Last August, my dogs and I took an eight-week road trip across the West, and it was awesome. We hiked through painted hills in rural Oregon, made a memorable drive to Idaho’s Silver City, marveled at the colors of fall in the Rockies, toured Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, survived the Loneliest Road in America (U.S. 50 through Nevada) and fell in love with the California coast. Maybe you saw us; we were towing a 1969 Airstream travel trailer, and the sign in the rear window asked you to do something: go walk a shelter dog.
Did you know that some shelter dogs rarely leave their kennels? I made this discovery a year ago when I started volunteering at my local animal shelter. Naïvely, I asked the staff, “How do you get all the dogs out in the morning to potty?” I was stunned to learn that it’s common for shelter dogs to pee, poop, sleep, eat and wait within the chainlink walls of their kennels.
In the beginning, volunteering as a dog walker was just about unbearable. My heart ached for all the sad, scared and forgotten dogs. But day after day, I promised to return because these simple walks were making a huge difference. I was giving shelter dogs exercise, a chance to potty outdoors, lessons on manners, praise, confidence and the human companionship they greatly missed.
After months of walking shelter dogs, and driving home troubled because I couldn’t walk all of them, I decided to ask for help. I wanted my local shelter dogs—and shelter dogs everywhere—to get a daily reprieve from their kennels. Thus, go WALK shelter DOGS  was born.
As I cruised the West, I learned that while my hometown shelter wasn’t alone in lacking dog walkers, some shelters have the luxury of a new volunteer waiting list. And while the media does a good job promoting a variety of shelter causes—pet of the week, foster, spay and neuter, donate supplies, give money—walking shelter dogs doesn’t make headlines. I can only assume there are people out there, dog-loving people, who don’t know they are needed. Why else would shelter dogs not get walks?
The mission of go WALK shelter DOGS is to raise awareness, recruit people with time and compassion, and encourage animal lovers to visit their local shelter to learn about volunteer opportunities. Do you know if your local shelter dogs are getting walks? Do you know how else volunteers can help shelter animals? Is there an application process for volunteers, an age requirement, an orientation meeting?
If dogs aren’t your thing, how about cuddling cats? There are plenty of shelter cats waiting for something to purr about. As any shelter director will tell you, volunteers are always needed, and are vital in saving and improving animals’ lives.
Animal shelters are everywhere in every size; they may be kill or no-kill, they may be privately owned or government run. Though no two animal shelters are alike, one thing remains constant: they give our best friends a second chance.
Walking shelter dogs won’t end pet overpopulation and it won’t stop animal neglect, but I believe it adds momentum to help us reach those goals. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.