Sweet Dee set the pace for the 2-mile tour. As she walked and jogged from one Center City corner to the next, she frequently looked over her shoulder to make sure the others were keeping up. The smile never left her face and the wag never left her tail.
“Dogs don’t care if you’re slow or need a bunch of water breaks,” said Cathleen Kennedy, 38, one of Sweet Dee’s two-legged followers. “There’s constant love, and you see it on their faces when they’re running. They turn around like, ‘All of my friends are still here!’ ”
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Sweet Dee, a 7-year-old Labrador-pit bull mix, needs a home and the Monster Milers, a running club/nonprofit animal rescue, are here to help. Its members promote pet adoption by running with a furry canine companion currently living in one of its partner shelters. The dogs wear vests or bandannas that say, “Adopt me.”
The good news? Someone always does. The Milers don’t keep careful tabs but confidently estimate that “thousands” of dogs have found forever homes thanks to the efforts of the nine-year-old club. And until they do, Milers are on hand to take those patient pups out for some exercise.
“A lot of the dogs are stuck in kennels for extended periods of time and that’s not good for their mental health. Their stress levels rise and their energy builds up and that’s when they can act out,” said Monster Milers program manager Allegra Oehmsen, 32, of Little Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “Even if a dog isn’t a runner, it’s going to benefit from getting a walk and fresh air.”
The animals will also benefit from the Milers’ fostering program, which will be funded by the Rescue Run 5K, scheduled for Nov. 2 at FDR Park. (No dogs will be running the race, but there will be a post-run adoption event.) It costs about $700 to provide veterinary services, training, and room and board for a dog living in a foster home, said Milers’ founder Carrie Maria, who now serves on its board of directors.
That’s assuming, of course, that the foster family lets the dog leave. Jax, a lab/collie mix, joined Maria’s family through the Milers.
“My daughter is 3,” Maria said, “and when she describes her family, it’s ‘My mom, my dad, my Jax, and my grandmom.’”
An estimated 30,000 animals end up in local shelters annually. The largest, Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia, took in more than 18,000 animals in 2018, a number that is fairly consistent over the years. (ACCT works for the city under contract.) While ACCT, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and the Pennsylvania SPCA last year founded the Philadelphia No-Kill Coalition, healthy animals without homes are killed each year.
Still, there’s noticeable improvement: In 2005, only 11% of animals entering ACCT Philly survived. In 2017, more than 80% did.
Maria founded the Milers in 2010. A distance runner and longtime volunteer at PAWS, she asked if she could take one of the dogs for a run. She was surprised to get the OK. And shelter staffers were surprised when, post-jog, she returned with a changed dog.
“We quickly realized the difference getting outside could make,” Maria said.
The group grew fast, and today about 100 volunteers work with ACCT, PAWS, and Street Tails Animal Rescue (STAR). Before volunteers are allowed to run a dog, they must commit to volunteering at their local shelter to get to know the animals — even once a month is enough — and attend a Milers orientation program
“We tell first-time volunteers to take things slow. Our runs are usually walk, jog, walk, jog,” Maria said. “We’re goodwill ambassadors for rescue, so we don’t want to set up the dogs for failure. We suggest avoiding heavily trafficked areas. [Shelter living] is a stressful time in a dog’s life. They might misbehave.”
The shelters determine which dogs will run and it’s one per Miler, unless there is a bonded pair of dogs who need to be adopted together.
“When we come across a dog that is high-energy, we make sure to visit as frequently as possible,” Oehmsen said. “Quite often the shelters will reach out and say, ‘We have a dog who is bouncing off the walls. Could you send a volunteer?’ ”
STAR’s Allison Lewis — the organization eschews titles — said hundreds of people have visited the shelter after seeing a Miler with a dog wearing an “Adopt Me” vest running through a neighborhood.
“The benefit of having the Milers run our dogs cannot be understated,” Lewis said. “Some dogs can’t handle being at the rescue. The Milers keep them sane, keep them healthy, keep them from gaining weight. A tired dog is a happy dog is a less destructive dog.”
The Milers host monthly “fun runs” that are open to all on the second Sunday morning of every month. They leave from Philadelphia Runner at 16th and Sansom Streets in Center City.
At the most recent run, volunteer Guillermo Torres of Brewerytown handled Sweet Dee, who currently resides at STAR. Torres, 35, moved here from Mexico about three and a half years ago with his corgi, Patas. (The name means “legs” and yes, Torres said, he chose it because the dog is a lowrider.)
“He’s my partner in this whole adventure, living in the U.S.,” Torres said. “Feeling how much love he gives me, he makes me so happy. When I’m missing home, I look at him and everything is fine.”
About 15 people — about half Milers, half Miler-curious — listened as Torres spoke about the program. The first step to becoming a handler, he said, was attending this fun run. Sweet Dee — and by leash extension, Torres — would set the pace, meaning everyone had to be prepared to stop and sniff as needed.
Still, it was hard to imagine the dog doing anything but dashing ahead as she shook with excitement before the crowd.
“She’s super-hyper and wants to jump on everything now, but after the run, she’ll be totally relaxed,” Torres predicted. “And that’s good. Her chances of getting adopted are higher if people will come in and say, ‘Who is that chill dog over there?’ ”
Most of the group, including Sharon Parks’ three grandchildren ages 7 to 12, began jogging along Sansom Street toward the Schuylkill. Parks walked behind them. She and her husband had raised their children in Bryn Mawr, where English bulldogs Churchill and Ellington kept them on their toes.
But now the dogs are gone and she and her husband are living in a Center City condo that doesn’t allow pets. Parks hoped to become a Miler to spend some quality time with animals, to get some exercise, and possibly to bond with her grandchildren if they joined her on her walks.
“Animals teach people how to have compassion for other creatures. They learn to care about someone other than themselves,” Parks said. “And they’re cuddly. That’s the best part.”
Volunteer Cathleen Kennedy walked with Parks. She became a Miler in 2012, eager to get in some “dog time.” She works long days and travels often.
“On long runs, you need motivation and a four-legged friend is good motivation,” she said. “Some days I might not want to put in my miles, but I do — because I know there’s a dog that needs to get out.”