HUNTINGTON - Sometimes dogs that are considered "aggressive" just need to learn how to play nicely with others.

Staff and volunteers at the Huntington Cabell Wayne Animal Shelter found that out this week after holding several doggy playgroups. They paired dogs together based on their demeanor. Eventually, even the more difficult dogs were growling less and frolicking more.

It is part of a new program conducted by Dogs Playing For Life, a Colorado-based nonprofit that teaches how to use playgroups to assess dogs' behaviors and reduce things like kennel stress.

After a three-day training session, staff and volunteers learned which dogs played more easily with others and which dogs needed a little more guidance, said Courtney Proctor Cross, shelter director.

"Some of the dogs have already been out to the playgroups and they get excited," Cross said. "The environment in the shelter seems calmer, and there is less barking."

The new program will allow dogs to blow off steam and give staff and volunteers a better picture of how that dog behaves around others. A lot of people seeking to adopt dogs already have a dog or pet at home. The program will help them know which dogs are rowdy and which dogs are more standoffish, Cross said.

"Just like kids on a playground, some are rough-and-tumble and you always have to break up their fights," she said.

Tucker Eurman, of Dogs Playing For Life, taught staff and volunteers ways to deescalate dog fights by redirecting their attention. Squirting a dog with a water bottle may be enough to steer a dog away from a negative response, he said.

He gave commentary as the dogs interacted with each other and explained their behaviors to staff. He then experimented by bringing out dogs to see how they interacted.

To participate in the training sessions, volunteers from several animal rescue groups in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia visited the shelter.

Staff at the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association implemented a similar program several years ago, said Bob "Porter" Wagner, kennel director. Wagner attended this week's sessions as a retraining effort, he said.

The term "aggressive" is overused to describe dogs in shelters because they are stressed and in strange environments, Wagner said. Some dogs are possessive of their kennels.

"I adopted a dog personally from my shelter that was a royal punk, just a really bad dog in the kennel," he said. "I can't get him off my lap. You really have to get them out of that environment."

Cross said the shelter is seeking volunteers to walk dogs to and from the various playgroups. The goal is to have a set schedule of volunteers who can "run" the dogs across the yard. Doing so will give staff time to clean out the dogs' kennels.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer may call the shelter at 304-696-5551 or call Cross at 304-544-5891. People may also stop by the shelter, which is located at 1900 James River Road in Huntington.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

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