On an unseasonably cool day in June, a little four-legged guy named Warren wiggled happily as he rolled around in the grass under the Turkey Creek bridge at Werner Park in Merriam.
A naturally happy guy anyway, Warren was extra exuberant this day. Not only was he outside playing with a number of humans eager to rub his belly and scratch his ears, Warren was also celebrating his first full day with a new family — Jason and Jennifer Silvers of Merriam.
Warren is an 8-year-old Catahoula leopard dog. When Jason and Jennifer met him the day before, he was a resident of the Great Plains SPCA animal shelter.
Jason Silvers, a well-known figure at the animal adoption center and for those who frequent the Turkey Creek trail, is also a bit of a YouTube celebrity with those who love dogs and love to run.
The Year I Got the Runs, his YouTube channel launched in January 2015, has more than 330 subscribers and 145 posts documenting his efforts to get back in shape by running. While holding a GoPro camera extended on a selfie stick, Silvers chats with other runners, shows off the race course and highlights the volunteers and cause for the run.
But when he “got the runs with shelter dogs,” Silvers’ social media presence reached rock star status, at least with the folks at the Great Plains SPCA.
“Within 48 hours of Jason posting one of his videos, the dog is adopted,” said Anna Stark-Dowling, volunteer program manager at the Great Plains SPCA Merriam location.
“We really struggle to get enough exercise and enrichment for our high-energy dogs, so anyone willing to run with them is greatly appreciated,” Stark-Dowling said.
The same is true at animal shelters throughout the Kansas City metro area. While volunteers are needed and appreciated for any time and talent they can provide, volunteer coordinators at these shelters report a demonstrable benefit in the adoptability of dogs who have had a daily run.
Nobody knows that better than Annie Hughes, a volunteer at Wayside Waifs since 2013, who is credited with organizing and better documenting the shelter’s dog running program.
At any given time, Wayside Waifs, Kansas City’s largest no-kill pet adoption campus, has about 20 to 30 dogs in need of a daily run and only about eight or 10 volunteers available to do it.
Using a simple spiral-bound notebook nicknamed the Dog Jog Log, Hughes began documenting how the run improved the dog’s health and behavior and requiring other dog runners to do the same. Eventually, the information became a part of the Wayside Waifs data system.
“Our biggest success story was a German shepherd mix named Hank who was about 100 pounds overweight,” said Hughes, 53, who successfully trained for the 2014 Hospital Hill half-marathon by running with shelter dogs.
“It took him about a month and he wasn’t always happy about it, but he eventually dropped the weight and was adopted into a great home.”
Samantha Lehman, an animal control officer for the city of Liberty, also knows that a regular exercise program increases the adoptability of dogs. Since taking the job in September 2013, Lehman and her team have received recognition for increasing the number of adoptions and thus significantly reducing the number of euthanized animals at the Liberty shelter.
In starting an exercise program, Lehman reached out to a friend and mutual animal lover from her college days at Northwest Missouri State University. Bekah Badell, now 26 and living in Kansas City, North, spends a couple of afternoons a month running, walking and playing with as many as four dogs at a time.
“Most shelter dogs don’t have leash training, so I work on that with them to help them become more adoptable,” she said.
But taking a dog out for a run is not as simple as just showing up in your athletic shoes. Most shelters require volunteers for any task to fill out an application that includes questions on your motivations and interests. References are often required and in some cases, a criminal background check may be conducted.
To take a dog off-site, as Jason Silvers does from the Great Plains SPCA, volunteers must be at least 18 years old and have completed 30 hours of training.
And you can’t just choose the dog who wiggles his tail your way. Animal behaviorists at the shelter identify the high-energy dogs that would benefit most from running.
In Silvers’ case, he runs a mile or two with each dog, which takes less than an hour from the time he picks up the animal until he returns it to the shelter. But later at home, he’ll spend about 15 hours editing the video that, when complete, will usually run about six or seven minutes.
During the run, Silvers documents how the dog interacts with others on the trail, whether it be cyclists, runners, other dogs or things that smell funny on the side of the path. In just a few minutes, through video and his keen sense of animal behavior, Silvers has thoroughly captured the dog’s personality.
“I try to be honest with people on things that might be a problem and help them make the best decision so these dogs will find a good home,” he said.
Similar notes are very helpful at other shelters, as well.
Wayside Waifs’ 50-acre campus has a few short trails for dog runners, but many volunteers prefer to take dogs to the nearby Blue River trail, which has both paved paths and rugged mountain bike trails that some dogs really enjoy.
For those outings, many of which begin at 6:30 a.m. to accommodate the work schedule of some volunteers and the summer heat, Wayside Waifs provides reflector vests with blinking lights for both the human and the dog as well necessary leashes, harnesses, water bottles and more.
Of course, like people, not all dogs are runners. As a result, the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City organizes a Sunday morning “pack walk” each week that provides enrichment and exercise for as many as a dozen humans and dogs.
“We’ve seen couples, families and friends come to do this together, and we’ve seen lots of friendships made between people and dogs during the pack walk,” said volunteer coordinator Gina Levra.
The 1.5 mile path leaves the shelter near 55th and Parallel Parkway in Kansas City, Kan., goes down the hill on 54th Street and turns around in Coronado Park. Including the return trip and time spent preparing the dogs for the walk, a volunteer would need to contribute about an hour of time.
As it turns out, the most challenging part of volunteering to run with shelter dogs is putting them back in the shelter at night and hearing the click of the lock on the cage.
“I fall in love with almost every one of them and want to take home with me, but it helps that I know Sam and knows how hard she works to give each dog a good home,” Badell said.
“We do it because the dogs love it and we love the dogs, and then it’s so exciting to see them adopted into a good home by people who are looking specifically for a running partner,” Hughes said.
“It’s easy to think you know everything about dogs until you do something like this,” Silvers said, his voice cracking.
“I’ve always known that dogs are loving and friendly, but now I’m reminded on each run that no matter how difficult their lives have been and what they’ve gone through, they still have a lot of love to give.”
Volunteers of all abilities are always welcomed at the following Kansas City-area animal shelters:
▪ Friends of Parkville Animal Shelter, parkvilleshelter.com, 816-587-0918
▪ Liberty Animal Shelter, libertymissouri.gov
▪ Great Plains SPCA, greatplainsspca.org; 913-831-7722, Merriam; 816-808-3397, Independence
▪ Humane Society of Kansas City, hsgkc.org, 913-596-1000, ext 122
▪ Wayside Waifs, waysidewaifs.org, 816-761-8151
Safety tips for running with dogs
Humans should always use caution when running with dogs, especially in the heat of the summer, according to Thomas Welsh, a veterinarian with Parkville Animal Wellness.
“It’s just like a person starting a running program,” Welsh said. “Start with a short jog and slowly work up to a longer run. If a dog runs too far on unconditioned feet, the pads will shred and tear.”
In the summer heat, Welsh recommends early morning runs and never taking dogs out when it’s over 90 degrees. Hot paved surfaces will blister the pads on a dog’s feet.
In the winter, limit runs when temperatures are below freezing.
Always bring water for yourself and for the dog and share often.
Small dog breeds are not meant for long-distance running.
Always check with your veterinarian before engaging a dog in a regular running program.