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The Cat Lady Running to Save Dogs’ Lives

Running past an animal shelter got one Atlanta resident wondering if she could put her daily miles to better use.

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Your running is about to go to the dogs. And you’re going to love it.

Sandy Saffold will be the first to tell you: She’s a cat person. “I have had cats my whole life, my dad hated the smell of dogs,” says the 44-year-old Atlanta resident. For 25 years she’s volunteered at cat-specific shelters.

But then, the City of Atlanta put in a sidewalk on South Atlanta Road, which is just a half mile from her home. Saffold changed her running route to use the new sidewalk and realized she was passing Best Friends Lifesaving Center, a no-kill dog and cat rescue, every day. “I felt bad, like I was just wasting my energy,” when all those dogs were cooped up inside the shelter, she says.

Not anymore. Saffold has launched a volunteer program at the shelter to match volunteers who are up for running with dogs. It’s so popular that volunteers now log about 40 miles a week with shelter dogs in tow. One Saturday a month, they get together for a “Doggie Dash” taking dozens of shelter dogs out for a romp. The results have been lifesaving—and that’s not hyperbole.

Dogs need exercise. Shelter environments, with their meager budgets and tight quarters, just aren’t designed to grant hours of fetch and zoomies. All that pent-up energy can sometimes manifest in less than ideal ways. Just think about it: How grumpy would you get if you couldn’t run for weeks?

“Vanilla Bean was literally a jumping bean when I first met her. She was crazy,” remembers Saffold. That craziness wasn’t winning her any suitors. Regular runs with Saffold, however, made her “the most normal dog ever,” she says. More importantly: She found a home.

“On Doggie Dash Saturdays, the shelter is silent, which never happens in animal welfare,” says Brantlee Vickers, the volunteer coordinator for Best Friends. All that barking—usually due to pent up energy and anxiety—ceases as tired beagles, labs, and mutts of every shade and size settle in for a nice afternoon snoozle.

Running with dogs
PHOTO: Christina Lynn
Sandy Saffold gets ready to take a shelter dog out for a run.

While every third Saturday of the month is a “Doggie Dash” Saturday, volunteers at Best Friends are welcome to take dogs for runs any time the shelter is open. Best Friends takes an inclusive approach to volunteering, meaning they try to put as few barriers to entry in your way as possible. Sign a waiver, learn the basics, and you’re off, says Saffold.

The rules are simple: Choose a dog that’s eligible for the program—meaning they’re healthy enough and gentle enough to run with a volunteer. Shimmy them into an “adopt me” harness, which “helps the dog get attention,” Saffold says. Finally, head out the door and trot a 1.5 – 2-mile loop around the shelter, keeping at least 10 feet between your dog and any other dogs who out for a jaunt. Yes, this means that if you show up to run with a friend, you’ll have to space yourselves out (although occasionally the rule is waived for dogs that share a kennel). But it’s the safest way to handle dogs that may not play well with others.

Saffold always warns friends that these runs are not quite like your normal workouts. The dogs will want to sniff and pee, and Saffold lets them. After all, this is all about giving them a break from the stress of kennel life. For Saffold, it’s perfect for an easy day, when pace and mileage are irrelevant.

She also warns friends that they may just end up going home with a dog. That happened at a recent Doggie Dash, Vickers says. It even happened to Saffold. The professed cat lady fell in love with a dog named Polly and tried bringing her home. Unfortunately, Polly and the cats didn’t mix, and Saffold had to return her to Best Friends. It bummed her out, but she’s trying to see the bright side: “I think if I did have a dog at home I wouldn’t have as much time for the dogs at the shelter,” she says.

Want to start your own running program with a shelter? Here are Saffold’s tips:

  • Find a shelter that’s welcoming to volunteers. Saffold says she understands why some shelters require background checks and long training sessions, but the easier it is to volunteer, the easier it will be to bring in runners to help.
  • Make it about the dogs. This is their time. Let them set the pace and stop to sniff as needed.
  • Have a safe course that all runners follow. That way, if a volunteer and dog don’t arrive back at the shelter in a reasonable amount of time, someone can go check on them. Also, make sure there are trash receptacles on the course. Sh*t happens!
  • Know that some dogs just won’t want to. Saffold says that at least once a dog hasn’t been up for running and has sat down and refused to move.
  • Uses harnesses, not collars. This gives the handler more control, says Saffold, and there’s way less chance of a dog wiggling out of one.