Imagine a shelter where, instead of cages, the dogs live in bedrooms with their buddies. Where they get to play in enormous play yards with pools and obstacles and Astro-turf (which is really good for itching your back).
A shelter where mamas and puppies have their own cabins and private play areas. Where there is a veterinary healing center with a vet available every day to take care of their needs. With an intake building and quarantine building. And where they treat 800 heartworm-positive dogs every year and have a parvo ward where they save 98% of the puppies.
Imagine a shelter that has five trainers on staff full-time and an entire building for training PTSD dogs for veterans (for free!). Plus, over 1000 volunteers and 150 staff members to not only see to every need but to walk dogs and train dogs and simply love dogs. A place where they save 5000 dogs every year.
A place where there are plans for a Senior Sanctuary that offers seniors the medical care they need and then whenever possible places senior dogs with senior people who need company (and provide vet care and supplies) or allow the dogs to live out their lives healthy and happy in a first-class facility at the shelter. And plans for a boarding facility to house (for free) the dogs of deployed military members so they are safe and healthy and happy when their heroes return. A place where there will soon be a physical therapy building with a hydrotherapy pool, cold laser, and hyperbaric chamber.
And while we’re imagining, how about a shelter with an education and event center where kids of all ages (and adults) will come to learn about why there’s a problem with unwanted dogs, how dogs suffer, and how we can solve the problem?
But guess what? You don’t have to imagine because such a place exists!
Big Dog Ranch is all of those things and more! I scribbled notes as fast as I could as we toured the beautiful facility on 33 acres in Loxahatchee, Florida, where attention to detail and careful consideration of canine needs is evident everywhere you look.
I often say that money won’t solve the problem, but after that visit, I’ll amend that to say, it can certainly make a difference.
Big Dog Ranch is a living dream come true for anyone in shelter and rescue. They save 5000 dogs a year pulling from high-kill shelters in the southeast, saving dogs from natural disasters, bringing dogs in from Puerto Rico and China, plus owner surrenders and rescue transfers.
Actually, after talking with Lauree, the founder (and dreamer and manifester-of-those-dreams), it was clear she’ll rescue any dog, anywhere, if it’s within her power (and she’s a powerful woman). And then she’ll put it up in the best accommodations with the best care and give it the best chance of finding a forever home.
Lauree started Big Dog Ranch and intentionally designed it to be cage-free, beautiful, functional, and effective. People often say they don’t want to visit a shelter because it will make them sad; well, spend some time at Big Dog Ranch and it’ll warm your heart. One volunteer, Peggy, told me, “It’s Disneyland for dogs.”
She might be right. If you’ve got to be a homeless dog, it’s a great place to land. The ‘bunkrooms’ are painted in colorful murals by local artists and are designed by the people who sponsor the room. Donors’ names are splashed on every surface, doorway, building, room, and office—a testament to the investment of individuals and groups who all believe in Lauree’s vision of a new kind of shelter, and the vast ability of Robin, the executive director who finds a way to fund all of Lauree’s plans.
Big Dog Ranch runs on about 10 million a year, all raised through individual donations and fundraisers large and small – like the recent Winter Bark Bash (with the Gin Blossums!), Wine, Women, & Shoes (held at Mar-a-Lago) and Celebrity Chef for Canines (with Michelin star award-winning chef Akria Back), plus Donor dinners and adoption events. Robin has a wealth of knowledge and a background in investment management, but more than that a whole-hearted belief in the vision of Big Dog Ranch.
The rescue was founded in 2008 and since then they have saved 45,000 dogs. The current ranch is only 6 years old and not finished yet. So far, they have spent approximately 13 million dollars to build this paradise (which can be contrasted with 15 million dollars spent on the Miami-Dade Animal Shelter in 2016, a beautiful building that houses dogs traditionally in cages).
The beautiful buildings and attention to detail aren’t an accident. Lauree’s first career was building and designing homes for billionaires (her words). She’s outspoken and passionate and clearly not afraid to challenge the way things have always been done in the world of sheltering that is too often dictated by deeply entrenched practices, personal politics, and outdated beliefs.
She dreams of duplicating the design of Big Dog Ranch all over the country, generously welcomes other shelters and rescues to visit, and would be more than happy to advise directors on how to design dog-centric, cage-free shelters like Big Dog Ranch.
Lauree’s motto is “Education, Sterilization, and Legislation.” And that’s exactly what it will take to fix this problem. We need to educate the next generation and the people who aren’t aware there is a problem. We need to find and fund access to spay and neuter in every county where there are too many animals. And we need to create (and enforce) smart animal laws that make our country more humane.
But meanwhile, we need to not just imagine, but create shelters where dogs can heal and thrive and find the homes they deserve.
Until each one has a home,
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.