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Stella the 70-pound black Labrador was abandoned at a shelter in Louisiana because she was a senior with vision loss, and her former owners “wanted to get a puppy.” Sadly, disabled dogs like Stella are often euthanized soon after arriving at shelters to save space for dogs considered easier to adopt. Stella’s life was at risk, but she was saved in time by Steve Smith and Alayne Marker, a married couple who run Rolling Dog Farm, a sanctuary for disabled dogs.
Stella now lives her golden years to the fullest at the farm, and according to Steve, the “blind, old girl has plenty of puppy-like spunk in her, and yet her owners either never saw it or never appreciated it. Their loss, our gain!”
The 158-acre farm is at the end of a quiet road in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. The beautiful property features ramps to help the dogs go in and out of the large farmhouse they share with Steve and Alayne. On average, the couple has about 20 dogs at the small sanctuary at any given time — along with a couple of blind horses — to provide the best quality care for these special residents. Rarely are the dogs adopted out, as Steve prefers to provide stability and long-term care for these dogs who have been through so much.
The disabled dogs that come to Rolling Dog Farm have all been rescued from kill shelters and are most commonly blind or deaf, senior animals, have missing limbs or, at times, neurological conditions such as cerebellar hypoplasia.
“We try to reserve our very limited space for disabled dogs that are basically out of options,” Steve said. “In other words, we may be the last call that shelter is going to make before euthanizing the animal.”
Steve and Alayne started their nonprofit sanctuary in the Blackfoot River Valley of Montana in December 2000 after leaving corporate jobs in Seattle. “Using our own savings, we decided to establish a nonprofit that would focus on rescuing and sheltering disabled animals,” Steve said. “At the time, we didn’t see any other organizations that were dedicated to caring specifically for disabled animals.”
After 10 years in Montana, the couple moved the sanctuary to New Hampshire, where they have been ever since. Steve said they look for dogs who have physical disabilities but are also goodnatured, sociable animals who can easily get along with the other dogs in a family environment, as the dogs are not put in pens or crates but live together in a pack.
“We cannot take paralyzed dogs, those needing mobility assistance, or those with incontinence issues because we don’t have the human resources to provide the kind of one-on-one care those animals need throughout the day,” Steve said. “And we only take in a few disabled dogs a year, so it can be difficult and emotionally wrenching making those decisions.”
But for the dogs who are saved from euthanasia and come to Rolling Dog Farm, their lives are forever changed for the better.
Steve and Alayne have made it their mission to show people that disabled animals can, and do, live wonderful, happy lives if given the chance.
Dogs like Widget, a blind Beagle/Dachshund mix who was one of the sanctuary’s first residents after being rescued from death row at a New York shelter. Steve said that Widget had perfect tri-color Beagle markings and a Beagle personality but a Dachshund-shaped body. “We joked that Widget thought her real disability wasn’t blindness, but being a Beagle trapped in a Dachshund body.” She quickly became the mascot for the sanctuary’s first fundraising event in 2004 to construct a dog building aptly named Widget’s House.
Steve described Widget as “bossy, funny, vocal with an irrepressible personality, and the boss of us.” Lymphoma took Widget’s life a couple of years ago, and Steve still feels the loss. “She was proof that a disability like blindness in no way keeps a dog from having an incredibly fulfilling, happy life.”
And while Steve and Alayne take care of all the dogs’ needs themselves and haven’t had a vacation in more than 15 years, the kind-hearted couple wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We love what we do for a living, and we love where we live. We feel blessed that we get to live here and do this work.”