You can never have too many friends.

So if you find yourself falling short of buddies, why not rent one?

That's where my pal Iggy came in. During our afternoon in a South Jersey park, I did most of the talking, but she didn't seem to mind. Granted, she did catch a young stud's eye, but Iggy wasn't one of those "Later, girlfriend" kind of females. She was content to stop for a snack, take some selfies. There wasn't even a peep when I took a wrong turn on the drive home.

In the end, I didn't even have to use the poop bags.

Iggy was my Rent-A-Dog, a brindle alumna of a program the Camden County Animal Shelter started last spring. But what began modestly as a way to give shelter dogs some extra exercise and attention – a mini-fostering experience, if you will – pretty quickly caught on as a boon for humans as well.

Iggy was the reporter’s Rent-A-Dog, a program of the Camden County Animal Shelter
Rita Giordano / Staff
Iggy was the reporter’s Rent-A-Dog, a program of the Camden County Animal Shelter

At first its founders figured they'd get college students like those from nearby Rutgers-Camden who would be willing to sign out a dog for a couple of hours.

But the draw proved to be a lot broader than that.

"We had hundreds of emails within the first 24 hours when it was launched in April," said shelter director Vicki Rowland.

Some were those anticipated college kids. But as word spread, Rent-A-Dog attracted animal lovers of all ages. Some were people who couldn't have a dog of their own – their landlord wouldn't allow it or a family member was allergic. Others were people who had never had a dog of their own. Still others never knew they wanted one. Rent-A-Dog was their canine test drive.

"Some people have been just taking them back to their house and cuddling with them for the day," said County Freeholder Jon Young, liaison to the no-kill South Jersey shelter. "Or they're taking them to the park, taking them on doggie trails or for a run. I imagine some guy somewhere is using them for a girl magnet. But they're taking them everywhere, which is really, really cool."

And it's spanning the seasons. Since Rent-A-Dog kicked off, walks in the balmy spring breeze have given way to strolls in the summer sunshine. (Iggy and I had our play date during the dog days of August.) Now, in the twilight of 2018, there's still time to kick through the autumn leaves.

The program's moniker is actually a bit of a misnomer; there's no charge to "rent" a dog, although donations are welcome. When you sign out a canine, shelter staff will give you a crash course on dog handling as well as a leash and a goodie bag that includes dog treats, water, a list of suggested venues to explore with your new four-legged friend, and poop bags, just in case. You can pick your own temporary companion, but shelter staff do narrow the field to dogs with suitable temperaments and reasonable leash manners.

Iggy, an older mixed breed dog, gets ready to join the author for a walk at a nearby park.
ED HILLE
Iggy, an older mixed breed dog, gets ready to join the author for a walk at a nearby park.

Dog people aren't going to need much of a sell job, but there are lots of good reasons to spend time with a canine.

High up on the list are health benefits. Studies have found that spending time with a dog can prompt us to be more physically active, which is almost always a good thing. Petting a dog can help lower your blood pressure and heart rate, according to a report from Harvard Medical School. Spending time with a dog – or a cat, for that matter — can lower stress, lessen feelings of isolation and increase one's sense of well-being. According to one study, when a pet owner stares into his or her dog's eyes, the natural production of oxytocin – a social bonding hormone – is boosted for both human and beast.

Maybe it's the oxytocin doing its thing, because although adoption wasn't one of the program's original goals, these canine-human blind dates have turned into forever homes for 10 of the Rent-A-Dogs.

One of the first was Paul Smith, a real estate agent from Wenonah, and Sandi, a tan-and-white pit bull that quickly won his heart.

"I had no intent of adopting when I first walked in there. I have two other dogs," Smith said.

Smith's wife, Caryn, first saw a photo of Sandi – then called Topanga – on the shelter's website. The couple, both dog lovers, decided to give the program a try and saw her at the shelter.

"She was beautiful," Smith said. "She was very, very friendly. She came right toward me."

They took the pooch back to their home where she met their little girl.

"She was very, very gentle with my daughter," Smith said. "She just wanted to pretty much sniff her and lick her."

Once the dog-that-would-be-Sandi met the Smiths' other dogs and they all hit it all off, the rest was just a matter of paperwork.

"I like the program a lot," said Smith. "I know there's a lot of people out there like me. As soon as they spend a little bit of time with the dog, they fall in love with it."

And what about Iggy, my buddy for a lovely day in the South Jersey woodlands?

Well, if you're thinking about renting her, you're out of luck. Not long after our outing, Jim Woodley, a retiree from Gloucester City visited the county shelter. His and his wife, Sandy, had lost their pit bull ZuZu, named after the little girl in the classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life," to cancer, and they were ready to adopt again. But the dog he'd come to check out didn't hit it off with his other dog. Then he saw Iggy. You can guess how this ended, too.

Iggy is now Grace. Sandy named her.

"She's a very gentle dog," Jim said.

"She loves Jim," said Sandy.

But Sunny, Carolina and Chrissy, new ladies on the block, are still at the shelter and ready to go for a walk. You never know when you might need a Rent-A-Dog.