When we pick him up at the worn-down animal shelter on New York Avenue, Northeast, Popeye is yanking on his leash, panting, and frantically jumping around. But 15 minutes later, the black-and-white pit-bull mix is behaving like a different dog—tail up and head down as he noses the ground, white paws scurrying across patches of grass while taking in all the sights and smells that animals like him often miss out on.
Which is exactly the point. Popeye is one of more than 40 dogs participating in the Humane Rescue Alliance’s new Happy Hour foster program. Launched in February, it allows volunteers to take dogs out of the group’s two shelters for a couple of hours at a time instead of requiring fosters to welcome animals into their homes for days, weeks, or months. The idea is that even short outings can make a big difference. Once volunteers are trained to foster, they can stop by, pick a dog from a preapproved list, hang out with the animal for a while, then bring the dog back.
Event planner Peggy Cusack is at the other end of Popeye’s leash. The 49-year-old has volunteered at the Humane Rescue Alliance for about two years. She took Popeye out for the first time a couple of weeks ago for a day of napping, new toys, and a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Even though it was just for a few hours, she says the difference was visible.
“You see the dog do this stress-relief movement, this body shake, and you’re like, ‘Ah, this is helping,’ ” she says. “They love the people contact. It gives them that one-on-one I have a person.”
The Humane Rescue Alliance—the largest rescue group in Washington—started the program to provide research for a study at Arizona State University funded by another animal-welfare organization, Maddie’s Fund. The goal is to evaluate how getting out of shelters, even for brief periods, affects dogs. The Rescue Alliance was the first shelter to implement the program. Now the participants number 100 shelters nationwide.
“There’s research out there that says the stress hormone dogs experience when they’re in a shelter environment significantly decreases as soon as they leave,” says Jennah Billeter, director of volunteer and foster resources at the Humane Rescue Alliance. Of course, shelter employees give as much one-on-one time as they can, but with so many dogs, it’s hard to provide all the attention needed. The noise and commotion often make it hard for the animals to sleep or relax, too. “The main goal of Happy Hour is really just to give a dog a break,” says Billeter.
It’s also a chance to glean a truer sense of a dog’s personality. During Happy Hours, volunteers can see how animals interact with other humans and how they behave when not surrounded by other anxious dogs. The information is relayed back to shelter staff, who can then tell potential adopters more about the animals.
While the study is ongoing and hasn’t resulted in hard data about the relationship among fostering, adoption rates, and dogs’ well-being, Billeter has her hunches. “Dogs that are shy and scared here are bouncing around and playing with toys and snoozing on a big dog bed,” she says of the off-site jaunts. “[It does] a world of good for their mental health.”
Popeye certainly looks Zenned out as he sits in a pool of sunshine outside an Eastern Market coffee shop, having already enjoyed several treats and a stroll through Lincoln Park. He’s not the only one who’s a little more relaxed. “Some weeks, I’m working 70 hours—there’s always deadlines and stress,” says Cusack, taking a plush toy out of her backpack. “When I have a dog, I’m so in the moment.”
She watches as Popeye attacks the toy. “It’s a break from the real world, and I know it’s helping the dogs.”
Want to be a Happy Hour volunteer? Sign up to be a foster parent—visit humanerescuealliance.org/foster for more information.
This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.