training client and her entry point into the field!) and I saw immediately that she had a pure, passionate drive to understand dogs and what makes them tick. Now two of her sons (and at one point her third son, too!) are chips off the old block, working brilliantly themselves, leading playgroups for DPFL as facilitators to shelters in cities across the country. A young Californian, Tucker Eurman, is doing the same DPFL training at shelters, and is also a talented filmmaker whose film about DPFL’s work is so compelling it will be seen as part of the 4th Annual NY Dog Film Festival December 2nd in New York City. Aimee, Tucker and others from DPFL hope to be at the SVA Theater that day — a chance for you to see the movie and let DPFL change your mind about how we can improve the way we look at dogs in shelters — and meet the prize-winning brains behind it all.

—Tracie Hotchner

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