Heart of Ida’s volunteers keep older adults’ dogs leashed but unleash lots of love and gratitude

Sophia Loren runs gleefully in circles when she hears her friend Suzanne Castner’s car coming down the street. Sophie, as her friends call her—and everyone’s her friend—is a curious tan Chihuahua who lives with her human and her feline sibling, Jojo, in a small house in Long Beach. Sophie doesn’t get out much because her person, Kathi, has mobility issues. That’s where Castner comes in.

Castner is a volunteer dog walker for Ida’s Walkers, a free program of Heart of Ida, which serves older Long Beach adults of low-to-moderate incomes. Sisters Dina Berg and Keri Reich, who co-founded Heart of Ida, established Ida’s Walkers in 2016 when one of their clients went into the hospital, leaving no one to walk or care for her dogs. The sisters stepped in to help and became the first Ida’s Walkers.

“That client’s still with us,” said Micky Salatino, Heart of Ida’s program director and animal volunteer herself. “We now have about 12 clients, with 16 dogs among them. I just got the 2021 impact report: the volunteers did 321 walks, with 284 hours of dog walking in all.”

Castner is one of two volunteers who walk Sophie, and she’s been on the other end of the leash for nearly three years. The two are as tuned in to each other as friends can be. Castner categorizes dog walks into three different sorts: exercise for the human, a bathroom break for the dog, and a walk for the dog itself. It’s clear which of the walks Castner takes with Sophie.

“You follow the dog,” she said, “and if she wants to stop and smell, you stand there while they stop and smell. Then you move on. We’ve had 40-minute walks that took only five blocks!”

Castner said that Sophie is good on the leash and well-behaved, so it’s natural to allow her to decide which way she wants to go, with an eye to safety.

“She knows the spots where she likes to smell, to mark, to poop—she has her favorite poop spot!” she said.

Sophie’s human, Kathi, discovered Ida’s Walkers after numerous surgeries made it impossible for her to handle the walks.

“When I first started to walk my dog, I ended up in the flowerbed,” she said. “One of my girlfriends gave me a little announcement about the dog walkers, and it’s a godsend!”

@longbeachpost

Ida’s Walkers, part of Heart of Ida, take senior’s dogs out for a lil stroll 🙂 Heart of Ida is a non-profit dedicated to helping senior citizens preserve independence and live life to the fullest #longbeach #doggo

♬ original sound – Long Beach Post

Kathi, as the above video shows, is forever grateful for Ida’s Walkers. Sophie has been her best buddy since her friend found her in Downtown Long Beach running in the streets and Kathi took her in.

“[Sophie] came in the house, jumped into my lap and put her head on my shoulder,” Kathi said.

When Salatino matches volunteers and clients, she makes sure that everything works out. She takes a test walk during that meeting so that the volunteer and dog can get to know each other. She said that the volunteers and the human clients often build friendships, which is true of Kathi and Castner.

Most volunteers go in one day a week. If necessary, Salatino brings in a second or a third volunteer so that the dog can get out several times a week. Family members or caretakers also step in to walk the dogs on the other days.

“This program benefits the giver as well as the receiver,” Salatino said. “If you are looking to volunteer and at the same time get some physical and mental movement and some vitamin D, this is a great program to join. Besides the many benefits volunteering brings to oneself, it serves older adults and their dogs by providing volunteer dog walking and permitting them to keep their beloved pets, which is mutually crucial for their lives and overall well-being. And to see the happy tail wags every time you arrive to walk the dog brings immeasurable joy!”

Photo courtesy of Heart of Ida

Pets are often the best company and solace an older adult may have, especially one who is shut-in. As Kathi said, making it easier for someone to keep their dog or cat is a godsend. If you know someone who needs this service, or if you want to walk a doggie for someone who no longer can, visit Ida’s Walkers website, call 562-570-3548 or email [email protected]. Tails will wag!

You can also visit their Instagram or Facebook make a donation.

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Kate Karp is the Pets Columnist for the Long Beach Post covering the world of animal activism, pet adoptions and lots of cute cats. She’s called Long Beach home since 1994 and has written for the Post for about 10 years. Kate’s day job is as a copyeditor, which she discovered a love for during her 30-year tenure as a teacher. She describes the job as “like taking the rough edges off a beautiful sculpture.”
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