Pets & Animals

High school track team runs with shelter dogs — and everybody's winning

Five mornings a week, shelter dogs go out running with a Florida high school track team.

They spend about an hour together each day, running a couple of miles, resting in the shade, then "sprinting after squirrels," Bob Ennis, track coach at Steinbrenner High School outside Tampa, told TODAY.

Courtesy of George Steinbrenner High School's boy's cross country team
Coach Bob Ennis says his runners have gotten very attached to the dogs, and consider it part of their mission to help them find homes.

Ennis was pitched the idea by one of his runner's mothers, who'd read about a similar program in California. As someone who values community engagement, Ennis was happy to pursue it.

He reached out to the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, which also works closely with different groups, including photographers who volunteer to take adoption pictures, and those involved with "yappy hour" fundraisers at area establishments.

"If you have a talent, there is a chance your local shelter can come up with a way to use it to help the animals," said Glen Hatchell, a dog trainer who works at the Humane Society.

So the shelter, too, gave an enthusiastic yes. Hatchell held a class for the runners, and coordinated logistics with the coach. Then the Boss Cross — as this team is known — started taking a couple of shelter dogs along on their morning workouts starting earlier this month.

"We wake up and look forward to it each day," Ennis said. "It's a great way to start the day."

Courtesy of George Steinbrenner High School's boy's cross country team
The track team, and dogs, get their workout at Al Lopez Park in Tampa, Florida.

Not only is the program a whole lot of fun for the kids, the dogs are getting a lot out of it, too.

The puppers eat up the love and attention, plus they enjoy the exercise. Another boon: breaks from the shelter — like going out for day trips, hikes, Puppuccino trips or more athletic runs like these — help keep dogs happier and calm even once they return.

Perhaps best of all, the dogs meet all kinds of new people — some of whom may fall hopelessly in love. That's what happened with the very first dog who joined the Boss Cross on their morning runs.

Courtesy of George Steinbrenner High School's boy's cross country team
The Boss Cross set their hearts on finding a home for their canine running partner Jasper.

Jasper had been in the shelter since April. Despite being a friendly, playful dog, no one had yet chosen to take him home.

That changed once he began joining the runners. He was crazy about them, getting excited "like a kid at Christmas" every morning when they came to get him, Ennis said. The team quickly came to adore Jasper, too — and began talking him up to everyone they knew.

"He was the best dog," said Ennis.

Courtesy of George Steinbrenner High School's boy's cross country team
Jasper is just one of the Boss Cross' adoption successes.

Two of the track team's graduated captains, who'd joined their former group for some practice runs over the summer, agreed. They have now officially adopted Jasper.

"Jasper will be going to college at the University of Florida this fall," said Hatchell. "He will be able to continue his daily runs."

This program will end when school starts up. But Ennis is already planning to do it again next summer. He's hoping to enlist some other Tampa Bay track teams as well. He's picturing more runners, more dogs and more adoptions.

Until then Ennis just has to make sure to find homes for the rest of the dogs he's grown so fond of — especially Red, who's been a morning regular.

"I've got three dogs of my own," Ennis said, sounding dogged and determined. "And my wife is tired of hearing about Red."

He's sure she'll make the perfect companion once she's adopted. Red does great on the runs, and not just that; Ennis also calls her "the cutest little dog in the world."

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