By Alan Ward - Frequently a convergence of factors or events results in the genesis of something positive. That is how the Seattle Animal Shelter's Get Fit with Fido program got its start. Or, in other words, "from one small acorn grows the mighty oak". The program started modestly, and now the Get Fit with Fido dog running team is recognized throughout Seattle, as we run in bright yellow running gear, with happy dogs at our sides wearing "I'm available for adoption" banners. Ok, the dogs are on a leash somewhere near us.
Here are the events that led to my creating the Get Fit with Fido program. There is a saying in Seattle, that it only rains once a year, and that is from November 1 to March 30. Running in the rain is OK once in a while, however, running in the rain and dark every day is not pleasing to the spirit (nor is it fun). I moved to Seattle in 1995, and as a former competitive runner, I still ran just about every day. Well, so maybe I jogged every day! I began to find more convenient excuses for not running as late Fall and Winter set in, and nights were dark and wet.
I always liked animals, particularly dogs; however, I lived in a place where pets were not allowed. When I moved to Seattle, I was really surprised at the number of apartment buildings where pets weren't welcome, since Seattle prides itself on its openness. It was now 1998, and I heard that the Seattle Animal Shelter was trying to become a "no kill" shelter, where no adoptable animal would be euthanized i.e. "put to sleep". The new leadership at the shelter was beginning a volunteer program, and I was volunteer No. 8 in a program that now numbers over 500 volunteers. I began walking dogs around the shelter. In October of 1998, a "special" dog came into the shelter. He was quite unusual looking, and the shelter staff guessed that he was a German Shepherd/Kuvasz mix. You will likely need to access the Internet to find a picture of a Kuvasz. Once you find this photo, just imagine a Shepherd/Kuvasz mix! The Kuvasz is of Tibetan origin, and were used as guard dogs by Hungarian Kings in the 15th century. Here is a brief description of the breed:
Some authors claim that the Kuvasz has been known since the age of the Huns. Others describe it as a sheepdog that accompanied the Turkish refugees and their flocks fleeing the Mongols into Hungary in 1200. Its name in Turkish means "protector". The Kuvasz had its great moment of splendor in the 15th century in the court of King Matyas I, who lived from 1458-1490. The King claimed to trust only his Kuvasz dogs and not people. The Kuvasz were often given as royal gifts. At the death of the King, the Kuvasz returned to being a sheepdog throughout the medieval period. Many of these dogs were trained to hunt big game such as bear and wild boar. The first written reference to the Kuvasz comes in the 16th century. Later the Kuvasz became popular as a village flock guardian. Hungarian herdsmen took their cattle, along with their guard dogs, to sell in several foreign lands. Along the way, their dogs may have bred with local dogs. Some animals may have been left behind when their jobs were finished. By the end of the second World War, only about 30 Kuvasz remained in the world. The dedication of several breeders resulted in the resurrection of this noble breed. Today this beautiful dog serves primarily as a companion and home guardian, in addition to its historical flock-guarding role.
So, here we have a Shepherd/Kuvasz mix at the shelter! What should we do with him? Oh, let's have a volunteer take how out, to see how friendly he is! We have a lot of volunteers; so if we lose one, there will be plenty more! (I'm joking of course.) I did however; agree to work with him to see if he was adoptable. This might be the time to mention that now all dogs are temperment tested at the shelter, before volunteers can work with them, or before they are adopted out. This dog was named Kelby, and it was late October. That meant that it got dark early, it rained a lot, and I still didn't like running alone in the rain every night. So, I started to run Kelby to Myrtle Edwards city park, a beautiful area that wound around the waterfront of Seattle. Then I realized, hey, I am getting fit with Fido! The dog loved it, and I had someone to run with! So what if I was wet, covered in mud, and my running partner smelled badly. That actually gave me another idea; after all, I was a marketing major in college. How about a room freshener called Wet Dog, to rid your home of unwanted late night guests? It can also be used to instantly end boring meetings. I have free samples!
I also noticed that when running with this large dog, people would walk a good distance around us at the park. About this time, a friend of mine asked me if there where any dogs at the shelter that would make good running partners for safety purposes. Well, how safe do you want to be? We have this Shepherd/Kuvasz! This particular match up didn't work out, however, I started to carry shelter business cards to hand out to people who might be interested in adopting a dog I was running, or were interested in helping me run other shelter dogs. It took six-months for me to land my first Fido team recruit Malia, however, now we usually have an active team of about 30 members. Kelby was adopted on Christmas Eve 1998, and I went to the shelter to say goodbye to him, however, the people left with Kelby just before I arrived. Soon after this, another volunteer gave me a Christmas ornament with his picture on it, and I still have that "badge of honor". It means a lot more to me than all my trophies, plaques, and ribbons from my competitive running days. I continued to run other dogs from the shelter.
Here is a little more information about the Get Fit with Fido program:
Every Wednesday evening at 6:00 pm, and Saturday morning at 9:00 am, Get Fit with Fido team members run adoptable dogs from the shelter to Myrtle Edwards Park in Seattle. The distance ranges from 2 to 4 miles depending on the physical condition of the runners and dogs. Weather is also a factor. The team does not run during thunderstorms, or when the roads are icy. The dogs wear banners indicating that they are available for adoption. Generally we have 6 to 14 runners each session. These are the primary goals of the program:
Fido volunteers must be in reasonably good physical condition. Previous experience handling dogs is preferred. The group runs throughout the year, which means we run in the darkness and rain during the winter. For safety purposes we run in groups of two or more, and wear reflective running gear. You must be committed, however, you need not attend every week. A sense of humor helps immensely. We really do have fun! Everyone must attend the general volunteer orientation session, as well both dog handling theory (Dog I) and a "hands-on" sessions (Dog II). A special one-half hour Get Fit with Fido orientation is also required. This session covers how to enter a kennel to leash a dog, what to take along on the run, how to handle emergencies etc. You will make needy dogs very happy! We don't always run the same dogs each week, however, there have been instances when a particular dog is at the shelter for several months, and believe me, they really react in a positive way when you head towards their run with running shoes on and a leash in hand! String cheese helps too!! Every so often a dog may slip you five bucks for special treats, e.g. free-range slices of turkey breast!
In conclusion, I didn't like running in the rain every night, and needed to get fit, I liked dogs, I began volunteering at the shelter, and there were dogs, especially Kelby, that wanted more than just a casual walk around the shelter. This led to the formation of the Get Fit with Fido program. There have been a lot of positive outcomes as a result of this program. One of them of course is that hundreds of wonderful dogs have found loving homes. Another is the "SAS' annual Furry 5K", a spin-off of the program, where 2500 runners/walkers, 1000 dogs, and 1 very brave cat participate in a five kilometers event each June to, raise money for the Help the Animals Fund. This fund provides veterinary care for sick and injured animals at the shelter. There is now a Fido racing team, where team members and dogs participate in local races, and a Tiger Mountain group that takes dogs hiking on a local mountain on Sunday mornings.
If you want more information about the program, and would like to start a similar program in your city, contact award42(at)comcast.net. Alan Ward is a German Shepherd/Dachshund mix, and lives at the shelter. Actually he serves as the Vice President of Administrative Services at North Seattle Community College. He usually writes uninteresting drivel about budgets and administrative polices that faculty and staff shred upon receipt. Photo 1, 2 and 4 by Tom McManus, photo 3 by Christine Titus.