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Hawaiian animal shelter on Kauai lets visitors take dogs on a daytime adventure

After many visits to Kauai, my daughter, her godfather and I decided to add some new adventures this summer to the usual snorkeling, biking, hiking, kayaking and eco-touring.

With Nora's daredevil boyfriend, Emile, at the wheel, we survived a bumpy side-by-side all-terrain vehicle ride over roots and ruts in the back country where scenes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Descendants" were filmed.

We also enjoyed a moderately bumpy spin in a helicopter that took us close to Manawaiopuna Falls, the 360-foot-tall gusher known as "Jurassic Falls" for its picturesque turn in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."

And, to make our trip complete, we got a dog fix, thanks to the Kauai Humane Society, a shelter for domestic animals just west of Lihue.

The program allows residents and tourists to take adoption-ready canines for a day of frolicking at the beach, on a trail or in an arboretum. The dogs must be at least 6 months old, fully vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Shelter staff works with them to make sure they're ready to be good citizens once they're away from the cages and exercise yards. The shelter provides a towel, bottled water, poop bags and a collar, leash and vest with a bright "Adopt Me" sign.

After a slow start in 2012, the program has caught on in a big way. Each month, shelter dogs venture out on a couple of hundred field trips. Since January 2014, 165 dogs have been adopted through the program, said Penny E. Cistaro, the shelter's executive director.

"It gives them exercise and socialization and breaks up the monotony of being in the kennel," Cistaro said.

Although she acknowledged concerns about liability, Cistaro has become a fan. "It's a little scary that we're letting a shelter dog go out with perfect strangers where anything could happen," she said. "[But] the benefits far outweigh any risks."

Following Kauai's lead, the Maui Humane Society began a similar program, Beach Buddies, two days a week. About 170 dogs have participated so far, and a handful of adoptions have resulted, said Jerleen Bryant, the shelter's chief executive.

In July, just days after returning from Kauai, I attended a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, and was intrigued to see an "Adopt Me" vest on a dog in Ketchum. I learned that the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley has for years offered two programs — Paws Around Town and Hikin' Buddies — to give residents and summer visitors a chance to spend time with furry fauna and maybe fall in love. Hundreds of adoptions have resulted, said Jenny Gardenswartz, volunteer coordinator.

Throughout the nation, "shelters are doing remarkable things to increase exposure of pets," said Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for the Humane Society of the United States. The Arizona Animal Welfare League, for example, has a "slumber party" program that lets families welcome dogs into their homes for a few days for a trial visit.

We heard about the Kauai program on the local visitors information channel. None of us was in the market for a new pet. But we were missing the three dogs and the feral feline we had collectively left behind.

Ralph, a 2-year-old, coarse-haired West Highland terrier mix who had recently been neutered, became our companion for the day. He was timid and quiet but turned out to be an intrepid trekker.

With Ralph trotting along on his four little legs, we hiked the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail that skirts the Poipu Bay Golf Course. There we photographed him in front of a tumble-down heiau (a possible ancient religious site made of lava rock). We then toured Old Koloa Town, which opened its first sugar mill in 1835. Shops now fill the old plantation buildings.

At a cafe, a man recognized Ralph and said: "I used to feed him when he lived outside the Foodland."

After several hours, we returned Ralph to the shelter — and instantly started to miss him.

I was relieved to hear from Cistaro that he had found a home with Gary and Susan Bennett and their daughter, Ashleigh, in Granite Bay in Northern California. In late July, Susan and Ashleigh took him for a hike in Waimea Canyon, after which Ashleigh successfully lobbied for adoption.

In August, Ralph, now named Toby, flew to Oakland aboard an Alaska Air cargo plane.

He recently graduated from his training program and is starting to overcome his insecurity.

"He's a happy little camper," Susan said.

The Bennetts keep a scrapbook for him. I'm selfishly hoping they'll include the shot I sent them of Ralph (OK, Toby) by the heiau. And I know they'll include the one they sent me of Toby the graduate wearing mortar board and red tassel — and a lime-green lei with pink flowers purchased at the Kauai Humane Society.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO LIHUE, HAWAII

From LAX, American, Delta and United offer nonstop service to Lihue, and Hawaiian offers connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $574, including taxes and fees

A HELPING HAND

Kauai Humane Society, 3-825 Kaumualii Highway, Puhi; (808) 632-0610, www.kauaihumane.org. Visitors who want to participate in the dog field-trip program must be at least 18 years old and sign a liability waiver.

TO LEARN MORE

Kauai Visitors Bureau, www.kauaidiscovery.com

martha.groves@latimes.com

Twitter: @MarthaGroves

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