Getting in Shape and Helping Shelter Dogs

University classes for fitness walking with dogs
By Claudia Kawczynska, November 2018
PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHARLES BALDWIN

We are all familiar with the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This adage can also be applied to the welfare of shelter dogs, and to Dr. Melanie Sartore’s efforts on their behalf. For the past few years, Sartore, associate professor of kinesiology at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., has been a veritable powerhouse, creating a village made up of students in her ever-popular physical activity course, Fitness Walking—Dog Walking Coursework primarily includes students helping dogs at the local Pitt County Animal Services shelter as part of the class’s shape-up program.

Sartore’s research primarily focuses on nonhuman animals in sport and physical activity. As an avid dog lover and a frequent “failed” fosterer who has five dogs of her own (four adopted from the Pitt County shelter), she is well aware of the myriad benefits dogs provide humans, including increasing our physical-activity levels. She’s also aware of the needs of dogs in the community’s shelter, who are there, she noted, not because of any failure on their part, but “because humans have failed the dogs.”

Five years ago, Sartore and her department chair, Dr. Stacey Altman, who is also a dog lover, came up with a way to correct that misperception while giving back to the community. They approached the shelter’s director, Michele Whaley, with the idea of creating a service-learning fitness walking course whose unconventional classroom would include the small, underfunded shelter and the nearby county park and its ample walking trails (itself named after another ECU alumna, Alice F. Keene). Students in this course, limited to 10 per term, would help provide much-needed exercise for the shelter’s canine residents while expanding their knowledge of companion animals; as a plus, the course would also give a special nod to caring for and about shelter animals.

Another aspect of the curriculum’s goal was to “empower students to become active citizens within their community” and to understand the “plight of shelter dogs and become advocates not just for the animals but for programs that foster responsible dog guardianship, including the need for spaying and neutering and the problems caused by pet overpopulation”—an especially pressing matter for southern shelters.

Whaley’s first reaction to this idea? As she told us, “I was thrilled for a number of reasons. One being I knew we didn’t have the proper staffing levels to give the dogs the enrichment and physical activity they most desperately needed.” She added, “I am also an alumna from ECU, so my alma mater holds a special place for me. I felt like this was a win-win for everyone—a great new partnership with our local university [and] exercise for both the dogs and the students; each class gives us a whole new set of advocates for the animals at our shelter.”

She also observed that she has seen the positive impact this course has had on the dogs—they “don’t seem to break down as often or as quickly, especially the ones that don’t get adopted quickly and are in the shelter for longer periods of time. Regular exercise stimulates them mentally and helps their overall health and reduces the susceptibility to illness, especially stress-induced ones.” Whaley noted that the shelter’s adoption rate has improved, helped along by Sartore’s photos of adoptable dogs, which she posts on Instagram. Plus, the students themselves rally to the cause, and with their social-media savvy, have helped favorite dogs find homes. Sartore proudly told us that recently, one of her graduate students who had moved out of the area, came back to the Pitt county shelter to adopt a dog.

The class is offered year-round, and even during the breaks, Sartore, who says she hates leaving the dogs without walks, finds volunteers to take them out. One of her goals is to get all the dogs on the adoption floor—from three or four to 17 or more—walked during each visit.

As for the students themselves, they average a whopping 2.23 miles per walking session, or 40 percent of their recommended daily physical activity level. In the beginning, each dog is handled by two students using a double leash (especially useful when walking the stronger dogs, some of whom might never have walked on a leash before). It doesn’t take long for both students and dogs to pick up on the correct protocol; some students prefer to run, not walk, with the dogs. Each dog gets in at least a mile of walking.

As it is in most shelters, many of the dogs are Pit Bulls, and while some students might come into the class with negative stereotypic views around this breed—Sartore herself admits that she at first did as well—she says she now thinks they can be the sweetest of dogs, as do the students.

A sense of humor is one of the class’s criteria, because dogs, after all, have a way of tickling our funny bone. Or, as Sartore says, she “tells them to expect that you might be peed on at least once, so you gotta be able to laugh it off.” They also learn to interpret canine body language and behavior, plus physical fitness and are quizzed on those subjects. This gives the students a much better ability to read a dog, which is fantastic.

The very popular for-credit class has a long waiting list, and at the end, each student is required to submit a reflection paper. According to these papers, the students’ biggest takeaway has been the importance of giving dogs a second chance; many also express a desire to adopt a shelter dog in the future.

Sartore would like to spread the word that walking with a dog is the cheapest and most accessible way to become physically active. She’d also like to inspire other colleges and universities to provide similar programs.

Conducting more in-depth research into the program’s physical and psychological benefits to the dogs is on her wish list, but in order to do that, she needs funding for physical-activity and moodmonitoring equipment. This isn’t a high financial bar: the monitors are about $60 each and she only needs about 10 of them. The shelter also has many unmet needs.

We’re hopeful that both get a little assistance. Sartore can be reached at sartorem@ecu.edu, and for adoptable animals petango.com/pittshelter.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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