Seeking motivation, high school athletes run with shelter dogs

Daily runs can be a grind for high school athletes, even cross-country runners who love the sport. Finding motivation over summer break can be even harder.

Some coaches send out training plans, others offer prizes. Coach Luis Escobar was brainstorming with his wife when she hit on an idea: get a pack of goofy, energetic shelter dogs to go out with his runners.

“The dogs want to go out and run; the kids love dogs, and they love running. It was a perfect marriage,” said Escobar, who at the time was the cross-country team coach at St. Joseph High School in Santa Maria, Calif.

He reached out to a Santa Barbara animal shelter, and it was on board. After shelter staff gave the athletes a briefing on best practices for running with canines, the students set out on a mile-long loop around the shelter.

“It was super fun. The kids were having a great time, the dogs were having a great time,” said Escobar, who took a video of the outing that day in 2016 and shared the sweet scene on social media.

“Tails were wagging, kids were smiling,” he said.

Little did Escobar know then that the 60-second snippet would fly across the internet, with hundreds of thousands of views overnight.

“It just went out of control in a very, very good way,” said Escobar, who now coordinates adult running events.

It has been nearly eight years since that video. Every so often, it resurfaces on social media and starts making the rounds again.

The video shows a group of high school students running with shelter dogs of various size and shape. One student says “good girl!” to encourage his running companion, while another brings up the rear with a pooch named Fred nestled in his arms.

“Fred’s had it,” Escobar says in the video.

Not only did the shelter dog run become a staple training activity for St. Joseph’s cross-country team, but it also resulted in some adoptions — including by the student who carried Fred. He ended up bringing the dog home.

“Many, many dogs were adopted as a result of this,” Escobar said. “That is the thing that I am probably most proud of.”

The video inspired other schools to find their own puppy motivators.

“Our athletic director was getting messages and emails from other athletic directors around the country, wanting to know how they could do this project at their school,” Escobar said.

After a parent saw a social media post about the dog run, members of the boys’ cross-country team at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz, Fla., started doing shelter dog runs, too. They have been running regularly with shelter dogs from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay for seven years, and the program has been covered in local and national news.

“We just started, and we’ve never looked back,” said Allison Szponar, who coaches the team.

During school breaks and throughout summer, about 15 students stop at the shelter to pick up between 10 and 12 dogs several mornings per week. They drive them to a nearby park to run laps and play together. Some students visit the shelter each week through the year to take the dogs out.

“We put out water bowls and give them treats. They just roll around in the grass, wagging their tails,” said CJ Clark, 17, the team captain.

He and his teammates cater to each canine’s fitness level and individual needs — which the shelter communicates to them before every run. The shelter also lets students know if a dog is injured or out of shape and, in some cases, encourages them to walk rather than run.

Rigorous running can strain an animal’s tendons and joints, so students usually mix walking and running during their outings, which last about an hour and a half.

“We don’t typically do long distance. Nothing over a mile,” Szponar said.

Shelter staff sends out dogs with excessive energy, or those who seem to be craving social time.

“They run, they walk, they play with them,” said Regan Blessinger, marketing and content manager for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “It’s such a nice enrichment.”

The dogs spend most of their time in a kennel, Blessinger said, and need more physical and mental stimulation, as well as social time with other dogs and people.

“There’s a lot of benefits, and the dogs just love it. They get excited to go,” she said.

The students look forward to it, too.

“It’s really fun,” said Brady Peifer, 17, a junior at Steinbrenner High School. “I think it’s really good for our team; it teaches us to care more about others than ourselves.”

Brady’s mother, Margaret Peifer, volunteers and participates in the shelter runs. She and her son also go in their spare time to take the dogs out for some exercise.

“It’s been really wonderful for us as a family,” said Peifer, whose daughter is a runner on the girls’ team and joins them for shelter runs. “We get to know these dogs; we keep track of them all.”

“I think my favorite part about it is getting to know the dogs and seeing them get adopted,” Brady said.

Shelter staff said the school runs have led to several adoptions over the years — by students and by others in the community who are touched by the effort.

“We absolutely love this,” Blessinger said.

Other shelters and schools — inspired by Escobar or programs modeled after his — feel the same way.

Jarrin Williams, the head coach of the boys’ cross-country and track and field teams at Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Ill., has been leading shelter runs with his teams since 2019.

“I try to make sure that I provide every opportunity for my athletes to give back,” Williams said. “This is one way to do that.”

Multiple times throughout the summer and other school breaks — most recently during spring break — Williams and about 10 students will stop at Rock Island County Animal Care and Control to exercise with some canines.

“It makes the dogs better dogs,” said Samantha Wiley, an operations manager at the shelter. “They just look so happy.”

The students love it as much as the dogs do.

“I’ve had kids who graduated come back and run with us and the dogs. That’s how much they enjoy it,” Williams said. “It’s really cool that this one thing that is so simple could be so impactful.”

Escobar said that in hindsight, he is not surprised his short video had such resonance.

“It was 60 seconds of genuine, organic kindness,” he said. “The world needs kindness.”

Source link

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Welcome Back!

Login to your account below

Retrieve your password

Please enter your username or email address to reset your password.