The Humane Rescue Alliance offers a volunteer opportunity for dog-lovers: taking shelter dogs on weekly jaunts through some of D.C.’s most beautiful outdoor spaces.
Visit Rock Creek Park on a Saturday morning and you’re likely to see a dozen dogs wearing bright orange vests, running or walking alongside their human handlers. If it’s hot, they might be hiking a wooded trail or splashing in the shaded creek. Later in the day, find them panting and lounging in the grass, accepting belly rubs and treats.
This is the People and Animal Cardio Klub (PACK), a program of the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA). Once a week, volunteers spring adoptable dogs from the Oglethorpe Street adoption center for a morning of exercise in the park. The program, launched in 2008, provides the dogs with crucial enrichment outside the shelter, as well as exposure to potential owners, while they await adoption.
And if you’re looking to infuse your exercise routine with socializing, volunteering and extreme cuteness — look no further.
Laura Guischard is one of five PACK leaders responsible for the volunteer-run program. A long-time dog-lover and avid runner, Guischard remembers being captivated by PACK runners and their furry counterparts whenever her road-runners group crossed paths with them on Beach Drive. In 2017, she became a volunteer, then a PACK leader. Eventually she moved from Germantown to Cottage City in Prince George’s County (three miles from HRA) to be closer to the shelter.
Guischard and the other PACK leaders provide support for volunteers, from helping harness the dogs at the shelter to getting them in and out of vehicles. Every week, leaders pair dogs approved by HRA’s medical and behavioral teams with available volunteers, so strong dogs in need of a run or older dogs or shy dogs get matched with the right person.
“We want to make it a great experience for everybody,” Guischard says.
And it is a great experience for the dogs. Even the most well-funded shelter environments can be anxiety-producing for the dogs that live there: loud and confined, with only short walks often to the same stretch of grass. On PACK outings, dogs get extended one-on-one time with humans, plenty of treats, the opportunity to smell new smells, affection and exercise. It’s a break from shelter life that Guischard says can be transformational.
“When we first get them out, they’re jumpy, they’re barky, they’re pulling,” Guischard says. “But 20 minutes in, the dog’s not pulling anymore. They’re not barking at other dogs. You just see them settle down. You can see that transformation throughout the morning.”
PACK’s positive impact on the dogs is what makes it a challenge for Guischard to decide which ones to leave behind on weeks when there are more approved dogs than volunteers.
Getting the dogs out is also a great way to observe how they behave in the world beyond the shelter walls — because that’s where they’re ultimately headed.
“Quite frequently, the notes we have on file for the animals — they’re not great,” Guischard says. “It’s from their intake, when they were surrendered or when they were seized. The dogs are under duress, they’re very anxious. We get to see a completely different side of some of these dogs.”
Week after week, volunteers provide notes on their dogs — How do they do with strangers? Around bikes? In the car? — which can go a long way toward helping the HRA find a home that will be a good and lasting fit.
Non-volunteers spend some time with the dogs, too. On a beautiful Saturday morning at the Arboretum or Rock Creek Park, PACK attracts attention from the steady stream of people running, biking, pushing strollers, roller skiing — and stopping to ask about the cute pups in “Adopt Me” vests.
“Sometimes they fall in love in the moment,” Guischard says.
Once oriented and trained in dog handling, volunteers can join a group of regular PACK volunteers who seem to enjoy the fresh air, socializing, human-animal bonding and exercise about as much as the animals.
“I wake up earlier on a Saturday than I do for work during the week and I’m happy to do it,” Guischard says.
And she’s been doing it long enough to see dogs she walked years ago out and about in Rock Creek Park, walking with their new owners.
The Humane Rescue Alliance’s People and Animal Cardio Klub (PACK) meets every Saturday morning year-round to walk and run adoptable dogs at Rock Creek Park or the U.S. National Arboretum. To learn more about the program and get involved, visit the PACK website humanerescuealliance.org/pack.
Want to know more about volunteer opportunities throughout the District? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to local organizations making a difference. Become a member and support local journalism today.