We have all seen the commercials. Gut-wrenching images of disfigured and clearly abused cats and dogs displayed on screen as Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background, every second of it carefully crafted to tear at our heartstrings and encourage us to do something about the problem of abused, abandoned, and generally neglected pets.
For many of us, we will see this commercial, be saddened by it, and forget all about it when the ad is over and our show of choice starts back up. For the folks at RuffTail Runners, though, this is a problem they are confronting every single day, and they are doing it in a way that attacks the problem on multiple fronts and uniquely benefits every person and dog involved.
“At the simplest level, we are about connecting shelter dogs and people with something that benefits them both, running or walking,” said Rob Hill, RuffTail Runners’ founder and co-director. “Our goals are to make shelter dogs happier, healthier, and better-behaved, all of which makes them easier to adopt.”
The group, working mostly with Austin Pets Alive! but also with Love-a-Bull (a nonprofit that educates and advocates on behalf of pit bulls), trains volunteers on how to properly run with shelter dogs so that they can take them for unsupervised runs.
“The vast majority of runners want to take the trail, but runners are allowed on the road as well, and we coach them on how to run a dog properly, safely, and politely on both,” Hill said.
RuffTail Runners is an offshoot of the wonderful folks at Team Spiridon, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit focused on helping people achieve running goals while fundraising for Austin’s homeless pet dilemma. The offshoot was created informally in 2010 when Hill was approached about running some of Austin Pets Alive!’s high-energy dogs. In July 2011, the program was officially opened to the public, and participation has exploded since. It was also around this time that Lindsay Marsh came on board as co-executive director, taking things “up yet another 80 notches,” according to Hill. In addition to promotion from Austin Pets Alive! and wide-scale media exposure, RuffTail Runners finds runners and dog lovers alike through the social networking site MeetUp, amassing 2,590 followers to date. RuffTail has also worked with several local businesses to offer incentives to regular volunteers with the program.
The group has been a model for similar programs around the world. Groups from as far away as Melbourne, Australia have contacted Hill about how they might mimic the success RuffTail has experienced here. Though the commitment required to manage and maintain the program here in Austin makes expansion on any serious level difficult at this time, Hill and Marsh have been able to guide the creation of pilot programs in Dallas and Arizona, where they are experiencing similar growth and success.
Locally, though, RuffTail continues to create happy endings to sad stories of abandonment and neglect.
Nora Dock knew about RuffTail Runners for several months before she finally made the decision to attend a training class in December 2013 and was able to begin running some of the dogs. On her fourth trip out, Dock was paired with a dog named Cachito, and off they went, hitting the Lady Bird Lake trail. Following their run, Cachito spotted a woman and his reserved demeanor changed immediately. Wagging his tail and shaking, Cachito dragged Dock to the feet of a woman, whom he greeted and smiled at excitedly. The woman—Suzanne—immediately fell for Cachito’s charms, but she had just lost a beloved pet and didn't think she was yet ready to replace it. Dock understood completely and detailed how Suzanne might track them down if she became ready.
“It turned out Suzanne couldn't forget about Cachito,” Dock recalled, “and a few weeks later, she tracked him down, [then] in foster in our home. At the meet-and-greet, Cachito was so happy to see Suzanne again. He wiggled and smiled and wouldn't leave her side. He definitely chose her. His new mom takes him to the trail every Sunday. He has his very own sofa to lie on and a fireplace to nap in front of.”
Though connections such as Suzanne’s and Cachito’s are wonderful to behold, Hill knows that their work will likely never be done.
“What we would really like,” Hill joked,”is to not have any dogs to run with and for Austin Pets Alive! to go away because there’s nothing for them to do.”
RuffTail Runners will continue offering temporary companionship to Austin’s forgotten best friends and doing their best to create a world where we won't have to cry while watching those heartbreaking commercials ever again.
Andre Agassi is a 4-year-old bully breed mix and ready to be adopted from APA!
Andre Agassi is a 4-year-old bully breed mix (the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and Staffordshire bull terrier are some examples of bully breeds).
Andre, an Austin Pets Alive! rescue, was named after the pro athlete because of his habit of hoarding tennis balls. He was the star of the RuffTail Runners program and went on long runs almost daily before being adopted in 2012. But in 2013, Andre escaped from his home while it was being burgled and got hit by a car, suffering extreme injuries. Unfortunately, his adopters couldn't afford the medical cost or attention his injuries required, and they surrendered him back to APA!.
Dr. Kristen Kjellberg, APA!’s amazing vet, said Andre's good physical condition played a tremendous part in his recovery. Though he’s missing a patella in one leg, Andre is able to hop into cars, and he pulls eagerly on his leash in order to meet people, especially kids.
“I don't know for sure whether he'll ever be able to run again,” said Kjellberg, “but if he can't, I don't think it's the end of the world. Some of the best triathletes and runners I know have had knee injuries that took them out of the game for months, years, or even forever. It's what they’ve done with their situation that speaks the best of them. You find something else to do (be it swimming, CrossFit, or hiking) because we are all athletes, and the particular sport is just a medium to express that.”
Check in with Austin Pets Alive! (austinpetsalive.org) to discover if Andre—or another wonderful and fit dog—is available for adoption.