Jenny Collins of Portland, Ore., is a dog nut with a big heart. She and her yellow Lab, Patience, a certified therapy dog, have spent years together in Reading with Rover programs at prisons on family visiting days and with children at Ronald McDonald House.
So, when she and her friend Amy, who works with a Beagle rescue group, began planning a Hawaiian vacation, they naturally wondered if they could incorporate helping a shelter into their time in the islands. When they discovered the Maui Humane Society (MHS) website and its Beach Buddies program, their first thoughts were “Perfect! Awesome!” And when they shared their plans with friends, the usual reaction was, “Of course you are!”
Shelter dogs everywhere benefit from a break in routine. Even in the best facilities, even in Hawaii, shelter life is stressful for most dogs. Getting outdoors, exercising and interacting with the world does wonders for their emotional health, which ultimately makes them more adoptable. MHS’s Beach Buddies program gives its dogs a day of fun away from the shelter, hanging with a vacationer who’s primed to go out and explore.
Beach Buddies started in April 2015 and required a leap of faith, according to Jerleen Bryant, the society’s CEO. “The shelter on Kauai had started a program called Shelter Dogs on Field Trips, and it had been going about a year; they had great success and limited problems.
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We held off another year, asking lots of questions, [then launched] our own program.” In the few months it has been active, it has proven to be a big hit.
For Bryant, the overriding factor in determining whether to go with the Beach Buddies program was, How does the program benefit the animals? She knew that socializing and exposure would improve adoptions, and indeed, adoption rates are better because of the Beach Buddies dogs, according to Bryant. “Some people adopt the dog they took out for the day,” she says. (Kauai Humane Society’s website notes that they adopt out four dogs each month to people participating in Shelter Dogs on Field Trips.)
So far, MHS staff and volunteers— not to mention the dogs—love the program, which has grown from one day a week to twice weekly (currently, Wednesday and Friday) with five or more “Beach Buddies–approved” dogs available each day. “We choose rocksolid, no-red-flags dogs,” says Bryant. “Once the dogs are selected, people who sign up can choose among them, firstcome first-served.
“People are calling all the time to participate. The program is now always fully booked, but if people book a time far enough ahead, they’ll get in.” Bryant hopes that, with more resources, they can add more days per week to meet demand, which would be a plus for dogs and vacationers alike.
The program is run by a volunteer coordinator, who matches dogs with vacationers who have signed up online. The shelter has five staging areas, where, among other things, the lucky dogs chosen to participate are bathed before meeting their vacationer and heading out the door.
Both small and big dogs are available. They go out with special “Adopt me!” harnesses and leashes, a backpack with supplies for the day (towel, water, bowl, poop bags, treats, emergency contact info) and a list of suggested places to visit. Participants are encouraged to record their outing, and the shelter shares their videos and photos on its Facebook page.
Arriving at MHS for their Beach Buddies day, Jenny and Amy went through a short orientation, during which they were instructed to keep the dogs on-leash at all times and to not leave them alone in a car. Since they both wanted a dog for the day, they had asked for dogs who were compatible, and were assigned two who had been surrendered to the shelter together: Jax, a two-year-old Lab mix, and Zane, a hound/Corgi mix. As Jenny recalls, “Both connected to us pretty quickly. Dogs are so accepting; they roll with change.”
Jenny and Amy took their charges to a beach, but quickly realized that the pups weren’t into the ocean scene, so they went on a hike in an experimental forest (“It felt like Oregon,” Jenny says). Afterward, they went to more populated places, including a Starbucks, where they sat with the dogs on a patio. A couple of people came up to meet Jax and Zane, and Jenny and Amy happily handed out the bio cards the shelter had provided; the cards also supplied MHS’s contact information and a “wish list” of items the shelter can always use. Postouting, MHS asks participants to provide a write-up of their experience for potential adopters, and Jenny and Amy were happy to do so; it gave them another way to help the shelter and its dogs.
Come Fly with Me
Wings of Aloha, another MHS program, was born out of desperation, according to Bryant. On Maui, there are far more dogs than homes able to take them in. The island has a population of roughly 140,000, and the shelter takes in 8,000 animals each year, one-third of them dogs. (The shelter is working hard to control the island’s population of homeless animals. With grants from PetSmart Charities, they’ve started M*A*S*H [Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital] clinics, high-volume sterilization clinics that earlier this year provided free spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations, microchipping and licensing to 712 cats and 338 dogs over a nine-day period. Nine more M*A*S*H clinics are scheduled through 2016.)
Given that there are a finite number of homes able to adopt, and that it’s especially hard for renters to do so, the shelter staff asked themselves what MHS could do to address the imbalance. The answer? Fly some of the dogs to the mainland, where partner shelters help find them homes. Thus, Wings of Aloha was born.
When Wings launched in 2012, Bryant was the shelter’s director of development. Before moving to Maui, she had run a rescue organization in Oregon, often pulling up to 40 dogs at a time from shelters if their lives were at risk. Moving large numbers of dogs didn’t faze her. However, the cost to do so was an obstacle.
Fueled by donor money, Wings of Aloha began by purchasing airline tickets and crates to transport the dogs stateside, also paying to return the crates, which turned out to be cheaper than buying new ones. Eventually, the shelter forged partnerships with Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines; the airlines agreed to attach a shelter dog to a passenger’s —any passenger’s—ticket, significantly reducing the cost of transportation.
During their Beach Buddies orientation, Jenny and Amy learned about Wings of Aloha, and signed up. As luck would have it, Jax and Zane were two of the dogs scheduled to go on the women’s flight back to Portland. They and three other dogs were all attached to Amy’s ticket, reducing the price per dog to $100 and saving the shelter approximately $1,000 in fees.
“The shelter people had everything ready,” says Jenny. “They know all the rules. TSA took each dog out of the crate, checked the crate and the food in the bag taped on top, and zip-tied the crate door closed after the inspection.” Even though they weren’t obligated to, at the airport, Jenny and Amy stayed with the dogs until they were taken behind the check-in counter on their way to being loaded on the airplane.
Upon arrival in Portland, in another act of generosity, the women waited with the still-crated, off-loaded dogs until volunteers from a nearby Vancouver, Wash., shelter arrived to whisk them off to their new temporary home. Both women felt a strong connection to these dogs and wanted to be sure they made it to their final destination. “The Alaska Airlines people were willing to cut the zip ties for us in Portland, but we didn’t have leashes, so we asked them not to,” Jenny says. Jenny was impressed with how seamlessly the whole process worked.
In addition to financial resources, Wings of Aloha requires a significant effort from MHS staff and volunteers. Two lead volunteers field calls from people willing to share their airline tickets, and coordinate with mainland shelters accepting the transported dogs. They create a weekly list of dogs to transport, including a bio, pictures and why they’re good candidates for transfer: they’re too stressed in their current environment, or they’ve been there too long and need a change of scenery. “We have plenty of awesome dogs,” Bryant says, noting that as we spoke, 13 dogs were being prepped for transfer the following week. Since the program’s start in 2012, MHS has shipped some 740 dogs to the mainland.
“It’s amazing to have so many people [willing to] attach dogs to their tickets,” Bryant says. “We get pictures of people with the dogs in their crates at check-in and post them to our Facebook page so everyone can feel good about these dogs and the wonderful opportunity they have to start over in the Pacific Northwest. [People are] doing their part to save a life.”
Jenny’s vacation experience with MHS and their dogs didn’t end when she waved good-bye to Jax, Zane and the others heading off to the Vancouver shelter. “Our Beach Buddies outing occurred on May 1; our flight to Portland was May 5. On May 8, I received an email from MHS saying that Jax and Zane had been adopted into forever homes. It was totally meant to be!” says Jenny, who couldn’t be happier about the outcome and her role in it.
Jenny remains on the MHS email list, getting updates on the shelter’s animals and programs. “I wanted to buy one of their T-shirts, but they insisted I take it as a gift, saying I’d done so much. [She and Amy purchased several items on the shelter’s wish list at the local Target and Petco stores and made a donation.] I cried!” Asked if she would participate again in either program, Jenny says, “In a heartbeat. The experience did so much for me. It was the highlight and best memory of my vacation!”