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Pets & Animals

'Real-life rooms' give shelter dogs hope, sweet glimpse of forever homes

There's a big recliner covered in throw pillows, a TV, a soft rug to nap on, a toy box full of goodies — all the trappings you'd expect in a dog-loving home.

This space isn't in a home, though. It's a "real-life room" in an Ohio animal shelter. And its point is to get dogs used to life on the outside, even before they've been adopted, and to help them stay happy and calm before that lucky day comes.

Toledo Area Humane Society
"In a real-life room, dogs can get a much-needed kennel break, take a nap on a couch and feel a little bit like they would in a normal home," said Kristen Auerbach, deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center in Texas.

"It provides our furry friends with an opportunity to feel like they are at home, not in a shelter waiting to go home," Jessica LaValley, a spokesperson for the Toledo Area Humane Society, told TODAY in an email.

Shelters can be a rough place for animals. They are loud, and busy, and even the nicest shelters can take a toll.

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On top of that, it's hard in that sort of environment to learn the animal's true personality, which can make it difficult to place the critters into perfectly matched homes. (Think how you'd feel if you were in a shelter — would your bubbliest, friendliest, truest self come through?)

Toledo Area Humane Society
The Toledo Area Humane Society's real-life room has been open for about two weeks now.

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That's why many shelters have started programs designed to give pets a little respite. Some encourage volunteers to take dogs out on lunch dates, or over to Starbucks for a "puppucino." You can borrow a shelter dog to go hiking, or bring a book over to the shelter and read to the dogs.

All these activities allow the animals to relax — they also help them get better socialized, which increases their chances of being adopted into a great home.

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"For most dogs, being in a shelter means being locked in a small kennel for 23 hours a day or more," said Kristen Auerbach, deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center in Texas. "This is incredibly stressful, particularly for dogs who are scared and missing their former families."

Toledo Area Humane Society
Shelters can be rough on animals, but real-life rooms aim to put them at ease to help boost their adoption chances.

Auerbach is behind an influential study, looking at how getting shelter dogs into foster homes can alleviate behavioral problems and in many cases save the lives of dogs who would otherwise be at risk of euthanasia.

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She sees real-life rooms, like the Toledo Area Humane Society's — and other shelters' with similar setups — as a significant tool in that effort. So much so that Austin's shelter is building one as well.

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Which dogs are best for children, apartment dwellers, empty nesters?

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Which dogs are best for children, apartment dwellers, empty nesters?

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"In a real-life room, dogs can get a much-needed kennel break, take a nap on a couch and feel a little bit like they would in a normal home," said Auerbach. "For particularly sensitive dogs, this break is often lifesaving."

The Toledo Area Humane Society's real-life room has been open for about two weeks now. LaValley says that it's already making life better for the shelter's canine residents.

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Toledo Area Humane Society
"Happier dogs get adopted more quickly!" said Jessica LaValley, a spokesperson for the Toledo Area Humane Society.

Some dogs simply enjoy their time in the cozy room, playing with toys and napping in laps. For others, like a black-and-white dog named Cubby, the room is more than just a pleasant escape. Cubby is a longtime shelter resident whose spirits seemed low. But now he is spending most of his downtime in the room, said LaValley, "and (he) truly loves it!"

"By keeping him in the real-life room, we are able to keep him happy and calm," she said. "Since the real-life room is all around a less stressful place for animals to spend time in, it generally translates to happier dogs. Happier dogs get adopted more quickly!"

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