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Commission weighs benefits of playgroups vs. walks for dogs

Wednesday, May 30, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Although walking a dog seems like one of the most rudimentary interactions you can have with your pet, it is a daily chore that routinely takes a back seat at the Austin Animal Center due to its lack of manpower. Instead, staff and volunteers have come to rely on playgroups, or groups of dogs paired together for play and training, to get dogs out and about.

However, statistics that one longtime volunteer has collected show that still, not every dog is being let out of its kennel.

Following a resolution passed by City Council in 2015 directing the city manager to immediately find ways to get animals housed in the city’s shelters out of their cages on a more regular basis, the Austin Animal Center added two full-time dog walkers in June of 2016. The dog walkers were reassigned in May of 2017; they resigned in November 2017, leaving the shelter with only playgroups, volunteers and animal enrichment specialists to get dogs moving.

“There are a number of reasons why playgroups are extremely important,” Tom Rott, a volunteer at the Austin Animal Center, told the Animal Advisory Commission at its May 14 meeting. However, he said that according to the statistics that he’s collected from December 2015 to the present, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of dogs that are able to have time outside the kennels since the full-time dog walkers left. “We can see a pretty significant number of dogs not getting out on a daily basis,” he said.

According to his data, with full-time dog walkers on staff, the average number of dogs remaining all day in the kennels was 10. When the dog walkers left, that number rose to an average of 39 dogs a day.

The Austin Animal Center reported that for the month of April, the behavioral team engaged 1,047 dogs in 26 playgroups for a total of 462 hours of play time, which was nearly double last month’s numbers.

Rott argued that unlike playgroups, actively walking dogs provides vital hours of human interaction that he said encourages increased adoptions and decreased adoption returns.

Although they found it compelling, some of the commissioners had a different view of the data collected. “I love data as much as anyone – my mother was a scientist. (But) it can be tricky to collect it properly and to analyze it,” noted Commissioner Craig Nazor.

Rott did note that his numbers do not include dogs that volunteers do not have access to. This includes dogs that are sick, injured, or of an uncertain demeanor. Due to behavioral restrictions, the majority of volunteers walk dogs in the “blue” and “green” behavior categories, which are considered safe for non-expert dog walkers. There is a limited number of volunteers who can walk canines in the “orange” and “red” categories. This means that the unexpected loss of several volunteers, as happened recently, can suddenly leave the center with a shortage of walkers.

Commissioner Palmer Neuhaus likewise expressed interest in breaking down the numbers. “I think if this data is going to be collected and reported, it would be very helpful to know who’s getting walked,” she said.

Despite his vocal support for Rott’s request for dog walkers, Commissioner David Lundstedt played devil’s advocate when reviewing the numbers. The commissioner’s analysis showed that when intake numbers decreased, so did the number of dogs that left their cages and the shelter altogether, which he said seemed logical, but was not taken into account.

He explained that although walking dogs is important for their quality of life, “it appears to me that dogs getting walked or not getting walked doesn’t affect dogs getting out alive.”

Nevertheless, Rott requested that the commission to “put forth a recommendation very similar to the one in 2015.”

Although the commission did not make a recommendation either way at the May 14 meeting, Nazor noted, “I do think one thing we can all do here is we need (to get) more funding for our shelters.”

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