Archived Outdoors

Nose for adventure: New program gets Sarge's shelter dogs hiking

The Sarge’s pack explores the Dahlia Ridge Trail System at Haywood Community College. Lyndsey Tate photo The Sarge’s pack explores the Dahlia Ridge Trail System at Haywood Community College. Lyndsey Tate photo

Monday mornings have a bad reputation, but for dogs at Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Waynesville, they’ve become the best part of the week. Since the Adventure Tails program launched Nov. 1, these mornings have been set aside for hiking — and the dogs are all about it. 

“The dogs that get to go on hikes, I think that in their brains they know that they are special,” said Lyndsey Tate, volunteer coordinator at Sarge’s.

The program hasn’t even been around for two months yet, but already, these hiking adventures have boosted the dogs’ confidence and improved behavior issues.

“They’re just cooped up so much, and it leads to these behavioral issues,” said Nancy East, a retired veterinarian and Sarge’s board member who planted the seed that grew into Adventure Tails. “And then people don’t want to adopt a certain dog because it does have some challenges, potentially, that have stemmed from being in this captive environment — even though they’re loved and cared for just amazingly well.”

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The dogs meander the shoreline of Lake Junaluska. Lyndsey Tate photo

Tate said she first heard the idea for the hiking program from Sarge’s Behavior Coordinator Kevin Mueller, whose previous animal rescue experience was in Asheville, where hiking programs are “ubiquitous.” Around the same time, East was also approaching Sarge’s about the concept, figuring it could be a great way to get outside more while also helping dogs in search of a forever home. Tate also had conversations with volunteers who fantasized about being able to take the dogs exploring off property.

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East said her original vision was on the “pie in the sky” end of things, inspired by the Instagram account @trailsandbears. The account features personality-laden photos of adoptable dogs on outdoor adventures, paired with narrative introductions for each pup.

“To me, what really was compelling about her account is that it kind of fast forwarded to, this is what real life could look like for you and this dog,” East said.

She envisioned a setup at Sarge’s that would allow high school kids to hike the dogs as a form of community service or families to include a Sarge’s dog on their day hike — and maybe even in their home, should they fall in love by the time they return to the trailhead. But those concepts proved too complicated for an initial phase, especially from a liability perspective.  

“That felt kind of like climbing Everest when we needed to start with Cold Mountain,” East said.  

“That would be something we would love to do in the future and love to look into, but we’re still in the nascent period of the program,” Tate agreed. “One day, that would be ideal.”

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Volunteer Ken and his walking partner Star pause for a photo. Lyndsey Tate photo

She thought it would be best to start small, relying on Sarge’s existing volunteer base to launch the program.

“The second that we proposed this,” she said, “we had seven or eight people jump in and say, ‘Can we do it next week?’ and I was like, ‘Maybe not that, but as soon as humanely possible.’”

Sarge’s staff developed and piloted a training program to ensure that volunteers would be able to safely handle the dogs on the trail and shortly thereafter held the first hike, on a property in the Harmon Den area owned by one of the volunteers.

Since then, the dogs have explored a variety of other trails too, including the new Dahlia Ridge Trail System at Haywood Community College and the greenway at Lake Junaluska.

Sarge’s has a process set up to ensure as many dogs as possible are eligible to hike, even those with behavioral issues. Every Monday, volunteers gather at Sarge’s for a short pre-briefing and then unpack the harnesses. Each dog has its own, specially fitted harness, labeled with its name. Sarge’s uses a 2 Hounds Design harness called The Freedom Harness, designed to give handlers easier control of the dogs, which makes the experience safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

“They know those harnesses, and when you pull them out, you can see them go, ‘Ah! I get to go hiking today!’” Tate said.

One by one, volunteers — usually six or seven each week — leash up their dog and load it into their car, keeping the dogs separated to avoid any unpleasant parking lot interactions between canines with behavior issues. Then, everyone caravans to the trailhead, with hikes usually lasting about two hours and covering roughly 4 miles. The dogs stay spaced at least 10 feet apart on the trail, and there’s always one person on the hike with leash-free hands. That person is usually Tate. She goes because she wants to, not because she has to.

“This is a volunteer-led program,” she said. “So staff doesn’t necessarily have to go on any of the hikes, because our volunteers are so well-trained.”

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Hiking helps moderate behavior issues and keep dogs healthy. Lyndsey Tate photo

Already, Tate has seen some real changes in multiple challenging shelter dogs as a result of the program. One of her favorites, a Catahoula leopard dog mix named Gabby, usually comes across as scary and aggressive to strangers and generally dislikes other dogs. But on the trail, she’s all joy and prancy feet.

“It is a really good way for her to be more comfortable just being around dogs, and we’ve gotten her so far as to, every now and then, she can come into a single-dog playgroup,” Tate said. “She doesn’t have a good time. She doesn’t play with the dogs. But we can actually get her in the play yard with another dog now, and she’s comfortable.”

Tate also likes to talk about Loki, a boxer mix who’s loud and intimidating when separated from the world by a kennel wall. But when he’s out on the trail, he’s “soft and wiggly and loving,” said Tate.

“It has given my volunteers and it’s given Loki the opportunity to really show himself as he is, outside of the kennel,” she said.

Initially, Tate wasn’t sure that Rompers, a high-energy pit bull mix, would even be able to go on the hikes. When he gets excited, he gets jumpy and sometimes a bit mouthy. But as it turns out, Rompers is at his best when he’s leading the way on leash.

“His volunteer that usually walks him, his name is Greg, and Greg refers to him as ‘a prince among dogs’ when on hikes,” she said, “because he’s just so comfortable and confident when he is at the front of the pack.”

Even though more than half of Sarge’s dogs have some type of behavior issue, very few of them have to stay behind when the pack goes hiking. Those who do aren’t sitting it out for the reasons most people might assume. Tate gave the “enormous hound” Marky Mark as an example. Spooked by cars, trees, other people and even the gate to his own kennel, Marky Mark doesn’t go on hikes simply because it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for him. Other dogs that stay behind tend to have similar environmental sensitivity issues.

“There are dogs in the shelter that are shy, or they have stranger danger and they’re not really comfortable with new people approaching the kennels that can still thrive on hikes,” Tate said.

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Sarge’s dog Mandy takes a joyful roll Sarge’s dog Mandy takes a joyful roll during an outing. Lyndsey Tate photo

Such adventures are one of the best gifts a shelter dog can get — outside of a family of its own, of course. As it does for humans, time outside helps moderate behavior issues and prevent health conditions like obesity and diabetes, boosting the dog’s chances of living a happy, healthy life.

“Generally speaking,” East said, “most dogs love nothing more than to go outside and explore the world with their nose.” 

Support Adventure Tails

There are two ways to help more Sarge’s dogs benefit from time on the trail — volunteering time and donating money.

• Prospective volunteers ages 18 and up can apply at Currently, Adventure Tails hikes are held on Monday mornings.

• The Adventure Tails program is raising money to pay for equipment such as harnesses, portable water bowls and an emergency dog sling. Sarge’s board member Nancy East is auctioning off a 65-liter backpack donated by Gossamer Gear to help the cause, available for bid at Donations can also be made directly to Sarge’s at

Sarge’s is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday each week and located at 356B Industrial Park Drive in Waynesville. Contact the shelter at 828.246.9050 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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