Building better housing for dogs

Canines live and play together in new habitat

By Mary Tan

Dog and Animal Care

Walk through any animal shelter in the United States, and you're sure to see a similar sight: rows of dogs in individual kennels. It's the traditional model for housing canines — one that animal welfare organizations have long viewed as the only practical option. 

Shelters have housed cats together in colony rooms for many years, but fear of fighting and disease has led shelter managers to keep dogs separated from one another. But what if it didn't have to be that way? What if dogs — who are naturally social — could live in groups during their shelter stay? 

Animal Humane Society President and CEO Janelle Dixon is determined to find a way.

Traditional shelter housing can cause fear and distress in dogs because it doesn't necessarily allow them to express their natural behaviors, says Dixon. "Dogs are social animals, and it's very stressful for them to hear and smell other dogs without being able to see or interact with them," she adds.

Dog habitat construction

Construction began in January 2018 at Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

Dogs at play

The habitat prototype features shared living space for up to six dogs with individual dens.

As AHS begins planning for a new St. Paul shelter to replace the aging facility in Como Park, Dixon sees an opportunity to experiment in the way shelters care for dogs. "We want to make sure our future facility will represent the best way to house dogs."

No other animal welfare organization we're aware of has successfully conquered this challenge, says Dixon. Last year she and other AHS leaders visited shelters throughout the country to survey innovations in animal housing. They were disappointed to find facility after facility with limited advances — often dressed up with more attractive materials. 

"No one was doing anything different," says Dixon. A few of the newer shelters were designed with kennels that opened up into dog play areas, but no one had fully embraced a new model for housing.

According to Dixon, ideal housing must fully support the Five Freedoms for animals

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Embraced by veterinarians and other animal welfare professionals, the Five Freedoms were established to ensure that animals are protected from unnecessary suffering. 

Traditional shelter housing can’t always fully support the fourth and fifth freedoms — especially when it comes to canines. That’s why Dixon has proposed this new model for housing dogs — one that’s being built and tested at AHS in Golden Valley. 

Dog habitat training

While the prototype was under construction, AHS staff and volunteers began testing interactions using shelter animals in a mock-up of the space.

Habitat design

In January, construction began on a new group housing prototype for dogs — the first of its kind in the nation. 

“This space will allow us to explore new ways to enrich the experience of dogs in our care and new ways for dogs to interact with each other and potential adopters,” says Dixon. “Our goal is to provide housing that allows dogs to socialize and play together, with private areas where they can go when they need a break.”

AHS has renovated space in its Golden Valley site to build the habitat prototype, which features shared living space for up to six dogs with individual dens for meals and rest. It opens to the public in June.

Dixon knows there are no guarantees for success in the project, but believes the benefits far outweigh the risks. “We are making no assumptions. There’s been little to no research about dogs living together in a shelter environment and literally nothing on how to design such a space.”

Anne Johnson, director of shelter services, was tasked with managing the project. It was her duty to bring the best and brightest minds together to make the dog habitat a reality. She gathered leaders from AHS’s veterinary and behavioral teams as well as experts in animal care and customer service to determine what is needed to create the ideal space and what types of dogs would best interact in a playgroup. 

Dog Habitat floorplan

Dog habitat prototype floor plan

Of course, the space has to be great for people, too. It was designed so that shelter visitors can enter the habitat with guidance from AHS staff and volunteers. "It has to be two spaces in one — one that’s ideal for the dogs and welcoming to potential adopters. The goal is for adopters to be immersed in the dogs' environment instead of the other way around. You’re more likely to experience a dog’s true personality that way," says Johnson. 

AHS hired HGA Architects to assist with the design of the project. The Minneapolis firm had never built shelter housing for animals, but Rich Bonnin, lead architect on the habitat prototype, has extensive experience building hospitals.

Bonnin says the project has been more complicated — and rewarding — than he anticipated. "From an architectural standpoint, it’s a little bit funky. Not only does it have to appeal to dogs and people, but it also has to be durable and easy to clean." AHS is testing different types of materials in the space to see what works best. Everything from lighting and airflow to door handles and hinges will be evaluated over the next couple of years. 

"It feels like an adventure," says Bonnin. "As an architect, I’m trying to predict the future. I’m wondering, 'Could this become a standard for the future in animal sheltering design?'"

Dog behavior in the habitat prototype

With all of the obvious benefits, why hasn't this model been tried before? According to Dr. Graham Brayshaw, director of animal services and chief veterinarian at AHS, shelters have kept dogs separated from one another because they fear dog fights and the possibility of a dog biting a person during rough play. 

Those risks can be mitigated, says Brayshaw, and the potential benefits are tremendous. "The best place for any dog or cat is in a home, but while they're in our care, enriched housing like the habitat or a colony room is the next best thing." It's especially important for animals who have a longer stay in shelter, he says.

Dog Habitat

Group housing allows dogs to socialize and play together, with private areas where they can take a break.

While the habitat prototype was under construction, AHS staff and volunteers began evaluating interactions using shelter animals in a mock-up of the space. The initial results have been positive — after each play session dogs show less stress and undesirable behavior in the adoption center. "In shelters, stress is tied to disease. Keeping stress levels down helps prevent diseases, which keeps our animals healthy and adoptable," notes Brayshaw.

The habitat prototype is designed to house up to six dogs, but the actual number will depend on the size and personalities of the dogs. A team led by Behavior Modification and Rehabilitation Manager Liv Hagen has been training staff and volunteers to recognize dog behavior signals, teaching them what's appropriate behavior and what isn't. At least one staff member and one volunteer will be present in the habitat whenever the dogs are together. 

"We're teaching people basic dog language. For example, what's an appropriate greeting? We're looking for relaxed ears and butt sniffing that forms half circles," says Hagen. 

Hagen and her team are already learning how dogs react to each other in the space — and how much play time is ideal.

"So far, most dogs need a break after about 20 minutes of play," notes Hagen. During those breaks, dogs will be in their individual dens, where they will get personal enrichment with puzzles, games, and one-on-one time with volunteers. Adopters will be welcome in the space during both playtime and breaks.

Hagen and her team are also preparing staff to respond to aggressive behavior. "Dogs typically show signs of aggression before they act, so we're training staff and volunteers to recognize those signs and respond in a way that keeps everyone safe."

AHS is also testing technology in the space, including digital information screens and 360-degree cameras that will stream live video to the AHS website. 

Dog Habitat
Dogs at play

An exciting future

Leaders at AHS hope what they learn from the habitat prototype will shape future housing at AHS and in shelters everywhere. To that end, every aspect of the project is being documented by Dr. Terri Zborowsky, a University of Minnesota researcher with expertise in how people and animals use buildings. Zborowsky will help staff apply scientific methods to more than 70 questions shelter and animal experts want to answer about the project. The researcher will document everything so other animal welfare organizations can learn from the experience as well.

“We’ll keep asking questions,” says Dixon. “There’s so much to learn.”

Meanwhile, excitement is building in Golden Valley, as crowds gather to watch dogs romp and play during training sessions in the habitat, which opens to the public this summer, once staff and volunteers are adept at managing dogs in the space. 

Dixon is excited, too — both about this groundbreaking work and the community support that makes it possible. "Together we’re making the world a better place for animals."

The habitat prototype opens to the public in June. 

Animal Tracks: Summer 2018

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline