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Helping Save Lives, One Pet at a Time

Area residents explain their dedication to the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation.

Behind every adoption successfully completed by the Arlington-based Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, there's a volunteer with a happy heart.

There's a small volunteer army across Northern Virginia that turns out every weekend to help cats and dogs find homes, but there's never a shortage of others looking for a safe place to be fed, sheltered and loved. Volunteers are what make the organization run, from walking dogs at adoption events to petting cats to making sure adoptable animals have safe transportation from rural shelters to this area for medical care.

These volunteers are playing, and will continue to play, a major role in Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation’s participation in the ASPCA/Rachael Ray $100,000 challenge, an ongoing competition in which the rescue group and others across the country are trying to surpass the number of animal adoptions recorded between June 1 and Aug. 31.

But why do people agree to share their limited free time with animals? What brings them in, and what makes them stay?

Here are a few of their stories:

How to Help

To learn more about the ASPCA/Rachael Ray $100,000 challenge, find a new pet, donate or volunteer with the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, go to www.lostdogrescue.org.

Diane McIntosh and her family have been involved with fostering dogs for the foundation for three years, not to mention the two other rescue groups she helps.

The former federal government employee of 38 years was recruited by her niece, who told her about the organization and its need for temporary homes for dogs.

"Then they needed someone to work the adoption table at an event in Alexandria, and sometimes while I'm working the table, I'll need to hold a dog or two," she said.

McIntosh, of Springfield, also helps bring dogs from other animal shelters to be examined by a veterinarian for Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation before their photos are uploaded onto the rescue's website and they are made available for adoption. She is so often called on to help transport animals, she recently purchased a new SUV purely because it can fit nine animal crates at a time.

"If I'm taking dogs and cats, I can fit a few in the front seat too," McIntosh laughed.

She and her husband have three dogs of their own, including one, Rusty, who would fall under the knowing title of a "foster failure." Rusty was supposed to be a foster dog, staying with the family in their Springfield home only temporarily, but soon became a permanent resident.

"The entire trip from the shelter, he stayed with his head on my shoulder," McIntosh recalled. "He was found in a coal mine in West Virginia. We had him two and a half years."

Her family tends to foster, or adopt, older dogs and currently has a 13-year-old Labrador/Shepherd mix named Glen who "doesn't have teeth and is getting cataracts. We didn't have plans for a third dog, but I'm past the puppy stage. He just wants to have a nice place to live," and McIntosh and her family are happy to provide him with that.

She continues to volunteer with Lost Dog "because I believe in them," she said. "Sometimes it's very crazy and frantic, but it's an organization near and dear to my heart. It's one of the best rescue organizations around. I'd do anything for Lost Dog."

The "puppy palace"

Peggy Plummer can't say no to a puppy face.

It's been 11 years since Plummer and her family adopted their first dog, 10 years since they adopted their second, and six and a half years since they've turned the garage of their Mount Vernon home into what they call the "puppy palace."

The Plummers foster litters of puppies, typically pit bulls or other terriers, sometimes taking in the mother dog before she's delivered and nursing the pups until they're all old enough to be adopted out.

"Volunteering was a no brainer," Plummer said. "We wanted to do something to give back."

There have been more than puppies fostered at the Plummer house, in groups of 10-12 at a time.

"When you have that many, it adds up fairly quickly," and finding creative ways to keep the groups together but in their own pockets of space can be tricky, she said.

Her organizational skills caught the attention of Barbara Hutcherson, the adoption coordinator for Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, who asked Plummer to be their puppy foster coordinator, helping to make sure that litters of puppies had foster homes lined up and available to bring the dogs to adoption events on weekends.

"I've been doing that for three years," she said. "When I get a call from a shelter about a pregnant dog or a dog with pups, I'll send an email out to the other puppy fosters, arrange transport, get them to the vet and take care of their medical needs."

It's especially important for puppies to be in good foster homes, because they can't be out and about during adoption events like older dogs that are ready to be placed in homes, she said. "They can't go to the kennel" or to the ranch Lost Dog owns, out in Sumerduck, Va., because they haven't had all their shots, which makes them vulnerable to illness.

When asked if she's ever taken a break from fostering, Plummer got quiet for a second, then chuckled.

"Maybe for 10 days," she said. "I think we went two weeks without fostering, and that includes any times we've gone on vacation. We do a lot of back-to-back litters. But it's wonderful. I love the puppies, working with them, watching them grow."

She's grateful for the other foster families in addition to the rescue organization at large.

"This is just a great big team," Plummer said. "In a rescue, you've got a lot of ups and downs. There are things we share with each other. We pull each other through. It's such a great group to work with, and Pam [McAlwee, Lost Dog's co-founder] and Barb [Hutcherson] are amazing."

Adoption Events

Fridays, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Tysons Corner PetSmart - cats only

Fairlakes PetSmart - dogs only

Saturdays, noon-3 p.m.

Sterling Petco - dogs only

7 Corners PetSmart - dogs & cats

Saturdays, 1-4 p.m.

Fair Lakes PetSmart - dogs only

Rockville PetSmart - dogs only

Sundays, 1-4 p.m.

Sterling PetSmart - dogs only

Alexandria PetSmart - dogs only

Leesburg PetSmart - cats only

Reston PetSmart - cats only

Tysons Corner PetSmart - dogs & cats

Call him the cat man

Harry Shubin and his wife, Julie, know what it's like to get sweet-talked into taking on more responsibility.

"Always a cat person," Shubin, a Fairfax resident, was introduced to Lost Dog through a secretary at work when his family was looking to adopt a kitten after the loss of a cat he'd had for 16 years. He was more interested in adopting an older cat, but his family had other ideas. So they went to an adoption event. Within a little time, he had "managed to convince everyone that we should come home with an adult cat too."

It took a while to find the right cats, and Friday nights became the family's time to go to adoption events, chat with volunteers and spend time with the animals. During an adoption event about six months after they started going regularly, someone asked Shubin if he was interested in adopting.

"Before I could say no, someone opened up and said no, they're just volunteers," he said.

A year later, Shubin, officially a volunteer with cat adoption events at the Tysons Corner PetSmart, was asked to help find a cat volunteer coordinator for the center in the store, where cats sometimes live before they're adopted.

"We had about 30 volunteers at the time," and Shubin said he made it clear — at least to him — that he was not interested in being responsible for keeping track of which volunteers had which cats at which time. But something happened and, before he knew it, Shubin was put in charge of the cat volunteers, a team he now counts at about 400 people.

"I refused twice," he said with a laugh. He's not alone in being drafted to help out. His wife and daughter are both cat adoption counselors, meeting with prospective cat owners before paperwork is signed and formalized.

And at home, there are six cats they call their own. "One's diabetic, another has [irritable bowel syndrome], two have to be kept in a separate room because the other cats terrorize them." Never a dull moment, Shubin said.

He credits PetSmart for being a great partner with Lost Dog, hosting many of the adoption events throughout each weekend. He frequently checks in with the store to make sure the cats that are there have been fed and checked in on by volunteers, and the managers make sure to receive copies of all adoption paperwork as well.

Other rescue groups might cringe at the thought of allowing an adoption to be made the same day people meet a cat, but Shubin believes that's the best way to go.

"We'd rather adopt more cats to 85 percent perfect people than wait for that 99 percent perfect house," he said. "We can always take an animal back" if the situation doesn't work out for some reason. And there are always more cats to adopt, looking for good homes.

The miracle worker

Centreville resident Earl Smith has a reputation for taking sad-eyed, frightened beagles and turning them into happy, friendly, outgoing pets.

Case in point: the two dogs he's recently fostered.

"Blue was a shelter dog. When I took him in, he was less than social," keeping his head and tail down, not attempting to play with his own three dogs, Smith said. Within a few weeks, his tail was up and wagging, his eyes alert and on the watch for squirrels or birds.

Another dog, Cappy, had been with Smith for only a few days. "Five weeks ago, he was in a home where he'd lived for 10 years. He got dropped off at an adoption event" without prior warning or explanation by his previous owner.

Smith has been fostering dogs, mostly beagles, for six years, and has turned many fosters into full-time pets.

"My first dog was from Lost Dog," he said. "Eleven years ago, I got my first beagle. A couple of years later, I got him a buddy. After that, I'd see rescue groups and wanted to volunteer," and signing up with the foundation was an easy decision to make.

During one of the first adoption events he attended as a volunteer, "there was a dog at an event and she was old. I thought, how can I let this dog go to a kennel? So I asked if I could foster."

Since then, he's fostered 45 dogs, often getting animals that appear to have been abused or made to fear humans in some way.

"I have a soft spot for the sad ones, the ones no one has loved for a long time," he said. "With a rescue organization, any home they have is better than the place they were before."

It's hard work, trying to make the dogs feel comfortable in a new environment, especially when they're introduced to new animals all at once. But there's a moment that makes the heartbreak worthwhile.

"For me, the best reward is when I get home and the new dog is there with my other dogs waiting to jump on me and say hello," he said, smiling. "I just want to know they're safe."

Some Lost Dog volunteers have taken to calling the beagles that look the most unsure and frightened "Earl dogs," because they know he can work his magic with them.

He admits it's difficult to get attached to a dog knowing the animal's just there temporarily. Some families send pictures through the years so he can see the dog grow up, often with a family's children. Others promise to do so, but forget as time goes on.

"I keep photos of all the dogs I've fostered," he said, opening up his cell phone and scrolling through before and after photos of some dogs mixed in with ones he's been sent of his success stories in their new lives. It's a practice embraced by many Lost Dog volunteers.

A rescue dog made her family complete

Since the age of four, Beth Howell has had a dog. She doesn't remember how she found Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, but for the past eight years, she's been helping with dog adoptions in Fair Lakes.

However, she's most grateful to the organization for bringing her dog Jill into her family's life.

After losing a dog she'd had for 16 years, her family went to a Lost Dog event with the idea of maybe someday adopting a new puppy. After spending upwards of two hours with the adorable pup, Beth Howell gave Jill a new home.

Jill’s brother, Jack, had been adopted by another family the same day. Jill quickly took on an important role in the Howell household, keeping Beth's husband company while he was recovering from an illness.

"She makes us smile all the time," Beth Howell said. Jill is a "blend" of breeds, the family found after having her DNA tested, just for fun. "There are traces of German shepherd, Yorkshire terrier, spaniel and about seven other breeds in there," all in a dog that weighs about 30 pounds.

The Howells don't foster, but are staples of adoption events on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. "I'd really like to [foster] but I'd have to convince my husband," she laughed. She does, however, help transport dogs from shelters in other counties to the foundation.

"I always wanted to contribute in some way, and I love helping animals," Howell said of her inspiration for becoming a volunteer. She helps get dogs ready for some special events, including 5K races that sometimes serve as fundraisers or outreach events for Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, in which dogs are taken out to be seen by prospective adopters or just to stretch their legs. There have been times when passersby have approached Howell to tell her they adopted their dog from the foundation, and how happy they've become.

Her daughter's doing

Judy Haynes of Herndon was trying to help her daughter find a way to complete her volunteer requirement for an eighth grade civics class. Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation was one of the few groups that would allow 14-year-olds to help out with parental supervision, so the mother-daughter team signed up.

That was four years ago.

"We started out holding leashes for the dogs," Haynes said. When their own dog passed away, they thought about fostering from the organization.

That led to a "foster failure," as the family soon adopted a "20 pound terrier who doesn't tolerate dogs bigger than she is. Now we foster a lot of Chihuahuas," Haynes said. The family has fostered at least 20 dogs in four years.

The smaller dogs often don't do well at adoption events in large, noisy, brightly-lit places like PetSmart. They can be uncharacteristically aggressive or nervous, and don't really give the best impression of themselves, she said. One way to help present the dogs in their best light might be to put a video of the dogs at home on Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation’s website, a project she's considering.

The power of knowing a dog has found the right home is awesome, Haynes added. She recalled one woman and little boy who came in to look at dogs during an event. Through the course of chatting with them, Haynes learned that the boy was in a foster home, and the woman wanted to help him feel more comfortable and safe.

"They were made for each other," she said.

Staying with Lost Dog now that her two teenagers have surpassed their eighth grade civics obligations was an easy decision.

"It's very rewarding to do this," she said. "The volunteers, Barb and Pam, there are so many great people involved."

A wrangler of family members

Volunteering with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation helped Lisa Marie Czop find her place in the world when she was feeling a little, well, lost.

"When I moved back down to D.C., I was a little lost in what my adult life was supposed to look like," she said. She knew she wanted to make a difference with animals, and when a relative found an animal to adopt through Lost Dog, she decided to sign up as a volunteer.

She has stayed with the group because "we really are the people-friendly rescue. It is simply too easy for someone to go to a pet shop and purchase an animal. LDCRF makes it easy for potential adopters to find an animal that they can welcome into their family while still keeping the well-being of our animals a top priority," an attribute she believes sets the group apart from other organizations in the region.

Currently, Czop manages the Alexandria adoption event and helps run a transport program, in addition to working as liaison with shelters in West Virginia. Then there's the occasional foster duty for dogs and puppies, in addition to helping out with the organization's website and fundraisers.

"The amazing thing is, I'm just one part of this overall machine that saves thousands of lives each year," she said. "The LDCRF volunteer team is a family, and we all bring our individual strengths together to help as many animals as possible."

Even with a full life away from the organization, "there is nothing that can compare to the sheer joy of saving an animal from certain death in a shelter and adopting it into a wonderful loving home," Czop said. "Volunteering with LDCRF means that I get to play a part in making a tangible difference in the lives of animals, which means that I'm serving a greater purpose with my life overall."

Inspired by Parker

Arlington resident Beth Stevens adopted a dog and found a whole new social circle.

Her start with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation came when she adopted her puppy, Parker, in the summer of 2008.

"A year after adopting Parker, I saw an ad in Lost Dog's newsletter asking for puppy fosters," she said. “I knew the more foster families they could recruit, the more animals they could save. So I signed up. I ended up fostering about 60 puppies between 2009 and 2011."

But she didn't stop there. Recently, she's fostered a mother cat and six kittens, in addition to helping with transports, walking dogs at adoption events and helping new adoptive families get all the necessities for their new pet.

There's almost a spiritual aspect to working with Lost Dog, she said.

"I get back so much more than I give," Stevens said. "It's incredibly gratifying knowing that I'm a small part of the long chain of volunteers that have kept an otherwise-adoptable dog or cat off the euthanasia list and on his or her way to happiness in their forever homes. I'm not just helping to save their lives. I'm also saving a piece of my soul and my sanity every day that I volunteer."

She points to the popular Budweiser commercial that aired during the Super Bowl, featuring a young Clydesdale and his trainer. The horse eventually leaves the farm, and the man appears sad to see the animal leave.

"The guy goes to Chicago to see the horse in action, and the horse recognizes the guy and comes barreling down the road," she recalled. "I keep up on Facebook with many of the folks who've adopted my fosters. And when I see those dogs, and they get all wiggly and happy to see me, I feel like that guy in the commercial."

Finding a new home in a new city

When Gina Ysunza moved to Falls Church from California in 2010, she wanted to find an outlet that would help make the area feel like home.

"I started off volunteering with cat adoptions at the Saturday events" after a friend from church told her about Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, she said. Now, in addition to helping with the Saturday adoption events, she serves as the cat volunteer coordinator at the Seven Corners PetSmart, making sure the cats in the center are looked after by signing up volunteers to stop in and feed and play with any cats living there between adoption events.

Working with Lost Dog is inspirational to Ysunza.

"Knowing that I can help even one cat get a second chance at a new loving home" makes it worthwhile, she said. "And getting to spend lots of cuddle time with cute kitties" doesn't hurt either.

A furry sibling does the trick

Aileen Reinhard and her daughter, Sydney, were looking for a new pet after losing their beloved beagle. "We went online and looked at their website and requested that a couple of beagles come to one of their events," Aileen Reinhard said. "There, we met and fell in love with our 'son' Peanut, who was just saved a few days earlier from a shelter in rural Ohio."

Sydney, who was just 7 years old at the time, and her mom signed up to volunteer walking dogs during adoption events as a way to help other families "experience all the joys of adopting a four legged 'son' or 'daughter' such as we feel every day," Aileen Reinhard said. "It really is true that our rescued pet rescued us."

Now, they help work the sign-in table for volunteers and run new volunteer orientation during the Friday night adoption event in Fair Lakes. "Sydney writes out the name tags for both Friday and Saturday events at Fair Lakes. We also participate in special events for increasing public awareness for LDCRF, make tablecloths for the adoption events and helped with the sewing of dog adoption and donation vests," which are worn by dogs who are walked by volunteers outside the events, with little pockets on either side.

Volunteering with Lost Dog is "such a great experience," Aileen Reinhard said. "The selfless, genuine dedication of all the volunteers is immeasurable, all coming together for the common good of animals that would otherwise be forgotten forever but instead are saved and cherished for the rest of their lives in their forever homes."

And, as parents of an only child, working with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation "has given our daughter exemplary, positive role models to interact with and to gain a perspective that service to others, even four-legged, is very rewarding," she added.

A second job, a labor of love

Marcia Tiersky was just looking for a way to share her time.

Now the president of the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation board, Tiersky, who started volunteering with the organization in 2002, helps oversee quarterly board meetings in addition to interviewing potential adopters, answering questions from anywhere and everywhere, fostering dogs and updating the website when new animals arrive for adoption.

"LDCRF is sort of my second unpaid job that is a labor of love," she said. "Knowing that we are helping thousands of dogs and cats each year is extremely fulfilling. It gives me hope that my life has a purpose."

The organization has grown from three adoption events per week, averaging 20 adoptions each week, to 11 adoption events each week, averaging 50-70 adoptions each weekend. In her 10 years as president, the number of volunteers also has expanded, now numbering in the thousands.

"It's amazing," she said. "And it's all because of our wonderful volunteers. We could not do what we do if we did not have people to hold the dogs, show the cats, conduct interviews, do paperwork, answer adopter questions, respond to emails and calls on the phone line, and generally spread word of mouth about the rescue."

Money won equals lives saved

All volunteers interviewed were asked what Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation’s winning the $100,000 challenge would mean to the organization, and the response was unanimous.

Winning that money would mean more animals could be saved.

"That could mean medical care for hundreds of dogs and cats," Tiersky said. "It could mean installing additional space at our ranch for more dogs or cats. It means we could rescue animals in need of serious medical treatment that we otherwise might not be able to afford to help. However we decide to use the money, it would all go for the purpose of saving the lives of dogs and cats, and so it would be well spent."

Other volunteers suggested the money might be used to buy new vans to be used to transport animals, or to make repairs or extend the facilities at the LDCRF ranch. But the bottom line is, shelter animals can be expensive to care for, and every dollar raised by the organization, or any prize won through the ASPCA/Rachael Ray challenge, means that many more animals can be brought in from rural shelters. Every animal brought to Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation is another chance at life.

Editor’s note: Writer Amber Healy is an occasional cat volunteer with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation.