Sandy Saffold has always been a self-professed cat person. She helped out for two decades at a cat shelter in metro Atlanta and then began volunteering at Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Atlanta four years ago, cleaning out the cat cages and helping with adoptions.

But then she started thinking about the dogs in the center.

An avid runner, Saffold's route from her home took her past the shelter facility. As she raced past, each time she would feel a little guilty as she thought about all the dogs inside that would love the chance to get outdoors. Although they got to go outside three times a day, those were brief outings. Most of the time, the dogs remained inside their pens.

"I felt so bad that I was just running and I could be running a dog and there were 40 dogs that would love to run with me," Saffold tells MNN.

So on her runs, she began stopping by the center to pick up a dog to take with her. But then she realized if she drove to the shelter, she could do two laps. So she'd drive there and then get two or three dogs out for a run.

"Then I started convincing friends to come with me," she says. "The Doggie Dash was just kind of born."

Although unofficially Saffold has been running with the shelter dogs for a year or two, she organized the Doggie Dash monthly run earlier this year. On the third Saturday of the month, agile-footed volunteers show up after demonstrating their interest via Facebook. Then shelter volunteers figure out which dogs would be the best candidates for a brisk romp around the neighborhood. The loops are 1.5 or 2 miles with runners often doing one or two laps.

Often dogs are chosen for their athletic nature or their ease on a leash. If there are volunteers who want to walk, older dogs also get to go along for a stroll.

'It does wonders for their psyche'

Sandy Saffold with dog pulling leash Dogs don't always have the best leash manners when they first start running. (Photo: Christie Lynn)

The payoffs are great for everyone involved, says Saffold, who has often been stopped on her runs by people who notice the bright orange "adopt me" vests the dogs wear and want to know more.

"It's great awareness and exposure, so I always talk to people on the trail," she says.

And the dogs are just so happy when they return back to the center.

"You get them out for a day and they're just not as jumpy in their pen. It does wonders for their psyche," Saffold says. "You see a lot of dogs get adopted the same day you got them out, which is always a big win."

Brantlee Vickers, Atlanta Best Friends volunteer coordinator, agrees.

"Dogs getting exercise is so important for their physical and mental health. After going on long runs with the volunteers, the dogs are more relaxed, quiet and happy," Vickers tells MNN. "Going on runs also help our dogs with leash training. This gives them a better appearance in the center and therefore increases their chances of adoption."

On Doggie Dash weekends, usually about 10 to 15 volunteers show up to run or walk with shelter dogs. They average about 50 miles a weekend total.

But runners are welcome to visit any weekend to take out a dog. Volunteers have been averaging about 20 miles a week on their unofficial runs.

Because a lot of the dogs end up in the shelter because they aren't trained and have been handled very little, they aren't always a dream on the leash.

"In the beginning, they can be terrible. I tell people, go get your training runs out and then come here for your fun runs," Saffold says. "This is the dog's time. You need to stop and let them smell the roses."

Saffold remembers a dog named Penelope who was "so jumpy and so crazy" when they first started going out on runs. "But by the time she got adopted, she was the perfect little dog. It really does change them when they get out and get off campus and have that experience."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

How one runner turned a nagging guilt into an ego boost for shelter dogs
A volunteer started a running program for shelter dogs to help burn off energy and make the dogs happier.