Wicket and Trina performed what looked to be an improvised dance, play-fighting, muzzles agape, and shoving each other around the room at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

The dogs were sparring in the shelter’s new living space, a room that can house up to six dogs at a time. Half a dozen dogs sleep in separate dens within the room, but for much of the day their doors are open, allowing them to interact with one another and potential owners who come to look at them.

The commons area, which opened to the public in June, is the first of its kind in the country, according to the Humane Society.

“When they’re playing like this we’re always monitoring their different ... emotions, I should say,” said Kate Rafferty, an adoption services manager at the shelter. “They are busy all day.”

Veterinarians and behavioral scientists at the Humane Society hope the new “habitat,” as they call it, can help reduce fear in dogs by creating a situation that will more closely resemble their life after adoption.

“This gives us another resource now for aiding dogs that might struggle with their stay in a shelter,” said Liv Hagen, behavior modification and rehabilitation manager at the shelter. A social setting, she said, may help alleviate stress for many of the more shy and fearful dogs.

The idea is admittedly a work in progress, Hagen said. Together with the University of Minnesota, staff are studying day-to-day activity at the habitat to determine the impact it makes in the lives of the dogs. Their hope is that it revolutionizes the way canines are housed in animal shelters.

The Humane Society, a private nonprofit that has four shelters in the Twin Cities, already has rooms where cats can live and play. “And cats are very territorial creatures,” Rafferty said. “If cats can do it, why not the dogs?”

As Wicket and Trina finished their dance, they were being watched by Rafferty, two potential adopters and Xena, a reserved, charcoal Labrador-retriever mix.

“It’s nice that the dogs can actually interact with one another and not just be in cages with cement floors,” said Sophia deGarmo, a U student living in Minneapolis who has frequented the Golden Valley shelter since she was a child.

“If they can’t feel comfortable, they can’t be themselves and people can’t see who they really are before adopting them.”

Decreasing shelter stress

More than 23,000 animals go through the Humane Society’s four metro shelters each year. Rescuers pick up strays from around the country, many of them from Southern states.

A canine’s stay at the Humane Society lasts an average 10 days from drop-off to adoption. Once the dogs are on the adoption floor, they’re confined to enclosures called kennel runs, about 40 of which are on one end of the Golden Valley shelter.

The dogs can’t see side to side or interact with others in the room. That can increase stress in dogs, some of which already come from poor or dangerous environments, said Anne Johnson, the director of shelter operations.

“Before doing this, we did not allow dogs to connect. We didn’t have the space for it,” she said. “We did have dog play groups a number of years ago, but they were hard to sustain.”

Humane Society officials also were looking for new ways to house and present dogs as they prepared to replace their aging St. Paul location. “We want [customers] to connect with a dog on a genuine level, and it’s really hard to do that in a kennel environment,” Johnson said.

She and her team flew to shelters in Arizona, California, Missouri and elsewhere to study how other adoption centers kept their canines.

Construction on the $250,000 living space began in January in the small-critter room just down the hall from the larger adoption floor for dogs. It’s very much a prototype, testing different types of lights, tiles and doors.

Staffers experimented with the number of dogs they could fit in the room, using their own pets as stand-ins. They set criteria for the types of dogs that could stay in the habitat.

The new room opened to the public the week of June 18. The dogs put there were getting adopted so quickly that employees couldn’t rotate in new ones fast enough, Johnson said.

There is a weight and age requirement for the room, she said; most dogs must be at least six months old. Dogs that misbehave or don’t socialize may not do well in the room.

An older boxer named Reed, who had been in the shelter for about a month, was transferred to the habitat for greater exposure. He was taken back to his den after constantly growling at other dogs. “He’s a grumpy old man,” one adoption specialist said. (Reed was adopted later in June.)

Anna Buck and Mike Schmidt went to the shelter during the opening week looking for a dog to join them in their Minneapolis apartment. They were interested in Wicket, a border collie and Bernese mix.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to ... see how they do instead of just being in the cage by themselves,” Buck said. “You can see their social behavior a little bit better.”

They played with Wicket at the habitat for a couple of minutes. He liked to nibble and tug on their clothes, it turned out, so they ended up adopting another dog that day.

The habitat is too costly and space-consuming to completely replace the kennel runs, said Dr. Graham Brayshaw, director of animal services for the Humane Society. However, he hopes that they are able to install at least one of the habitats at each of their locations.

“That’s why it’s our proto­type,” he said. “We want to build something that really is right.”