It’s been months, but at last, news worth posting:  We have reached an agreement to buy property for Shep’s Place!  The deal is contingent on us selling our current house, so it is not 100% certain yet.  But the odds are good that we’ve found a home.

The property is on the northeast corner of the Truman Rd / MO-291 interchange in Independence, MO, which makes it easily accessible.  We looked at land in the country, but felt a city location would give us a better pool of volunteers and adopters.  If you hike back onto the property, though, it feels like you’re in the country.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Notice we are on the same map as Kaufmann Stadium. Cool!

We are actually buying two adjacent properties.  Each has an old house near the road, with ample, undeveloped land behind.  Ann and I plan to live in one house, and refurbish the other to be the Sanctuary.  Both properties are zoned Industrial, which is important, because animal care facilities are not allowed in Residential zones.  The surrounding properties are also Industrial, which is fortunate, because you can’t locate an animal shelter within 200 feet of a residential property.

The house itself will require a good deal of work to be turned into a Sanctuary.  There is an attached garage that can be converted into a kennel room.  Inside the house, there is a kitchen, living room, 2 baths, and 3 bedrooms that can be transformed into workspaces, an office, and dog hang-out space.  We will have to add lighting, drainage, ventilation, kennels, play yards, a sprinkler system… like I said, a lot of work.  Then we’ll have to pass inspection with the city and state.  It won’t happen overnight.

Proposed Floor Plan

This house is only intended to be Phase 1 of Shep’s Place.  It will be able to service 6-10 dogs.  Down the road, once we’ve proven our sustainability, we’d like to build a larger Phase 2 Sanctuary.  Fortunately, there is a beautiful spot and lots of land (10 acres!) behind the house where we can someday build.

Potential site for Phase 2 building. Some day…

It is important to note that all of these plans are preliminary.  They are just ideas Ann and I have come up with over the past few months.  Once we have the place in hand, we want to start meeting with interested parties and volunteers, to show you firsthand what we’ve got, and solicit your input and advice.  We will decide together how we want to proceed.

On a personal level, I feel like we’ve crossed a boundary into a new realm.  For months, all our efforts have been focused on acquiring this property, but now we’ve moved past that into a whole new set of challenges.  It’s no longer hypothetical; it’s actually happening.  Dilly dilly!

Sorry I haven’t posted much lately. In part that’s because school has started, and for some reason they require me to be there 40 hours a week. The main reason, though, is that we’ve identified what we think is an ideal location for Shep’s Place, and we’ve been working on getting our house ready to sell so we can make an offer on the new place. I don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch, so I’ll save details till later, but we will make an offer this week. If and when that goes through, then things can really begin to move. Recruiting volunteers, setting up donations, connecting with other shelters and businesses, all of that makes more sense once we have an actual location to point to. Just wanted to assure you that the wheels are still turning. Hopefully we’ll have some good news later this week!

Also, Shep actually played with a toy this week, for about 45 seconds! This is the only picture I managed to get before he quit.

Shep’s Place Strategic Plan, Version 1.0

Approved by the Board, 8/21/17


The end goal for Shep’s Place is to have a permanent, free-standing facility, backed by a robust group of volunteers and staff, to care for several dozen homeless senior dogs in the Kansas City area.

The best outcome for the dogs is to find them new, permanent homes, and we will make every effort to do so.  For the dogs who remain, though, we will be their family and home, and they will be free to live at Shep’s Place for the remainder of their days.

Since we plan to have permanent residents, we must design our program and facility to maximize the dogs’ quality of life.  Shep’s Place should feel more like a home than a way-station.  The dogs should be free to roam and play as much as possible, with lots of personal attention and human interaction, while minimizing the time spent in a kennel.

Turning this dream into a reality will require a lot of effort and funding.  Unless we win the lottery, the only way to achieve this is to start small and build slowly.  We will have to grow by stages, gradually expanding our program and base of support, and pausing after each step to show we are sustainable before moving forward.  We’ll go as fast as we can, but no faster than we can manage.

In terms of facilities, we currently envision a Two-Stage approach.  Once we locate and purchase a house with some land, Stage 1 will be to build an addition onto the house large enough to care for 6-8 dogs.  We’ll start slow, by fostering a few dogs from the SPCA, while we recruit a small group of volunteers and develop procedures.  As we raise money, we will convert the foster dogs to our care, and add more dogs until we reach capacity.  We will probably have to remain at Stage 1 for some time, perhaps several years, to prove that we are sustainable and to build the case for expansion.

Once we have shown donors that we are capable of managing a small facility and program , we can begin planning for Stage 2:  a new, larger, separate facility that can house 24-30 dogs.  This will require a major fund-raising effort, of course, and there is no guarantee of success.  But to help as many dogs as possible, we’ll need a bigger place, so this has to be our long-term goal.  Stage 2 will likely need full-time staff as well as a large group of dedicated volunteers.

It’s a lofty dream, but I truly believe we can achieve it together.  The support is out there.  We just have to be smart enough and work hard enough to find it.

Step-by-Step Process

Step 1:  Acquire Property

Locate property in the KC area with the following characteristics:

  • A house for us to live in
  • Multiple acres of land for the future facility
  • Zoned Commercial or Industrial
  • Minimal number of neighbors
  • Accessible to volunteers
  • Affordable!
  • Peaceful setting
  • Room for Stage 1 addition to house

Sell our current house

Sell or dispose of unneeded stuff:  old VW, collections

Effect repairs of new house:

  • Install fence for our current dogs, if necessary


Step 2:  Build Fundraising Capability

Receive 501(c)(3) status from IRS

Apply for Missouri sales tax exemption

Set up online donation capability

Receipt & notification procedures

Record keeping procedures

Set up GoFundMe, other online fundraising tools


Step 3:  Plan for Stage 1 = Small facility located in an addition to the house

Design Stage 1 addition to house, for 6-8 dogs

Addition:  kennels, prep room, storage, grooming room

Fenced access to Play yards

Walking path, trails

Volunteer parking, access

Establish relationships with other shelters, Animal Control

Identify vet to approve dog care program

Develop dog care program with vet; clear with city, state

Fundraise for equipment, medical expenses

Build Stage 1 addition


Step 4:  Early Stage 1, Getting Started

Take in 2-3 foster dogs from SPCA

Set up small-scale volunteer program, 6-10 volunteers

Develop recruiting, training, scheduling, retention, dog care procedures

Develop small-scale volunteer Outreach program, procedures

Design T-shirts, other swag

Start Twitter, SnapChat, etc.


Step 5:  Mid Stage 1, Build the Program

As funds become available, convert foster dogs to our responsibility

Add new dogs only when we have sufficient funds for their care

Proceed dog by dog until we reach capacity

Find sustainable funding sources

Expand volunteer, outreach programs to match

Start adoption program


Step 6:  Late Stage 1, Prove Sustainability

Prove over time that Stage 1 is sustainable, valuable, and necessary

Design and build upper play area:  fence, Tuff Shed, generator, golf cart

Build adoption program

Keep track of placement requests to build case for expansion, new facility


Step 7:  Develop plans for Stage 2 = New, separate facility for 24-30 dogs

Architect plans, drawings, price estimate

Apply for Zoning changes, if necessary

Hire Lawyer to guide through government approval process

Recruit Board members for development, fundraising

Develop plans for staffing, training, dog care for larger facility


Step 8:  Make the case for Stage 2

Develop the case for expansion into Stage 2

Get approval for Stage 2 from state, etc.

Roll out plans, design for Stage 2 expansion to public

Search for major donors, grants

Ramp up Outreach program


Step 9:  Stage 2

Build larger, separate Stage 2 facility

Hire full-time staff

Ramp up volunteer program

Add dogs as funds become available

Live happily ever after in blissful doggie paradise

I returned from SDS with a wealth of information about how to run a Sanctuary.  The underlying purpose of the trip, however, was to answer two basic questions:

  1.  Is a Sanctuary like SDS something we can realistically recreate in KC?
  2. And if so, is it something that Ann and I want to commit to?

The point of all the interviews and observations was to help us make a crucial decision.  Is Shep’s Place a Go or No-Go for us?  Do we really want to do this?

You might think, with some justification, that we should have answered that question before starting a website and printing business cards.  But, you know, that’s how the world works these days; we wanted to gauge whether there was any interest or support for the idea.  And there is, which is encouraging.  But now, we’ve reached the proverbial fork in the road.  To go any further, Ann and I will have to make permanent life changes:  selling our home, buying property, changing career paths.  It’s not something to jump into lightly.  So before we drink the Kool Aid, we want to be sure:  can we do this?  and if so, will we be okay?

Question 1:  Can We Do It?

Now that we’ve seen what it takes to start and run a Sanctuary like SDS, the first question is, can we do the same thing here, or at least something similar?  The reason I was drawn to SDS was that they put together a top-notch facility and organization in such a short time.  I wanted to figure out how they did it, so we could recreate it here.

I’ll be honest.  After the first night at SDS, having seen their beautiful facility, I was a bit discouraged.  I didn’t see how we could possibly match that anytime soon, if ever.  When Val and his family were at the same fork in the road that we are now, they decided as a family to commit a major portion of their resources to founding the Shelter.  That was a truly admirable decision, a willing sacrifice to create something lasting and meaningful for a cause they believe in.  We would do the same if we could, but that is not an option for us.

As I thought about it the next morning, though, and talked to more people, my outlook began to change.  I could almost feel the pieces shifting in my mind; my mental GPS was stuck on “Recalculating…”.  I realized that our trajectory doesn’t have to match that of SDS.  One of the staff told me that SDS was the “Disney World” of Sanctuaries, a top-flight organization and facility to aspire to, and I agree.  But that doesn’t mean we have to go as far as they have as quickly as they did to be a success.  I had to remind myself that starting a Sanctuary is not about keeping up with the Jones; it’s about helping old dogs.  If we end up with half as many dogs, at a facility half as nice, well, that’s still a wonderful thing well worth pursuing.

So, the conclusion:  Can we build something as nice as SDS as quickly as they did?  Almost certainly not.  But that’s okay!  Our story will be our own.  We will have to proceed more slowly.  A permanent facility is expensive to build and maintain.  If that is our goal, we will have to work to raise money, and that will take time.  Val said donors want to see a track record before they commit funds, which makes total sense.  So we’ll have to start small, establish ourselves, show we have a sustainable plan and organization, before asking for money for a bigger facility.  It may take years.  And there’s no guarantee we’ll ever reach the big facility.  But if not, that’s still okay!  Helping some dogs is infinitely better than helping no dogs, and it is still something to be proud of.

Question 2:  Is our family ready to commit to a Sanctuary?

Ann and I are private people, so it makes me uncomfortable to discuss this publicly .  But starting a Sanctuary would require us to redirect the rest of our lives, and that’s something we had to think long and hard about.  I pretty much had the feasibility question figured out by the end of my trip to SDS.  The personal question has taken us longer.  Okay, to be honest, it’s taken me longer; Ann was fully behind it from the start.

Two things to know about me.  First, I’ve never been money-oriented.  I always wanted to do what I felt good about, and trusted that I’d make do with whatever it paid, which is how I ended up in teaching.  Second, when it comes to major decisions, I’m highly risk-averse.  I don’t want to jump into something, then look back 10 years later and think, you idiot, why didn’t you think that through?  I have to gather a lot of information, sift through it, lay out best and worst-case scenarios, and hem and haw until I convince myself that I’m not doing something amazingly stupid.  That’s what this delay has been about.

Two days ago, we finally put it all together in a way my brain could process.  Ann and I made a list of the pros and cons of starting a Sanctuary, and ranked the importance of each.  We realized that the items that leaned toward “Go” were all related to Career, Purpose, and Service, while the items that leaned toward “No-Go” were related to Security and Comfort.  So the choice really came down to this:  Do we do something we believe in, or give that up for the sake of security?

Once upon a time, I would have scoffed at that choice.  I’d have said choosing Security over Purpose was weak, that it meant you had no convictions, and it would make you less of a human being.  But I’m in my 50’s now.  Being old and penniless is not some far off hypothetical concern, and if I screw things up now, I don’t have decades to correct it.  So Security does matter.

But, still.  Doing something we believe in, building something that could last, helping vulnerable, old dogs…  Could we really turn our backs on that because we wanted to play it safe?  That would be surrendering to Fear, and we don’t want Fear to be the deciding factor in how we live our lives.  If we did, we would be lesser human beings.  Will it cause stress and uncertainty?  Absolutely.  Will we survive?  I’m sure we will.

Soooooo……  LET’S DO IT!!!!   We’ve made our decision.  We’re in!  We hope you’re in, too!  The time for contemplation is over.  We’re ready to start taking concrete steps toward making it happen.  Who knows how it will end?  But at least we’ll find out together!

This is the fifth in a series of posts about what I learned while visiting the Senior Dog Sanctuary (SDS) in Severn, MD, and how it applies to Shep’s Place.

SDS Event Banner

What a Dog Sanctuary does, in a nutshell, is bring people together, give them the resources they need to care for dogs, and connect those dogs with new families.  To keep going, a Sanctuary has to continually replenish those “supplies”:  people, dogs, resources, adopters.  Finding more dogs is painfully easy; there are more than you can possibly serve.  It’s the other three that require effort.

It’s not an impossible task, however.  The support is out there.  Beyond the grounds of the Sanctuary, there is a deep pool of people willing to help, to donate, to adopt.  The trick is to find those people and connect with them.  To survive, a Sanctuary has to reach out into the community, find a sympathetic audience, state its case, and ask for help.  That means, in the long term, a Sanctuary will only be as successful as its Outreach program.  It’s a do-or-die necessity.

The good news is that a Senior Dog Sanctuary is not a hard sell.  Val says he’s never met anyone, regardless of politics, wealth, or creed, who thinks helping old dogs is a bad idea.  The message sells itself.  You just have to get it out effectively.

On my visit to SDS, Outreach was one of the areas I was particularly interested in learning more about.  I found that SDS has a successful, multifaceted outreach program, run almost exclusively by volunteers.  And their goal is not only to support the shelter, but to enrich the lives of the dogs and people involved.

Even an old fart like me realizes that Job One in outreach these days is setting up an effective electronic communications platform.  SDS has an excellent website (, with videos, events and news, and online forms.  It’s where I first found out about them.  Unlike our amateur-hour website, theirs is maintained by a computer science professional, Matt, who volunteers his time.  (I’ll take one of those, please!)

The reason I finally broke down and joined Facebook is that Val told me, in his first phone call, how crucial it is to marketing SDS.  (I believe him now.  We get four times the traffic on the Facebook page than we do on this website.)  They have a very active page, @SeniorDogSanctuaryMD, and use a Facebook consultant to guide their efforts.  (Whereas we use Facebook for Dummies.  Seriously.)  The staff has a private page where they discuss issues, work out schedules, and so on.

SDS Facebook Page

Though electronic communication is vital, it does not eliminate the need for good old-fashioned, face-to-face human contact.  SDS has several programs that bring people in to their facility.  They hold Open Houses twice a month, inviting the community in for tours , to learn about service opportunities, and meet the dogs.  I met several volunteers who first discovered SDS at an Open House.

Open House Ad from Facebook

They also have a program called “Book Buddies”, in which children read to the dogs, as well as learning about how to “read” dog behavior.  That program was put together by Eve Emerson, a volunteer, who told me it was modeled after a program in Missouri.

Most of the SDS outreach efforts focus on getting their dogs out into the public eye.  They have a cool program in which volunteers can check out a dog for a “Doggie Date.”  They take the dog to the park, or the beach, or anywhere that people can see them.  The dogs wear “Adopt Me” sweaters with the SDS logo, serving as furry, adorable billboards.

Like many shelters, SDS makes frequent appearances at pet stores, fundraisers, and community events.  They average around 4 visits a month, with more in the spring and fewer in the winter.  When they go to a store like PetSmart, they bring a banner, some literature, and one or two dogs — because who can resist coming over to pet a dog?  They also bring a notebook with bios on all of their dogs.

SDS Event Table
Bio Book for the dogs

At pet store events, they put out a donation box, but the main goal is making connections with new people.  Sometimes, one of the customers will bond with one of the dogs and decide to adopt, or to visit the shelter to meet another dog.  More often, the message will click, and a customer will decide to volunteer, or donate an old dog bed, or food, or even money.  You never know.  The important thing is to plant a seed in their minds.  Most won’t sprout, but a few will.

On the evening of my visit, I accompanied Val to a “Yappy Hour” event at the Severna Park Taphouse, an area bar and grill.  (I was strangely proud to see a Boulevard Beer sign on their fence; go KC!)

Volunteers at the SDS Table

The event was put on by four for-profit dog-related businesses for the benefit of SDS.  The main sponsor was Dogwood Acres, a doggie day spa.  There were also booths for a dog training service, an all-natural pet food store named Bark!, and Healing Paws, a veterinary wellness center.  (The ladies from Bark! did an excellent job convincing a skeptic — me — of the importance of quality pet food.  My poor dogs and their $1 Canine Carry-Out treats!)

Vendor booths at the event

These and other businesses donated items and services, which SDS volunteers packaged into gift baskets which were raffled off, making around $700.

Raffle Baskets

Outings such as these are planned and carried out by a volunteer Events Committee.  After the raffle, I had a long, productive talk with Jenna, the Events Coordinator; she’s the one in the middle of the picture above, with her head turned.  Usually, she schedules the events, then recruits volunteers to man the booth.  That takes her about 10 hours a week, on top of her full-time job, but like Barb, she seems an inexhaustible ball of energy.  She shared a ton of helpful advice, like which events to avoid, where to place your table, and how you always need a spare volunteer to cover the one who doesn’t show up.  She said, for fundraising, hosting a few large events is more effective than many smaller ones.  SDS is planning a major “Walk” event for the fall, and a “Senior (Dog) Prom” for the spring.

I came away from my SDS visit with a much better understanding of what a Sanctuary needs to do to connect with the rest of the world, and why.  A Sanctuary is a community effort, and to be sustainable, you have to constantly reach out to the public, to involve them and ask for their support.  It is a big task, but if you find the right volunteers and empower them, the message will find fertile ground.  Surely the conditions are just as favorable in Kansas City as they are in Maryland.

Note:  This is the fourth in a series of posts about what I learned while visiting the Senior Dog Sanctuary (SDS) in Severn, MD, and how it applies to Shep’s Place.

 “Dogs come into our lives to teach us about love, they depart to teach us about loss.”                                                                                                      Erica Jong

Near the end of my talk with Barb Turner, the Shelter Manager at SDS, we were sitting in her sunny office, discussing dog food, of all things, when she received a phone call.  It was their vet, and the news was not good:  one of their dogs, Marley, had untreatable cancer, and would not live much longer.  Barb, who is as no-nonsense as they come, caught her breath and fought back tears.  Marley was one of their dogs, one of her dogs, and she now had to face the impending loss of her friend.*

Facing the mortality of a loved one is difficult, whether it be for a person or a dog.  As I’m typing these words, I am sitting in a waiting room at KU Med while my mother undergoes tests to determine what type of cancer she has.  We fervently hope that she responds well to treatment, and still has a long life ahead of her.  But at times like these, you can’t help but think about end of life issues, and how to manage them with grace.

For those who choose to work with older dogs, dealing with the end of life is part of the job.  Even the best animal shelter cannot prevent dogs from aging and dying.  But they can handle that time in a way that makes the process as comfortable, and comforting, for the dogs as possible.  They can ensure that the dogs are ready to “cross the bridge” (as SDS calls it) with the dignity and respect they deserve.

As soon as Barb got off the phone, she began making arrangements for Marley to be moved out of the kennel and into the house.  There she would be made comfortable, and showered with attention and affection.  They also began to look for a person who could foster Marley in a “loving last home” (a nicer term than hospice).  As long as she could be kept comfortable, they would care for her, and make sure she had the support and love she needed.

Comforting a dog at the end of her life was something I expected.  It’s what happens afterwards at SDS that so impressed me.  Dogs that pass away under their care are cremated, and their ashes are kept.  Within the next year, SDS plans to build a Memorial Garden for the dogs, next to a beautiful pond near the entrance.  There will be a low brick structure in the shape of an infinity symbol.  On one side of the figure eight, they will place the ashes of the dogs who have passed, while on the other side, there will be benches and a fireplace.  Donors can buy memorial bricks to remember their lost pets.  It will be a visible sign of the respect that SDS has for the dogs whose lives they have touched.

The future site of the Memorial Garden

The thing that really blew me away, though, was what SDS does with sick or injured strays.  From time to time, Animal Control will call them about an old dog in such bad shape that the only humane thing to do is to euthanize it.  Before that happens, though, people from SDS will pick up the dog and give it a Final Good Day, taking it to the park, buying it a hamburger, and giving it the love and attention it may never have had, before taking it to the vet and holding its paw while it passes away.  Later, they will include that dog’s ashes in the Memorial Garden, along with those who lived at SDS.  Oh, my, God, how amazingly sweet and noble is that!  I cannot adequately express how touched I was by this.  I don’t know how they do it; it makes me tear up just thinking about it.  To show a dog they don’t even know that their life is worthy of respect, and to help them reach the bridge in as comforting and humane a way as possible… I was floored.  It has to be a heart-wrenching task, but it’s so beautiful and so right.

While I was there, Val received a draft of a children’s book that is being written about SDS, called “Sugar Muzzles.”  It tells the story of three actual dogs at SDS, from their point of view.  During the long editing process, one of the dogs passed away, so the author added a final chapter about how the staff at SDS helped her get ready to “cross the bridge,” and how she was looking forward to whatever came next.  It is a powerful lesson, even for children, that caring for dogs in their last days, and treating them with compassion, is the highest form of respect you can pay them.  It is a great and remarkable service that SDS does for these dogs, and it represents the very best in the human spirit.  It’s a lesson that Shep’s Place will take to heart.

*In my opinion, if someone does NOT feel sad when a dog dies, then part of their soul is missing.  The sadness is proof of the deep compassion that makes Dog People so special.


Running a Sanctuary like SDS involves all sorts of tasks.  Scheduling, personnel, maintenance, fundraising, public outreach… the list goes on.  But what is a Sanctuary really for?  Why does it exist?  To build and maintain a facility?  To provide volunteers an opportunity for service?  To organize public events?  No.  Those are important, of course, but they are merely means to an end.  A Sanctuary like SDS exists for one reason only:  to improve the lives of older dogs.  The dogs are the reason for the entire enterprise.  Everything else, all the people, equipment, time and effort, are merely resources for promoting the welfare of the dogs, period.

While it should be obvious that “a dog sanctuary is for dogs”, it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to lose track of.  When teacher meetings start in a few weeks, I know I’ll be inundated with new procedures, deadlines, and initiatives.  It requires a lot of time and energy to deal with the details, and if you’re not careful, it can consume you.  You constantly have to remind yourself, why am I here in the first place?  Who is this actually for?  For a teacher, it’s the students.  For a Sanctuary, it’s the dogs.  To stay true to your calling, you have to step back, and evaluate every action you take in the light of the only meaningful measuring stick:  “Is this good for them?  Does it improve their lives?”

It was deeply gratifying to discover that everyone I spoke to at SDS, regardless of their role, never lost sight of the underlying goal, which is taking care of the dogs and finding them homes.  Every action and decision is focused on that core ideal.  It has shaped all aspects of the facility and organization, from intake and adoption policies, to design of the kennel room and play yard, to outreach and staff training.  It’s all for the dogs’ benefit.  And staying true to this goal is the reason they have been so successful.  They have integrity.  New volunteers, adopters, and donors can sense that, and it makes it easy to buy in.


Dogs require a lot of care and attention, and that is especially true of older dogs.  Like people, older dogs have more medical issues.  They are prone to dental disease, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, dementia.  To find them homes, many dogs have to be nursed back into an adoptable state.  It’s one of the main questions in deciding which dogs to take in to SDS:  are they healthy enough to be adopted?  If not, can their problems be treated without breaking the bank?

On my visit to SDS, I talked about these and many other issues with Barb Turner, the Shelter Manager.  Barb is a retired “human nurse” who literally lives at SDS.  They call her the Shelter Mom.  While Val looks after the Big Picture at SDS, Barb is in charge of day-to-day operations.  She is the type of no-nonsense, get-things-done person that every organization needs.  (She was worried I would think she was a crotchety old lady, but I found her to be a hoot!)  She works about 16 hours a day, but it fits her personality.  “I have no life,” she says, which isn’t true, but does accurately describe her work habits.

Barb Turner, Shelter Mom

As a nurse, Barb is the resident medical expert at SDS.  She consults regularly with the veterinarians, and often shadows the vets when they treat her dogs.  By asking the vet questions, she can correlate the dog’s medical problems with her knowledge of human medicine.  She knows how to read lab results and administer medications (except for a few, like rabies, that can only be given by a vet).  She keeps records, creates treatment protocols, and handles medical expenses.  Such expertise is indispensible to an organization dealing with the health of older dogs.

Taking care of old dogs is an expensive proposition.  Each dog is given a thorough check-up at the vet when they arrive, including shots and vaccines.  Females are spayed, if necessary, because they can still get pregnant (though they can’t carry to term), and they are more susceptible to breast cancer if they are not.  Most of the dogs have other medical issues which must be treated.  SDS works with two vet offices, and transports dogs to the vet on an almost daily basis.  Medication costs around $600 a month, prescription food about $1200.  Overall, it amounts to a sizable investment in each dog, on the order of $1000 – $3000, with some dogs requiring even more.  It is a statistic we will have to weigh carefully as we plan for our own Sanctuary.

As a health food skeptic, I was surprised and properly re-educated about the importance of the dogs’ diet.  SDS does not use any “grocery store” dog food (though they gladly accept donations, which they funnel to other needy shelters).  With old dogs, you need food that will maximize their health, reduce joint aches, keep them at a healthy weight, and prevent diarrhea.  They have found that Hill’s Science Diet and other prescription dog foods will cut diarrhea by 85%.  (Bet you wanted to know that!)  Barb also prepares a lot of chicken and rice for the dogs.

After talking to Barb, I spent some time tagging along with Valerie (sorry, I didn’t write down her last name), one of the kennel technicians.  Valerie is a college student home for the summer, and she worked as a volunteer in the past.  She showed me how they prepare the dogs’ food, how they leash and walk them, how they clean the kennels, wash the dogs, watch for developing health issues, and so on.  I got to walk one of the dogs, which is like spiritual comfort food to me.

Kennel work area

Each dog is walked at least five times a day.  Some of the dogs can only be walked by staff, usually because of medical issues.  Monday is “Weight Day”, when all the dogs get weighed.  Wednesday is “Ear Day”, in which each dog has its ears cleaned and checked for pests.  Friday is “Wishy Washy Day”, when they all get a bath.  The play yard has “doggie astroturf”, which prevents insects such as ticks and fleas, and is more easily cleaned than grass.  All of the dog-handling areas were very clean and well-organized.

Like the volunteers, the Staff at SDS has been empowered to think creatively.  They are encouraged to find new ways to constantly improve the quality of care.  They came up with the information boards, the weekly schedule, and feeding and walking procedures.  They are free to come up with and propose new solutions.

Info board

I am not a Vet, or a Vet Tech.  I’m not even a well-versed amateur (yet) when it comes to animal health.  Turns out we feed our dogs crappy food, and we don’t clip their nails often enough.  But I at least now know what I don’t know, if that makes sense.  A Sanctuary’s sole purpose is to promote the well being of its dogs, and to do that, you need people with the expertise to take care of them.  You also need the financial resources it requires.  The SDS has done a fabulous job of both.  Its heart and soul are focused on the dogs, and its purity of purpose attracts those who share that vision.  It is a model we hope to emulate.

This is the second in a series of posts about my visit to the Senior Dog Sanctuary (SDS) in Severn, MD.

When you think of a baseball team, you don’t envision a collection of bats and gloves and a field.  Those things are necessary to play the game, of course, but they are just things.  A baseball team is the players, the group of people who use the bats and gloves and field to play the game, for the benefit of the fans.

The same is true for a Dog Sanctuary like SDS.  Like a baseball team, it has a physical setting:  a building and grounds, with parking and kennels and a lobby.  Behind the scenes, the managers must have a strategic plan and funding to keep the place running.  But those are just things.  The core of the enterprise is the team, the group of people who use those resources for the benefit of the dogs.  If they made bubble gum cards for the SDS, they would not feature equipment or business plans; they would feature the amazing group of men and women (mostly women) who have banded together to make the Sanctuary a reality.  They are the All-Stars.

I say this because I did not fully appreciate it coming in.  When I put together my list of questions for the trip, I focused heavily on the facility, on management, animal care, and finances.  All of those are essential to running a Sanctuary, of course.  But Val told me repeatedly that the most crucial component is the people.  He said you have to have three things to start a Sanctuary:  time, money, and people; and of those three, the people are the most important.  And after meeting the staff and volunteers of SDS, I now understand why.

On the day I visited SDS, I spent probably two hours talking to Debbie Gill, who is the Volunteer Coordinator.  I spent another couple hours discussing staff (and a million other things) with Barb Turner, the Shelter Manager.  I learned that SDS has 11 paid staff, many of them part time, for an equivalent of 6-7 full time employees.  Besides Debbie and Barb, there are 9 kennel technicians who care for the dogs.  There are two kennel technicians on duty at all times, from 6 AM to 8 PM.  (I will talk more about them in a later post.)  Barb lives in the attached house, so there is someone on the premises 24/7.

The relatively small staff is supported by a large number of volunteers.  Debbie walked me through the nuts and bolts of recruiting, training, and scheduling volunteers — a huge task.  I was surprised to learn that, only 18 months into its existence, the SDS has over 100 volunteers.  They are asked to donate at least 4 hours a month, though many put in more time than that.  I met volunteers from as young as 10 (with parental supervision) up to retirement age.

Debbie Gill, Volunteer Coordinator

The volunteers fill a ton of roles at SDS.  Some sign up for 2-hour shifts to walk and care for the dogs.  There are two volunteer slots every shift, and they sign up for shifts online.  Other volunteers do laundry, drive the dogs to the vet, clean, and do other day-to-day tasks.  That much I expected.  What I didn’t expect was the many leadership roles that volunteers fill.  When they go through training, they are encouraged (though not required) to join one or more volunteer committees.  There are seven of these committees.  One reviews adoption applications, calling references and performing home visits (!) to choose good homes for the dogs.  Another puts together a monthly newsletter; another handles fundraising.  There are committees for Adoption/Foster Support, Photos, and Volunteer Night Out.  In another post, I’ll talk about the Adoption Event Committee, which plans and carries out all of the public events they attend.

An SDS volunteer walking a dog

What impressed me most about the SDS Volunteers was how active they were in the organization, and how much say they have in creating programs and procedures.  Having a committee doesn’t guarantee squat; I’ve sat on many useless committees in my time.  But the administration at SDS has empowered the volunteers to think creatively, to show initiative, to take their ideas and run with them.  And the volunteers have responded.  If you know your ideas will be respected, and your efforts supported, it gives you incentive to try new things.  It is a very successful arrangement.  Whenever I commented positively on some aspect of the SDS, Val would invariably bump the praise to the staff and volunteers: “They’re the ones that came up with that.  That was their idea.”

After seeing the staff and volunteers in action, my next question was, where do you find these wonderful people?  Val’s answer:  they will come to you.  To stretch the baseball analogy, “If you build it, they will come.”  There are a lot of dog lovers in the world.  Many of them would love the opportunity to help old dogs; if you make it available, they will jump at the chance.  Many of the workers I talked to had volunteered for years at other shelters or rescue operations.  Like all dog people, they are compassionate, giving, willing to sacrifice for the good of the dogs.  When they post a staff position on line, they usually receive 20 applicants.  They once had an investment banker give up her job to become a kennel technician.  Dog people are the salt of the Earth.

Some people have the false idea that all shelter workers do is “play with dogs all day.”  Though interaction with dogs is important — and fun! — it is only a small part of what the staff of SDS does each day.  They have to juggle a dozen balls at once:  pleas for admission, vet visits, medical issues, potential adopters, staff scheduling, broken generators, public events, coordinating with other shelters… it was non-stop.  It takes a ton of effort to save these dogs and find them a home.  I have never met a more dedicated, selfless, hard-working group of men and women than the volunteers and staff at SDS.  What they’ve been able to accomplish in 18 months is astounding.  Dog people of SDS, my hat is off to you!  Keep up the good work!  I hope we can find others like you for our Sanctuary some day.

Note:  this is the first in a series of posts about what I learned during my visit to the Senior Dog Sanctuary (SDS) in Severn, MD, and how it might apply to Shep’s Place.

In Physics, I teach my students that the world can be described in terms of numbers:  forces, velocities, energies.  Though dog care can’t be reduced to a simple equation like Physics, numbers still tell the story.  The variables may be different — dogs, people, space, money — but what you can accomplish is still constrained by the numbers you have to work with, and how much control you have over them.

Here are some of the numbers that SDS has to deal with.  The county limits the number of dogs they can house, based on the acreage of the site, to 21 or 22 (I didn’t recall exactly).  To help as many dogs as possible, they run as near to capacity as they can.  Their mission is to take in older dogs, nurse them back to health if necessary, and find them homes.  The goal is for the dogs to be short term residents, to find them a loving family, wish them well, and open their kennel space to another deserving dog.  Given that older dogs are harder to place, the results have been phenomenal.  In a year and a half, they have placed over 100 dogs, for a live-release adoption rate of 96%.

Public shelters are legally required to take in all animals that are brought to them.  For example, Great Plains SPCA, where I volunteer, takes in 4000-5000 animals a year.  To handle the inflow, they have to be large, high-volume facilities.  Given that mandate, they do a fantastic job, as I’ve seen firsthand.  SDS, on the other hand, is a private shelter (as Shep’s Place will be).  They are not obligated to take in any particular dog.  They focus on a specific niche, senior dogs, that requires extra care and time.  They of course want to help as many as possible, but it boils down to numbers.  How many dogs are in need?  How many can they take?  How long does it take to find them a home?

I was stunned to discover that SDS receives around 200 requests a week for dog placement, about 30 a day.  Everyone involved with SDS is a serious dog lover, and in their hearts, they would love to save every one of those dogs.  But, alas, you can’t escape the numbers, and the math is harsh.  There are 21 slots, and they are all filled.  You can’t add a dog unless you have an empty slot.  To open a slot, a dog must be adopted or pass away.  They adopt out about 3 dogs a week.  So, do the math:  on average, of the 200 requests a week, they can only take in 3, which is 1.5%.

On the drive in to SDS, I listened in as Val took a call from a person trying to place her dog.  She said she had to travel a lot for her job, and didn’t think she could care for her dog any longer.  Val asked about the dog’s health, his age, and if she had looked elsewhere.  From the caller’s answers, you could tell she was more concerned about her own freedom than the welfare of the dog.  He told her to fill out an application on line, but also to contact other rescue operations that specialized in her dog’s breed.

Many of SDS’s transfer requests come from other shelters, animal control, or rescue efforts.  Others come from people who are facing legitimate difficulties:  poor health, loss of income or home, even death of the owner.  You can tell these people are primarily concerned with the welfare of the dog, and your heart goes out to them.  But the sad fact is that a large number of requests come from people who simply want to get rid of their old dog.  Some don’t want to face the difficult end-of-life decisions that have to be made; others just want to clear the deck of a responsibility they’ve grown tired of.  (I asked Val why they don’t have a sign at the entrance of SDS, and he said if they did, people would dump off their dogs and drive away.)  It’s hard not to become angry with those people, but in the end, it’s a waste of emotional energy to dwell on them.

The management of SDS spends a significant amount of time each week whittling the mountain of intake requests down to the most deserving cases.  Even then, they are left with maybe 20 dogs, all deserving, with only 3 or 4 spaces to fill, so tough decisions have to be made.  Which ones should they “pull” (take in)?  What criteria should they use?  If a certain dog requires an $8000 surgery, can you justify pulling him when you could use the same money to take in 3 other dogs?  It’s hard!  It can feel cold.  But it’s unavoidable.

The simple truth is, you can’t save them all.  If you want to do any good at all, you have to make peace with the fact that you can only help a fraction of the dogs in need.  You have to convince yourself to feel good about those you do help, and not obsess about those you can’t.  It’s difficult, and not everyone can do it.  But it’s the price you pay.

To open space for more dogs, you have to find families to adopt the ones you have.  However, at SDS, the welfare of the dogs is paramount.  The shelter invests a lot of time, love, and resources making dogs ready for adoption, and they come to know and care deeply about them.  Regardless of the numbers, they are not going to release a dog until they know it is going to a good home where it will be well taken care of.  Unlike the SPCA, you can’t just walk into SDS and leave with a dog the same day.  Families have to fill out applications, and SDS volunteers evaluate the applications, calling references and making home visits before they decide which family is a good fit for the dog.  The quality of the adoptions is still more important than the quantity.

After learning about the harsh math of shelter life, I was fortunate to end my day at SDS by observing a family that came in looking to adopt a dog.  The family had three children, one with special needs, and they wanted a mellow companion dog for the kids.  We went into the play yard, and they brought out four dogs in succession.  They gave each dog time to interact with the kids, to play or wander according to their personalities, while sharing their background stories.  It took 45 minutes, but it was time well spent.  Seeing the first bonds of affection develop between a dog and a family reminded me of what it’s all about.  You can’t save them all, but for this dog and this family, just look at the good you can do.

A family meeting a dog at SDS

To learn more about how to start and run a sanctuary, I am currently visiting the Senior Dog Sanctuary in Severn, Maryland.  I read about the sanctuary online, and contacted the founder and Executive Director, Val Lynch, about the possibility of visiting.  He was very supportive of what we are trying to do, and offered to host me for a few days to see their facility, talk to all the workers and volunteers, and ask my umpteen questions.  He even offered to pick me up at the airport and let me stay in his home!  Needless to say, Val is a special sort of person, and a true advocate for dogs.

Val and a volunteer with one of their dogs

I arrived yesterday around 5:00, and we went to tour the facility.  Wow, what a great place!

The Senior Dog Sanctuary, Severn, MD

Val and his family started their Sanctuary in 2015.  They bought a house that had been owned by a dog trainer, and added on a 3-car garage that they turned into a kennel.  It connects to a large, open, shaded play yard in back.  There is a staff member who lives in the house, so there is always someone on site.  They have room for about 22 dogs, which is as many as the county allows.  They specialize in older dogs (7 years or more) who would have trouble being adopted in a normal shelter setting, due to medical or behavior problems.  The goal is to treat the dogs, and find them homes.  They have a 96% adoption (“live-release”) rate, which is amazing.

The play yard
The kennel area

I was stunned to discover the demand for their services.  Val said they receive about 200 requests for placement every week, of which they can accept maybe 3 or 4.  He spends a large chunk of his time evaluating those requests, and figuring out which dogs to take.

Given their focus on older dogs with medical issues, the animals require a lot of veterinary care.  The Sanctuary works with two veterinarians, and they make several trips a day to the vet office.

The Sanctuary has a very large and enthusiastic group of volunteers.  In a given week, they’ll have around 60 different people come in to work with the dogs.  The volunteers have a lot of say in how the Sanctuary is run, at least in terms of day-to-day procedures, outreach activities, and so on.

I’ve met some great people and some wonderful old dogs.  One nice touch is that every dog that stays there has its pawprint taken, and they decorate the reception area with them.

Each dog has his paw print displayed in the reception area
The Reception Area

I met a pair of small dogs, a mother and son who are 16 and 15 years old, and both spry and friendly.  How sweet is that?!

That’s just a quick overview of what I picked up in 4 hours last night.  It’s a “firehose” of information, as Val said.  Today I’ll be talking with volunteers, seeing how their day runs, and helping out with a fundraising event in the evening.  I’ve got 6 pages of questions typed up, and I’ll try to get as many answered as possible.  I’m sure it will take a while to process afterwards, but I’ll let you know what I find out.

Love and pooches!