It often begins with a whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own rescue?” At least, that’s how it began for us.
We were a handful of volunteers at a high-kill shelter. Like so many volunteers at so many shelters across the country, we rejoiced when dogs got adopted and were flattened when they were euthanized for no apparent reason. We knew there had to be a better way. But could we figure out what it was? One day, we decided it was worth a try, and took the plunge.
That was in 2014. It began with a few people with a shared idea who sat around a table and talked about it for more than four hours. It wasn’t especially glamorous, but it was exciting and empowering and, at times, contentious. Get a group of people in a room discussing a topic as passionate and based on what my friends and I learned by establishing and running DogsHome rescue three years ago, here are our six Golden Rules for starting your own rescue.
Golden Rule #1: Decide how you want to be different.
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You want to save dogs. The good news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. The bad news: so do the shelters and rescues in your area. Of course, it’s not really bad news, but it does make it harder for the new kid on the block (that’s you) to stand out. So you have to ask yourself what you’re going to do that’s different.
For example, you might decide to focus on rescuing senior dogs, dogs with medical issues or a particular breed. At our rescue, we knew that above all, we wanted to make sure every decision we made answered one question: Is this in the dog’s best interest? If it is, we do it. If it isn’t, we don’t. In many ways, that’s made our lives both simple (we always know what course of action to take) and difficult (the best course of action often requires much more time and energy). But we stand by it. However, this isn’t just about you.
Golden Rule #2: Ask your community how they want you to be different.
You’re going to need support, both helping hands and dollars, so make sure that when you decide the ways in which you’re going to be different, there will be something that resonates with your potential supporters.
In our case (and I can’t recommend this enough), we debuted our plan at a gathering at the home of one of our board members. We told everyone we invited to come with their ideas because we wanted to hear what they wanted from a rescue. To a person, everyone wanted better customer service. When they call or email, they want someone to get back to them. When they adopt or foster a dog, they don’t want to feel as though they’ve fallen into a black hole. They said they needed a place to turn with questions, problems and concerns.
We put this directly into our mission statement: we provide our dogs with lifetime support. In other words, we’re always there for our fosters and adopters. And while it means we sometimes get phone calls at 6 am or midnight, we’ve lived up to that!
Golden Rule #3: Think with your head, not your heart.
This is a tough one. How do you put logic ahead of compassion when it comes to saving lives? I can only tell you that it’s important to keep your heart in check or you’ll quickly find yourselves overwhelmed, both functionally and financially.
You can’t help a dog if you don’t have the resources to help him. And I know (oh, I know!) there is nothing more heartbreaking and frustrating than realizing you can’t take a dog because … you just can’t. You don’t have a foster home available for him, you don’t have the money to provide for his expensive vet care or you simply won’t be able to give the dog quality of life. Set up yourself and the dogs for success. Get your proverbial ducks in a row before going forward.
Golden Rule #4: Be prepared.
“Getting your ducks in a row” means taking care of the boring stuff, like liability insurance and nonprofit certification, should you go that route. It means finding good, committed fosters (assuming you don’t have a shelter facility available) so that when you want to rescue a dog, there’s a place ready and waiting for him. It also means having funds available for dogs who come to you with urgent medical needs.
Involve people who are experienced in different areas. Find someone who has expertise in fundraising, another who’s good at publicity, someone who can evaluate and possibly train your dogs. And it never hurts to have an attorney on call.
At DogsHome, two of us decided to get our professional training certifications, and we also each enrolled in year-long online programs we knew would help us with the running of the organization. I got my certificate in lifesaving-centered animal shelter management, and the other team member got a certificate in nonprofit management.
Golden Rule #5: Find people who are committed.
It will be impossible to get your rescue off the ground without good, highly committed, like-minded people. This includes everyone from board members to volunteers who put up flyers around town. But nowhere is it more essential than with those who foster. Unless you have a facility available to you, you’re going to have to rely on fosters to provide homes for your dogs. However, not all fosters are created equal. Some come with experience, others don’t. Some are home most of the time, others aren’t. Some can physically handle strong dogs … well, you get the idea.
Keep in mind that even fosters who come with the best of resumés may have only shared their home with dogs that operated on autopilot. What if their new foster dog is suddenly guarding his food bowl or lunging in a not-so-friendly way toward the neighbor’s dog?
Let’s start at the beginning. First, you have to find fosters, and that’s no easy task. I’ve often said if someone offered DogsHome $10,000 or three new foster homes, I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Foster homes win, hands down. To attract fosters, you need to get out in the community and beyond. Our info table loaded with foster brochures makes the rounds pretty much every weekend at pet supply stores, farmers’ markets and fairs. We use social media to let everyone know we need fosters, and we’ve held open houses aimed at attracting new fosters. Remember to let your fosters do the talking. No one can explain the rewards of saving dogs lives by providing them with a home better than someone who’s actually doing it.
Let’s go back to the foster with the dog who’s guarding his food bowl. This is where Golden Rule #4 comes into play. Make sure you have access to a trainer or behaviorist. They’ll need to work with the dog, but more importantly, they’ll need to work with the foster so that person can work with the dog. Whether this foster stays with your rescue (or even sticks with the dog until he’s adopted) may depend a lot on how supportive, tactful and patient you are in working through this. You can count on them making mistakes and getting frustrated. Just take a breath and be there for them. And yes, that may mean you’ll be getting texts at all hours of the day and night.
Bottom line: Take your time finding good fosters. Put together a thorough foster application, talk to them at length on the phone and visit them in their home. Trust your gut about how committed they are, because the last thing you need is a call in the middle of the night with a demand to “Get this dog out of here, now!”
Golden Rule #6: Keep your eraser handy.
When you first start out, your team will have a lot of ideas about how your rescue is going to function. Putting ideas in writing is a great way to get started, but once you get into the day-to-day, you’ll probably find that some of them don’t work, aren’t relevant or just aren’t what you want to do anymore.
When we first created DogsHome, we all agreed that we wanted to raise enough funds to eventually buy or rent a facility. This way, we reasoned, we’d be able to help a greater number of dogs. But as we got into the daily, hands-on operation of saving dogs, we realized that, with all the personal attention and TLC they got in their foster homes, our dogs were thriving in a way they probably wouldn’t in a facility. I mean, when it comes to knowing a dog, does anything really beat letting that dog sleep on the bed with you?
Having a dog live in a home provides us with valuable information for potential adopters, things it would be impossible to know if the dog lived in a shelter environment. Does he chew the furniture? Suffer anxiety when left alone? Greet visitors nicely? Guard his food? Bark excessively? Get along with the cat? And, if we have dogs living in a facility, how will we make sure they’re getting enough exercise, socialization and stimulation, let alone food and bathroom breaks? Then there’s the high cost of buying or renting a building, money we could be spending on veterinary care if we didn’t have the overhead of a physical structure.
So, our original goal of getting a facility has gradually faded. Finding fosters is hard work, to say the least, and no, we can’t save as many dogs as we might if we had a building. But the dogs we’re rescuing get quality of life and we’re able to meet their veterinary needs (our biggest expense) without worrying about going in the red.
The Big Surprise
I had a pretty good idea about what was required to build and run a nonprofit rescue organization from the ground up. I knew there would be a lot of scrambling, frantic phone calls, homing and re-homing and possibly re-homing dogs (yes, it happens). I knew there would be veterinary emergencies (who knew a dog could/would find his 20-pound bag of dog food and eat all of it when left alone for the first time?). I knew I’d evaluate dogs based on what I was seeing at the moment, only to have them present entirely different behaviors once they’re in a home. I knew running a rescue would frequently put me on mental, physical and emotional overload. I knew there would be days and nights when I’d cringe when my phone rang because I couldn’t handle any more bad news. I was prepared for all that.
What I wasn’t prepared for was that the majority of the time I devote to DogsHome is actually spent running the organization rather than working with dogs or even doing anything dog-related. Among those non-dog tasks: all the written communication (daily Facebook posts, twice-monthly newsletters, brochures, flyers, ads, promotions, signs, appeal letters); licenses, insurance policies and permits; creating a website; arranging adoption events; running board meetings; fundraising; designing and ordering t-shirts and car magnets. And the list goes on.
In the midst of all that administrative busy-ness, there are those actual moments when you race to a shelter to save a dog and you’re able to take him on that glorious freedom ride to his new life. Knowing everything I know now, would I decide to create and run a rescue all over again?
In a heartbeat.