Shelter Dogs Play Poker for a Cause

By Lisa Spector, Canine Music Expert, Juilliard Graduate, and co-creator of Through a Dog’s Ear.

As both a supporter of positive reinforcement dog training and someone who improves the lives of shelter dogs with the continued donation of Through a Dog’s Ear music to shelters and rescues worldwide, I am always pleased to meet like minded people, both in person and via online communication. When it happens right here on Care2, it almost seems magical. I devoted my January blogs to National Train your Dog Month. Is Dog Training an Animal Welfare Issue? inspired Chris Dignan, founder of the Dog Saving Network, to contact me about his non-profit organization. As a marine mammal trainer by day and a dog trainer at most other waking hours, his desire to help promote awareness for homeless animals and to highlight the importance of positive reinforcement training was the impetus behind live shows in Chicago, with shelter dogs center stage. What an ingenious, creative way to save lives of homeless animals! Chris believes that daily training through positive reinforcement methods helps dogs get adopted and eases the transition into their new homes.

To help communicate the Dog Saving Network message of being a responsible pet owner, science-based, reward centered training is at the heart of everything Chris does. Since this is just as rewarding for the humans as the dogs, and anyone can do it, Chris works with novice dog handlers, not professional trainers. Chris held auditions recently for the next set of canine candidates (and their people) for the Chicago’s live shows, entitled Life’s RuffClick here to see the NBC special on last year’s play about dogs, people and games they play.

When speaking with Chris, he mentioned that there is nothing he can’t teach a novice handler to train a dog to do using reward based training, as long as it is in the dog’s physical abilities. Apparently, he can even teach dogs to play poker, as you’ll see from the video.

I enjoyed a delightful phone conversation with Chris, and he answered the following questions about the Dog Saving Network.

LS: What inspired you to start Dog Saving Network and the Chicago shows?

CD: A few years ago I was the lead trainer for the Shedd Aquariums’ stage show “Pet Training the Shedd Way”. Our marine mammals were off site during facility maintenance and it was decided that we would do a pet show that demonstrated that dogs can be trained using the same positive reinforcement techniques we use to train our marine mammals. We wanted to use shelter or rescue animals for the show and so we embarked on the selection process.

We “interviewed” hundreds of animals before we decided on the 6 dogs that would be part of the show. During the selection process I became overwhelmed by the sheer number of good dogs that were available for adoption that may not be given a second chance. For months, I dwelt on the pet overpopulation problem. It literally kept me up at night…every night. One night, instead of focusing on the problem, my attention turned to trying to find creative solutions to the overpopulation problem and I have been thinking that way ever since. The Shedd show was a great way to communicate the value of giving an animal a second chance, and I loved sharing that message everyday during the run of the show. After every show, people always asked “are these dogs up for adoption?”.The answer was always “yes”, but only after the run of shows was over. The show was only supposed to be temporary, but I wanted to continue what was started at Shedd and thus The Dog Saving Network (DSN) was created.

DSN is an organization which provides entertaining and innovative programs to help raise awareness for homeless animals. We have stage and television programs in development right now. Our long range goal is to create our “Rescue and Awareness Center” which will be a new type of shelter built around the entertainment concept. For now, I want to use “Life’s Ruff” as a means of creatively raising awareness for homeless animals and to highlight the importance of positive reinforcement training.  All of the present and future programs with DSN will have two things in common: Performance trained animals and messaging about homeless pets. Life’s Ruff is, hopefully, the first of many of our projects that will use trained dogs to take part in our upbeat and positive messaging style. We hope to inspire people to make positive choices for dogs both in the city of Chicago and throughout the country.

LS: What do you hope to accomplish in the next set of Life’s Ruff shows in Chicago?

CD: The first time we did the show it was really treated like a pilot of sorts. I wanted to see if there was a market for the show and if it could be an effective means of messaging. There were many areas for improvement and we hope to make those improvements this time around. We will lengthen the training time for the show and put in even more tricks that will keep the audience entertained throughout the experience. We also hope to partner with other not for profit organizations and for profit organizations that share our philosophies. We understand that we will be more effective in reaching a larger audience if we team up with other organizations and companies that want to see real change for homeless animals in our country. The 2011 version of the show will have more tricks, more dogs and owners participating and will be much more interactive for the audience….and it will be fun!

Even if you don’t live near the Chicago area and can’t attend, you can read more about how just a dollar can help a dog by clicking here. What do you think of the idea of promoting an awareness of shelter animals via the ideas behind the Dog Saving Network? Thanks for clicking on comment and adding your thoughts.
Image: Dog and boy play poker


Val M.
Val M.3 years ago


LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing!

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing!

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing!

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing!

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing!

Lillian Martin
Lillian Martin5 years ago

Maybe more people will be aware of animal shelter and perhaps even adopt one or two.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago

Cool doggies!

carlee trent
carlee trent5 years ago


Francis V.
.5 years ago

Thanks for sharing this. ;)