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I Started My Own Rescue Group

My rescue group, Southpaws Express, transports dogs and puppies to new homes in the Northeast. Here's how we got started.

 |  Oct 5th 2012  |   9 Contributions


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It started right here on Dogster. If you've been a reader for four years or more, you might even remember when and how.

I had already been entrenched in the world of animal shelters and welfare for many years. I discovered my passion for dogs after adopting my first puppy, Duncan, from a shelter in rural Virginia.

I was just out of college, and I'd never owned a dog before -- growing up, my family only kept outdoor cats. From there, I became a dedicated – read: insatiable – volunteer in animal shelters when I lived in Florida and Texas. When even that didn't seem enough, I made animal welfare my career, and worked for various animal nonprofits. 

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Patty was the first pup we rescued.

When I was brewing my rescue ideas, I was working at the St. Tammany Humane Society, a great no-kill shelter in Louisiana, first as adoptions and intake manager, and later in development (fund-raising).

After Hurricane Katrina, groups from all over the country assisted with animal rescue efforts. Several no-kill shelters in the Northeast accepted displaced and homeless dogs, so a regular transport program was set up to bring dogs from south Louisiana (where there are always great numbers of unwanted animals) to shelters in the Northeast, where there always seemed to be extra space. This was my first whiff of the concept of transport rescue, and an introduction to the differences in regions when it comes to pet supply-and-demand forces.

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Assessing a dog named Albie at the shelter. He was one of our first adoptions Northward.

The more I researched, the more I realized how crazy it was. So many gorgeous puppies and sweet dogs were dying in shelters every day because there were not enough homes for them, while people in other cities were having difficulty finding animals to adopt. Those puppies and dogs were more than just statistics. I had known, touched, or looked in the eyes of many of them. 

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Loading up our rental van with the first transport of dogs and puppies.

And so I resolved to do what I could. But how to connect available dogs and potential adopters when they were far apart geographically? I reached out via the Dogster forums and got ideas, dialogue, information sharing, and inspiration. Then I found what I needed all along – a partner. That was Lucy Ohannessian, a fellow dog lover who lived in the Northeast. We traded ideas and hashed them out until what was vague and general took a firmer shape and direction. We gave our project a name: Southpaws Express.

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Stopping for a pee break for all the dogs.

Lucy and I relied on each other's strengths, dividing duties that made sense with the geographic split. She was willing to network for the dogs and try to find them homes; she accepted applications and chatted with adopters to learn their needs and expectations and ensure good matches. Meanwhile, I met puppies and dogs at the shelter, reviewed their availability, assessed their temperament, and sent her pictures and reports. I took care of all the logistics – pulling dogs from the shelter, arranging for their vet care, and securing foster care or housing until they could be transported to their new homes in the North.

It was a huge blessing that the St. Tammany Humane Society, a powerful organization with forward-thinking leadership, was happy to help with my side project. They let our fledgling rescue use their on-site vet clinic and gave us steep discounts. When foster space was scarce, they offered us discounted boarding. 

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Dawn and Lucy, cofounders of Southpaws Express.

The first dog we officially placed as Southpaws Express was Patty, an older puppy Australian Shepherd mix. Patty's adopter saw her on a website and contacted us about adopting her. We explained, straight off, that this was an experimental new rescue effort and we didn't know when the transport would happen. For a few weeks, we had no specifics to give Patty's adopter, but she stayed in touch, checking on her puppy, asking about the transport details, having her heart set on the fuzzy tricolored puppy in those pictures.

When we had found committed adopters for seven dogs, including Patty, we faced the big task of transporting them. I decided to do this myself, along with a friend who agreed to the trip. So early one February morning we rented a van, gathered the dogs from their foster homes, and set out for New England. All I can say is that is a very long drive from southern Louisiana, especially while having to stop and feed and water and walk dogs at reasonable intervals! My transport partner and I were utter zombies after driving nonstop over 1,500 miles. We delivered the dogs to their new homes in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in snow and sleet that seemed foreign and unwelcoming after the mild winter back home.

In the past four years, Southpaws Express has placed about 400 dogs in new homes. They've included purebreds, mixed breeds, and quite a few puppies who surprised us when we saw pictures of what they turned into as adult dogs! With our family of volunteer supporters, we continue to rescue dogs from crowded shelters in Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee. Because I live in the North now, I seldom do entire transports myself; instead we use rescue-run transports, volunteer-run "railroad" transports, commercial ground transports, air cargo, or programs like Pilots n Paws

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We drank a LOT of coffee on that first transport run.

In the early days of Southpaws Express, we mostly did direct, one-on-one adoptions, but since I moved north, we have focused more on finding local fosters. Volunteers or partner shelters tell us about dogs who need to be rescued, giving us insights into their temperament, behavior, needs, and possible health issues. It's often excruciating to make decisions about which dogs to pull from the shelters. 

When the dogs arrive at their foster homes, we stay in close contact to learn all about their habits and quirks. The fosterers provide love and care, socialization, and some training while we continue to search for forever homes for the dogs. Potential adopters usually get to meet the dogs, whereas before they would only see a photograph or two. Whichever way it happens, it is always rewarding to witness that emotional spark when a dog meets his forever person! 

Southpaws Express remains Lucy's and my pet project, but countless people continue to help us in so many ways. I am convinced a rescue could not exist without these armies of contributors. We have received wonderful help and guidance from within the rescue community, mentoring us on transport issues, paperwork, and legal matters. We have an excellent partnership with our local Petco store staff, friends who share our adoptable dogs on social media, and wonderful adopters who often refer their own friends and family to us when they are searching for dogs to adopt.

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Goob, my current foster for Southpaws, needs a home! Is it you?

Southpaws Express remains a small and tight-knit rescue by design; our mission is more about quality adoptions than quantity. We feel that's best for the dogs, best for their adopters, and best for rescue as a whole, as every adoption becomes a piece of our reputation and that of rescue itself. 

It is truly amazing to think about all the supporters who are needed to help a rescue group function. What is more amazing is that those supporters exist: They want to help dogs in need, and there are so many who care, not just in words but in action. 

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