Do you believe in love at first sight?
I can't say that I ever have. Yet as I strolled through the kennels of McKamey Animal Center, trying to find the right pup to take out for the nonprofit's volunteer dog-walking program, I recalled all the stories I'd heard of pet owners bonding with their forever friends in just one glance.
I was hoping the same would happen for me, but the longer I wandered through the rows of hounds yelping for my attention, the more convinced I became that those stories were mere exaggerations.
But then I met Mahon.
Tucked away in a corner, I almost missed him. Unlike his bouncy neighbors, the marble-coated mutt was still, his head hung low, following me only with sad brown eyes.
The information card on the 8-month-old's cage told me he was energetic and eager to "GO GO GO," but his face — and a staff member — told me a different story. Only weeks before, Mahon had finally been adopted to a great home, but he had just been brought back due to issues getting along with his new owner's cat.
The despair I was seeing was one of an abandoned pup in need of a little love, and though I was unable to give him the forever home he deserves, I could offer him a little lovin' through McKamey's Trail Blazers Club.
The idea for the volunteer program came from an animal shelter in Hawaii, says McKamey Executive Director Jamie McAloon. The Hawaiian shelter charged tourists missing their own pets a fee to "rent" a dog for a day, but McAloon saw more potential within the other shelter's program.
With the help of staff, she designed the Trail Blazers Club, which allows anyone to walk a dog anytime during business hours for free. The reimagined service benefits the dogs far more than their walkers, McAloon says. Dogs taken by volunteers wear bright orange "Adopt Me" vests to gain exposure as they explore the city or show up in pictures on social media. Volunteers also learn a lot about the dogs during the course of the walk, such as whether they know basic commands or are leash trained, and that information can help the staff match each animal with the most suitable family.
Most importantly, the program gives the dogs a chance to get some exercise and release pent-up energy, which makes them calmer and more approachable when potential adopters come by to visit. That time outside the cage has gotten even some of the most excitable dogs adopted by making them more approachable, McAloon says, though I was finding the exact opposite to be true with Mahon.
From the moment I got Mahon to DuPont Park, renewed energy filled his veins, and since I had not walked a dog since my sister's puppy, aptly named Houdini, wiggled out of his collar to cause mayhem almost a decade ago, I was wholly unprepared for what came next.
The newly transformed Mahon sprinted from person to person, tree to tree, tugging me along for the ride, and I quickly began to wish I had researched leash-handling before giving dog-walking another go. I yanked and pulled on the rope in a desperate attempt to maintain some semblance of control (which an internet search later told me is what you shouldn't do), but Mahon's thirst for adventure was far greater than my desire to keep my shoulder in its socket.
Somewhere in the midst of our game of tug-o-war, I remembered that the Trail Blazers program is all about exercise. Staff members at McKamey take the dogs out whenever they can, but even one extra romp is a rare treat for a caged dog. Mahon needed this. So, much to his (and my own) surprise, I shot out in front of him, challenging him to race. He quickly accepted. Soon, we were zipping around the park without a care in the world, me laughing aloud at my obvious lack of cardio strength and Mahon galloping gleefully at my heels.
Eventually, we collapsed into the grass, exhausted by the workout. I rewarded the noticeably calmer mutt with one of the treats the staff had provided, and he tackled me onto my back and licked my chin, my reward for not passing out.
As I lay there, scratching Mahon's neck and the space behind his ears, I couldn't help but marvel at how much his disposition had changed over the course of an hour. The pup's once-sad eyes had now found their light, and with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, Mahon almost seemed to smile.
Within seconds, he had me skidding through the dirt, rolling to regain balance and stumbling back onto my feet, laughing as we scampered off for one last adventure. He was still wearing a satisfied grin an hour later when we said our goodbyes through the door of his cage.
And so was I. I had clearly needed to get my blood pumping just as much as Mahon did, but more importantly, knowing I had made a difference in his day left me feeling warm and full inside. Even as I left, I made promises to return and brighten the day for another hound waiting for a home.