The Healing Powers of the Walk

What started out as walk in the park on a summer evening has become so much more.

Two summers ago, we began offering our volunteers the opportunity to walk dogs with us one evening a week after normal business hours.  The idea was that we’d load up some dogs and head out to McDonough Park for a hike on their trails taking advantage of the long summer evenings.  And in fact we had several people that made this a regular outing during that first summer and it was quite a success.  It was not uncommon to have  6 to 10 dogs get the benefit of these excursions.

But as fall closed in on us so did the daylight hours and trips to the park became impractical.  But I was pleasantly surprised when our regulars chose to keep coming and stayed at the shelter and walked dogs there.  Shame on me, but I truly expected that over time our volunteers would drop out of these evening excursions either because of bad weather or darkness.  Silly me. 

In fact, our numbers seemed to grow and before long we had a steady crew of volunteers led by Lee and Cindy Buckingham who apparently have subconscious desires to be mail carriers as not rain, sleet or snow will keep them from their task.  So steady that friendships have blossomed and the group has celebrated holidays, birthdays and even a marriages together while walking dogs. 

If our original goal was to give a few dogs an extra walk and potty break during that evening we have missed that goal by a long shot.  As now, every single dog gets out for a walk on Thursday night!  Every one of them!!!  I’d say on average that is 60 or more dogs. 

The benefits to the dogs are pretty obvious.  Not simply the extra attention and bonus potty break but as I often preach from way up high on my lofty soapbox, walking is such a therapeutic experience for all dogs.  The benefits to them both physically and emotionally are tremendous.  I truly do believe that walking your dog (the right way, mind you) can help to heal so many ills whether behavioral, physical or emotional.   And I use it as a part of my rehab of virtually every dog I work with…not just purely for the purpose of exercise but in large part in teaching respect, leadership and trust.  Oops, climbing up on my soapbox again.  Sorry. 

Clearly while the Thursday gang is wonderfully loyal, we’re always trying to add new members to the core and our sales pitch is focused on how happy the dogs are to see everyone and how good it is for them!  And yet I was reminded recently that it is more than that.  In fact so much more it seems ludicrous that I could have forgotten.

Especially considering that every day I feel differently since becoming involved in our shelter.  Not simply because I’m busier than ever and love what I do, but because I wake up each day knowing that I have a purpose.  No matter what else is going on in my life or my day job…good or bad…I am happier every day because of helping homeless animals!

And yet somehow I was surprised when my friend Michelle Earl shared something that happened during our most recent Thursday walk that brought this recognition rushing at me like a freight train! 

It’s not just about how happy it makes the animals but also how happy it makes those doing the walking.   

You can’t come to the shelter and spend time with our animals without leaving with a feeling of joy and satisfaction yourself.  It’s just not possible.  Despite the assumption by many that an animal shelter must be immersed in sadness, the fact is that time spent there is more often filled with not only joyful animals but also this special energy that evolves from the common bond of animal lovers coming together.  It’s very cool and very real.

So when Michelle and I were chatting right after Thursday’s walk about her daughter Anna, who I’ve shared stories of before, I was again reminded of just how very real and cool it is!

Anna had participated earlier that same day in a fundraising walk-a-thon event at her school that involved making laps around the track.  Apparently many of the kids her age were walking 20 to 40 laps but Anna could manage only two.  Anna has some challenges with walking long distances and at times just can’t keep up with the activity level of others.  While she tries like crazy to do everything, whether swimming, soccer, or catching chickens (an inside joke) and is more often than not extremely successful, there are times where the challenge is overwhelming for even her incredible will and determination. 

Apparently Anna was feeling discouraged and “bummed” after the school walk but not so much so that she and Michelle would miss walking dogs with the Thursday gang as is their norm.  And with that, whatever discouragement was created by her earlier challenge was soon to be replaced by the joy of the walk!

That evening her special focus was a dog named Jackie.  A new guest at the shelter, Jackie is still pretty anxious about most everything and is a bit of a challenge to walk.  Anna and another of our wonderful volunteers, Al Benhke spent much of the evening with Jackie patiently encouraging her and coaxing her with the lure of their attention and Al’s secret weapon…sandwiches.  While progress was slow, in the end, Jackie had quality time outside, enjoyed all the attention she was bestowed and even took a bit of a walk with Al and Anna.

So when Michelle shared that Anna’s day and mood had turned around after an evening with the dogs and other volunteers and that she’d headed home with a big smile on her face and a sense of satisfaction in helping Jackie overcome her fear, I had to laugh a little at myself for being so silly in thinking that Thursday night dog walks are all about helping the dogs.   

Reminding me of what I believe and have experienced that the walk has great healing powers.  At both ends of the leash!

Categories: Tips, Training

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