Shelter Playgroup Alliance Summit 2019

Emily and I recently got back from the Shelter Playgroup Alliance Summit 2019 and boy do we have to gush about it! Before doing that, though, let me give y’all a quick intro to our favorite new organization.

Shelter Playgroup Alliance (SPA) is a new organization devoted to shelter dog enrichment which includes dog-dog play and interactions. SPA is “a collaboration among shelter staff and behavior experts. [They] developed a framework that supports safe and “healthy play” and limits the use of aversives to manage playgroups.” ( Essentially, SPA created a set of shelter playgroup guidelines using LIMA-based methods. Best part? Those guidelines are available on their website – – for FREE. Now do you see why we love them so much?

Emily and I were lucky enough to attend the first ever SPA Summit last year. (Well, I was lucky. Emily wrote an awesome article on shelter playgroups for IAABC so she earned her spot. I tagged along for the ride.) It was an amazing roundtable of shelter and behavior experts discussing, sharing, and collaborating. Naturally we jumped at the chance to continue working with this group as contributors! It’s been a year of writing, meeting, and re-writing but the guidelines are out and we are definitely proud of the current product. These ladies are seriously the best and it was such a pleasure working with them.

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SPA is committed to educating shelter staff and volunteers. One of the ways they accomplish this is through an annual educational summit. The 2019 summit focused on “concepts related to inter-dog play and shelter animal enrichment” ( Speakers included: Dr. Lisa Gunter, Dr. Lindsay Mehrkam, and Lisa Clifton-Bumpass. Mara Velez, SPA Executive Director, introduced and explained the new guidelines in addition to leading discussions on enrichment and playgroups. Oh and some organization called First Train Home talked a bit about shelter enrichment and introduced their new non-profit. Whatever. On the last day some of the contributors ran playgroups to demo the new guidelines; I got to work in the “enrichment yard” showcasing alternative enrichment options and meeting the new love of my life, mini-Oso.

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Here are some of our thoughts, notes, and takeaways from this year:

  • Inspirational! OH. MY. GOSH. These speakers are now officially among our list of heroes. Listening to them talk about the science behind enrichment and empowerment was validating to us as our book on canine enrichment heads into layout. But more so than that it was inspiring to hear experts in the field talk about their latest research and to hear attendees discussing ways to implement that information into their programs. We highly recommend hearing all three of them if you get the chance.
  • Along the same lines, shelter/rescue folks are amazing. No joke. Emily and I had the pleasure to speak with a lot of attendees not only in passing but also more in-depth on their enrichment programs to help optimize them further.  Y’all are doing great work and we’re excited to see how those programs progress! Keep it up!
  • Playgroups look different depending on your risk tolerance. This topic was not only discussed but was given a spotlight this year. We hear all the time about how risk-averse people are and that they’re uncomfortable with large groups or certain dogs being in playgroups. Our answer has always been, “That’s okay! Do what makes you feel comfortable (assuming it’s also good for the dogs’ mental health).” We haven’t seen as much discussion on this topic in these larger settings; it was refreshing. If you haven’t already we recommend having an honest and open discussion with your staff and volunteers involved in playgroups to see where their risk tolerance lies.
  • Demoing at events is hard. I had the chance to speak with one of the volunteers I work with on a weekly basis at DuPage County Animal Services (shoutout to Anne!) after the event. She was asking me about my opinion on the guidelines, summit demoes, and decisions made in the demoes. A lot of my answers came down to: planning demoes with live animals is hard. The Sacramento SPCA – where demonstrations were held – had a Clear the Shelters adoption event the day before resulting in many of the dogs we planned to use getting adopted. A good problem to have but that meant fewer dogs to showcase SPA guidelines. Throw in people new to working together in a new environment and you’re going to see more risk aversion. That said, Emily and I have seen and used these guidelines work with all sorts of dogs! Check out the SPA YouTube page for more demonstrations.
  • Change is also hard. In our opinion, the SPA guidelines represent the ideal. But that doesn’t mean that we expect every shelter to adopt them word for word tomorrow! Effective change happens through approximations. One of the common phrases we heard that weekend was, “This is all great, but [insert reason why it doesn’t exactly work for us right now].” That’s okay! Start by identifying just one way in which your playgroup program could be even better than it is now. Start there. Start small. Just because the big picture seems impossible from where we’re standing doesn’t mean that it is.


This event was refreshing and rejuvenating in so many ways. As Emily said on the way back to the airport, “Conferences are like summer camp for adults.”  A HUGE thank you to the SPA ladies for allowing us to contribute, inviting us to the 2019 summit, and asking us to share First Train Home with the attendees! And another huge thank you to the friends and colleagues we met and reconnected with as well as the attendees who allowed us to share in their passion. We can’t wait for next year!


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