The organization pulls most of its dogs from municipal shelters, but also accepts owner surrenders of dogs who may be difficult to place. In addition to animals with behavioral issues, the sanctuary welcomes seniors, those with medical problems and those who, for whatever reason, are perennially overlooked in traditional shelters.
Recent sanctuary guests included Lucas, a Cocker Spaniel with a penchant for guarding his many treasures; Tinka, an elderly Chihuahua whose original owners were unable to deal with her Cushing’s disease; and Suzie, a Pit Bull whose hyperanxiety, which stemmed from having been caged for 15 months, caused her to aggressively protect her meager turf. Especially touching was Lucy, an abused Pit who was terrified of people. At the shelter, she cowered in the back of her kennel and emitted a continuous low growl. Her breakthrough came after nine days in Ashford, when she melted her 50-pound body onto the lap of a caring volunteer. The sanctuary refers to such milestone moments as the “personality blossom.”
Though Best Friends Sanctuary does not operate the same type of homebased facility, it does offer something related: a sleepover program in which prospective adopters can spend quality time with the pooch of their choice at one of the local pet-friendly hotels. Faith Maloney, Best Friends co-founder, characterizes it as one of their most helpful programs, not just from the dog’s point of view, but from the potential adopter’s as well. That’s because the experience of walking past row after row of kennels and being buffeted by a constant din of barking can make even the most committed adopters feel as though they are adrift in a giant sea of dogs in which no one animal is distinguishable. Removing a dog from that environment immediately changes the perspective.
“If you look at a dog racing around in a kennel, you can’t picture them in your home,” says Maloney, adding that there is an 80 percent adoption rate for sleepovers. “So even in a hotel room, you get to see the dog’s individual preferences— does she like the bed or the couch? Does she snore? Does she look out the window? Suddenly, the dog looks like she belongs in a home—and maybe that home is yours.”
The Baummers couldn’t agree more. The calm environment of the sanctuary gave them a chance to see the real Finn, the one who immediately hopped onto a couch and asked for a belly rub. Also helpful, since they have an elderly cat, was the fact that Finn could be tested in a home setting with some of the feline guests in the neighboring cottage.
Of course, facilities like this aren’t cheap. Our Companions has embarked on a $5 million capital campaign to complete the sanctuary village, which is expected to eventually accommodate about 40 dogs and 160 cats. That population level is projected to result in the rescue, rehabilitation and adoption of 160 dogs and 1,200 cats annually.
Aside from fundraising, Linker’s biggest challenge now is adjusting to the program’s success. “We thought it would take several months for the dogs to rehabilitate from past physical and emotional trauma, but it’s actually happening very quickly, and people are incredibly eager to adopt them,” she says, adding that the dogs spend, on average, just 40 days at the sanctuary.
The unexpectedly speedy turnaround caught the design team off guard. The first cottage had given significant space to common areas, in the hope that long-term canine guests would benefit from the ongoing camaraderie. But, the typical shorter stays didn’t give dogs enough time to gel as a cozy pack; instead they were forced to make constant social adjustments as dogs were adopted out and new ones arrived. To better manage this dynamic, the second and third cottages were built with more individual living quarters for dogs who need additional stability away from the pack disruptions.
The need for a redesign doesn’t much bother Linker. “Actually,” she says, “this is a nice problem to have.”