Tongues licked, smacked and swirled Saturday at Akron's Hardesty Park as dogs raced to be the first to clear smears of peanut butter from clear panes of glass.

The competitions — held every 30 minutes — were part of PlayingDog, a sort of pop-up heaven for dogs and the humans who love them.

Among other things, there was bobbing for tennis balls, a glamour groom, an agility course and a giant pit of balls to play in, the kind often reserved for children in grocery stores.

And, after all that fun, it was time to kick back at StarBarks, serving caffeine-free puppucinnos.

The dog enrichment day was put together by Beverly Dillon, founder of RunningDog, a nonprofit group that has trained hundreds of volunteers to take Greater Akron’s shelter dogs on runs.

Dillon, a runner, doesn’t have a dog, but said she got the idea for the group after she was training for a half-marathon and a friend brought a dog with them on a run.

“It seemed to break the monotony,” Dillon said.

At the time, Dillon said she was working in Giant Eagle corporate management, closing in on turning 50 and seeking a life change.

Dillon suspected she could make a business out of running other people’s dogs, but she didn’t have much experience, so she started volunteering with animal shelters.

“I took their dog-walking orientation … and asked if I could run the dogs instead of walk them,” Dillon said.

Esperanza, a pocket pit bull filled with energy, was one of the first dogs she worked with. Staff at the shelter feared Esperanza was unadoptable.

“Her stress was so high that when you saw her at the shelter, she’d jump so high, you were eye-to-eye,” Dillon said.

Esperanza couldn’t learn commands and staff members had a tough time even walking her.

Dillon started running with Esperanza every other day. After a run, Esperanza — like all dogs — was tired and better able to focus on training.

The runs also seemed to relieve Esperanza’s stress.

Dillon said Esperanza was adopted 30 days after the runs started.

“I can’t take all the credit, but the runs helped,” Dillon said. “My passion for dogs started to grow and my business took a back seat to the volunteers and nonprofit.”

RunningDog volunteers started taking dogs out of One of a Kind Pets in Northwest Akron, sometimes just to jog through nearby neighborhoods, other times for a ride in a car to a park or other favorite running spot.

The program has since expanded to serve Summit County Animal Control, Maggie’s Mission in Medina County and the Stark County Humane Society.

Soon, RunningDog is adding other opportunities, including hiking, so that volunteers who don’t run can still help.

Few of the RunningDog volunteers end up adopting the dogs they work with, she said. Sometimes, it’s because they can’t have a dog where they live or don’t have time to care for their own, so they run with shelter dogs, she said. Other times, it’s because their own dog isn’t a runner.

Dillon said RunningDog, which has been training volunteers for about five years, is developing a program that can be adopted by runners who want to help shelter dogs anywhere in the county.

“It’s a huge dream. Our vision is to change the landscape of how we warehouse homeless dogs,” Dillon said. “Now, through no fault of anyone, it’s just a warehouse. But we’ve seen such a difference in dogs when they experience some regular life outside of a shelter.”

 

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.