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Kelsey Blanks and Graham

Kelsey Blanks and Graham (photo by Jay Clark)

Service-Learning Unleashed

ECU Partners with Pitt County Animal Shelter

March 17, 2014

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

A new class at East Carolina University is ensuring both people and dogs are getting the benefits of exercise.

The multidisciplinary service-learning course debuted this spring and is designed to expose students to fitness walking with companion animals. It is expected to be held again this summer and fall, said Dr. Melanie Sartore-Baldwin, faculty adviser who leads the course with instructor Tyler Hall, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology's physical activity promotion concentration.

Service-learning is a way of teaching and learning where students earn relevant volunteer experience at a local community-based organization or complete a project on behalf of a non-profit or community group.

The fitness walking class meets at the Pitt County Animal Shelter on Mondays and Wednesdays, rain or shine, to walk dogs up for adoption. Students walk from the shelter to the Pitt County Farmers Market and across County Home Road to the walking path at Alice Keene Park and back.

"Most every day we get every dog out," said Sartore-Baldwin, associate professor of kinesiology. "Both the humans and animals are smiling after we've walked."

Laura Boetefuer and Gambit

Laura Boetefuer and Gambit (photo by Jay Clark)

The physical and mental benefits that come with exercise and learning to walk on a leash makes the dogs more adoptable, she said. And the students walking the dogs are fulfilling the elective course objectives of developing skills related to walking for physical activity and fitness, interacting and handling companion animals, and examining the 'not-so-fun' aspects associated with companion animals.

Students take two fitness assessments at the beginning and again at the end of the semester. They keep a digital log from each class including the amount of time walked, distance covered and conditions of the day. A presentation is required at the end of the one-hour credit course.

While the class is only 50 minutes, most of the students arrive early and stay late, Sartore-Baldwin said.

Betty, an older dog that is partially blind, was recently surrendered by her owner. On a recent blustery, wet day, Sartore-Baldwin noticed Betty had blood in her stool at a stop along their walk. "We look for health things, too, and let the shelter manager know," she said.

Some of the dogs have never been on a leash, like Braxton, who Hall took on his first walk. Like any puppy, Braxton was more interested in playing and jumping than walking. "I'd take you if I could," Hall told Braxton, about 3-months-old.

The students sometimes learn background on the animals, like Dani, who came in emaciated but has since filled out. There's Rory, a pit bull mix, whose sister Renee was adopted. Since then, Rory craves more one-on-one time. "But she knows how to sit and fetch," said Laura Boetefuer, a junior exercise and physiology major from Pennsylvania. "We try to work on those skills when we have time. Families want dogs that can do things and come well-behaved."

Jessica Honeycutt and King

Jessica Honeycutt and King (photo by Chuck Baldwin)

"Every day I want to adopt one and I have to walk away," Boetefuer said. But that hasn't stopped her from telling friends and bringing them to the shelter to show a dog.

Kelsey Blanks, a senior communications major from Suffolk, Va., has a passion for animals, but had never been to a shelter before the class. Her family had always gotten pets through breeders. "This has definitely opened my eyes," she said. "Get a rescue dog!"

With long-term confinement, some dogs develop behaviors that make them unadoptable and have to be put down. "There are realities that come with the class," Sartore-Baldwin said.

Hall, the instructor, hopes to break down stereotypes associated with breeds like pit bulls, German shepherds and Rottweilers. "We haven't worked with one mean pit bull; we just haven't done it," Hall said.

Kelsey and Laura on the adoption floor

Kelsey and Laura on the adoption floor (photo by Jay Clark)

The class is working well, said Michele Whaley, manager of the shelter. "From our perspective, it's done nothing but help us," she said. The students come two days a week, and a 'playgroup' class comes two days week, so those volunteers ensure the dogs are being walked at least four out of five weekdays.

"The students are ambassadors for us," Whaley said. "We love it and I hope it will continue and grow."

ECU has supported the course by buying shelter-preferred equipment - about 30 collars and 15 double-handled leashes - for the students to use with the dogs. Dr. Stacey Altman, chair of the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance, had the initial idea for the class.

February showed a 62 percent live release rate at the shelter. "We're usually in the 40 to 50 percent rate," said Whaley, adding the increase is a direct correlation to the dogs getting exercise and being more adoptable, through the work of volunteers and partners like ECU and the Humane Society of Pitt County. "The sad thing is we're always going to get more," Whaley said.