As we walked up the drive alongside the ring where a gleaming dark bay horse cantered like a metronome, my worlds collided. Having spent fifty years loving horses, many of those years riding, teaching, and training them, today was a special treat. Before they ever became rescue heroes and movie stars, Danny and Ron were already famous in the hunter/jumper world I once inhabited.
We spent an hour talking with Danny and Ron in the dappled sunshine next to the shedrow where gorgeous animals were primped for the horse show nearby, a blacksmith considered the leg action of the horse in the ring, and all sorts of dogs belonging to staff and clients milled around us. Ron shared his story of the rescue he and Danny created, even as he monitored the horses working in the ring beside us. Since its inception in 2006, they’ve saved about 13,000 dogs.
They first began rescuing in the wake of Katrina. When they learned that Katrina survivors were being transferred to the training center nearby to live in the apartments built for jockeys and visiting trainers, they were compelled to step in and help. There was already a stockpile of toothbrushes and underwear and necessities for the people who had lost everything. So they thought of what else people uprooted and homeless might need. They decided TVs would help people to follow the news and look for relatives, so they bought out all the appliance stores in Wellington and delivered them to the survivors.
Helping horses stranded by Katrina seemed like a logical next step, but realized that no one looking for their lost horse would want to come all the way to Florida to retrieve it, so instead they focused on dogs. They contacted shelters that would be taking in the Katrina dogs and volunteered to take all their current shelter dogs to make room for the Katrina dogs. The logic being that leaving the dogs in Louisiana would give them a better chance of being reunited with their owners. Six hundred dogs passed through their home in the aftermath of the hurricane, all living with Danny and Ron, until they could be placed in homes through their contacts in the horse show world. Thus began their practice of arriving at horse shows with a bus full of dogs to adopt out to the well-heeled, animal-loving crowd.
That was just the start. Today they regularly have 70-80 dogs living with them at their homebase in South Carolina. During the height of COVID, they actually had 140 dogs. They now employ a staff of 20 people, including themselves to take care of the dogs. They still place many dogs via the horse show circuit, setting up a booth at all the major shows where adopters come to meet dogs and people come to support their work.
Danny and Ron save about 800 dogs a year, but could likely double that if not for the fact that they so often choose to rescue dogs that are elderly, have a medical issue, and/or are heartworm positive. Their movie, Life in the Dog House, a full-length documentary about the rescue, has brought them fame outside of the horse world. People come from all over to adopt dogs from them. Danny and Ron don’t charge an adoption fee, but they are picky about who gets their dogs. As Ron said, “We won’t set them up to fail.” Because their dogs all live with them at their house, they know these dogs well.
They work extremely hard to play matchmaker, pairing adopter and dog up by temperament, home environment, expectations, and the amount of time an adopter has to give a dog. They do their best to kid-test, dog-test, even cat-test if they find an adopter they think is a good fit for one of their dogs.
They get very few returns, but if ever an adoption doesn’t work out or circumstances force an adopter to give up their pet, they take the dog back. In fact, it’s in their adoption contract, and they go to great lengths to be sure that when they rescue a dog, it is rescued for life.
Danny and Ron take first class care of all their dogs, feeding them only organic food that Ron cooks in huge batches three times a week. They use organic flea collars rather than chemical-based spot treatments (figuring that if the chemical kills any fleas or ticks that land on the dog, it also makes their skin toxic). Even their treats are organic, and if you’ve seen the film, you know they enjoy a life very different from the average shelter or rescue dog, playing daily in small groups and as an entire pack on the secure property Danny and Ron have created just for them.
Like every director I’ve asked (over 70 now), they assured me that the need for rescue continues to go up, not down. They believe the key is spay and neuter, but without legislation to drive it, we will always struggle to keep up with the demand for rescue. Ron told of confronting a southern elected official who rejected the idea of requiring spay and neuter because he’d never tell his hunting buddies they had to ‘cut off their dogs’ balls.’ Without some kind of law, Ron believes we’ll always have too many animals.
Everywhere they go, this incredible couple has made an impact. In Aruba, where they vacation, they spend $35,000 every year on spay and neuter. They bring suitcases full of medical supplies to donate and always bring two dogs back on the plane with them under their seats.
The rescue works with Meals on Wheels, providing dog food for pets, and helping with medical issues if necessary. During the Australian wildfires, they sent food and supplies for the dogs who were searching for koalas and assisting with rescue searches. They also work with the organization, War Dogs, a Chicago based organization that trains and places PTSD dogs with veterans.
“My dream is to put us out of business,” Ron told me. But he is realistic and to that end, he and Danny have a plan in place to continue the work of the rescue even after they are gone.
Danny and Ron are investing in the next generation’s ability to fix this. They’ve written several children’s books published by Simon & Schuster and have a full-length book, Forever Home: How Our House Became a Home for Lost, Abandoned, and Misunderstood Dogs; and How We Rescued Each Other in the End, coming out soon from Harper Collins.
What impressed me the most as I listened to these two men talk is how focused they are on each individual dog. The dogs come from kill facilities and horrible situations, but now they live like the rich clients that Danny and Ron coach. The respect and love these men feel for the animals they save is inspiring.
After our interview, we headed over to the horse show nearby, where even the air felt rich, and stopped by the rescue’s booth. Women in riding britches stopped to admire the dogs, while hundreds of golf carts tooled around the grounds. Five dogs lounged in kennels in between cuddle sessions. It was a pretty happy adoption scene. (Twenty dollars for parking will definitely guarantee a few well-healed adopters.)
As a rescue operation, it’s a unique business plan. But this rescue is more than an adoption center for the rich, they truly care about every dog they encounter. Danny & Ron’s dog-centered, full-hearted approach is changing the image of rescue dogs in a world where purebreds have long-dominated.
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.