Shelters Spotlight: How Running Buddies Unites a Community of Runners, Dogs and Humans Alike
This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.
There are plenty of reasons to go out for a good run. It can relax the mind and body. It can expose people to the architecture and culture in their communities. But did you know it can also improve the lives of pets awaiting adoption? Running Buddies Enrichment Program at Stray Rescue of St. Louis adds a unique kind of value to a typical workout by inviting volunteers to include shelter dogs in their exercise regimens.
According to Jason Schipkowski, Director of Marketing and Development at Stray Rescue, people can help shelters become more enriching places when they reduce dogs’ stress levels by taking dogs along for activities like exercising and socializing in the Running Buddies program. “Some people who come into Stray Rescue to adopt will say that they’re uninterested in a dog because it may have high energy,” Schipkowski says. “After the Running Buddies program, those high energy dogs are relieved of pent up stress and become more adoptable.”
As an example, Schipkowski shares the story of a shelter dog named Sasha who suffered from anxiety. The shelter advised against medicating her, even though her condition hampered her chances finding a permanent, loving home. But after a volunteer came in to run with Sasha three times a week, Schipkowksi’s team saw clear signs of improvement. She became less anxious and now has three potential owners interested in adopting her.
Making a positive, healthy impact on dogs and volunteers alike, Running Buddies is perfect for pet lovers, marathon runners who need to boost their training, or office workers who want a break from their daily nine to five and need some extra motivation to exercise. Volunteers can come into the shelter any day of the week and “check out” dogs that have been specially selected for the program by the Stray Rescue staff.
“We assess dogs like people,” Schipkowski says. “They have individual needs, so we take the time to learn about each one’s specific behaviors, and we tailor enrichment programs for the dogs with special activities, toys, and anything that engages them mentally or physically.”
Volunteers go through an orientation process to learn about the dogs’ behaviors, how to run with them, and what to do if the dogs are injured while running. By collaborating with running enthusiasts, companies, and fitness organizations in the St. Louis area, Running Buddies supports Stray Rescue’s mission to build a compassionate city where no stray is euthanized and every companion animal is healthy, safe, comfortable, and loved.
For dogs that need more attention and socialization outside of the shelter, a small group of volunteers in a pilot enrichment program have devoted themselves to not only running with the dogs but also taking them on walks around the surrounding neighborhood, and visiting local restaurants and businesses. Schipkowski says, “Our volunteers take full ownership of the enrichment programs for the dogs they’re paired with. The community also gets really involved, and local business owners expect the shelter dogs to visit.”
The Running Buddies program also offers group hiking activities on Saturdays to give volunteers and dogs a change of pace. Human participants get to meet like-minded people in their community, and dogs get to experience nature in a way not possible at a shelter. Facilitated by volunteer Donna McCall, founder of Four Directions Hiking, these events have become so popular that the staff can barely keep up with demand for orientation and dogs.
Running Buddies reaches the community on a larger scale through the Team Running Buddies program, which consists of 95 people who run in the GO! St. Louis 5K Marathon and Family Fitness Weekend in April. The event gives team members a chance to connect with about 30,000 marathon participants and spread the word about shelter pets.
It’s a passionate group of people that helps Stray Rescue of St. Louis run smoothly, and it’s an even stronger community that has made Running Buddies a success. “People meet others they wouldn’t have otherwise met maybe due to proximity or status, but with Running Buddies, they forge bonds. They’re opened up to their neighborhoods, and that’s invaluable,” Schipkowski says.