Dog walkers make a difference

June 18, 2013 

The start of another day is announced with the flick of a switch.

Her surroundings are suddenly bathed in harsh fluorescent light and she slowly rises, gets to her feet and peers around her 4-x-6 foot enclosure. She needs to relieve herself, and reluctantly chooses a corner of her limited space. She has no sense of time and cannot know it, but she has been here 21 days.

The morning wears on and sights and sounds change with the rhythm of her days. The noise is deafening as meals are served, but quickly settles into familiar crunching when the last bowl is laid out. She is grateful for the shelter and the food. It is a far safer place than the streets she once roamed.

She waits and watches as people walk by. Sometimes, they stop and read the paper hanging on her cage. Sometimes, they stop and coo nice words or offer a quick pat on her nose.

Mostly, she waits.

Somewhere in her memory, she was loved.

Somewhere she had a yard, went on long walks, licked dirty little faces, rolled in the morning dew, chased balls and eagerly greeted each new day.

Now, she waits.

And then, as if by magic, a volunteer appears. The cage door is opened and a kind voice asks: "Hey Molly, do you want to go for a walk?"

She is outside. The joy is overwhelming as she pulls her handler around the property and into the enclosed play yard. She wishes this day would never end.

Molly is just one of the hundreds of dogs whose lives are enriched by volunteer dog walkers at Manatee County Animal Services. Our wonderful volunteers range in age from 18 to 78, donating time and energy to bring happiness to some of the dogs waiting for their forever homes.

Dog walkers such as 18-year-old Danielle Ostwald are happy to help. Her brother is allergic to animals so they can't have a dog of their own. Danielle and her mother spend hours each week enjoying and exercising the homeless dogs at the Downtown Bradenton Adoption Center.

Danielle has also embraced the one-to-one program and championed two dogs, Phaedra and Toby, both now adopted. Toby's new owners still send her pictures.

Sue Gulch has been walking dogs at the downtown shelter since it opened in January 2011, mostly on Saturdays. She says it makes her feel good to get the dogs out of the kennel environment, even for a little while. Gulch took an active role in get

ting one of her favorite dogs, Congo, adopted after learning he had been at the shelter for almost a year. Sue is also fostering a dog who is great company for her own boxer.

Another volunteer, Mike Saunders, works for the school district and has been heading downtown after lunch each day for more than two years. He walks two dogs for 10 minutes each and walks 10 minutes back to work, happy to have made a difference.

A dog he walked frequently, Baby, is now a member of his family.

Some dog walkers are retirees, such as Jeff Goss, a former firefighter who spends about two days every week at the Palmetto shelter. He has a household of pets of his own but welcomes the chance to get Manatee County Animal Services' dogs out of their cages.

Sometimes, volunteer dog walkers can literally transform a dog's behavior and increase the odds of a successful adoption. Bonnie Sietman knows first-hand from her many years of walking dogs. Her favorite success story is Tank, an abused dog who would only cower and crawl. Many weeks and walks later, Tank realized life could be worth wagging about.

Besides Tank, Bonnie has helped other abused dogs, such as Becky and Jack, to find forever homes. She also participates in dog washes, offsite adoption events and fostering small dogs.

Bonnie's son, Austin, a senior at Braden River High School, is following in her footsteps and has logged more than 65 volunteer hours at the shelter.

These are just a few of our dedicated dog walkers and we greatly appreciate them all. If you would like to get involved with Manatee County Animal Services as a dog walker or in any other capacity, we would love to have you for as many or as few hours as you can spare. As Sue Gulch told me, "Even one dog taken out is one dog that will be less stressed and more likely to be adopted."

Please contact Nicki Bentley by e-mail at tammy.bentley@mymanatee.org or by phone, 941-742-5933 ext. 8304 if you are interested in volunteering.

Kris Weiskopf, chief of Manatee County Animal Services, writes this weekly column for the Herald.

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