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Giving Pooches the Runaround

Gym membership can cost $50 a month, but this weight loss program is free—and furry

It’s all over the news: Americans are getting fatter and fatter. A steady diet of burgers and TV has turned us into a mammoth species, lumbering out of the fast-food joint just long enough to enter the fitness-equipment outlet in search of that perfect program or machine that will put us back into the svelte bodies we remember. Health care costs for obesity-related problems now outrank those associated with smoking, and every year Americans shell out $33 billion on quick-fix metabolism-boosters and strange machines designed to jiggle abdominal muscles back into leanness.

Meanwhile, in animal shelters around the country, kenneled dogs are just longing for some fresh air, exercise, and sunshine ...

Sooner or later, someone was bound to scream, “Eureka!” As it turns out, the Eureka-shriekers are in Lubbock, Texas, where the city’s animal services department and health education team have jointly created a program called “Walk-a-Hound, Lose-a-Pound.” Open to anyone interested in getting a workout with a side order of animal interaction, the program encourages people to register as walkers for the dogs in Lubbock’s animal shelter, thus providing couch-potato humans and stir-crazy pooches with some much needed exercise.

The project was the brainchild of Chris Rogers, a health educator for the city. “I was trying to figure out a way of encouraging people to exercise and to help the dogs in the shelter,” Rogers says. “Neither of the groups tend to get enough aerobic exercise, and I wanted to see if I could change that somehow.” As it happens, the employee fitness center is in the same building as the Animal Services Department, so the “Walk-a-Hound” program was a natural fit; people were already coming to the location to work out.

Nancy Hickman, director of the city’s animal services department, was excited about the idea for the program, which has attracted eight to nine walkers a day to the shelter. “For years, we have tried unsuccessfully to get volunteers out to walk the dogs that were waiting to find new homes,” she says. “The socialization with people is important for the dog, and it gives those animals that stay for extended periods a chance to get out and stretch their legs and not become cage-bound.”

About 60 people—a mix of city employees, community members, and students at the local university—are now signed up to walk dogs. In fact, according to Hickman, the program has been such a success that the Animal Services Department needs volunteers to help manage the dog walkers—and both shelter traffic and adoptions have gone up.

The dogs from the animal shelter are carefully selected for their good temperaments and ease of handling. “We didn’t want this program to turn into a safety concern, so the staff are very careful about choosing which dogs participate in this walking program,” says Rogers.

Hickman and Rogers designed a short walking course that begins near the shelter building. The path runs along a grassy trail and is clearly marked with cones and brightly colored flags. Walkers complete the whole course in about ten minutes, depending on their speed and on how many patches of grass require sniffing and watering along the way. “Most people do the course several times before they bring the dog back to the shelter,” says Rogers. “So the dogs love it, and the people seem to be having fun as well.”

To be doggie exercise companions, employees and community members need only fill out some forms and sign a waiver release; they also view a ten-minute video on how to use a leash and walk a dog, since not everyone in the program has owned a dog or used a Gentle Leader before. Participants are then given membership cards to take to the shelter, where staff help them choose a suitable dog to walk.

Just as organizers had hoped, many participants have dual intentions. Scott McMillan of the city’s planning department misses his parents’ cocker spaniel, who died last year, so he enjoys bonding with animals from the shelter. But he has also been trying to get in shape. “I run with a friend, but walking a dog is an option that adds variety to my routine,” says McMillan. “There is variety in the program in that one day I might walk a coonhound and the next I might take out a Heinz 57 mutt.”

The program is ideal for people whose circumstances prevent them from having a dog of their own. “It works well for [college] students and senior citizens who perhaps can’t keep a pet,” Rogers says. “It’s a great way to have interaction with the animal and get some exercise at the same time.”

“A lot of dogs out there are starved for attention,” says McMillan, “and taking one for a walk is one way to make sure that it gets a daily slice of happiness.”

Liz Inskip-Paulk is a public information specialist for the city of Lubbock, Texas.

 

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