By Claudia Kawczynska
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For the past few years, Dr. Melanie Sartore, associate professor of kinesiology at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., has offered her ever-popular physical activity course, Fitness Walking Coursework. The class? Students help to walk shelter dogs at the local Pitt County Animal Services center as part of the class’s shape-up program.
A shelter pup-inspired course
As an avid dog lover and a frequent “failed” fosterer who has five dogs of her own (four adopted from the Pitt County shelter), she is well aware of the myriad of benefits dogs provide humans, including increasing our physical activity levels. She’s also aware of the needs of dogs in the community’s shelter, who are there, she noted, not because of any failure on their part, but “because humans have failed the dogs.”
Five years ago, Sartore and her department chair, Dr. Stacey Altman, who is also a dog lover, came up with a way to correct that misperception while giving back to the community. They approached the shelter’s director, Michele Whaley, with the idea of creating a service-learning fitness walking course whose unconventional classroom would include the small, underfunded shelter and the nearby county park and its ample walking trail. Students in this course, limited to 10 per term, would help provide much-needed exercise for the shelter’s dogs while expanding their knowledge of companion animals; as a plus, the course would also give a special nod to caring for and about shelter animals.
The class is offered year-round, and even during the breaks, Sartore, who says she hates leaving the dogs without walks, finds volunteers to take them out. One of her goals is to get all the dogs on the adoption floor — from four to 17 or more — walked during each visit.
Creating new animal advocates
Another aspect of the curriculum’s goal was to “empower students to become active citizens within their community” and to understand the “plight of shelter dogs and become advocates not just for the animals but for programs that foster responsible pet parenthood, including the need for spaying and neutering and the problems caused by pet overpopulation” — an especially pressing matter for southern shelters.
Whaley’s first reaction to this idea? As she told us, “I was thrilled for a number of reasons. One being I knew we didn’t have the proper staffing levels to give the dogs the enrichment and physical activity they most desperately needed.” She added, “I am also an alumna from ECU, so my alma mater holds a special place for me. I felt like this was a win-win for everyone — a great new partnership with our local university [and] exercise for both the dogs and the students; each class gives us a whole new set of advocates for the animals at our shelter.”
Benefits of the shelter dog walking program
She also observed that she has seen the positive impact this course has had on the dogs — they “don’t seem to break down as often or as quickly, especially the ones that don’t get adopted quickly and are in the shelter for longer periods of time.” The regular exercise provided during the course helps:
- Stimulate the dogs mentally
- Improve their overall health
- Reduce the susceptibility to illness, especially stress-induced ones
- Improve shelter adoption rates
Plus, the students themselves rally to the cause, and, with their social-media savvy, have helped favorite dogs find homes. Sartore proudly told us that recently, one of her graduate students, who had moved out of the area, came back to the Pitt County shelter to adopt a dog.
How shelter dog walking helps students:
As for the students themselves, they average a whopping 2.23 miles per walking session, or 40 percent of their recommended daily physical activity level. In the beginning, each dog is handled by two students using a double leash (especially useful when walking the stronger dogs, some of whom might never have walked on a leash before). It doesn’t take long for both students and dogs to pick up on the correct protocol; some students prefer to run, not walk, with the dogs. Each dog gets in at least a mile of walking.
Changing negative stereotypes
As it is in most shelters, many of the dogs are Pit Bulls, and while some students might come into the class with negative stereotypic views around this breed — Sartore herself admits that she at first did as well — she says she now thinks they can be the sweetest of dogs, as do the students.
Learning dog body language
A sense of humor is one of the class’s criteria, because dogs, after all, have a way of tickling our funny bone. Or, as Sartore says, she “tells them to expect that you might be peed on at least once, so you gotta be able to laugh it off.” They also learn to interpret dog body language and behavior, plus physical fitness and are quizzed on those subjects. This gives the students a much better ability to read a dog, which is fantastic.
Giving second chances
The very popular for-credit class has a long waiting list, and at the end, each student is required to submit a reflection paper. According to these papers, the students’ biggest takeaway has been the importance of giving dogs a second chance; many also express a desire to adopt a shelter dog in the future.
Walking with a dog is the cheapest and most accessible way to become physically active. So, spread the word to other colleges and universities and maybe we’ll just have more of these programs around the country.
Claudia Kawczynska was co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Bark.