A new program at Arizona Animal Welfare League (AAWL) and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is encouraging participants to do something good for themselves as well as for dogs in the shelter.

Cardiac Friends pairs people recovering from heart surgery with a dog in the shelter to walk. The cardiac patient gets recommended exercise and the dog gets some human interaction.

The program originally started at a shelter in Wisconsin. A local trainer of therapy dogs thought that patients at the cardiac center of the local hospital could walk dogs from the shelter as a way to rehabilitate themselves. She got the hospital and the shelter together and started a program.

The shelter prescreened its dogs to see which ones were easy to take on a walk, that wouldn't pull or be too rambunctious. They marked those kennels with a Cardiac Friends tag. Four men who had just gotten over heart surgery were the first to try the program. They walked the dogs that had been selected for the program as a way to get their daily exercise.

Eventually, as the men came each day to walk the dogs they got stronger and decided on their own to choose more difficult dogs to walk. They formed bonds not only with the dogs at the shelter but also with each other.

"They felt really great about themselves because they had this support group and they knew they were doing something good," said Cynthia Laymon, an AAWL volunteer and Ahwatukee Foothills resident who researched the program in Wisconsin to help bring it to Phoenix.

Laymon became a volunteer for AAWL and SPCA a year-and-a-half ago. She has a disability but she was looking for a way to get out of the house more and do something good for the community. When she chose AAWL she decided she really wanted to walk the dogs, but she wasn't sure how she could while walking with a cane. She spoke to the head of volunteers and they decided Laymon would take the dogs to one of the four play yards at the shelter to let them get some exercise. Now, after a year-and-a-half, she is training other volunteers on how to walk the dogs.

"The first time I went I thought oh, what have I gotten myself into, I think I'm in over my head," Laymon said. "I said I would come every Monday from 1 to 5 and walk the dogs and that amount of time was a little overwhelming for me. But I kept going and as I did I got stronger and stronger, both physically and mentally. Now I can go and walk the dogs for that time and help out and be in the yard with them. I can do a two-hour training session with another volunteer. It was a really good thing for me."

Laymon's experience made the Cardiac Friends Program seem like a great idea. She was looking for more ways to get involved and after seeing it in a magazine, AAWL was interested in getting it started.

AAWL and SPCA partnered with Banner Desert Medical Center's Heart Health Program. Cardiac Friends is offered as another way of getting recommended exercise besides working out at home or in a gym.

"For a lot of patients it's scary to return to normal activities after a surgery," Laymon said. "It's very important that they start doing those things again to start living their lives again. A heart patient will be able to take the dogs out on the canal trail, which is something I can't do, but being there, being with the dogs, playing with them, training them is so much more mentally stimulating than being at home by yourself or walking on a treadmill by yourself."

Cardiac Friends is not only available to cardiac patients. Anyone can volunteer to be a part of the program. It is just another way to volunteer for AAWL through its volunteer program.

Cardiac Friends was kicked off on April 27, 2011 so it's still new. AAWL is hoping the program will grow and be able to benefit more people, as well as the animals in the shelter. For Laymon, it's a program she really believes in.

"I'm so excited about it," she said. "I feel very invested in it because I did all the research and everything but also because I'm a person who came to the shelter with a disability. I learned how to overcome some of that."

For more information on the program or to become a volunteer for AAWL and SPCA, visit aawl.org or call (602) 273-6852.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or ahurtado@ahwatukee.com

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