Local shelters establish dog walking programs to get the pets and residents some exercise.
Dog walking may mean more than just a routine activity for humans and their four-legged friends—for many Northern Virginia residents, it can be an enjoyable volunteer interest. Dog lovers who are not in the position to adopt may discover that walking shelter dogs is an appealing alternative. Many shelters are even finding that these short outings provide more than just physical exercise for the dogs; they’re a breath of fresh air.
One such program, at The Fairfax County Animal Shelter, involves several options for day trips with dogs. Kristen Auerbach, director of communications and outreach at the shelter, feels that these afternoon field trips are ideal “mental health breaks” for the dogs. Trips vary from an hour to an entire afternoon, and may involve walking or, as Auerbach points out, even going to a McDonald’s drive-through for a hamburger on a rainy day. Volunteers also have the option to foster a dog for an entire weekend.
Some shelters, such as the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, have a broad array of opportunities, both inside and outside. This shelter has a unique dog enrichment program that includes short-term fostering. Kerry McKeel, communications director of the shelter, says that volunteers have taken dogs on hiking trips and even on boats. The shelter has shorter activities too, such as organizing dog play groups. McKeel feels that even small activities have a positive impact, “sometimes they just want to curl up in a lap while a volunteer reads to them.”
Volunteers with special training at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, can take dogs to the shelter’s exercise yard, walking path and even on field trips. Lauren Hagerty, volunteer manager at the shelter, feels that spending time with the dogs, even in their kennels, helps create positive associations with the space. In Aldie, volunteers at the Friends of Homeless Animals shelter can play with off-leash dogs in one of three play yards, take them for walks on paths in the woods, or simply relax with them on a bench.
Most shelters with these programs have similar goals: to provide much needed human contact for the dogs, and to increase their adoptability. At Fairfax Animal Shelter and others, when the human and dog embark on their trot about town, the latter is always decked out in an “adopt me” vest and bandana to alert any potential adopters. “They’re really billboards for themselves and the shelter,” Auerbach says. The shelter in Fairfax also requests that volunteers take pictures and videos of the dogs to capture them having pleasant human interactions in a fun environment, which are then posted to social media.
Many people worry that returning the dogs after the walks will be disheartening. Auerbach, however, feels volunteers shouldn’t see it this way. The results of these short excursions can be quite transformative: A typically high-energy dog may return calm and relaxed, a change Auerbach feels definitely increases its chances of getting adopted. Just by taking the dogs on these little day trips, volunteers may ultimately help walk these furry companions down paths towards their forever homes. –Victoria Gaffney
Fairfax County Animal Shelter
4500 W. Ox Road., Fairfax
Animal Welfare League of Arlington
2650 S. Arlington Mill Drive, Arlington, 22206
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria
4101 Eisenhower Ave., Alexandria, 22304
Friends of Homeless Animals (F.O.H.A.)
39710 Goodpuppy Lane, Aldie, 20105