From Homeless to Home for Life: The Story of Rory

The Story of the year at Home for Life has been the rescue of Rory and her 10 puppies. A story that could have ended tragically instead has given hope and happiness well beyond the gates of Home for Life. 
On the morning of November 30,2014 on a cold and blustery winter morning (air temperature -3, windchill  - 25!) one of our staff members received an unexpected call at the gate. Home for Life's front gate has a call box so people can contact us up at the facility. A man's voice came over the intercom and said, "Hey! did you know there is a dog tied to your gate?!" He then hung up.

The staff on duty ran down to the gate. There they found a starving, shivering, very scared and VERY pregnant dog tied to our front gate.  On her gritty old collar- so dirty that the color couldn't even be determined- was a heavy hook.                                                  
What was interesting was that on the other part of her collar was a brand new leash that had been used to tie her to Home for Life's front gate. Our working theory is that a "Robin Hood" saw this poor dog's predicament; cold, starving, pregnant and chained outside with little shelter. This kind person freed her and brought her to Home for Life, knowing that we would take care of her. 
The dog was so frightened she would not walk up our long driveway, so we carried her.  Even with this extreme duress, she was still very gentle. She was a beautiful red color with soft brown eyes and ears.  We named her Rory after one of Home for Life's beloved paraplegic cats who lived at the sanctuary for  for many years.
The next day, Rory visited our veterinarian who determined she was very close to delivering her puppies. Home for Life rarely has puppies let alone any pregnant animals at the sanctuary, so we had to quickly learn about all aspects about caring for dog who was about to give birth. The veterinarian found that her temperature was dropping- a sign that the delivery is imminent- and thought that she would give birth within a few days.
That very evening, December 1, Rory began pacing and became very anxious. We quickly prepared a birthing box- using one of the swimming pools that our dogs play in in the summer- and lined it with soft blankets and towels. Her first puppy was born at approximately 6: 30 pm that evening and 7 others followed  within the next 2 hours. Rory was very conscientious about cleaning them off and making sure they were nursing, but needed a little help from HFL staff serving as midwives for puppies 6, 7 and 8 as she was very tired. It's amazing she did so well in her condition and with the stress of being left at the gate in the freezing cold just a day before.
We thought she was done at 8 puppies, so left her to be quiet with her new babies. Upon returning just an hour later, we thought we were seeing things when 2 more puppies. We kept counting and recounting, but our eyes were not deceiving us. Rory had a total of 10 puppies: 7 brown like their mom and 3 spotted. 4 little girls and 6 little boys.
Rory was fed nearly 6 times a day in those first few weeks and cleaned her plate each time. She had to build her own health back plus take care of her 10 new puppies. We took great care of Rory, keeping her warm and well-fed. We supplemented her calcium (with TUMS!) and she did the rest. Fortunately all 10 puppies survived, and Rory was an excellent mom, keeping them immaculately clean and always well fed and content. 
Our puppies' weights were monitored every week to be sure they were thriving and all continued to steadily gain. By three weeks, we knew we were out of the woods with them and that they would all survive.   Once their eyes opened, and they could creep and crawl, we bought collars for each puppy. We used kitten collars- in 10 different colors- to help tell them apart  with a safety latch so there was no danger of the puppy getting caught by his or her collar and not being able to get loose. 
When the puppies were 4 weeks old, it was time for their first official Home for Life portrait. They were not just a litter anymore but developing individual personalities as they became stronger and more active.  Photographer Mark Luinenburg captured the puppies and their mother Rory December 29, 2014.
Our hope  for each puppy was that we  would be able to find them a loving home where they would never face the harsh treatment and  neglect their mother had. Her life and those of her puppies could have so easily ended tragically, on the end of a chain, out in the  freezing cold. Instead, all 10 puppies survived, healthy and strong, and were eager to start their new lives. At age 8 weeks, we offered them for adoption along with a free spay/neuter, shots and microchip. Thanks to Fox-9 News, the Twin Cities local station, Rory and her  puppies were featured in a story aired January 9th here and on Fox affiliates in Michigan, Washington DC, Florida, Illinois and California!  The widespread interest in Rory and her puppies and their story of survival was a testament to people's longing  for good news and a happy ending.  
While they waited for their new homes, another adventure was around the corner for the puppies...
After FOX-9  News aired a feature on Rory's dramatic rescue on their news program, Home for Life was able to find loving new families for three of her puppies. For  the remaining 7 pups, 2 girls and 5 boys, we wanted to do all we could to be sure they would make great companions when they did finally find their new families. They had the best food so they could overcome their tough start in life when their mother suffered with malnutrition while pregnant with them.  The puppies had their shots, and were housebroken - they  learned how to use both a litter box and a dog door to go outside. But we wanted to do more for them while they waited to find their new families. 
Home for Life was just starting the latest session of the  Renaissance programa collaboration with the St. Paul School System and Boys' Totem Town of St Paul, MN.  Now in its 13th year, Renaissance Program pairs younger dogs at the sanctuary with boys at Totem Town, a detention for juvenile offenders. The boys teach the dogs obedience with the goal of attaining a level achievement so the dogs can pass the Canine Good Citizen's test. The Home for Life dogs who have completed  the Renaissance Program  are then recruited for involvement in our community outreach programs, providing pet therapy to at-risk people of all ages in our community.
In the Renaissance program, Rory's pups became part of our community outreach programs, Peace Creatures, where the love and care that Home for Life gives our animals is leveraged to provide solace and joy to at risk people of all ages-annually Home for Life touches the lives of over 1,200 adults and 1,000 children and teens through our pet therapy programs.
We had never incorporated puppies into a Renaissance session, but with seven little ones  who needed socialization and training, it was too great an opportunity to pass by. For the six weeks, our puppies traveled from Home for Life to Boys' Totem Town once a week to work with two different classes of kids- 20 students between the two sessions.  The kids  taught the puppies to sit, to come when called, to stay, the down command and helped the puppies  learn to walk on a leash without pulling- or chewing the leash! Besides learning puppy manners and basic obedience commands that will keep them safe and ensure they would be great  companions, the puppies received plenty of one on one attention and  lots of love from the students. It was so touching to see a tough teenage boy tenderly hold a tired puppy after the training sessions.
Though it was time for the rest of the puppies to find their own families, it was certainly  tough to see them leave us.  
Home for Life did our best to screen potential adopters to find forever homes for the rest of the puppies.  Finding the right families for them was a challenge. Many were interested in the puppies because they were so cute but we wanted them to find forever homes, and not have them given up after only a few months or a few years.  The puppies- energetic hounds- would need plenty of  daily exercise and activity, ideally a fenced area so they wouldn't follow their noses and wander away, or with owners who could devote  time to daily long walks. With their short hair, the puppies had to live in the house, as a part of the family, and not be  chained out on a stake or to a dog house as their mother likely was. They would  grow to be medium sized dogs and would have a loud baying "hound bark " like their mom so living in an apartment, a rental or close confines of a suburban neighborhood would not be a fit. We thought about sending them to a rescue or a shelter to be adopted out, but our staff had put their hearts into saving Rory and  her puppies. We felt their best chance to find the right home was with us. In the end, we were able to  find loving new families for a total of  8 of the puppies. The last two puppies continue to live at Home for Life for now. Rory, who was such a devoted mother, loves to have two of her puppies still near. 

On these summer evenings, she will often drag a dog bed out into the run so she can sleep outside and watch over her two puppies who have their own townhouse right across the driveway from where she lives in the main dog building. Sweet!  

 Even with all our effort to find forever, new homes for Rory's puppies, it's true that sometimes adoptions fail for a variety of reasons. The many calls and emails we receive each week reveal that many animals don't keep their homes. For this reason, Home for Life  put a safety net under all these puppies so  if their adoption failed for any reason, they could always be returned to us. No matter what the future holds, they will always have a home at our sanctuary. 
  As for Rory, at this time, our intention is to make her a permanent member of Home for Life, and perhaps train her in our therapy dog corps as part of our community outreach work. While several people emailed and seemed interested in adopting her after the news show aired, none followed up with the adoption paperwork and application. Before she came to us,  Rory had a "home" and they didn't treat her very well. She is lucky to be alive. As Cleveland Amory wrote in his book, Ranch of Dreams,  about the famed Black Beauty ranch, "It is not that we are selfish hoarders of  our animals. It is rather that so many of our animals came to us in the beginning, abused or ill used  that we do not want to take even the remotest chance  that such misfortune would ever happen to them again." 
  Who would have ever thought, on that  bitterly cold November morning when we found a scared, starving pregnant dog tied at our gate, that her puppies, born the very next day, would grow up  to give  so much? The story of their mother's rescue and the birth of her 10 puppies inspired people across the country. As part of Home for Life's Renaissance program, these little puppies, born of an unwanted, abandoned dog, have helped at-risk teens by giving them much needed love, a chance to express kindness and compassion and achieve a sense of accomplishment, maybe for the first time in their lives. And now, thanks to the teens' hard work and dedication, the puppies have become wonderful, well trained companions for the families who have adopted them.  
Saving the life of this one dog has impacted the lives of so many more- her 10 puppies, the many people hungry for good news and a happy ending, the kids who helped socialize and train the puppies and were helped in return, and the families that the puppies have joined. Their happy ending has  had positive consequences far beyond the rescue of one dog.  Instead of their lives ending on the end of a chain, on the ice in the bitter cold, Rory and her puppies have overcome this terrible start, because of your support, and will go on to have lives full of meaning and purpose- their story a testament to the power of good triumphing over  heartless indifference, cruelty and fear.

The Coolest Time of Year

Another year, another winter at Home for Life.As the country braces for another onslaught of cold and snow this week, it's business as usual at Home for Life. Our facility is spread out over several acres, so contending with winter weather has always been a fact of life at the sanctuary.  When we designed the sanctuary we wanted to give our animals, particularly our dogs, as much room as possible and the freedom to go in or out as they pleased. This sanctuary design  affords our animals the best quality of life possible, but makes winter a challenge for our staff who must spend a lot of time outside. Our buildings and townhouses are all heated but staff  must move among the buildings to feed and medicate the animals, to clean and to scoop the runs each day.     

There are positives about winter as we've noted in previous annual tributes to the season on our blog   here. One positive this year is that we're not located on the East coast, let alone Boston, where they're really getting walloped. Any year that we dodge that bullet and have a comparatively mild winter and a reasonable amount of snow is cause for relief and celebration.  Last year was our region's endless winter which commenced with a huge snow storm in early December, 2013 and continued, unabated with arctic temperatures and heavy snows until April, 2014.

 One memorable work day for me at Home for Life occurred in February: blizzard conditions were predicted and the staff on duty called in, nervous about the commute. I stepped up to cover the shift and found myself in the midst of a full on  ice storm, the snow propelled so strongly from the north that I couldn't see to move between the buildings and the townhouses. In no time, the drifts were nearly as high as my hips,  and  I kept sinking through the top of the snow cover to my waist. I was terrified I would miss one of our old or small dogs stuck outside and I couldn't see them in their runs because the snow was driven against the chain link creating a screen effect. Our brave overnight staff person made it to work and on time too. I asked her how the roads were; she told me I could  probably  make it home if I stayed on the main road. I decided to try to make it home. Mistake.  Just about the time I started off around 10 pm, the winds started up, blowing the snow that had fallen across the roads. I could not see 6 inches in front of me: the headlights on bright made it worse. Soon, the snow was blowing so fiercely, I realized I was in a full on blizzard, and the temperature started dropping. I crept along at about 20 miles an hour, and felt lucky to stay  on the road, which could barely be seen. In fact, I missed the exit for the interstate and ended up on a side road, and nearly stuck in a drift  and unable to see, surrounded by white whirling snow. That's the astounding thing about a blizzard- no headlights can penetrate it, and any person in the middle of it becomes completely disoriented in the white out, unable to establish any landmark( like the horizon- you're in the middle of a white snowball, unable to distinguish the ground from the sky)  or sense of direction to get out of it. I turned the car around and blasted out of the drift before the car was completely covered in snow, and although I wasn't sure of where I was, decided to retrace what I thought had been my route. Through the whirling snow I glimpsed the sign for 94 and found the exit- two tire tracks. The only other vehicles on the freeway were a couple of semis- also travelling about 20 mph. I somehow, finally made it home, my hair drenched with sweat from sheer terror and anxiety. I celebrated by watching the Men's Figure Skating Olympic Finals, relieved to be home and alive.

 The next morning, the company who plows Home for Life's roads had to shovel a path for our guard to get out because the snows were so high, up to her waist, that she couldn't get out of the building. We were  just grateful that all our animals were safe and warm, and that the worst thing we had to deal with was digging out of the heavy snows that had fallen. Here are some photos taken at the sanctuary the next morning after the blizzard: it's hard to believe it could look so beautiful after such a frightening night.

There's a beauty to winter that I wouldn't want to miss by fleeing to  a different region of the country, and it's exhilirating to bundle up and  to fearlessly get right out into it all instead  of  becoming like Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," stir crazy from  six months of hibernation in an overheated house.  I've also learned that the cold is less intimidating  and hurts less if you're not afraid of it. Another story from the memorable winter of 2013/2014: working the pm shift( 4pm- 10 pm or later) I was running between the buildings, all of which are warmly heated to 70 degrees or higher for the animals' comfort. I had dressed for the cold with many layers, so it was warm for me in the buildings. and it felt refreshing to be outside to cool off. I didn't bother with a coat as I moved around, just had my fleece sweatshirt topper and a hat on. I  thought  it seemed a bit colder than "normal"  but didn't think much about it until I started my car so it could warm up before I left and the engine screamed in protest.  Puzzled. I  checked the car thermometer -and was shocked to see that it was - 26 below.This was the  air  temperature, not   the wind chill reading, which probably would have dropped it another 10 degrees at least. 


Whining doesn't make the winter go by any faster, and the great thing about the really cold or blustery winter days is the perspective they create: Oh, how we rejoice when it's above zero, let alone 20 or even  30 degrees! Winter is also a great way to cull employees and keep the riff raff out: do you love animals? Do you love them only in the summer when it's sunny and warm and you can wear shorts and work on your suntan? Or do you care about them enough to show up and  take care of them  even when it's - 10 and you have to be at work at 7 am to feed 100 dogs and scoop their runs or when it's sub zero degrees,  10 pm at night, and you have to do a final water check and run medications.  In the winter of 2014, I interviewed a candidate and figured: why sugarcoat it? So I had her out to Home for Life and walked her around. As I recall, that day was about 5 degrees. After showing her our facility, I asked her what she thought, and she said she loved it and hoped she could work there. What?! What about the cold and all the snow?, I asked. "Oh, this is nothing- I'm from Fargo," she stated.  HIRED!    

There's definitely a strategy to dressing for our winter weather. Executing the strategy successfully makes it possible to handle the conditions with aplomb, like a duck on the water- the weather literally just rolls right off. A hat, preferably with ear flaps, is a necessity and can actually make it seem 10- 15 degrees warmer. Dressing in layers, as mentioned above, is a huge help. I find thermal underwear, armour all or my downhill ski underwear is the forcefield that makes windchill something I can laugh off. Going into the warm buildings, our staff peel layers off to stay comfortable. On 30 degree days, having become conditioned to the cold and running between our heated buidlings and townhouses, the staff will often be only in turtle necks or t-shirts.  Waterproof, insulated boots  keep the wet and cold at bay- nothing is worse than cold feet and soaking wet socks. You can't possibly be warm at all if your feet are wet and cold. I don't wear a heavy winter coat  on any but  the very coldest days where the wind is really blowing- then a  coat that is like a heavy duty insulated windbreaker works the best, and some staff go for snow pants as well. Gloves are a matter of debate: I like to be able to work without anything on my hands if possible- it seems they just make it clumsy to handle leashes etc. If gloves or mittens must be used on the very coldest days I think thin woolen gloves are the best so I still have some dexterity with my hands to open gates, handle medications ,etc. I borrow a lot of ideas for dressing for work from skiing, and  a  snood or even a  balaclava (worn by troops on Himalayan mountain duty) does the trick, rolled up over the chin, nose and cheeks to take the edge off  on those days when the north wind is blowing so stongly that moving around in it causes pain similar to an " ice cream headache", that painful condition that occurs when you eat something cold too fast. 

  About this time of the year, winter has gone on so long it's difficult to remember the warmth  of summer, and that it will ever be green and sunny again.   And in the middle of summer, will we dread the advent of winter again or remember it's beauty and challenges and that as we made it through another year, we can do it again and wouldn't have it any other way. 

It's been wonderful to have the help of photographer Mark Luinenburg, who like our staff, doesn't fear winter, and is willing to come out and take photos year around. Below are his latest photos of Winter 2014 at Home for Life:  HERE      

Famed Photograher Hannah Stonehouse Hudson Vists Home for Life Animal Sanctuary and The Story of Simon

The Native American Spiritual Adviser told her that she would know when her husband Jim was close because she would see eagles near. Eagles were Jim's symbol. So we knew it would be a special day when Hannah said the eagles seemed to be accompanying her on her drive to Home for Life, especially as she approached the sanctuary, circling above as she drove up our driveway, as if to herald her arrival. Eagles have  special meaning for her, and it almost seemed as if the eagles had led her to Home for Life that chilly but sunny and clear day this mid November.

For Native Americans  as well as people of many other cultures eagles have long signified courage  and a connection to the divine because they can fly higher than any bird. They are of the earth but their powerful ability to soar so high seems spiritual as well. Little did Hannah know that she would meet a special dog at Home for Life that day, who seems to embody the spirit of the eagle, a gentle Doberman with a mighty heart named Simon.

Hannah Stonehouse Hudson is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer whose photo “John & Schoep” went viral in 2012.

In the midst of this stupendous success, Hannah suffered an unimaginable loss: the untimely death of her young husband Jim, a fishing guide, due to hypothermia. During this thrilling time counterpointed by heartbreaking tragedy, Hannah has stayed engaged and positive, practicing her art around the world and giving generously to the animal rescue community by photographing the dogs and cats in their care. She is based in Bayfield, Wisconsin but travels all over for her work. Her specialty is ”photographing objects that move fast and bark!” Hannah adores dogs! She is so busy, famous and so in demand but made time to photograph Home for Life's animals for our sponsorship program. She visited the sanctuary and spent several hours with us late morning into the afternoon on her way to catch a flight to California to photograph dogs at a rescue in Santa Monica.

Even before she came to Home for Life, Hannah said she wanted to sponsor one of our dogs and was eager to meet them all. She appreciates and loves all dogs but one of those at Home for Life really touched her heart.

Simon is a red Doberman and now about 9 years old. Since he first came to us, Simon has seemed to inspire everyone around him with his gentle and radiant spirit and eagerness to forge special relationships with all he meets.

We were asked to help Simon by a veterinarian after the former owners brought him in to be euthanized. There was no way the vet could euthanize the 9 month old puppy (then called Phoenix ironically).The vet convinced Simon's owners to sign a  a release  surrendering the puppy to his custody. Simon reportedly had physical disabilities that resulted in frequent accidents and could not be trusted in the house. The owners would leave him crated when they were at work but were fed up when they returned home to find messes in the kennel. The vet didn’t think he could be placed in a new home and asked Home for Life to take him in.

Simon has always lived in our doggy townhouses. With access to a spacious outdoor run attached to his townhouse, Simon was able to get outside for bathroom whenever nature called rather than having to wait hours in a crate for the chance to be taken for a walk, or if not in the crate, to hope someone noticed when he needed to be let out.

With Simon's young age we wanted to get him involved in dog training to help him learn his obedience skills and  provide him  with a challenge for his obvious intelligence. We hoped that with his gentle nature he would become a therapy dog. We enrolled him in our Renaissance Program, and Simon developed a special bond with Ron, his student trainer at Totem Town. Like Simon, Ron was long legged and active. And like Simon, underneath a tough exterior Ron was gentle hearted and caring.

Ron put his heart into training Simon, who was still an ungainly pup, barely one year old, and successfully taught him the basics of obedience like walking on a leash without pulling, sitting when asked, staying for petting and lying down. Ron was so motivated by the fact that he was helping Simon and the many people Simon would go on to help through his work as a therapy dog. It was very inspiring to see Ron walk proudly with Simon on leash in the final classes where it was obvious they had achieved so much.

Ron was not able to finish the Totem Town class unfortunately, but shortly thereafter, Simon met Cesar Milan when he was in town and promotional photos were taken for our 2007 gala, a landmark event for Home for Life. Because of Ron's hard work to train Simon, Simon was chosen to represent Home for Life and our gala, posing for the pictures with Cesar, and the photos by Mark Luinenburg turned out great.
Simon with Cesar Milan 

Because of Ron's diligent work with Simon, he was able to become certified as a therapy dog. Simon became a well-loved and well recognized therapy dog with the VA Poly Trauma Unit in Minneapolis at the VA Medical Center. This Poly Trauma Unit is one of only four such facilities in the entire country. They are provided for veterans returning from the wars with multiple traumatic injuries: head injuries, amputations and other conditions that will require long term rehabilitation and care. As a Doberman, Simon was a “manly” breed who appealed to the soldiers, especially the young men recovering from injuries. The physical therapists incorporated the Home for Life's dog visits into the exercises for the patients,for example, throwing balls for the dogs to retrieve to work arm muscles. Simon's calm and loving presence even motivated one young soldier's recovery from devastating war wounds, and the relationship was documented in a St. Paul Pioneer Press article about Home for Life's work with patients in the VA Poly Trauma Unit. See the article here.

Simon with Shane, our black and tan Doberman, who is Simon's protégé and now visits the soldiers at the VA Polytrauma Unit. For many years the two boys did the visits together.

When Simon was approximately 7 years old, he developed a spinal problem that is common in Dobermans: Wobbler's Disease.  There is no cure and the impact on the quality of life of affected dogs is profound. They become very disabled, and the disease is progressive, rendering these large breed dogs unable to walk. As his disease progressed, Simon became nearly quadriplegic. Yet he had such a palpable will to live, and to give. He was not ready to give up and we couldn't give up on Simon either.

We tried various approaches to try to help Simon: chiropractic which was unsuccessful in helping him, and surgery. Surgery represented a huge risk since a procedure might have left him unable to breathe independently, requiring him to be on a respirator. At the University, Simon underwent an MRI; after evaluating the MRI results, while Simon was still under anesthesia, the veterinary surgeons and neurologists determined that they could not offer a solution for him via surgical intervention. In a way it was a relief because the risk was so great had the procedure failed.

At this point some staff thought it might be better to put Simon down. He was so hard to care for they complained. I vetoed this option, clearly recognizing that Simon wasn't ready to die. Then, they thought it would be easier to care for Simon and that he might do better in the main dog building rather than his longtime townhouse and lobbied to move him there.  We gave it a try. But, it was apparent that this move was more for their convenience than Simon's. Dogs may not be able to talk but Simon made it abundantly clear he wanted nothing to do with a new location. He wanted to stay with his long time roommates and friends. He sat at the window of the front door of our main dog building, wistfully looking out, searching for his friends and crying. In the end it was decided that if we could give Simon some comfort by letting him be with his friends in his townhouse, that needed to be the place he should be, even if it made a bit more extra work for the staff. Thankfully, our current staff accommodates Simon and puts his welfare first before their convenience. Simon was reunited with his longtime friends and roommates Stella the sheepdog cross, Buster Brown the blind lab, and Ruby the walker coonhound.
Simon with Ruby,summer 2013

Simon with Stella and Buster Brown, taken last summer after Simon began walking on his own following his surgery

Searching for a solution for him we learned about a new surgery for Wobbler's Disease that had had a high rate of success. In early February 2013, we arranged for the pioneering surgeon Dr. Fillipo Adamo, to fly to Chicago from his practice in San Francisco to help Simon. Simon was driven there by some of our wonderful volunteers and underwent the new, but promising procedure for Wobbler’s where a special device was implantedWe sent photos of Simon to Dr. Adamao before his surgery - the photos of him with Cesar Millan and those that had appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. With great insight Dr. Adamo commented that from the photos, it was clear Cesar wasn't the only celebrity - Simon was a star in his own right!

The surgery was a success but Simon had a long and slow recovery. For the first few months we performed range of motion exercises to keep his muscles supple and preserve his flexibility. He was turned every 2-3 hours to prevent the development of pressure sores. He received medication to help with pain and promote muscle relaxation.  Four months into the rehabilitation, when we had nearly concluded that the surgery must have failed, Simon started to walk on his own! In the mornings, there he was - waiting for the staff at the gate of his run- he had risen to his feet on his own and walked out the dog door and to the front of his run. It was incredible and miraculous to see him finally be able to stand up  and walk on his own, and we were so grateful!

Simon still has a good deal of stiffness on his right side and doesn't walk “normally” but loves doing everything his roommates and our “normal” dogs do including making his way to the meadow for exercise with his roommates and best friends. After his surgery, Simon received several months of acupuncture therapy which gave his muscles some relief. When Hannah visited in November to take the sponsor photos Simon was there to greet her, and walked from his townhouse to the lower meadow with the other dogs from his group. He wasn't going to miss the chance to meet a new friend!
HFL staff Kaitlin takes Hannah's photo with Simon using Hannah's own camera!

This hard winter has been a challenge to Simon's recovery. He seemed to lose ground with his rehabilitation, losing his mobility as the weather grew colder. This winter has been the coldest and snowiest we have had in 15 years at Home for Life. By the end of 2013,Simon  was not walking at all. Our dedicated staff continued to take care of him faithfully, making sure his bedding was thick and comfortable, holding a water bowl for him so he could drink, helping him to his feet and getting him outside on warmer, sunny days. Even though our employees never complained about caring for Simon, as heavy as he was to handle, leaving him like this was not a good long term solution for him. If Simon had ever let us know that he'd had enough, as difficult as it would have been, we would have let him go, knowing that we had done everything we could to help him.

How do we know when one of our animals is ready to cross over, to die? How do we know when they have had enough? I am asked this question all the time. Sanctuaries take in and care for the special cases, many of them high risk animals with significant health conditions. It’s understood that part of our mission is that we will go the extra mile for our animals. Our animals need that extra mile, often, to have their best chance at a fulfilling life. The toughest question we have to ask ourselves is when our efforts are directed to saving us - from the heartbreak of losing one of our beloved animals, and from the sense of defeat that occurs with giving up hope, conceding that there was nothing more we could do to help. It's hard to give up when the entire reason for the organization's existence is to rescue, to save animals. And - it's just as difficult to honor our animals' wish to continue to fight for their life if they want to live. We've witnessed miracles often enough over the fifteen years Home for Life has existed to know that we must support our animals as long as they want to live.

Animals aren't afraid of death like most human beings are. While they don't fear death, they love their life and will fight to live if they know it's not their time to leave. As their caretakers, humility is required to be able to listen to our animals and recognize when they are done and have had enough versus when they still feel connected to life and want help to make the most of their time left. They convey their continuing connection to life thru eye contact, engagement in what's going on around them and interest in food and treats! So many of our animals who have terminal diagnoses are still alive and not only just alive - but happy, pain free, active, enjoying their animal friends, and engaged in life around them. Defying their medical prognosis, these animals live on. What if we had euthanized them; put them to death after they had been diagnosed? If there is still a spark, killing them before their time is a betrayal.

Disabled and old dogs and cats take a lot of work and creativity to care for to ensure them a quality life. It takes patience, effort, and imagination to picture the potential of the animal instead of focusing on the limitations. The prevailing idea is that if an animal cannot function or walk like a normal or young dog or cat in their prime, they must have no quality of life. That position is pretty ignorant. Most animals want to live if they can and will make the best of their situation, focusing on what they CAN do not their lack. Simon is just one of our special animals whose life at the sanctuary demonstrates that if a cat or dog can enjoy the sun, tasty food, treats and attention, the company of their dog or cat friends, the animal still has quality of life that should be preserved and cherished. In fact Simon is one of four dogs at Home for Life who were quadriplegic and later recovered fully. Their stories remind us to never give up and to honor an animal's choice to live with adversity when they have faith and want to keep trying.  

Animals like Simon who come into the world with disabilities or who become disabled as they age still find a safe haven at Home for Life® where they will be loved and cared for as long as they may live. As we get to know these special animals, their disabilities become less of a defining and identifying feature, while their courage and their indomitable spirits become what we think of when reflecting on all they mean to us.

Our goal is now to support Simon by helping him to walk again and to make sure he will be able to enjoy this coming spring and summer when it finally arrives. With this objective before us, we found a great canine rehabilitation facility where Simon now goes twice a week. There he swims in a tank, walking in an underwater treadmill. The warm water allows his tense neck muscles to relax and the water buoys him up so he can stand and work his muscles safely. Massage and physical therapy, and a change in his medication are also part of his rehabilitation program. Back at the sanctuary, our staff helps Simon with his “homework” - a number of physical therapy exercises to strengthen his muscles and improve his flexibility. This physical therapy represents a significant investment in Simon of time and money, but already there is improvement. Simon has much more flexibility of his neck muscles and can turn and  flip himself around to reach his water and get the most comfortable spot on his bedding.

Simon's case raises an important question about animal rescue and the philosophy of our sanctuary with regard to the animals we help. Why direct so many resources to helping one single animal? That amount of money it has taken to help Simon and allow him to live a pain free life and to walk again, we hope, could have been used to help several animals. Where resources are limited trying to do the most good for as many as possible is a legitimate approach to rescuing animals.

Home for Life has always believed that helping animals in need and saving lives requires a multifaceted approach. A focus on moving numbers of animals thru adoption and reducing numbers of animals thru sterilization addresses one aspect of the need. An exclusive focus on the numbers, however, will exempt many deserving animals from help. Sanctuaries like Home for Life have a vital role to play if as many animals as possible are to be saved because a true sanctuary is created to focus on the individual animal and his/her unique needs. The current focus in animal welfare is on moving animals through the system to adoption and posting high numbers of animals altered and adopted. Dogs such as Simon who fall outside the parameters of the 'adoptable' animal and who require a rescue to divert disproportionate resources to help them will not be served by the conventional current models offered by animal welfare. Sanctuaries whose focus is on the individual animal provide a depth of care and a lifesaving, life affirming alternative for these special animals.

As long as we've known this special dog, Simon, one continuing theme of his life has been his ability to connect with amazing people who have identified with his  hopeful attitude and  kindness. Had Home for Life not invested the time and effort to help Simon during his years  with us, how much we and everyone he has met would have missed! His love of life, his courage, and his resilience. We didn't direct Hannah's attention to Simon but in retrospect it was no surprise that he was the dog who most touched her heart. Like Simon, Hannah has faced adversity with grace and courage, and has stayed engaged with life in a positive way instead of letting setbacks overcome her. It was very inspiring to meet such a talented and optimistic person who still has an open heart to give back, and to see her connect with a kindred spirit, our Simon.

Here is the Facebook album of highlights from Hannah's Facebook page. And here is her blog about her day at Home for Life.

See all of Hannah's photos from her day at Home for Life here.

Whatever happened to River & Smokey?

Did you know that in the U.S., up to 90% of animals will lose their homes during their lifetimes? Most animals surrendered to shelters are just 2 ½ years old. Shelters and rescues work hard to find new homes for these animals, but only 24% of them get adopted each year. The adoption numbers for older dogs are much more grim, let alone for senior pets who are bonded pairs and hope to stay together. Statistics like these make clear how rare it is for a dog or cat to land in a stable, loving, lifelong home. Although older animals have a hard time finding a new home, age 8 is really middle age for an animal, who will still have half their life or more to live after that benchmark. But many shelters and rescues won’t accept a surrendered animal over age 8 or even age 6;they know that animal will be perceived as “old” by the prospective pet owner looking to adopt and will be difficult if not impossible to place in a new home. For an animal who is a senior and now surrendered to a rescue or shelter, there is the compounded trauma of losing their home and then realizing they are unwanted and likely not to get a second chance.

This spring, you may have read about two special senior dogs, one blind and one deaf, whose owner had lost his home after his wife died. He desperately wanted to find a new home for his boys, one that would keep the two dogs together. Their owner described how he acquired both dogs when they were just puppies:

Smokey's mother was picked up by animal control when she was pregnant, so he was born into the +system. He came into my life when he was three months old. He turned blind about two years ago, but it hasn't stopped him from being a lovable guy. River was found floating down the Mississippi river, as a puppy. Hence, his name. They are both getting older, but are a great couple of dogs, and I so want to give them the opportunity to live out the rest of their days, together.
River and Smokey have been together since they were puppies. Now both age 11, the two big guys had become each other’s eyes and ears and relied on each other to navigate the world. Smokey, a collie/Doberman/Shepard mix, lost his sight about 2 years ago while River lost his hearing about the same time. Together since they were just about 3 months old, the dogs have forged a bond and are inseparable, depending upon one another to face the world: Smokey ears for River and River eyes for Smokey. Their story touched the hearts of dog lovers around the country, as their story went viral, and their owner desperately looked for a safe landing for his dogs before he lost his house.

The owner contacted Home for Life to help the dogs, but we were at capacity so, we asked him to hang on to them until his house was sold, in the hope we would be able to work them in a few months. But he worried that he was not providing the care and attention the dogs needed given his demanding work schedule and continued to look for a rescue to help his dogs.

We assumed that River and Smokey were going to stay with their owner until his house sold. Time marched on, and when we didn't hear back from the owner we lost track of the two dogs.

The next information we heard about them was about four months later, when a supporter contacted us via Home for Life's Facebook to see if we would take them. River and Smokey had landed with a local foster based rescue – Ruff Start Rescue of Princeton MN- and they were looking for a home for the two dogs where they could stay together. We will always be grateful to Ruff Start Rescue for taking Smokey and River in to their foster based program at this critical point. Had they not stepped up to help the dogs when no one else would or could, it is difficult to think what the outcome would have been for River and Smokey as older homeless dogs.

The Two Dogs with their former owner this winter 

The rescue assigned the two brothers to a foster home in Bloomington, and attained publicity via many news and internet outlets including KARE 11 news. 

On the feature story that aired on KARE11, the foster  pledged that Smokey and River would remain together forever whether that meant they stayed in the foster home or found a new adoptive home. Watch the Kare 11 video.

Unfortunately, this pledge could not be fulfilled when the foster home did not work out for Smokey and River. Smokey was alleged to have chewed some woodwork in the foster home, and then the foster accused the two dogs - who had been comrades and friends for over 11 years - of fighting with one another. She gave the rescue less than 24 hours to remove the dogs from her home. The rescue had no other foster homes available and had no choice but to put the dogs into boarding - in separate kennel runs.

Home for Life learned of the two dogs’ latest predicament after a volunteer from the rescue contacted us, recognizing that the dogs were deteriorating in the boarding kennel, losing weight and becoming depressed and despondent. They had no future and no prospect for another foster home let alone for adoption.  River was having trouble walking without pain, and there was talk of putting him down. Smokey was physically better off but was lonely and afraid, without his brother in the unfamiliar setting and unable to see.  We decided that the two older dogs deserved to have a safe and peaceful home -together- for their last years, and this time decided not to pass up the second chance to help them. The two dogs came to Home for Life late this summer.

It's hard to think of how alone an animal must feel when they lose their home: an animal surrendered by their owner or separated from them via circumstances is never more vulnerable, forced to rely on the kindness and mercy of strangers for their survival and any hope for a future. Animals who come into a rescue or shelter from the same household are often separated to make them more "adoptable”, where one of the individuals seems like an easier placement. This tactic to obtain a new home for one of the animals at the expense of the other who may be less appealing disregards the friendships between these family members. Now an animal has not only lost their home but their best friend as well, a blow they may never recover from, whether they find a new home or remain behind, unwanted.

Sanctuaries, as true homes to their wards, honor the bonds and friendships among their animals. Certainly having the opportunity to observe our dogs and cats over time has confirmed that animals form strong alliances and close friendships just as we do, mourn when their treasured friends pass away and rejoice when they are reunited with a long lost comrade. Animals have long emotional memories, and never forget their loved ones be they two-legged or four. Dogs and cats kept as pets seem to be valued only insofar as they have a relationship with a person but their friendships with other animals are just as important a part of their well-being and quality of life. Yet so many animals are socially isolated from others of their own kind and are very lonely even with attentive owners. Animals of the same species have an unspoken understanding, and those who are friends have an even more profound connection. We feel fortunate that, as a care for life sanctuary, we can provide a rich social life for our dogs and cats and the opportunity to foster the touching bonds between pairs of animals that have found their way to us.

Although their foster home claimed that they were aggressive with each other, River and Smokey have been well behaved at Home for Life and seemed relieved and grateful to be reunited. They have their own townhouse at the sanctuary. Both dogs needed and are now on medicine for arthritis, and they are so much more comfortable. Both have gained weight, and their coats are shiny and healthy. They both were recently groomed and look handsome and loved the “spa experience”.

New collars for the dogs: for River: hearts, for Smokey: hugs and kisses, both from Dogla of Gig Harbor, Washington

Now settled in at Home for Life, their  life at the sanctuary is nothing like the years they had with their family  but is just as fulfilling as they enjoy new found canine companionship, the freedom to go outside when they want, plenty of daily activity and superior food, vet care and grooming. The stimulation of the daily activity, exercise, and companionship from humans, dogs’ friends and many new experiences keep the dogs young at heart. Their life is much different than when with their prior family but the essential qualities that create a quality home for any animal are present at the sanctuary: loving care, a place to belong, companionship, safety and security.


Home for Life believes a place can be created for animals that may be overlooked for adoption but who still can live a quality life and that these animals include the senior pet.  In theory, older animals are “adoptable” or “place able” but these definitions matter little to a dog or cat who can’t find a home and is out of options. An animal is not “adoptable” if no one wants them.    Older animals have the capacity to hope for better days ahead, and inspire us with  their ability to live in the present to make the best of all that is good in their lives. If they can enjoy any aspect of their life, those qualities are what they focus on. . Animal welfare needs to create safe harbors - sanctuaries- for senior pets which offer quality and loving care for those cats and dogs( and other animals too!) who want to live and can live even if the next chapter of their life can't be in an adoptive home.. Our senior animals know that each phase of life is precious and that a home can be defined in many ways.

You can meet Smokey and River in person at our upcoming Fall Gala, the Fancy Feast, November 19, 2013 at the Metropolitan Ballroom in Minneapolis. Our other special guest will be Temple Grandin.  More information and reservations are available here: