“Mentor Dogs” and Their Role in Adoption

Reading the website descriptions for most of the puppy mill breeder dogs in DVGRR’s rescue program, you’ll likely see under “Interaction with dogs” the statement: “OK, best with a canine mentor dog.” If you aren’t sure what that means, you aren’t alone! “Mentor dog” is actually a term DVGRR began using a few years ago. We aren’t sure if other rescues/shelters use it too, but they may refer to the same concept in a different way. For example, one program uses the term “helper dog” in the same context that we use “mentor dog.”

Think of a mentor dog the way you might think of a big brother or big sister in a human family – a sibling who understands the family dynamics, can share life lessons learned along the way, and serves as a role model for appropriate behavior. (Arguably, some two-legged big brothers or sisters don’t fit this benevolent image, but we’re talking about the ones that do….!)

Faith (on left) is the quintessential mentor dog.  Here, she is welcoming her first puppy mill dog to the family - Buster #16 (07-126). Faith helped Buster make incredible progress until his untimely death in 2012. Soon, however, she was working her special form of magic on Buddy #70, another puppy mill survivor. Read Buddy's story in this post.

Faith (on left) is the quintessential mentor dog. Here, she is welcoming her first puppy mill dog to the family – Buster #16 (07-126). Faith helped Buster make incredible progress until his untimely death in 2012. Soon, however, she was working her special form of magic on Buddy #70 (12-031), another puppy mill survivor. Read Buddy’s story in this post.


For dogs that have not had the benefit of growing up in a typical human household, having a mentor dog accompany them through daily life can be a huge help. These under-socialized, fearful dogs (usually those that have spent years in a puppy mill or hoarding situation) have typically learned how to relate to their fellow canines, but not to those scary humans who now want to touch, pet, or handle them. Thus, having another dog around provides two key elements in the fearful dog’s adjustment to a new home.

First, the presence alone of the other dog(s) provides comfort and a sense of familiarity that helps the fearful dog better negotiate all the unfamiliar, overwhelming aspects of their new environment. Like a child holding onto a parent’s hand on a busy sidewalk, the fearful dog knows they aren’t alone but rather have a buffer against unexpected or frightening experiences. Second, by observing the mentor dog accept (and seek out) attention from humans, casually respond to household sights and sounds, and stay relaxed in new circumstances, the fearful dog (eventually) learns to do the same. As the term implies, the mentor dog thus serves as a teacher, tutor, or trail guide through life for the less confident canine student.

Yes, a fearful dog may ultimately adjust to an adoptive home on his or her own, but the process will be MUCH more successful and MUCH less stressful for all involved by having a mentor dog present. At DVGRR, we’ve seen firsthand the incredible (and often very dramatic) benefits of mentor dogs over the years; that is why we implemented the mentor dog requirement for any fearful dogs adopted through our rescue. It is our goal to maximize the chances of success for any adoption, and mentor dogs can truly make or break that success for puppy mill survivors or other fearful dogs.

Magellan (on right) has also served as a mentor for two puppy mill breeder dogs. She is shown here with her current "student," Hope #4 (12-213).

Magellan (on right) has also served as a mentor for two puppy mill breeder dogs. She is shown here with her current “student,” Hope #4 (12-213). Hope’s happy expression is indicative of how well she’s adapted to her new home — much of that credit belongs to Magellan!

Characteristics of the Mentor Dog

So what makes an ideal mentor dog? Of course, there are many variations and no actual “blueprint” to follow in knowing how well an existing family dog will fulfill this role. However, here are some typical characteristics we look for:

  • Age – young or middle-aged adults often work best as they have a maturity level themselves and generally good “life skills” under their belts. On the other hand, we know of puppies who have served quite successfully as mentor dogs, especially in cases where the original mentor dog passes away and a new “sibling” is desired. While very old dogs should not be ruled out, they are often not interactive enough with the adopted dog to be truly effective, preferring to spend their days napping or resting.
  • Gender – not really relevant; the dog’s personality and behavior is far more important than whether they are male or female!
  • Activity Level – high enough to engage the adopted dog but not so high as to be overwhelming. Some of the very shy breeder dogs do well with a dog that loves to play and can show them the pleasure in doing so – though it may take a while before the adopted dog catches on! Others may do best with a “quiet leader,” a dog that isn’t so much of a playmate as a side-by-side companion. We try to assess each dog’s preference while they are here with us at DVGRR, so we can match them with an appropriate mentor dog at the time of adoption.
  • Personality – this is the key element, of course. The ideal mentor dog is one that is outgoing and affable, well socialized to other dogs as well as people (and greatly enjoys interaction with both), experienced with lots of new situations, confident in dealing with change, and generally thought of as relaxed, laid back, and easy-going.

Naturally, many prospective mentor dogs will not fit this ideal to a “T” and that’s fine – it is simply a list of the most desirable traits we look for. The “chemistry” between two or more dogs is not something that can always be accurately predicted, so an unlikely match could turn out to be far more successful than expected!

Watching a mentor dog guide a fearful dog through life is an incredibly beautiful and amazing experience. In fact, we’ve been privileged to watch some formerly “mentored” dogs do so well in their new homes that they become the “mentors” themselves for yet another new addition to the family!

If you have more questions or aren’t sure if your current dog may serve as a good “mentor,” feel free to contact our Adoption Team (adoption@dvgrr.org) for more information.

This photo really captures the deep bond between these two Goldens, both adopted from DVGRR.  On the right is Everett (09-214), a puppy mill survivor.  At the time of his adoption, there was a second dog in the home being fostered by the adopters for a friend. She served as Everett's original mentor, but when she went back to live with her original family he needed a new canine companion. Enter Luke #4 (10-156), a super outgoing youngster who has turned into a fabulous mentor dog. Luke and Everett are now inseparable, as you can see here!

This photo really captures the deep bond between these two Goldens, both adopted from DVGRR. On the right is Everett (09-214), a puppy mill survivor. At the time of his adoption, there was a second dog in the home being fostered by the adopters for a friend. She served as Everett’s original mentor, but when she went back to live with her original family Everett needed a new canine companion. Enter Luke #4 (10-156), a super outgoing youngster who took to his new mentor dog responsibilities with amazing ease and skill. Luke and Everett are now inseparable, as you can see here!

When Magic Happens…

I was walking into Golden Gateway after our last Meet and Greet Day when Adoption Manager Julie Reber motioned me over. “Do you want to see magic in the works?” she asked with a sly smile. I knew she was doing an adoption match for one of our prior adopters, a woman I’d helped to adopt her first DVGRR Golden in 2007.

Julie and I walked down to the grooming room (which often doubles as an adoption room) and I peeked inside. Kathy, the adopter, was sitting in a folding chair, reading a dog record. Sitting at her feet, leaning into Kathy’s side and gazing adoringly up into her face was Dixie, a pretty, blonde four-year-old who was clearly, unequivocally, in love. A sweet but somewhat independent Golden, Dixie had not shown this kind of attentiveness at Gateway before. She and Kathy had only met twenty minutes earlier but there was no doubt this was indeed a “magical” match!

During my years with DVGRR, I’ve witnessed numerous other magical matches. While still a volunteer on the Adoption team, I attended a 2004 Meet and Greet Day when we thought one of the adopters coming would be perfect for a very timid, fearful Golden up for adoption that day.  I knew Amy very well, as she had previously adopted one of my foster dogs, in the pre-Gateway days. She was a gentle, quiet person, ideal for a dog with a timid personality. When Amy arrived, we introduced her privately (and hopefully) to the dog we’d “selected” for her and she politely spent some time getting to know her. Saying she wanted to walk around a bit, she then went outside where the other dogs were “meeting and greeting.”

I’ll always remember the sight that greeted me when I too went outside. There was Amy, kneeling in front of a 6-year-old redhead named Star, holding Star’s outstretched paw in her hand. Dog and woman were transfixed with each other, seeing nothing else around them but each other’s eyes. Amy reluctantly pulled her gaze away when I came over and smiled a bit ruefully at me. “The other dog is nice enough,” she said. “But Star is meant for me.” Indeed she was! Their life together lasted for five years until Star sadly passed away from cancer in 2009. Magic happened that day, even though it was with a different dog than we expected!

I don't have a picture of Amy and Star, but this was a very similar moment shared at a Meet and Greet in 2009. This is five-year-old Sadi meeting her future mom, Denise, for the first time. She and Star actually looked a lot alike, and they were each adored by their human family members.

I don’t have a picture of Amy and Star, but this was a very similar moment shared at a Meet and Greet in 2009. This is five-year-old Sadi meeting her future mom, Denise, for the first time. Sadi and Star actually looked a lot alike, and they were each totally adored by their adoptive families.

I have wonderful memories of other magical matches I participated in during my Adoption Manager years.  Heidi with Baron, Emmett with Susan, Lily with Brandon and Janemarie, Sammie with Kristin and Merrill, Ken with Ziggy, and many others. It’s trite to say, but it’s like something just “clicks,” like the dog looks up and says, “There you are!! I’ve been waiting for you!” Call it magic or whatever you choose…it’s pretty special when it happens.

Now, this is not to say that every successful match has to start with such a magical moment – certainly that is not the case. I’ve always said that adoption matching is part art, part science, and sometimes the “science” part plays much more of the prominent role. By that I mean that all the right factors and qualities are there for dog and family to mesh together, and while there may be a few points of uncertainty, the positives vastly outweigh any potential negatives.  Thus, a match is made, the dog goes home, and the spark is still very much there…it just builds and grows with time rather than going off like a firecracker!

Honestly, with my own five adopted DVGRR dogs, I’ve yet to experience a “magical moment” pre-adoption, though each Golden has brought incredible joy, happiness, and love to my life. Bailey (96-109) and Hobo (99-083) were both foster dogs that ended up staying permanently as adoptees. When I adopted Tyler (01-047), I was so ambivalent about it that I almost tried to bring her back (not one of my prouder moments!!). Morgan (01-063) had been returned from his first adoptive home and was the “office dog” for a while at Gateway so by the time he came home with me in 2007 we were like an old married couple.  And Alli (10-239)….well, I’ve always said that our relationship for the first six months together was best described (by HER) as “I am the princess and you are my lowly servant.” Now, after two-and-a-half years, we are joined at the hip and fiercely bonded, but it sure didn’t start out that way!

"Give me the treat and no one gets hurt," reads the caption on this photo of Alli in my office. Don't mess with my Alli-girl! She pretty much saw me as there to do her bidding at first. Now she's completely connected and bonded to me. (She still orders me around when she feels like it!)

“Give me the treat and no one gets hurt,” reads the caption on this photo of Alli in my office. Don’t mess with my Alli-girl! She pretty much saw me as there to do her bidding when she first came home. Now she’s completely connected and bonded to me, but no “magic” took place until six months down the line!

One More Story…

I want to end this post by writing about Jack (09-091), whose adoption day story always makes me smile. And since Jack is the featured Golden for July on the 2013 DVGRR calendar, it’s fitting that I include his magic moment too.

Jack (named Holden at the time) had been highlighted in our Golden Opportunities newsletter because he’d been with us so long – he was an exceptionally anxious young Golden who’d endured many changes in his life and not always handled them well. A couple saw his picture and story in the newsletter and the wife (Ellen) called to get more information.  She had the most soothing, calm, gentle voice and I immediately thought she’d be a good influence on the very nervous Holden. Ellen worked with Alzheimer’s patients and was very used to bringing people down from agitated states, so that gives you an idea of her personality!

From the front page of the Fall 2009 newsletter. Those are my hands cradling Holden/Jack's head (in a rare moment of calm for him at that time).

From the front page of the Fall 2009 newsletter. Those are my hands cradling Holden/Jack’s head (in a rare moment of calm for him at that time).

The couple wanted to meet him at the next Meet and Greet but Ellen wasn’t available that day so her husband Hank came without her. We had agreed that if introductions went well with Hank, Ellen would come on her own the following week to meet Holden and if that too went well, she would take him home.

Well, Holden did fine with Hank although his anxiety was clearly present to a high degree. But, Hank saw that and wasn’t turned off by it, which was certainly a positive sign. So Ellen came out a few days later to meet Holden separately, as planned. That match also went well and he seemed to take to her, although of course he was still showing a lot of anxiety and very “needy” behavior. Nonetheless, Ellen spent a lot of time with Holden and she too was undeterred, feeling that she and Hank could work with him and give him a chance at a good life.

We did the adoption paperwork and got ready to send Holden off. Now, you have to understand he was one of my favorites and I felt very protective towards him because of all he’d been through and how much understanding and patience he needed. I waited with him at Ellen’s car while she made a last minute trip to the restroom inside Gateway before getting on the road. He was standing outside the car on leash and showing super high stress and anxiety. I began seriously second-guessing my decision to approve the adoption and was sure I was making a mistake….I felt I was letting him down and didn’t know what to do.

Then Ellen came walking back across the parking lot. Holden saw her and the transformation in his whole body and demeanor was, yep, “magical.” He visibly relaxed and was clearly so relieved and happy to see her. It was if he were saying, “Oh, thank goodness, you ARE still here!” He looked at me as if to say, “You found this wonderful lady to take care of me and then I thought she went away as quickly as she came….I was so worried!”

If you have a DVGRR calendar, you've been looking at Jack's handsome face all this month. It took a long time for him to find his forever family, but when he did, it was magic!

If you have a DVGRR calendar, you’ve been looking at Jack’s handsome face all this month. It took a long time for him to find his forever family, but when he did, it was magic!

Needless to say, all my doubts and second-guessing went out the window and instead I was never so sure of a match being right as I was at that moment! Jack was very challenging for Ellen and Hank at first but they persevered and they were exactly what he needed. He has settled in wonderfully to their home and now, as Ellen described for the calendar write-up, “He’s a cuddle-bug, a comedian, and our constant, loyal companion.”

“What Would You Do?” – The Rescue Version

I spent the past three-day weekend cleaning out my basement, a long overdue and ultimately unavoidable task. At this point in my life, such an endeavor means frequent breaks to rest my back. So at one point, I thought I’d use the break time to finally watch some of the dog videos I purchased a while back.

I picked up the one called MINE, which I had ordered from www.filmmovement.com last winter. (Oh, so that’s how I got on their mailing list…..!) For some reason, maybe because of the artwork on the cover of the DVD, I thought this was a kids’ video, one I might be able to use with school presentations. I also thought it said “13 min.” on the back…just the right amount of time for a break. OK, sounds good…let’s go with this one.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids -- not so.

The artwork on this DVD cover led me to think MINE was a film aimed at kids — not so.

I pop it in, and soon realize this is not at all for kids. It’s a documentary describing the harrowing experiences of New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, especially those with pets forced to leave them behind. It’s also not “13 min.” long, it’s more like “81 min.” long. (My eyes as well as my back must have been tired.)

Nonetheless, I keep watching. Several NOLA residents are interviewed, talking about how they left a few days’ worth of food and water for their dogs or cats, expecting to be back within that brief time frame to resume care. Other interviews detail the efforts of both professional and grassroots animal lovers to rescue the stranded pets weeks after the storm, when the city was still closed to frantic residents anxious (but unable) to retrieve their canine/feline family members.

Sad stories, sad pictures, sad times. But, I’ve seen these images before and I’m ashamed to admit, I felt a little jaded seeing them again. We all remember the terrible destruction of property, the frustration of people displaced for months or years, the scrawled notes on homes identifying those where animals had been retrieved by rescuers. I couldn’t figure out why this film had been so touted in whatever advertisement had prompted me to buy it.

Midway through, however, the focus shifted subtly but distinctly. The stories of lost pets turned into stories of moral dilemmas. Now I was watching the case studies of several dogs who were saved from Katrina, sent to shelters and rescue groups around the country, successfully adopted by new families, and then….unexpectedly identified by their original owners.

In some cases, the identification followed weeks, months, or years of persistent, determined searching by guilt-ridden owners who felt they had let their animals down (though the film is quite persuasive at showing that they truly had no choice).  One memorable scene showed a woman searching through a makeshift shelter for her elderly mother’s missing black Lab – the crates and cages spread out over a huge parking lot represented some 3,000 displaced Katrina animals. Can you imagine trying to find a black Lab among how many hundreds or thousands of other black Labs?? The daughter is overwhelmed, and understandably so.

Gloria's beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when the Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria's daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy's story has a happy ending. ;-)

Gloria’s beloved black Lab, Murphy Brown, was left behind when Gloria was forced to evacuate her New Orleans home. Gloria’s daughter tried her best to locate Murphy among thousands of displaced dogs. Spoiler: Gloria and Murphy’s story does have a happy ending. ;- )

Now I understood the true impact of this film – the struggle to decide whether a dog should remain with its adoptive family or be returned to the owner who lost it through no fault of his/her own, an owner who clearly sees that “of course, that dog was, and still is…MINE.”

With my longtime history as a dog owner plus my longtime involvement with rescue, I found these stories gut-wrenching and fraught with Solomon-like decision-making. Some of the shelter and rescue personnel are portrayed as having less than desirable patience with people trying to get their pets back, as can be seen at the beginning of this trailer for the film. (In the full film, the conversation goes on much longer, with the rescuer’s voice and words clearly showing her exasperation at trying to explain yet again why she can’t help.) Some owners resorted to legal intervention in their desperate efforts to reclaim their pets…and in some cases, that’s the only way they were successful.

While I cringed at the seeming lack of compassion shown towards Jesse (the man in the trailer) as well as others, I have to admit I could empathize to some degree with the rescuer’s frustration. No doubt she was among the many groups around the country that rallied and worked tirelessly and thanklessly to take in these dogs and find homes for them. Reality and practicality trumped anything else: the sheer numbers of animals precluded the ability to hold them until a former owner from hundreds of miles away “might” show up.

But what happens when that owner DOES show up? How do you reconcile the emotional attachment of the person whose dog was so tragically displaced with the newly formed bonds built between dog and adoptive family? How does a shelter or rescue approach an adoptive family and say, “Sorry, we need to take your dog back now after you’ve grown to love and cherish him?” Some of the adoptive families were portrayed a bit negatively as well, in their unwillingness to consider returning the dog. Still, I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine the anguish they must have felt at this unexpected turn of events.

Complicating the issue are the socioeconomic, racial, and age-related factors underlying the tragedy of these dually-loved pets. Many came originally from economically challenged or elderly owners in New Orleans, people who may not have shared the same dog care standards as the middle-class northern families welcoming these dogs into their posher accommodations.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Known as Max in his original home and Joey in his adoptive home, this engaging dog was caught between two families who both loved him dearly.

Several people interviewed in the film commented that “Katrina was the best thing that happened to these dogs” because it led to “better” lives for them in the long run. Many displaced dogs tested heartworm positive, had lived at least partially outside, and were no doubt unaccustomed to the more pampered lifestyle they serendipitously fell into when adopted.

But, who are we to judge? It was clear to me that every original owner interviewed in the film certainly loved their dogs dearly, whether or not they followed a different pet care protocol than mine or yours. Once they located their missing dogs, was it fair to keep the dog with the new family at least partly because that family had more money, access to better vet care, or a fancier home? On the other hand, should a dog now settled into a successful new placement be uprooted once again and subjected to the stress of re-adjustment to their former life?

My truthful answer: “I don’t know.”  In many of the situations presented, I could honestly see the point of view from both sides and I simply can’t fathom the difficulty of deciding, the untenable action of devastating one person while helping another, the challenge of weighing the pros and cons of each potential outcome for a dog unwittingly caught in the middle.

The filmmaker, Geralyn Pezanoski,  sympathizes unabashedly with those who want their dogs back, and I found myself leaning that way as well.  And yet, how would I feel if one of my adopted dogs were taken away after they had already established a clear, undeniable hold on my heart? (And we all know in most cases that happens around day two or three following their arrival…) How would I feel  as a rescue professional if I had found a wonderful home for a displaced Golden, only to “undo” that happy adoption a short time later, leaving heartbreak and most likely deep anger behind?

At DVGRR, we are very clear that once a dog is surrendered, the owner has relinquished all right to reclaim the dog; the signed intake agreement spells that out very directly. In my nineteen years as a DVGRR volunteer and staff member, I can remember only two or three times when an exception was made and the dog was returned to the original owner – always after much discussion and careful determination of what was in the best interest of all involved.

These cases differed significantly from the ones depicted in MINE, however, because the dogs were still in the custody of DVGRR and had not yet been adopted to a new family. Even more significantly, the surrendering families had made a conscious decision to rehome their dog; the ill-fated owners in MINE had no such intent or plan to do the same.

Moral, legal, ethical dilemmas – MINE  turned out to be a most impactful, engrossing film indeed, one that left me thinking about it and the issues it raised long afterwards. Watch it and I guarantee you will be moved as well.

To learn more, visit  The Film Movement site’s page about MINE.  If you would like to borrow my copy of the DVD, please contact me at donna@dvgrr.org.

Just the Right Number of Cooks – A Rescue Collaboration

Remember the old adage, “Too many cooks spoil the broth?”  Often true, but not always. In the case of a recent transport of eleven Golden Retrievers from Arkansas to Pennsylvania, a lot of “cooks” worked superbly in tandem to whip up one heckuva successful rescue!

Here in Reinholds, PA, home of Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue (DVGRR), our first inkling of the events transpiring over 1,000 miles away in Arkansas came via a phone call from Phyl Simmons, of Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue (MAGRR). We’ve worked collaboratively on many occasions in the past with MAGRR so Phyl is well-acquainted with our rescue and its capabilities.

Her call was in response to a request MAGRR had just received for help with a multi-dog intake on an “asap” basis.  Phyl knew that “asap” part would be difficult for her to achieve using her foster care network and thought DVGRR might be in a better position to jump in given our on-site kennel facility and previous experience with high number intakes.

We were more than glad to help and started the figurative [tennis] ball rolling right away. Our Kennel Manager, Dennis Stauffer, got the contact info from Phyl and immediately called Dorinda Hankins, President of Harley’s Hope, Inc., a small but very determined dog rescue/sanctuary in Harrison, Arkansas. We learned that Dorinda had been working tirelessly alongside folks from Ozark Homeward Bound (another local rescue group) to provide emergency on-site care for thirty-two dogs, five horses, two cats, one pot-bellied pig, and assorted fish – all left to fend for themselves since early February when the family that owned them became embroiled in a domestic dispute and were evicted from the home.  Besides Goldens, the canine breeds represented included Labrador retrievers, Great Pyrenees, German Shepherds, and Beagles.

Starting With the Basics

Dorinda told us the conditions at the home were awful and nearly all of the dogs were very underweight, many with untreated infections and other health issues as well. Water and electric service had been turned off more than six months earlier.  The Arkansas team established three priorities: ensuring the dogs were safe, obtaining legal authority to remove them, and seeking other resources to help place them. (Neither of the small Arkansas groups was equipped to take so many animals at once, much as they would have liked to!)

Our new Arkansas friends sent us this picture showing one of the Goldens at the abandoned home where all the animals were living.

Our new Arkansas friends sent us this picture showing one of the Goldens at the abandoned home where all the animals were living.

Another photo of the Goldens in Arkansas. These pictures broke our hearts and we were so anxious to help.

Another photo of the Goldens in Arkansas. These pictures broke our hearts and we were so anxious to help.

The first priority (ensuring safety) presented some logistical challenges, but the two rescues attacked them head on. For almost two weeks, volunteers drove eighty miles roundtrip every day to bring food and water for the dogs and other animals. “We used over 800 pounds of dog food, taken mostly from Harley’s Hope and Ozark Homeward Bound, which really came close to wiping us out,” Dorinda told us. The groups also arranged for deworming, vaccinations, antibiotics, and other medical care to be administered where needed.

Working in conjunction with Boone County Sheriff Mike Moore, the two rescues successfully received legal possession of the animals on February 11, 2013. Big relief all around, but no time to rest or celebrate – the search for places to take the animals was well underway and needed to be finalized pronto!

Communication, Cooperation, and a Little Comic Relief

Dorinda acknowledges she initially thought that moving thirty-two dogs to various rescues in a short period of time would be a nearly impossible task. Happily, things fell into place far more easily than expected. Regular contact with all parties involved made a huge difference. “We could not have done it without the GREAT!!! communication from the Northeast rescues,” Dorinda noted. “They kept us updated on what we needed to do for them and what they could do for us. It was just nice to hear Dennis’s kind, calm voice at the end of the day.”

First to be relocated were the horses, pot-bellied pig, fish, and two dogs. Three of the horses were taken in by a local horse rescue and the rest of that initial group will stay permanently with a volunteer from Harley’s Hope.  After tons of phone calls, emails, and late night strategizing, plans came together for DVGRR to take the eleven Golden Retrievers, Labs 4 Rescue to take the seven Labs, and National Great Pyrenees Rescue to take the five Pyrs.  DVGRR agreed to house the five Great Pyrenees overnight until they could be picked up by the Pyr rescue folks, saving those volunteers significant travel time. (Actually, it turned out to be more than five Pyrs, but no one knew that at the time. More on that later…..!)

Again, everyone’s willingness to work collaboratively made the planning and decision-making process run far more smoothly than anticipated.

The comic relief? Well, that came in the form of “Mimi”, the pot-bellied pig. Dorinda says she’s sure the man who hauled the horses and pig from the house “thought we were a bunch of yahoos trying to load Mimi. She was not going for it at all. She knocked into the President of Ozark Homeward Bound a couple of times at full speed.” Thankfully, everyone survived – both physically and emotionally!

A Critical Ingredient – Transportation!

So now the rescues were lined up, but how to get the Goldens and Great Pyrenees  halfway across the country?? Enter Barbara Mattson,  President of the Great Pyrenees Rescue. She knew of  Jeff Sweeney, who operates Yes I Can Transport, a small animal delivery service with a solid reputation. Jeff had just gotten back from a 10,000 mile trip and had originally planned to take a week off when he got the call about helping with the Arkansas dogs. He didn’t hesitate to join the team of “cooks” and assured everyone he had the capability of handling the transport, including a vehicle that could negotiate the “twisty-windy access road leading to the property in rural Boone County” where the dogs were located.

Soon, plans were in place for the transport to depart on Saturday, February 16. Jeff’s wife, Debbie, would keep in touch with him throughout the trip and provide regular email updates to all involved regarding Jeff’s ETA and the status of his precious cargo.

In Pennsylvania, DVGRR staff began gearing up for the influx of new dogs, preparing files, kennels, and a surplus of extra TLC!

Add a Little Seasoning…

Right on schedule, Jeff and the sixteen dogs pulled into Golden Gateway on Tuesday afternoon, February 19. All four-legged passengers handled the trip like troopers, and they took their entry into DVGRR’s “half-way home” facility in stride as well.

They're here! Staff member Cindy Morgan helps unload one of our new charges from the transport vehicle.

They’re here! Staff member Cindy Morgan helps unload one of our new charges from the transport vehicle.

You can't see her, but that's staff member Inza Adams behind this little blonde pup!

You can’t see her, but that’s staff member Inza Adams behind this little blonde pup!

First order of business - potty break!

First order of business – potty break!

"Welcome, sweet girl! We are so glad to finally meet you!"

“So happy to meet you!”

Heather plants a welcome kiss on this new arrival's head.

Heather plants a welcome kiss on this pretty new arrival’s head.

Soon, we set about the task of getting to know each of these sweet Goldens better so we could start thinking about matching them with new homes. Having announced the imminent arrival of the “ARK 11” (as we dubbed them) in a mass email update, we already had adopters contacting us to express interest in adding one of these dogs to their family once ready.

All settled in with blanket, ball, and toys. Ready for a new life!

All settled in with blanket, ball, and toys. Ready for a new life!

The transport cost from Arkansas to Pennsylvania was pretty steep, as you might imagine. However, as with the rest of this story, the joint efforts of many groups (and individuals) served to make it possible. Financial support (i.e., the seasoning for the “broth”) came from both Arkansas rescue groups (who somehow found the time to solicit donations while coordinating the care of the dogs and the overall rescue operation!), Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue (who wanted to support the effort monetarily after referring the dogs to DVGRR), and from several VERY generous individual DVGRR donors.Given that our costs for the ARK 11 included not only their transportation but also the daily care, spay/neuter of all dogs, and other medical treatment (several were in need of extensive dental care, for example), we are incredibly grateful for this amazing support and assistance!

 A True Example of Teamwork

We’ve been delighted with the ARK 11, who are truly a group of resilient Goldens. Despite all they’ve been through, they are progressing well and made their public “debut” at DVGRR’s March 9 Meet and Greet the Goldens Day (our monthly Open House and adoption event). There was a constant flow of visitors wanting to meet them that day, and quite a few prospective adopters who succumbed to their charms.  Our Adoption Team is starting the process now of matching each Golden with a home that will continue the process of keeping them safe,  secure, and very much loved.

Kennel Manager Dennis Stauffer (and the rest of us!) enjoyed meeting our short-term Great Pyrenees guests.

Kennel Manager Dennis Stauffer (and the rest of us!) enjoyed meeting our short-term Great Pyrenees guests.

We had fun getting to know the group of Great Pyrenees too, if only for their short overnight stay at Golden Gateway. And, we are relieved that Madison, one of the adult females, timed her special “surprise” for AFTER she was safely in the care of Great Pyrenees Rescue. What surprise was that, you ask? Oh, just a litter of five puppies born on Saturday evening, February 23! Madison’s pregnancy was not obvious and therefore went undetected, so thankfully she did not deliver her pups enroute to Pennsylvania or while temporarily in the custody of DVGRR. We do wish mama and pups all the best!

New mama Madison with her five little "surprises"!

New mama Madison with her five little “surprises”!

Teamwork is so often the key to success in animal welfare situations and that was certainly the case here. Thanks to a special group of dog lovers all coming together in a pinch, none of these canine survivors will ever be neglected, forgotten, or mistreated again. We are deeply grateful to all who played a role in making this happen:

  • Memphis Area Golden Retriever Rescue
  • Harley’s Hope, Inc.
  • Ozark Homeward Bound LLC
  • National Great Pyrenees Rescue
  • Boone County Sherriff Mike Moore

In reflecting on the rescue, Dorinda Hankins noted: “At no time did we worry about anything except the animals and their needs.  Once it was over we just took a deep breath and said, now we will take inventory of what is left.”  Yes, many resources were used to make this happen, but the canine lives saved, the relationships forged, and the mutual sense of accomplishment are truly a testament to the rescue spirit. Soup’s on!

Buddy’s Bumpy Christmas (It’s Not What You Think)

For those who know the story of Buddy, a formerly terrified puppy mill breeder dog adopted from DVGRR last summer, you might think the worst when you see the word “bumpy” used in this post. After all, Buddy’s whole life prior to rescue was one filled with much pain and little joy, and his homecoming to the Slawecki family was far from smooth sailing in the beginning.

But, rest assured, this is a happy story and any tears you shed will be ones of gladness for brave Buddy!

Since I last wrote about Buddy, his progress has been typical for a puppy mill breeder dog – he takes the proverbial two steps forward and one step backward. Chris and Jill have learned to quietly cherish each milestone, no matter how small, and Chris especially has learned many lessons about patience. Buddy is still much less comfortable around Chris than he is around Jill, but Chris, sharing in the qualities of others in the forefront today (i.e., a very wise man!), knows that won’t always be the case.

And today surely proves that point. I’m sure you’ll enjoy this lovely message from Chris describing Buddy’s first Christmas as much as I did when I received it this morning. It gives “bumpy” a whole new meaning!

Merry Christmas morning! 

Buddy’s first Christmas morning home was beautifully uneventful. I came downstairs at dawn and his tail began thumping as soon as he saw me touch down in the living room. (Right now, I am scratching and petting him with my left hand. He enjoys getting out of his safe spot, circling over to the computer to bump me with his nose/forehead, so I’ll pet him, then circling back to his safe spot and soon beginning all over again. I will signify with a ‘bump’ in this email each time he does this). BUMP. 

Got Buddy and Faith on their leashes and took a beautifully quiet Christmas morning walk. Bathroom and stretching. When I left them in the yard to dispose of trash in the dumpster, I saw Buddy leaping and pawing at Faith, racing up and down the yard, while she tried to keep up with him. BUMP. He really looked close to joyful.  

In the house for a special Christmas morning hamburger breakfast. Buddy just kind of casually strolls over to the water dish for a good long drink while I’m in the kitchen making breakfast. Breakfast gone within a minute or two of me putting it down in front of him. BUMP. 

The three of us enjoy some more petting and quiet talk and then we hear mom (Jill) coming down from upstairs. They bolt from me and sit (try to sit) at the bottom of the steps but their wagging tails and jumping for joy make it difficult. Mom comes down and sits on the landing and pets and pets and talks and cuddles. Now mom’s sitting on the sofa, drinking her coffee, and Buddy sits adoringly at her feet, every so often putting his chin on the sofa to let Jill know he’d like to be petted some more. 

A completely unremarkable wonderful Christmas morning. I never saw a morning like this coming last July, that is for sure. I guess after five and a half months you learn how to weave each other into the fabric of your own life. He seems more wildly handsome if that’s possible – his posture is straighter and more confident and his face more curious and expressive, his eyes more communicative. 

Thank you all for the gift this Christmas morning.  BUMP.

Even quiet Christmas mornings can lead to a nap! Faith on the sofa and Buddy ever close by.

Even quiet Christmas mornings can lead to a nap! Faith on the sofa, Buddy ever close by. May all your bumps be good ones!


A Passing of the Leash

Each Labor Day weekend since 2007, I’ve received a sweet note from adopter and volunteer Chris Slawecki, reminding me again how grateful he was to have adopted Buster #16 (07-126) on September 1, 2007.

This year, the September 1 anniversary of Buster’s “gotcha day” will be filled with bittersweet emotions. After almost five years of living with the Slawecki family and successfully overcoming the awful trauma of his previous life in a puppy mill, Buster left unexpectedly for Rainbow Bridge on the evening of June 6, 2012. There was virtually no warning; he simply threw up a few times that day and then rapidly went downhill. He died in Chris’s arms on the way to the emergency clinic, most likely from a ruptured internal tumor. To say that Chris and his wife Jill were devastated would be an understatement. Buster had a profound impact on their lives and the loss was heartbreaking.

Still, there is – as the saying goes – an amazing “silver lining.” I’m one of those people who believes our beloved dogs sometimes know when it’s time to “pass the leash” to another pooch in need; it’s happened in my life with my dogs at least twice. I know it sounds goofy, but I’m convinced that Buster ”knew” Chris and Jill were destined to help a dog with similar needs as his, and chose to let that happen – at his own expense.

If you’ve read my post about the video DVGRR created for an HSUS-sponsored contest earlier this year (“The Spirit Within”), you may have already guessed the identity of Buster’s successor. Yes, Buddy #70 has a new home, and what a wonderful home it is.

When the Slaweckis first came to meet Buddy at Gateway, we cautioned them that he had even less comfort with humans than Buster did – and Buster was one of our most severely undersocialized puppy mill dogs prior to adoption. Chris and Jill were undeterred. Living with Buster had taught them so much about the damaged, yet still treatable, nature of puppy mill survivors. In addition, Chris edited and contributed to Puppy Mill Dogs SPEAK!, a groundbreaking book for adopters and prospective adopters published in 2010 by author and pet behavior counselor Chris Shaughness.

If you are lucky enough to know Chris, you’ll agree he has a unique sense of humor! After observing Buddy pace endlessly around the exercise yard outside our Special Care Unit that first day, Chris inched his way close enough to sit on the ground about ten feet from Buddy and started talking softly to him. “What are you saying?” I asked curiously. Replied Chris: “I’m telling him, ‘Buddy, I sure hope they are paying you by the mile given all the ground you’re covering!’”

After that, it was just a matter of making sure that Buddy got along with Faith, the Slaweckis’ other Golden Retriever (he did), and setting a date for the official adoption (July 10). For Buddy to ever succeed in a home, he definitely needed the experience and commitment that Chris and Jill could provide; we were incredibly grateful for their decision to adopt him. (Or maybe, Buster’s decision….)

I sat with Buddy in Spencer’s Skool (training room) while he waited for Chris and Jill to arrive and finalize his adoption on July 10. As was his pattern, he paced and circled continually out of anxiety.

At this point, “relaxation” was not a concept Buddy understood

A Rough Start

All was not smooth sailing in the beginning. Chris and Jill needed all the fortitude they could muster during Buddy’s first two weeks at home. Although in many respects he adapted well to the new environment and routine, Buddy unfortunately decided to go on a hunger strike and basically stopped eating.

Loss of appetite is common in new adoptees the first few days, so here at Gateway we weren’t overly concerned at first. But Chris reported that Buddy’s refusal to eat was going on for far longer than typical, and with his already underweight build he really couldn’t afford to miss too many meals. I know from my own experience dealing with severe gastrointestinal issues in a Golden (Tyler, 01-047), it’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see a dog continually turn away when the food bowl goes down. You just want to cry every time another meal is left untouched.

Worse, Buddy began having multiple episodes of vomiting and diarrhea. This combination of challenges was really hard on Chris’s resolve. On July 22, he wrote via email:

So Buddy has diarrhea, and he’s going to the bathroom all over our downstairs. He just can’t help it and we know he just can’t help it but it’s not easy to remember he can’t help it when you’ve cleaned up the floor at 11:30pm, then again at 1:30am, and it’s 5:30am and you’re cleaning it for the third time since you went to bed.

Chris and Jill grew so concerned over Buddy’s physical decline that they ended up taking him to Metropolitan Veterinary Associates in Trooper, PA, an emergency and specialty care clinic. Thank goodness they did, as Buddy was diagnosed there with pneumonia, a result of having accidentally aspirated some food or water into his lungs during one of his vomiting episodes. More worries, more stress, for this couple who just wanted to do right by Buddy.

Side note: While I was certainly worried about Buddy as well (Chris kept Heather, me, and other key parties updated by email), I have to confess it did not even occur to me until I was writing this post how incredibly emotional it must have been for Chris and Jill to leave Buddy at Metropolitan. Not only were they struggling with the anxiety of a newly adopted dog going through a health crisis, this was the same hospital where they had unexpectedly lost their precious Buster just a few weeks before. Talk about bringing back bad memories. Still, they never let that impede their focus on getting Buddy well and ensuring he had the best care possible.

A dog with pneumonia can deteriorate quickly, as I saw with my Tyler, who was hospitalized at the same facility with the same condition back in 2005. Dog folks will understand (won’t you??) that I therefore sent some special entreaties to my departed girl, asking for her help in sending strength and healing to Buddy. “You made it back then, T-ty,” I whispered in my head. “Now help Buddy do the same.” I suspect that in the Slawecki home, similarly whispered pleas were being sent to Buster.

With the quick administration of IV fluids and strong antibiotics (and maybe with the help of a Rainbow Bridge resident or two…), Buddy thankfully improved enough to come home within a few short days. Whew…crisis averted. Or was it?

Regrettably, Buddy’s interest in food was just as non-existent as before his stay at Metropolitan. He was sent home on a diet of rice, boiled chicken, and chicken baby food (normally irresistible to most dogs), but turned his nose away as he had before. I began fearing what I would read each time I received an email from Chris, with yet another discouraging report. Along with Chris and Jill, Heather and I were trying to figure out Buddy’s reluctance to eat and brainstorm ways to get past it.

Turning Point

Buddy did let Jill hand feed him for two meals and those of us following the saga via email rejoiced at this small success. Two meals was the limit, however; after that, Buddy started resisting Jill’s efforts to give him food. Back to the proverbial “drawing board.” Late in the evening of July 27, Heather wrote to Chris:

Could you try to keep Faith with you at night and keep Buddy with his food overnight? I know at the kennel, he and other really scared dogs would wait until the quiet of night to eat. Could you put up a baby gate or some other type of structure to keep Faith away from his food bowl?

I wasn’t sure Chris would even see this suggestion due to night-owl Heather’s timing of it. The following morning, however, I had tears in my eyes when I opened Chris’s latest update to read these welcome words:

Heather, it worked! 

Faith has been good and obedient enough to leave Buddy’s food alone. Last night, Jill fed him about half his dinner and we left the rest of it on his plate resting in front of him. Jill went to bed about 10:30pm and I “shut down the downstairs” but lay down on the sofa, just in case Buddy started coughing or vomiting or worse. 

I drifted in and out but about 11:45 I heard the wet, lip-smacking sounds of eating. I opened one eye and saw Faith lying on the floor next to the sofa, and Buddy licking at his plate. He saw me see him and immediately stopped, so I quickly closed that one open eye and began to pray I’d hear those sounds again. 

I did. Plate was just about completely clean. 

At last, the hunger strike was over. Buddy’s appetite returned and eating became part of his repertoire again, to the great relief of his devoted (but exhausted) adoptive family.

“Hanging in and hanging on”

That’s how Chris signed some of his Buddy updates over the past few weeks, and that tenacity has sure paid off in slow, but VERY steady progress made by Buddy. Recently, Buddy has:

  • graduated to eating in the kitchen alongside Faith, instead of in his “safe spot” in the family room.
  • started paying more attention to people and objects in his environment, even when he’s parked himself in that safe spot.
  • begun taking daily walks around the block, with Chris holding Buddy’s leash and Jill holding Faith’s leash
  • tentatively nudged a child that was paying attention to Faith on one of their walks. (Yes, he pulled away when the child tried to pet him, but just initiating contact on his own was huge.)
  • become, as Chris so perceptively puts it, “not really comfortable with us yet, but less uncomfortable.”

In early August, Buddy and Faith spent one night boarding at Golden Gateway while Chris and Jill were out of town. We kept them in the Project Home Life apartment to minimize stress. We were astonished (and thrilled) to see Buddy spend most of the time lying calmy next to the sofa. A BIG change from the pacing behavior we’d seen just a few weeks before.

Buddy allowed me to sit a few feet away to take this picture. When I sat in the chair next to the wall, he showed discomfort and started to get up and move away. With puppy mill survivors, progress is measured in “baby steps,” but each one is cause for celebration.

Faith’s Role

Chris and Jill have really helped Buddy get over that initial hump, but much credit also goes to Faith, a nearly ideal “mentor dog” (i.e., an existing family dog that helps a puppy mill survivor gain greater assurance and experience by virtue of the mentor dog’s confidence, patience and ability to model appropriate behavior).

Even mentor dogs draw the line at some duties, however. To end this post on a somewhat droll note, I offer this image of Faith “ratting out” her new brother when he became just a tad bit too laissez faire about his potty routine. Chris described the incident on July 30:

Last night, when we let Faith out for her final bathroom break of the night, Buddy didn’t seem to want to go, so we let him rest in his safe spot. 

We go to bed about 11:30pm. About 11:40, Faith comes running upstairs. Last time she did that, Buster had pooped all over the living room, so we went downstairs and found a spot where Buddy had peed on the rug. 

Two lessons learned: Buddy goes out with Faith for ‘last call’ whether he wants to or not, and Faith doesn’t want to be blamed for any of his monkey business.

Understood, Faith, and duly noted. But how happy I am that Buddy has the combined strengths, support, and guidance of you, Chris, and Jill!

Chris snapped this picture of Buddy in his “safe spot” just a few days ago. His expression is growing softer, his brow less tense. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s headed in the right direction and that’s all that counts.

There will surely be more challenges ahead, but Buddy is well on his way to that formerly elusive, but now quite real, new beginning.

“The Spirit Within” – a Puppy Mill Video Created for HSUS

A few months ago, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) invited individuals and organizations to submit video depictions on the topic of “Why Puppy Mills Stink.”  Their goal was to enhance awareness of this issue and select a winning video to serve as a new PSA on the puppy mill problem. The rules were pretty simple – be creative, stay under 90 seconds, only use footage of puppy mills provided by the HSUS.

“Let’s enter,” I proposed to the DVGRR management team, and all agreed it was a worthwhile venture.

Heather Hatt and I brainstormed some ideas and I got to work shooting some video with my little pocket Flip camera. The time frame for submission was pretty tight so we had to work quickly. Since DVGRR’s main role with puppy mill dogs is helping rehabilitate them for adoption, that’s the focus that made sense for our video.

I wanted to start by showing the contrast between two dogs of the same age and breed, but with vastly different backgrounds.  For the non-puppy mill dog, I chose Miles #3 (11-263), because you can’t get much more joyful than he is! Miles hammed it up with our Intake Manager Fay Jenkins, both looking like naturals in front of the camera!

Miles is a Golden who loves life!

Buddy #70 (12-031), was my choice to show the ravages of living in a puppy mill. Some of you may recall his semi-disastrous trip to Golden Gateway earlier this year.  En route from a western Pennsylvania shelter, Buddy accidently got loose at a turnpike rest area near Altoona.

Our Facebook page from February 16 described our terror regarding Buddy’s escape.

After a few hours of dread while we awaited news from our transport volunteer (and a few thousand prayers from our Facebook friends), Buddy was thankfully recovered and arrived later that day to our great relief. He’s one of the most traumatized puppy mill survivors we’ve seen…the turnpike “adventure” didn’t help but it was those years of living under horrific mill conditions that account for 99% of his fear. Filming him was difficult, because outside of his kennel run he is in constant motion…pacing and circling out of deep-rooted anxiety.

A mentally and physically exhausted Buddy, shortly after his safe arrival at DVGRR.

Project Home Life volunteer Susan Sacchetti graciously participated in the video’s segment on rehabilitation, along with sweet and pretty Missy #11 (12-089). And lastly, to show the full circle of transition from mill to home, I visited a lovely retired couple from Lancaster who have adopted three Goldens from us – two of them former puppy mill dogs. It was wonderful to see the progress made by Teddy (formerly Charlie #15) and Robbie (formerly Boise), and how far they’ve come from their days living in squalor.

We edited and tweaked and finally sent in our entry for consideration by HSUS. For those who haven’t seen it, here is the final version:  The Spirit Within: Surviving the Stink

I am very grateful to all who subsequently voted for us in the “People’s Choice” portion of the video contest – we had many supporters! I’d love to tell you that we were selected as a winner, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Nonetheless, it was a great experience and we’ll be able to use this video for other educational purposes. (Feel free to send the link to anyone you feel would benefit from watching it.)

I kept abreast of the other entries during the contest period, as they were all posted on YouTube. Many were simple but powerful, and one in particular (called I Will Be Saved) took my breath away. I was pleased to see that it was ultimately the winner of the People’s Choice award – well deserved! You can see that video as well as Angel’s Story, the overall winner, on this HSUS website page.

As for my three canine participants at Golden Gateway, Miles and Missy have both been adopted and are doing great in their new homes.  Buddy is still with us, but if all goes well he will soon be adopted by a wonderful family with the experience, dedication, and fortitude to help him overcome his past history and let his inner spirit flourish. Please keep your fingers and paws crossed for Buddy!

Our dream is to see this haunted look in Buddy’s eyes replaced with one of trust and tranquility. We know it can happen, though it will take many months…possibly years. Please advocate against puppy mills so other dogs will be spared what Buddy has endured.