Happy tails

On a cool August morning in 2012, Makawao resident Dustin Metzler was going for an early run – one of many, as he prepared for the Maui Marathon – when he started thinking about dogs.

“I’d often run by homes with dogs locked up in their backyard or kennel,” he said. “I’d say to myself, ‘I bet that dog would love to come along for a run with me.’ “

Two years later, Metzler has turned that moment of inspiration into a thriving business. He calls his service “Pooch Fit.”

“Just like you would hire a personal trainer to come to your home, I do just that, but for your dog,” he said. “We leave from your home and go out on a 30-minute run. The runs are at a jogging pace, and the majority of sessions are with two dogs at a time.”

Metzler also makes sure his four-legged running buddies take breaks to drink water, play and sniff during the outing.

Within eight months of that first run, Metzler was able to leave his former job in the restaurant industry and devote himself to Pooch Fit full time. He now works with more than 35 dogs and runs an average of 12 to 13 miles per day.

It may have started with a great idea, but it took plenty of sweat to get Pooch Fit up and running, he said.

“I made a decision that I would give this my best effort,” he said. ” ‘Trying’ wouldn’t have gotten Pooch Fit anywhere. I committed myself to it, and knew that with enough desire and discipline, the business would work.”

Metzler, who has always loved dogs but isn’t able to have pets at his current residence, said that he loves having a job that allows him to get paid for running and spending time with dogs.

“I most enjoy seeing firsthand how much this time means to my running partners,” he said, adding that running together allows him to connect with the dogs “on their level.”

“It has been really fun to see their genuine happiness and contentment before, during and after a run.”

He’s seen several of the dogs lose weight and become healthier, while others who were formerly shy have become more outgoing, sociable and comfortable.

But the experience hasn’t just been transformative for the dogs.

About eight years ago, Metzler was going through a difficult time in his life. He was diagnosed with depression, unhappy at work, going through the breakup of a marriage and deeply in debt.

“I was always restless and not quite sure what to do with my life,” he said. “I had no goals or aspirations. ‘Being in a rut’ was an understatement. I was 40 pounds heavier, and running wasn’t in the conversation.”

Running helped him find a new path, he said, and seeing Pooch Fit grow from a concept to a successful business within 18 months has been “deeply satisfying.”

“I’m grateful each day I wake up,” he said. “What it came down to was deciding if I was going to remain beaten and stay in my declining comfort zone, or intentionally make a change and go for something that I truly believed would be a great situation.”

As he grew his passion into a business, Metzler says having the support of his wife, Stephanie, made it possible. He also gives credit to friend Lisa Giesick, a professional dog trainer on Maui who helped with support and advice. “She was the catalyst that helped the business get off the ground,” he said.

As far as Metzler knows, there are no other dog-running services in Hawaii, but he has connected with a few similar business owners on the Mainland. Future goals include bringing on an employee or employees to help expand the service around Maui and possibly to other areas in the state.

For dog owners who are thinking of starting their own running routine, Metzler says to start with easy, attainable goals.

“If you’re not already doing it, try to make it a habit to walk your dog daily,” he said. “Start with 20 minutes, and take it from there. If you want to quicken the pace and begin jogging, take it slow.”

Owners should also be aware of their dog’s limits – a sedentary dog will need time to improve his fitness and stamina, just like a human would – and check with a vet, especially for puppies, older dogs, or short-faced breeds, which might have special limitations.

But he says if done successfully, running with dogs can be fun and rewarding.

“Running at its core is a very simple and primal activity,”

he said. “Having the ability to enjoy it with so many friends has been an awesome experience.”

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.