January 7, 2018

Audience: Executive Leadership, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Organization: Maddie's Fund
Investigator(s): Anastasia Shabelansky and Sheila Segurson
Grant Amount: n/a
Project Type: Basic Research
Project Status: Research Complete

Project Summary

Maddie's Fund® conducted a nationalonline survey regarding dog playgroup practices. The majority (83%) of responding organizations utilize playgroups, and with some frequency (71% had> 3 per week). However, the average number of dogs in each playgroup was small indicating that most organizations don't provide dogs with the opportunity to play with other dogs on a regular basis.


To gather data on the use of dog playgroups across U.S. organizations


The survey was distributed via the Maddie's Fund® email list, Adopt-a-Pet newsletter and Best Friends network partner list. One survey representative was allowed per organization and focused on three main points of interest: dog playgroups schedule, logistics and interventional methods; staff training; and respondent's perception of them.


Playgroup Frequency, Size and Exclusion

  • 83% reported to use playgroups, and 71% hosted more than 3 per week. On average, 50% of a shelter's dog population participated in playgroups, with 8 being the average playgroup size. Only 48% allow dogs of various weights/sizes in one playgroup.
  • The percent of dogs taken out to participate in playgroups was significantly higher in low-intake shelters versus high-intake shelters; however, for mixed-size playgroups, higher-intake shelters tended to have larger playgroup sizes.
  • Most common reasons why dogs were not allowed in playgroup activity: aggression to other dogs (78%) and being post-surgical (73%), followed by being "in-quarantine" (58%), "lack of dogs with matching play styles" (56%) and illness (54%). Hyperactivity, dog size and breed restriction were least commonly reported as reasons for exclusion.

Intervention Necessity and Methods

  • Voice, to correct (86%) or praise (82%), was most commonly used to modify playgroup behavior; followed by "leash-on" (77%) and "body/social pressure" (71%). Use of control poles, prong or pinch collars, and electronic collars were least reported.
  • Serious fights that were difficult to break up or resulted in wounds requiring medical attention were very uncommon; 21% reported one serious fight, 33% reported two to five, and 7% reported more than five over the past year. Bites to people were also rare; 10% reported one bite and 12% reported two to five bites over the past year.
  • There was no correlation between average size of the typical playgroup or number of years that shelters utilized playgroups and an increased risk of fights or injuries.

Canine Group Health

  • Playgroups were not suspected to cause the spread of parvovirus (< 1%), distemper (0%), or canine influenza (1%); they were occasionally suspected of spreading kennel cough (19%).


  • Most believe playgroups improve knowledge of a dog's behavior (97%); improve quality of life/welfare (96%); and reduce stress (96%). Other perceived benefits included: improvement of staff morale (87%) and reduction in dog's shelter stay (70%).


This study demonstrated that playgroups are generally safe for dogs and people, as fights, bites and injuries are uncommon. Organizations seeing higher bite frequency may benefit from policy and procedure evaluation, or direct learning from successfully safer organizations. Moreover, volunteers are often utilized to run or assist with playgroups, saving shelter staff time. Playgroups can provide needed enrichment, social interaction and exercise for a large number of dogs efficiently, and thus are a particularly attractive tool for high-dog-intake shelters. More research is needed to evaluate their impact on dog well-being and population health.