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Inside House With a Heart, a Sanctuary for Senior Dogs With Nowhere to Go

We chat with cofounder Sherry Polvinale about the refuge, which has cared for over 100 dogs and cats in its nine years.

Lisa Plummer Savas  |  Dec 4th 2015


It all started with an innocent “what if” conversation over lunch.

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“I was enjoying a meal with friends, and the question on the table was: What would you do with your life if money was no object?” explains Sherry Polvinale, cofounder and director of House With a Heart Pet Sanctuary (HWAH). “I said I would do something like Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, but for senior dogs and cats. I felt terrible thinking about all those dogs and cats being given up because they were old and not so convenient anymore. So my friends said, well … why don’t you?”

Of course, starting a pet sanctuary wasn’t a completely outlandish idea for Sher and her late husband, Joe, who had been rescuing and rehoming abandoned pets together for two decades. Plus, Sher was frequently getting calls from people looking to give up their senior dogs and cats. The kindhearted couple decided to go for it. Soon their Gaithersburg, Maryland, home was inhabited by a 10-pack of homeless senior pets. Once its nonprofit status was obtained in 2006, House With a Heart was born.

Sherry Polvinale and some of the beloved sanctuary dogs. Senior pups are always up for cuddles! Photo credit: House With a Heart

Sherry Polvinale and some of the beloved sanctuary dogs. Senior pups are always up for cuddles! (Photo courtesy House With a Heart)

Nine years and almost 100 dogs and cats later, Sher is living her dream, running a thriving sanctuary for elderly and special-needs pets who, due to advanced age and various medical conditions, would have little chance of being adopted. Some are blind, deaf, paraplegic, or have medical conditions requiring extensive hands-on care. Some were abandoned by their owners for various reasons, while others were homeless or neglected. But regardless of their origin, size, age, or healthcare needs, HWAH’s lucky four-legged residents are safe, nurtured, and pampered for the rest of their lives.

“These animals have no one and would otherwise be euthanized all alone in a shelter, frightened and confused,” says Sher. “At House With a Heart, they are loved until their very last breath.”

More than two dozen dogs and four cats are now enjoying their golden years at the sanctuary, composed of a clean, comfy home on more than two acres of fenced-in yards and grassy fields. All furry residents enjoy high-quality food and treats, or special diets, and receive quality health care, including regular wellness screenings and visits to veterinary specialists whenever needed. Everyone gets plenty of love and attention from Sher, doting sanctuary Vice President Harriette Sackler, and the sanctuary’s invaluable army of more than 55 devoted volunteers, who help with daily tasks including feeding and administering medications, bathing and grooming, cleaning and laundering, sanctuary and grounds maintenance, and providing exercise and playtime.

Volunteer Wendy Reid appears to have a captivated audience - treat time is always an exciting affair at the sanctuary! Photo credit: House With a Heart

Volunteer Wendy Reid has a captivated audience — treat time is always an exciting affair at the sanctuary! (Photo courtesy House With a Heart)

But even with so much assistance, Sher maintains an unbelievably rigorous schedule and rarely leaves the sanctuary.

“I live here by myself and do all the nighttime and early-morning care, then the volunteers come to help during the day,” she says. “Sometimes I get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m., and immediately the animals need me — and I may have already gotten up three times during the night to attend to one of the dogs. I’ll go through until midnight or one in the morning, and I’m so tired at that point that I’ll just lie down in my clothes and sleep on the couch with the dogs. People think I’m so wonderful because I don’t have a life, but that’s silly – I’m just weird, I’m just different.”

Caring for so many senior and special needs pets is a costly venture – to the tune of $90,000 in annual vet bills – and while donations from generous supporters are incredibly helpful, they aren’t always enough to keep things running. That’s why Sher established a doggie daycare at the sanctuary to help support its operations. As a result, the property is now at maximum capacity, with 37 permanent and short-term care residents all under one roof.

Some of the residents enjoying a little fresh air - life is awesome at this senior home! Photo credit: House With a Heart

Some of the residents enjoying a little fresh air — life is awesome at this senior home! (Photo courtesy House With a Heart)

While running one of the few senior and special-needs pet sanctuaries in the U.S. definitely has its rewards, it also comes with frequent heartbreaks – more than 70 pets have passed away in Sher’s home to date. Then there’s the other kind of heartbreak – dealing with pet owners wanting to give up their senior or ailing pets for reasons ranging from heart-wrenching to infuriating.

“People contact us all the time saying they love their pet, have had it for years, and it’s been a wonderful companion, but now it’s old, wakes them up at night, and has accidents in the house, so they don’t want to be bothered with it any longer,” explains Sher. “Then there are others who truly love their pet but are too ill to care for it, are going into a nursing home, or they’ve passed away and their pet has no one.”

While HWAH isn’t able to take in any more residents, they still make a point of being there for pets in need by offering guidance to help owners either keep their pets or find them safe placement on their own.

This is Rudy, one of HWAH’s most memorable residents. Unadoptable due to severe neurological problems, his condition improved remarkably in his two years at HWAH. Sher remembers him as determined little fellow whose “spirit and loving nature endeared him to everyone who had the privilege of spending time with him.” Photo credit: House With a Heart

This is Rudy, one of HWAH’s most memorable residents. Unadoptable due to severe neurological problems, his condition improved remarkably in his two years at HWAH. Sher remembers him as determined little fellow whose “spirit and loving nature endeared him to everyone who had the privilege of spending time with him.” (Photo courtesy House With a Heart)

“People would call me all the time, and I’d be on the phone constantly and feel torn because it would kill me to say no to pets who needed me so desperately,” explains Sher. “So we formed our Give Up Team with counselors who talk to people about their particular situation to see if they’re willing to listen to suggestions and if we can help them in any way. Some people are up for that, and we’re able to be helpful in that regard, and some people aren’t – all they want is for their pet to be out of their lives and no longer their responsibility.”

Besides counseling, HWAH provides additional pet owner assistance, including its Senior Pet Safety Net online posting service, which allows people to post images and information about their older pets they wish to rehome, as well as a Giving Up Pet Resources webpage, which features an extensive list of rescue groups and humane societies throughout the country.

In addition, the sanctuary also offers donor-funded give-back programs, including Mitzvah Mutts, which reserves a space at the sanctuary for a dog or cat whose family is in dire need of temporary pet care due to special circumstances, and Faith’s Fund, which provides medical care for senior pets who would otherwise not receive it due to lack of funds.

HWAH never forgets residents who have passed on to the Rainbow Bridge. Here they are, memorialized on the walls of the sanctuary’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Photo credit: House With a Heart

HWAH never forgets residents who have passed on to the Rainbow Bridge. Here they are, memorialized on the walls of the sanctuary’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (Photo courtesy House With a Heart)

While Sher is definitely living the intention she voiced out loud at lunch all those years ago, she never would have thought that running HWAH would have done so much for her personally, specifically helping her heal from the loss of her beloved husband in 2008.

“Running the sanctuary has helped me through my grief process, and it continues to help me through it now,” says Sher. “But if Joe was alive, I think he would be really amazed and really proud and satisfied that we’re doing what we started out to do. Just being here with all the dogs and doing what I do makes me feel close to him.”

While Sher knows she’s filling an important need, she hopes for a day when more pet owners will take the commitment of a pet much more seriously, thus eliminating the need for sanctuaries like hers.

“I just wish we could teach people to have more empathy for those who cannot care for themselves,” says Sher. “How can you turn your back on someone who needs your help? If you have a pet, realize it has feelings and be responsible for it until the end. Don’t throw it out when the going gets tough.”

The late Shaggy Daggy Doo Doo was an adorable 16-year-old Pekingese surrendered to HWAH because his owners didn't want a "mutt" anymore. He was loved until his very last breath at the sanctuary. Photo credit: Michelle Zak Photography

The late Shaggy Daggy Doo Doo was an adorable 16-year-old Pekingese surrendered to HWAH because his owners didn’t want a “mutt” anymore. He was loved until his very last breath at the sanctuary. (Photo by Michelle Zak Photography)

House With a Heart relies heavily on donations, grants, and wish-list gifts to accomplish its mission of providing quality care for senior and special needs dogs and cats. If you’d like to help this wonderful sanctuary continue its amazing work, please visit its donation page, or if you live in the Gaithersburg area, consider becoming a HWAH volunteer.

Check out Sher and her incredible sanctuary in this beautiful National Geographic video:

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About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, Lisa uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter.