ST. CLOUD — When Penelope was brought to an animal shelter here in mid-August, she was — like most stray dogs — a bit of a mystery.

The high-energy pitbull mix was friendly and eager to get ear scratches and pats from humans. But on a leash or inside her kennel at the Tri-County Humane Society, that energy could seem chaotic or, worse, uncontrollable.

Eight 11-year-olds from the neighboring city of Sauk Rapids knew just what shelter dogs like Penelope need to put their best muzzle forward while they wait for their forever homes: a play area. So the girls took it upon themselves to build a new space, using money from Girl Scout cookie sales and help from a few local landscaping and construction companies.

"This is something we've wanted for years," said Laura Lund, operations manager at the shelter. "The dogs look better in their kennels. They come out here and get rid of some of that energy and they are more calm. And they're just happier."

The eight girls, all members of Troop 636, celebrated the opening of the play area Aug. 30 with a small dedication ceremony. Meanwhile, Penelope christened the space by peeing on the new gravel, running over an agility ramp, and repeatedly volleying a tether ball high into the air with her snout.

"They decided they wanted to help homeless animals," said Kari Boehmer, who has been the girls' troop leader for five years. "It took these eight determined ladies, plus all of their families, friends and many, many community members to make this happen."

The project earned the kids a Girl Scouts Bronze Award, which is the highest award a junior Girl Scout can earn. For the project, the girls had to contribute at least 20 hours individually and create a sustainable solution in their community.

A $2,500 start

The girls used $2,500 from their savings to get started. The shelter had spare fencing but the land needed to be cleared and leveled, and materials such as pea gravel and equipment needed to be purchased and installed.

That's where a handful of "troop grandpas" and other community members contributed, Boehmer said.

"It's hard to say 'no' to kids who are trying to help animals," she said.

The girls also installed an outdoor patio area for shelter workers. The girls painted a few of the pavers to commemorate the project.

Scout Ella Boehmer said decorating the pavers was fun. But she is most proud of the teamwork exhibited by a crew of volunteers who were able to clear the shrubby forest in a few hours and build an agility ramp in one day — even though it rained.

"And knowing I'm helping a lot of animals," she said.

Vicki Davis, executive director of the shelter, joined the organization in 1984 when the nonprofit worked out of a former gas station. In those days, she said, the dog play area was a junkyard behind the building. The nonprofit opened a new shelter in 1989, but quickly outgrew the space.

Two years ago, the organization built a new, larger shelter. Davis wanted to build a play yard as part of the project but scrapped plans for the proposed area in front of the building when architects told her the space needed to be used as a holding pond. So the play area got added to a future wish list.

Shelter ideology has shifted over the years, Davis said. Previously, many people believed the dogs should stay in their own kennels and not share common spaces to prevent the spread of infections. But now many agencies promote letting dogs enjoy play spaces because it is so important to their well-being.

"The benefits far outweigh the risks," Davis said.

During the past few months, the shelter has been adopting out more than 100 animals each week. Davis said she sometimes can't believe they haven't run out of people who are able to adopt more animals.

But it helps when possible adopters can see the dogs or cats in their element. Ella Boehmer is proof of that: "I really want to bring Penelope home."