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  1. Life & Culture

We gave a shelter dog a Doggy Day Out. You can too.

Nya scarfed an entire peanut butter and bacon flavored doggy ice cream in the time it took to glance at a text on my phone.

After that, she was back on her feet manically sniffing every inch of our corner of Hawthorne Bottle Shoppe. I wondered if it might be the day Nya found a forever home.

The beer and wine bar on Central Avenue is one of a dozen local spots Friends of Strays recommends taking a shelter pooch for a Doggy Day Out, a new program allowing volunteers to "borrow" a dog for a field trip lasting a few hours to a full day.

Nya, an incredibly sweet basenji mix, came to the St. Petersburg shelter from an overcrowded one in Georgia. She's got a little wiggle in her hindquarters from a dislocated hip — she may have been hit by a car — but it didn't slow her down at all once she got outside.

Still, like any dog, she's susceptible to the stress that comes from the shelter environment, especially in dogs who stay long-term.

Doggy Day Out aims to help by giving dogs some fresh air, sunshine and, most importantly, some stimulation.

"The longer they're here, the more they can mentally deteriorate," Friends of Strays spokeswoman Holly Clare said. "We've really seen that (after Doggy Day Out) they come back calmer, happier and more relaxed, and that means they show better in the shelter."

The Friends of Strays team got the idea after seeing a study supported by Maddie's Fund that monitored the wellbeing of dogs participating in a similar "field trip" program in Kentucky. That study reported a dramatic decrease in dogs acting out stress behaviors there.

Friends of Strays is the first Tampa Bay shelter to offer such a program, but hopes its success will encourage others to try it. Since launching Doggy Day Out, they've occasionally had to turn volunteers away because there aren't as many dogs as willing people.

It's a low-commitment way to get involved, especially for people who want to be around dogs, but can't have one at home. There's now an online database of shelters across the U.S. that have Doggy Day Out programs.

"People look at that map, and they do it while they're on vacation," Clare said.

I went to Friends of Strays on a Friday morning and signed a waiver. In return I was handed a folder with a list of recommended activities, plus instructions on what to do if something goes awry. ("If your dog gets loose ... please try not to panic.")

Nya came with a tote that included poop bags and a collapsible water bowl. The ultimate goal, of course, is to find a forever home for dogs like her, so she wore a scarf and a leash printed with the words "adopt me."

Volunteers also get a stack of Friends of Strays business cards with their borrowed dog's name on them, plus a book of coupons for Doggy Day Out sponsors like O'Maddy's Bar & Grill and Pinellas Ale Works.

Nya stuck her head out of the window and panted as we drove toward Vinoy Park, where she flopped into a big pile of leaves, laid in a muddy puddle and lunged toward lizards in a bush outside the Museum of Fine Arts.

She got throngs of pets, mostly from a group of kids who were supposed to be picking up trash in the park, but who found Nya's perky ears an irresistible excuse for procrastinating on that front.

At St. Petersbark, Nya got a pig ear that she devoured slightly slower than the ice cream. Waiting in line at Bodega, employees streamed out of the kitchen to take photos of Nya and tell her how cute she was.

Long before the day was over, all of the business cards with Nya's name on them were gone. Friends of Strays says that, so far, nearly every dog that has had a Doggy Day Out has been adopted, either by the volunteers or by someone who saw the dog out that day.

Hopefully it's true for her, too.

She seemed content as we drove back to Friends of Strays, and finally tired enough to curl up on the seat and nap.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com or follow @SpataTimes.

Take a dog out

Those interested in volunteering for the Doggy Day Out program should visit friendsofstrays.com/doggydayout.

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