The Art of Shelter Dogwalking
By Kristen Little, Foster/Volunteer Coordinator, Animal Services
Judy Scrimenti knows a thing or two about dog walking. She knows that a pleasant walk involves just the right set of tools & the right walking partner. She also realized she knows a lot more about walking shelter dogs today than she did 11 years ago. Yes, just 11 short years ago, Judy was a new volunteer at Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services.
Animal Services had just moved into a new building at 8451 Bee Ridge Rd. Judy recalls that at the time, the shelter had very few volunteers. Judy and her husband, Mike, volunteered there on Saturdays. They would walk the dogs inside the small perimeter fence on thin nylon slip leads. Looking back, she says, “I don’t know how we managed it, but we did!”
She said that it was common to see two dogs sharing a larger kennel. There was no instruction program and no way to identify the temperament of the dogs before getting them from the kennels – if they were calm, energetic, or pullers. One thing that stands out is that the breeds haven’t changed. There were just as many wonderful Pit Bull & Lab mixes then as there are now.
Judy notes that when she first started, there was a much larger disconnect between volunteers and staff than there is today. The volunteers walked the dogs, the staff handled everything else. She says, “It hadn’t progressed to the level of where we are today.”
She still remembers her first success story: Sophia. Sophia was the first extremely shy/fearful dog that Judy was able to watch transform into a more confident adult dog. Sophia didn’t know how to act like a dog. Judy recalls, “We would go to my house so I could expose her to new things. She slowly began to come out of her shell and trust me. One day, while playing a game of hide and seek, she ran to find me, got down and put her rear end in the air (a play bow) and was so excited. The fact that she was able to express happiness was a very rewarding day for me.” Sophia eventually went to a wonderful adoptive home. Judy calls the whole experience an eye opener.
The first official dog walking orientation was held in 2012 with a group of volunteers and from there, everything else just took off! The volunteers started an off-site events program where volunteers visit local businesses with shelter pets. Play Groups started shortly after that. Soon after, Matchmaking was emphasized. The introduction of Manners Class and educating the dog walkers on properly using gear like Easy Walk Harnesses, Gentle Leaders and the power of positive reinforcement followed shortly thereafter.
When asked what has helped the most, Judy pauses and then thoughtfully says, “The sharing of ideas and being actively involved with each other; working together as a team.” She mentioned that evaluating and categorizing the dogs helps the volunteers know which dogs they can safely handle. The addition of instruction from volunteer Dog Trainers working one on one gives the volunteers better handling skills.
When asked what she’d like to see in the future as a volunteer, she answered, “I’d love to see our shelter dogs get more community exposure. Also, I’d love for the shelter to be more widely known as a fantastic place to get a wonderful adoptable dog.”