Shelter Dogs Vacation with Tourists in Ski Town
One shelter in Aspen, Colo., offers its dogs a chance to get out of their pens and explore the Rocky Mountains. (Photo Courtesy of the Aspen Boarding Kennel and Shelter)
ASPEN, Colo. -- With the cost, time and commitment factors involved with pet ownership, the undertaking certainly isn't for everyone.
But one Aspen, Colo., shelter and boarding facility offers residents and tourists alike a half-way medium, in which they are able to not only walk the shelter dogs, but take them on overnight stays, as well.
The Aspen Boarding Kennel and Shelter's program has been active since the early 1990s, and has even elicited support from 5-star hotels, which allow the shelter dogs to spend the night with visitors.
"Our focus here is about the quality of life for each of the dogs," Seth Sachson, director of the shelter, said. "This is a no-kill shelter and it is important for them that each and every day they have just as good, or a better life, than a dog just living in a home."
Almost all of the shelter's 20-to-30 dog population, depending on the particular day, receive daily walks near or through the Rocky Mountains, says Assistant Director Anne Gurchick.
Yet some of the dogs get extra-lucky, when they are sought out for longer periods of time. Allowing the dogs to leave shelter grounds for days at a time is a potentially dicey move, but Sachson says it's worth it.
"I live in fear of the liability and risks involved with that, but it's a risk I'm willing to take because it enhances the lives of the dogs while they are here," Sachson explained.
"It keeps them socialized, exercised, and it's amazing for public relations. It also leads to adoptions."
Both locals and international tourists have taken note of the program, and business often picks up during the summer months and winter ski season.
"We had people e-mail us from England about a month ago," Gurchick recalled. "They wanted to take a dog out for about two weeks, the whole of their vacation, but we weren't going to let a dog go out for that long, because it might miss an adoption. We said they could take it out for two or three days."
Recently, a dog accompanied a volunteer on a five day road trip to St. Louis, Mo. It helps fill a void for dog lovers, who for various reasons, cannot keep a pet.
"A lot of times people are not able to have pets and miss having dogs, and want them, but can't get them because of work, or their apartment prohibits them from doing so," Gurchick said.
"This program helps provide a lot of people with their doggy fix."
Sarah Orgin, for example, has volunteered with the shelter for one-and-a-half years, following the death of her dog. Devastated by the loss, Orgin says she still is not ready to adopt again.
"I was trying to figure out how not to be so lonely," Orgin explained. "But at the same time, I knew that I wasn't ready to make the emotional commitment to another dog."
Agreeing to stop by the shelter several times a week though, and walk whichever dogs were available, wasn't too much responsibility for Orgin. She says she likes the flexibility the program offers, and the number of dogs she is able to work with.
"It's just really great," she said. "You get to know them and you see how much of a difference just getting out there can make for these dogs."
While walkers receive some companionship, the dogs, in return, gain social skills, granting them a better shot at adoption.
Sachson mentioned a time when a couple took a dog for a walk and met another couple, who admired the mutt. The dog walkers explained that the pet was up for adoption, and a match was soon made.
"It happens all the time," Gurchick said.
This program would only be possible in Aspen, Colo., Sachson maintains, describing the tourist town as a "dog paradise."
"It's a small town and the media is very dog friendly," Sachson said. "Banks give out biscuits, there are water bowls outside shops. The mailman carries dog biscuits, as well, and there is even a mailman who does his route with his dog.
"I couldn't imagine having this program in any other city I am familiar with."
The Aspen shelter is unique, in that it serves as the city's public shelter, and has an open admittance policy, but it is also privatized. That allows Sachson to take the risk of granting the shelter dogs an unprecedented level of freedom.
Only once, he says, in the early 1990s, did the program actually present any potential liabilities. A woman walking a shelter dog let it off the leash, and it wound up biting another dog.
"I took responsibility and paid the vet bills, and apologizes," Sachson said. "She [the injured dog's owner] ended up becoming one of our board members."
Now, volunteers are required to keep dogs on their leashes. Gurchick said the shelter trusts its volunteers, and that many of them are regulars, and have been coming to the shelter for years.
"We talk to them, screen them, make sure that they can handle the dogs we will pair them with," she said.
Some pets need more hep than others -- for instance, the shelter often takes in retired sled dogs, which have largely lived lives as working animals, and not as pets.
One of Orgin's favored shelter pets used to compete in sled racing, she says. They require more attention, but the work is worth it in the end, she says.
"They end up at the shelter and it can be hard to adopt them out," Orgin explained. "You need to spend more time with them and it can take longer to find those dogs homes, but it is especially rewarding to walk those."
"You see the progress they make, where they didn't even know what a treat was, and have never been out for a walk in their lives, and it's just great to see them acting like normal dogs."
Orgin says that she is constantly tempted to take one of the dogs home with her permanently, but thinks that volunteering helps these animals more than adopting one of them would.
Orgin, who works full time, drops by the shelter several times a week, walking different dogs for around one hour.
"I feel like by walking them a few times a week, it can make more of a difference, because if I adopt one, it'll just be giving one animal, out of how many, a home," she explained.
"So, one day I'll be ready again to get my own dog, but for right now, I think I'm doing the most good staying here."
Amy Lieberman is a staff reporter for Zootoo Pet News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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