When Minneapolis shelter dogs need exercise, these volunteers come running

A person runs with a brown dog
Volunteer dog runner Amanda Christiansen runs with Jude, a 2-year-old pit bull mix, in Minneapolis on May 4. A running club program at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control lets trained volunteers borrow a dog to go out for some exercise.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“Jude, come here. Can you sit?”

Nope! She can’t, not at this particular moment.

Jude — a broad-chested, muscle-bound pit bull mix — is in for a treat, and she and her furiously wagging tail know it.

She’s one of the dogs at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control that are part of a new program that lets trained volunteers leash up a shelter dog and literally run away — even if only for a few minutes — from the sometimes heart-rending wait for a forever home.

The shelter’s running club gets all of its participants — whether they have two legs or four — out for a little fresh air. On this recent day it’s Amanda Christiansen getting 2-year-old Jude ready for a run. Christiansen engineers software for a living, but is a regular presence among the dog walkers, cat cuddlers and other volunteers at the city’s official animal shelter. And she’s a runner.

A person walking a dog approach a building entrance
Amanda Christiansen and Jude return to the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control Center in Minneapolis after a short run.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I’m a big dog person myself, I have a couple dogs at home. I have a cat. So when I heard about the running club, I said, ‘Why not?’ I run anyways, I like dogs, so let’s put the two together and come volunteer,” Christiansen said.

Jude, happily panting, could not agree more.

The program is in large part the work of the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, Madison Weissenborn.

She’s an animal person; she once worked at Como Zoo and used to manage veterinary clinics. But the dog pound spoke — or, rather, barked — to her. Minneapolis Animal Care and Control takes in about 3,000 cats and dogs a year.

“In the past a lot of city pounds have been looked at as kind of a warehouse situation, where dogs are packed in here. And you know, they don’t leave — or if they do leave ... it’s a select few. But we really have changed that thought and mentality entirely,” Weissenborn said.

A close up of a panting dog
Jude, a 2-year-old pit bull mix, takes a rest while out on a run with volunteer Amanda Christiansen in Minneapolis on May 4.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Now, the dogs all leave. All the time.

“Every dog gets out every single day. Most of our dogs get four to five walks a day, they get enrichment, they get training,” she said. “We’re really building these dogs up to be forever family members.”

It’s not a simple process. Not every dog is suited for running. Not every volunteer is, either. You can’t just walk in, snap a lead on a dog’s collar and head out. You have to go through a volunteer enrollment process, and a training session that runs several hours, going over procedures and policies at the facility. The shelter now has about 30 volunteer dog runners, and about 250 active volunteers in total.

Christiansen, one of those volunteers, said running with the shelter dogs takes a little getting used to.

“Some of them are pullers. It maybe throws off your pace, and you’re running a little faster than you anticipated,” she said. “But I find that they burn out really quickly in terms of energy. They’re, a lot of times, more sprinters than long-distance runners.”

But animal behavior experts say it’s a worthy effort. Once an afterthought, shelter dogs are getting new attention, with new emphasis on resetting their relationships with people.

A woman smiles as she scratches the hind quarters of a rescue dog
Volunteer dog runner Amanda Christiansen gives some scratches to Jude, a 2-year-old pit bull mix, at the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control Center shelter.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Julie Speyer is an animal behavior expert in Ontario. She’s a former animal control officer and founder of Canine Foundations, a dog behavior consulting business.

“One of the things that it immediately does for our dogs — regular exercise — is it helps stave off issues that we run into with their emotional and mental health,” she said. “Obviously a drastic reduction (in) repetitive behaviors — bouncing off the wall, like weaving in and out. We used to call it kennel crazy.”

Aside from the immediate stress on an animal, such behaviors also make them less likely to be adopted.

“Exercise allows the dogs to present their best selves forward,” Speyer said.

Programs like the running club get the dogs used to a variety of people, Speyer said, and gives people who can't have dogs in their homes or can't afford pets the opportunity to have some furry interaction.

Weissenborn said it took some convincing at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control. She called around to other shelters in the country that tried dog running clubs, and assured coworkers here that the dogs in their care weren’t going to be stolen. Or worse.

A person kneels down to pet a dog
Amanda Christiansen and Jude take a rest while out on a run in Minneapolis. "It’s totally worth it," Christiansen said of volunteering to give shelter dogs a run.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“My thing was like, ‘Are they going to get loose in the community, and then we’re going to have to go find them?’ Never. Never,” she said. “So yeah, it's just the mind shift of, we’ve got to trust our community members, that the people who want to come in here and check out a dog are going to do good things, right? It is a hard thing even for our staff to get behind sometimes. Change is hard.”

But worth it.

Amanda Christiansen, the volunteer, already has two dogs in her life, and running isn’t ... well, it isn’t always her first choice. Dogs like Jude provide a welcome motivation to get going.

“Sometimes you’re dragging your feet on getting out,” she said. “Usually when I’m running, I’m exhausted. I’m sweating. I’m not happy with myself. But when I’m here and I have a dog running next to me, and I realize, like how much I’m doing for them, it’s totally worth it. That’s what brings me here.”

As of Tuesday, Jude was still waiting for her forever home. Shelter officials said she enjoys going jogging, sleeping in bed with her humans, squeaky toys, rolling in the grass and going for car rides. You can find more information about Jude, and other animals available for adoption, on the shelter’s website.

If you’re interested in volunteering as a dog runner or in another way, Minneapolis Animal Care and Control also has more information about the application and training process on its website.