This Home is Full of Dogs –
For some families, having a couple of teenagers in the house would be enough. Now add 17 dogs.
By Margaret Buranen, Contributing Writer
That’s what it can look like at times in the Warrenton, Va., house of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member Barbara Shannon- Reed.
“I couldn’t foster without my family’s help,” says Shannon-Reed, whose husband James and children Bradley and Ashley are part of the team. “When the kids get home from school about 3 p.m., they take care of our dogs and the fosters. The kids and my husband are amazing.”
Shannon-Reed is a foster parent for the nonprofit Operation Paws for Homes (OPH), which rescues dogs from overcrowded shelters in the South and brings them to foster homes in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and south-central Pennsylvania. The organization contracts with a transport company that drives the dogs north every other week.
That’s how as many as 17 dogs and puppies at a time end up in Shannon- Reed’s two-story ranch house on a 1-acre lot in rural Fauquier County. The three family dogs stay upstairs while the foster dogs have their own quarters in the basement.
Based on the number of adoption applications signed at her house, Shannon-Reed estimates she has fostered 138 dogs. “Because I’m close to an airport, a lot of dogs stay just for a day or so. Including those dogs, the number would be well over 200.”
In other words, don’t think of her house as a kennel. Think of it as a second chance for canines.
THE FOSTER PROGRAM
OPH has rescued almost 10,000 dogs and cats in the nearly 10 years since Jen Dodge started the organization in northern Virginia with several friends. The group included lifelong Virginian Laurie Landers, then an operating room nurse who lived on a small farm in Nokesville. The animals stay with volunteers like Shannon-Reed until loving families adopt them.
“We have about 175 active foster homes and about 300 volunteers,” says Landers, OPH’s director of operations. “We have foster families that always have a foster dog or cat and others that have one or two a year. We appreciate everyone who can help.”
Landers says that OPH helps animals in other ways besides arranging foster and adoptive homes. The organization raises funds to purchase food and supplies that are donated to area shelters. It sponsors educational efforts to promote spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless animals.
Shannon-Reed got started in fostering by adopting Clarice, an Anatolian shepherd mix, from OPH in 2015. A few weeks later her family adopted another OPH rescue, Bandit, a black Labrador retriever mix.
Since Landers then lived nearby, Shannon-Reed would help by fostering a puppy from time to time. Then a border collie named Lillie arrived for fostering. More than a year later, it was clear that Lillie was officially a “foster fail.” She had already found her forever home with Shannon-Reed’s family.
Besides those three dogs, the family has a cat named Giggles who is the dogs’ boss.
GIVING UP A FOSTER DOG
Many people say they couldn’t do fostering because they surrender animals they’ve grown to love. Shannon-Reed, who works away from home as an event planner for the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase races, admits that is difficult.
“I’ve cried after many dogs left and wished I would have kept them. But knowing that there’s always another dog who needs your help makes it easier,” she says.
“The dog you take in to foster means that OPH has room to pull another dog from a shelter and then the shelter has room to take in another dog. So when you rescue one dog, you’re really rescuing three dogs.”
It also helps that the people who adopt dogs Shannon-Reed has fostered send her updates and photos. “There are only about six families I don’t hear from regularly, but if I reach out, they’ll email me right back,” she says.
Caring for a litter of puppies means extra work every day. On one recent day, Shannon-Reed did four loads of laundry — just for the puppies.
“But when I look at those cute puppy faces and know that if OPH hadn’t pulled them [from the shelter] they’d be dead, that makes it all worthwhile. And the older dogs are so grateful,” she explains.
Besides having the puppies to cuddle and play with, her favorite part of fostering is “to go and see the arrival of the transport van, to see the dogs’ excited faces when they get off and all the happy people.”
Shannon-Reed, a native of Tunnelton, W. Va., also serves as OPH’s puppy coordinator.
“I work with the OPH shelter pullers to get pregnant moms, moms with babies or puppies [by themselves] into appropriate foster home situations. It’s a balance between the needs presented by the shelter and the wants of our fosters. Some fosters prefer litters, some prefer single puppies, some prefer moms under 30 pounds, some want fluffy puppies.”
Besides this matchmaking to get as many puppies as possible out of the shelters, she works with OPH fosters and veterinarians to make sure the puppies get the medical care they need.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Some foster dogs have happy endings despite very rough beginnings. Shannon- Reed prefers Labs and other large dogs, but she accepted a spirited five-month-old Chihuahua-mix puppy named Tides, one of nine puppies from a hoarding situation, to foster.
Rechecking the shelter’s paperwork revealed that at least one of the puppies had a heart problem. Shannon-Reed took Tides and two other puppies to a veterinarian who diagnosed Tides with a grade six heart murmur, the worst murmur the vet had ever heard.
The odds of surviving were low. Tides’ only chance was open heart surgery, which was risky. The puppy got through the surgery, recovered and was later adopted.
“I was never a small dog person,” Shannon-Reed says, “but this little Chihuahua thought she was a Lab. She’s doing fine in her adoptive home. My daughter and I drove to Pennsylvania to see her in May.”
Isabella, a Lab-shepherd mix, was another success that began with a healthy serving of dog hostility. “She hated my husband and son and was so out of control that I had to send her to a boarding and training facility,” Shannon- Reed recalls.
When Isabella returned after two weeks of training and antibiotics to cure her ear infections, “she was a different dog and fine with my husband and son. She was adopted three days later.”
Zekke, a beautiful solid-white husky mix with ice blue eyes, “was a handful. No one wanted to adopt him because he wanted to nibble everything. He had to learn a lot of manners. We had a puppy boot camp for him,” Shannon-Reed recalls, adding that Zekke is thriving on a farm with his forever family.
Not all foster situations or adoptions are successful. Sometimes a dog stays in multiple foster homes before being suitable for adoption. And sometimes the adoptive family returns the dog, as Crystal’s adopters did.
Crystal and her brother, both deaf border collies, needed very patient adopters. He was successfully adopted, but she displayed autistic-like traits and was unable to live in a suburban setting.
Now Crystal has a place as Shannon- Reed’s permanent foster dog. She has the quiet structured routine she needs, is vibration-collar trained for safety and knows about 20 hand signals.
Crystal has her own special outdoor area with a roofed playhouse to protect her from too much sun and her own private room in the house. Her adoptive mom still visits her.
“I’ve learned to roll with the punches,” Shannon-Reed declares. “If all five puppies who are here now went to adoptive homes on Tuesday, I could have more on Thursday. But it’s always my decision which dog I’ll take and when.”
Landers and Shannon-Reed are realistic about the problem of too many homeless animals, especially in small communities with small municipal budgets. But they know they and the other OPH volunteers and fosters are making a positive difference, one animal at a time.
“Our rescue reach is limited by our foster availability, and with every new foster and adopter comes another life saved,” Landers says.
Shannon-Reed wishes more people knew that “fostering is vitally important. Yes, it tugs at your heartstrings, but you are helping, even if you can only foster one dog because the need is never-ending.”
Noting OPH’s many types of volunteers — social media posters, fundraisers, grants writers, fosters, dog transporters, vet partners, adoption event coordinators, and more — Landers says that “each team is a vital part of the puzzle that we fit together to get these deserving dogs a home.”
To learn more about fostering or other volunteering with OPH, visit ophrescue.org.
By Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Someone shot Jack the cat. How it happened, where it happened and who pulled the trigger were unformed thoughts in Holly Burnette’s mind as she raced the little black-and tan tabby to the vet.
It was good to see Jack, who’d been missing for four months from the outdoor colony where he lived amicably with a dozen or so other barn cats. But when he reappeared just before the new year, he was limping badly.
Fearing a car had struck Jack, a woman who monitored the colonycontacted Burnette, head of Sweet Virginia Barn Cats in Clarksville, Va. An X-ray revealed shrapnel; Jack had been shot in the rear left leg and the bullet had grazed his front left elbow. He was a candidate for euthanasia. He’d be forever lame, vulnerable to predators.
But Jack had somehow found his way home and Burnette wasn’t about to let him down.
After a two-week regimen of care and antibiotics, a Clarksville vet amputated Jack’s left front leg. After he came out of surgery, Burnette watched Jack make “air biscuits,” kneading with his one good front paw, and she started to cry. Jack had used one of his nine lives, but he still had eight left because Sweet Virginia Barn Cats had given him another chance.
Just like the puppies pulled from refuse piles or the owl with a broken wing or the hundreds of farm felines that Burnette and her volunteers have trapped, vaccinated, spayed and neutered to combat a spiraling population of cats in MecklenburgCounty.
Sometimes the only way to combat a force of nature is to become one yourself.
The path to Sweet Virginia Barn Cats began when Burnette started rescuing kittens from dumpsters as a kid growing up in Clarksville. It’s not been a linear progression — she has worked as an administrative assistant and photographer — but her avocation became a vocation when she returned to Virginia from South Carolina in 2012 and volunteered at the local SPCA.
Like most counties, Mecklenburg lacks the resources to deal with feral cats. Burnette started exploring what’s known as TNR — trap, neuter and return. The idea: Trap a free-roaming cat from a barn or setting where it has taken up residence, take it to a vet for vaccinations and spaying or neutering, tag its ear and return it to its makeshift home.
The process has its skeptics but the American SPCA endorses it as “the only proven humane and effective method to manage community cat colonies.” “I’m one of those people who, if you see something, you just do it. I was meant to be a problem solver,” Burnette says.
Four years ago, she incorporated Sweet Virginia Barn Cats as a nonprofit to account for the donations people were slipping her on behalf of cats or her growing work with abandoned and neglected dogs.
“The fortunate thing about doing rescue in a small town is that people know my family so there’s a trust there. They trust you with what your intentions are and with their money. I didn’t want anybody to feel I would ever take advantage of that. We’re all volunteers,” she says.
The numbers are staggering. Last year, Sweet Virginia Barn Cats rescued 273 cats and 58 dogs in Southside Virginia. The team hand-poured 29,200 meals to communities of barn cats, including the one Jack lived in. A white van, when it was working, logged 70,000 miles to move animals to partner groups and adoption agencies as far away as Camden, Del.
The organization operates on a frayed shoestring. It has no holding facility — it would dearly love a small one. The board of directors consists of Burnette, Cassie Boyd and their mothers, all members of Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative.
As Burnette’s multi-tasking wingwoman, Boyd holds down regular jobs, takes online college classes, and designs logos, crafts and spreadsheets for the nonprofit. Once, she climbed into an air-conditioning unit with a dress on to rescue a kitten.
“When she came on board, the chemistry of the group took off like a missing puzzle piece,” Burnette says. “From scooping poop to medicating animals to using her guest bathroom as an isolation unit to bottle-feed sick kitties, she never says no. Without her, the rescue would truly fall apart.”
Romeo already was falling apart. In late January, Boyd found a shepherd-Rottweiler mix who had called it quits near a highway amid a patch of dead weeds and discarded coffee cups. He’d been bobbing in and out of traffic to the point that his toenails were nubs, worn down by pounding the asphalt.
He was anemic, covered by 30 ticks, no tag, no collar, no chip. Burnette and Boyd called him Romeo, reported him to animal control, as they always do, and posted missing dog messages. No one came forward and he became the custody of Sweet Virginia Barn Cats.
They knew he’d be tick-borne positive for at least two diseases. When Romeo got in their car for an emergency run to a Durham, N.C., vet, they figured they were staring at $1,000 in medical bills.
“There’s a lot of faith that comes into this,” Burnette says softly. “I’m a believer and every time we need money, it comes through somehow. It always does and that’s what’s kept us going over the last four years.”
For Romeo, a spa day at Betsy’s Boarding Kennel & Grooming in Clarksville, one of Burnette’s partners, was what the doctor ordered. After an invigorating bath, he shook his coat, smiled and shook it again. His treatments are progressing well.
THE KENNEL MASTER
Don Koch always knew he’d leave New York and Long Island, where he grew up and practiced law for 30 years. The burly, Santa-bearded Koch thought it was too crowded, too full of everything. Now, his home near Buffalo Junction, Va., is full of fidos.
Koch and his wife Ellen work with Burnette and Boyd fostering forlorn canines. A few pens with stopgap roofs proved unequal to the task, so last year he built a heated and air-conditioned kennel with runs for five dogs.
“We were getting some heartworm positive dogs and when they’re treated it’s important to keep them in a climatecontrolled situation,” he says. “I thought five kennels was going to be enough but it’s not. I could build another five kennels and fill them right up.”
Koch’s kennels are not always filled with display window quality animals. Burnette says she often encounters the saddest of situations — a dog that lost an eye or a leg in a fight or has behavioral issues.
“We’re not afraid of long-term fosters. We’re focusing on quality versus quantity because we only can do so much,” Burnette says. “We’re willing to invest the time in these dogs that are not going to stand a chance of getting out of a kill shelter because they’re not pretty.”
Take Rasta, a matted mess of a retriever mix with dreadlocks so long that they conjured up Rastafarian images. He was found subsisting on road scraps, wandering near a gas station with a “Brother, can you spare a dime?” look on his drawn face. He went unclaimed at Mecklenburg County Animal Control and would have been on the euthanasia list had not Koch and Sweet Virginia Barn Cats taken him in. Two days later, he licked Koch’s hand for the first time.
“There are some days when I sit in the corner and go play with my marbles,” Koch jokes. “We have six dogs of our own; we may have a dozen dogs around. There are times when it does get a little overwhelming, but you just move on. Grab a roll of paper towels, clean up the mess and go on.”
The cats peek out from the woods as Burnette and Boyd approach the colony. They’re Tolkien creatures; only their beaming eyes are visible as they evaluate whether friend or foe is drawing near. Burnette checks the status of the colony center — a series of hollowed coolers with straw beds where cats can take refuge during inclement weather. When she dispenses donated cat food, there’s a scramble to the buffet line.
The colonies, which contain 80 to 90 cats in all, are not to be tampered with. They have their own ecology, their own hierarchy. They are not a dumping ground for strays or a pickup joint for would-be cat parents.
“They’ll hold down the area and they’re really not going to allow outsiders to come in,” Burnette says. “It’s been successful. Just leave them alone.”
With the operation stretched to capacity, Sweet Virginia Barn Cats will focus on education and outreach instead of intakes in 2020, building a larger pool of volunteers through presentations to schools and civic groups.
Through its food and medical care programs, the organization assists pet owners who have fallen on hard times and want to keep their animals, but can’t provide for them properly.
“It’s not just a matter of helping animals; it’s helping people to help animals,” Burnette says.
After a rough recovery, Jack the cat enjoys chin rubs while being held gently. During surgery, it turned out that he is a she, but will keep the name Jack while living on Burnette’s property.
With just one front leg, Jack is strictly an indoor cat now and will have to be carefully monitored forever. The good news: Jack has been adopted. It was hard to let her go, Burnette says, but it was satisfying, as well.
As she says, “Trying to do something for these animals is why I chose this.
“Or it chose me.”
Extend a Helping Paw
The director of accounting at A&N Electric Cooperative on why she fosters dogs
By Dana Penney, Contributing Writer
I grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with a strong love for animals. I grew up with dogs and have always had at least one, but I was never exposed to the reality of the suffering that so many dogs go through until I found Ethan, a mange covered terrier, on a Texas rescue website.
When the rescue got to him, he was on a euthanasia list at a shelter near the border of Mexico, an area notorious for stray and unwanted dogs with euthanasia rates as high as 90% are not uncommon. Ethan was thin and covered in mange. A wonderful lady in Texas was fostering him; she was fondly called the “mange mama” because she takes in and heals dogs with mange. Without someone stepping up to foster, the rescue organization could not have saved Ethan. Once he healed, Ethan was transported, along with 56 other pre-adopted dogs, from San Antonio to Darien, Ill., where I picked him up.
I became long-distance friends with Ethan’s foster. After hearing her stories and seeing pictures of the conditions so many of these dogs are forced to live in, I just knew I needed to do something to help. Rescue Dogs Rock NYC, the group I work with, pulls a lot of dogs from Texas and the South, where conditions can be unimaginable. So many dogs go unvaccinated, uncared for and are left to fend for themselves. They are starving, injured and suffer from horrible skin conditions. Because of Ethan, I chose to try and help dogs coming from Texas, though many dogs in Virginia and all over the country also need help.
Willow, a spirited cattle dog, turned up in an area in Mission, Texas, known as a dumping ground for dogs. Improbably, she ended up at the foster’s neighbor’s brother’s doorstep before Rescue Dogs Rock NYC took her in.
After six months with her Texas foster, Rescue Dogs Rock moved her north. I became her foster, then adopted her after seven months, though most rescue dogs that pass through my home are only there for a month or two.
Nutmeg and Drummer, a pair of 2-year-old doxies (dachshund-beagle mix), were pulled from a hoarding situation in Alabama where they lived with 65 other dachshunds and Chihuahuas in a small, outdoor pen. Rescue Dogs Rock took in 24 of them. They spent three weeks at a veterinarian’s office where they were spayed or neutered, vaccinated and treated before a transport took them to Delaware. I picked them up there in early January.
They’re my sixth and seventh fosters. They were extremely timid when they first arrived and clung to each other. They pancaked to the ground as soon as you approached them. They didn’t know what a toy or a treat was. Three weeks later, they have become more confident, playful and affectionate. Nutmeg has been adopted and will be at her new home in New York by the time you read this.
It is very easy to foster. Rescues cover all medical costs; some even cover food and incidentals. It is a great way to bring a dog into your home for a time without having to make a lifetime commitment.
Rescues always need help, whether it be helping with fostering, transportation, adoption events or donations of items or dollars. There is something for anyone who is willing to give just a little to help save a life.
A reminder: Yes, puppies are cute, but please consider adult and senior dogs when adopting. You will bypass the potty training, chewing, play biting and other things that come with a puppy. Adult and senior dogs often come trained and will still provide many years of unconditional love. These dogs are not broken. They’re just bruised. With a little time and love, they will repay you a hundred times over for giving them a chance.
A rescue friend’s motto is Live Like a Dog. They can put the past behind them, always live in the moment and love unconditionally. What a great way to live!