A man sitting on a bench with a dog
A New Jersey shelter lets visitors (including reporter Bill Duhart, pictured) take shelter dogs on short-term outings. Photo by Tim Hawk/NJ Advance Media

Cassandra, a 4-year-old pit bull-type and former stray with perfect leash manners, had been at the Camden County Animal Shelter in New Jersey for several months when her popularity suddenly soared. Thanks to a new shelter program, people began clamoring to take her out on the town. She was going on as many as four outings a day and returned from each one visibly more relaxed.

“She was less stressed—she just wanted to sleep and definitely showed better in her kennel,” recalls Sara Sharp, the shelter’s lifesaving programs coordinator, adding that the dog’s laid-back, snuggly personality started to reveal itself.

The program, known as Rent-A-Dog, launched in April and allows short-term “rentals” of available pooches. It’s essentially a very short-term foster program designed to enrich the lives of shelter pets by giving them a change of scenery while also enriching the lives of people who may not be able to own or even foster a dog.

As Cassandra’s experience shows, such field trips can improve dogs’ sociability and let their true personalities shine through. “People will come back and say, ‘We took him to get a Puppuccino at Starbucks’ or, ‘We got him dog-friendly ice cream,’” Sharp says. Others report, “He really liked lying in the water when we went hiking” or “He was great in the car”—all good details for adoption dossiers.

Cassandra even found her forever home when Elizia Trujillo from Sicklerville, New Jersey, “rented” her and fell in love.

“I wasn’t planning on adopting, but when I brought her home I just noticed how good she was—she was so well-trained and housebroken,” says Trujillo, who has since renamed the dog Athena. On their first outing, Trujillo took Athena to her house for the day. After a walk in the woods, the pair “just hung out,” then took a nap. When Trujillo woke up, it was time to return her friend. But by the time they were back at the shelter, Trujillo’s mind was made up. “You know what?” she told a staffer. “I want to keep this dog.”

“You know what? I want to keep this dog.”

—Elizia Trujillo

Mike Bricker, the shelter’s former operations director (now with Best Friends Animal Society), worked with colleagues to launch the program after attending the American Pets Alive conference in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. The day after announcing the program on Facebook, the shelter was slammed with potential “renters.”

“It was crazy—we had thousands of shares within a couple hours, our phones were ringing off the hook and my email was blowing up,” Sharp says. (In hindsight, she says it probably would have been better to do a soft launch of the program on the shelter’s website before announcing it on social media.)

A shelter supervisor takes a dog to meet a renter
Then-director of shelter operations Mike Bricker helps Duhart and Cassandra get acquainted. Photo by Tim Hawk/NJ Advance Media

Now a staple program at the shelter, there are typically five or six dogs available for rent at any given time, and two or three go out each day. About 40 dogs took part in the program in the first few months. Two other dogs, Topanga and Annie, were adopted by “renters,” and the majority of other dogs in the program have also found homes.

Dogs selected for the program are generally medium to high energy, dog tolerant, people-friendly and good walkers. Each wears a collar with a “Rent A Dog” tag, “Adopt Me” harness or vest, and “Adopt Me” leash.

Potential renters at the Camden County shelter must be at least 18, have a valid driver’s license and complete a questionnaire that asks about their experience with dogs. They sign a foster care agreement and volunteer waiver, provide an emergency contact and go through a dog-handling session with staff members or a volunteer. Training covers leash handling and the importance of picking up the pup’s waste and avoiding other dogs.

Renters skew toward college students and other young adults who often can’t have animals because of living arrangements, but some older couples have rented because owning a dog doesn’t fit their lifestyle. Others are considering adopting but aren’t sure what type of dog they want.

After recommending an outing of one to three hours and asking when renters plan to return, shelter staffers give renters the shelter’s emergency number and direct them to watch for issues such as diarrhea, limping or ticks. After the dog leaves for his adventure, shelter staffers place a “Road Trip” sign on his kennel.

Renters also receive a list of recommended destinations, including pet-friendly stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, a local ice cream shop that serves dog-friendly ice cream and a half-dozen parks and preserves.

Dozens of media outlets, including the Philadelphia-based news site PhillyVoice and many regional television and radio stations, have covered the program: “We rented a shelter dog this week and it was exactly how you’d think. (Amazing!)” read one headline on a story by Bill Duhart, a journalist with NJ.com who spent a day with Cassandra.

Shelter director Vicki Rowland says she’s elated with the public’s response and the continuous media coverage: “I don’t think, personally, we were really prepared for the reaction. It has just kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Camden County is now considering a longer, two-week rental program modeled after a summer camp. Meanwhile, all the publicity is helping bolster awareness and draw in more people. “Shelters sometimes can get a bad connotation as not always being a happy place to go or [not being] progressive,” Sharp says, “and we think this program is helping change that.”

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