In 2001, there were too many dogs without homes and too few people to help them.
That wasn't acceptable to Pamela McAlwee and Ross Underwood, lifelong animal lovers who wanted to save dogs and cats alike from shelters where their futures were non-existent if they weren't adopted.
McAlwee and Underwood were a few years into running a gourmet take-out pizza deli on Washington Boulevard in the Westover neighborhood of Arlington, when McAlwee went to help a friend find a dog to adopt. While visiting a shelter, she saw six dogs that were about to be put down within a few days. Upon hearing that, she promptly took all six of them home that night. She got them spayed or neutered and cleaned up and put a classified ad in a newspaper, and in between orders for pepperoni and cheese and vegetarian pizzas, she worked to find good homes for them all. She did this several times, adopting dogs about to be euthanized and finding homes for them.
That's how the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation was born, out of the take-out phone number for what's now the original location of the Lost Dog Cafe. McAlwee had worked with other rescue groups before, but she wanted to focus more on finding good homes for the animals instead of waiting for a "perfect" placement. The rescue group started with 25 dogs.
Now there are 150 dogs at a ranch in Sumerduck, Va., owned by Lost Dog, as the rescue organization is known, along with 20 cats and an assortment of other animals, including a horse. Other dogs and cats live with fosters — more than 100 dogs are currently in temporary homes until they're adopted.
"It's amazing what we accomplish with an all-volunteer base," said Barbara Hutcherson, Lost Dog's adoptions coordinator. There's a small paid staff that largely takes care of the animals at the ranch, where the dogs are walked two or three times a day in addition to having roomy kennels for living and fields for running around.
"The ranch is a wonderful place for animals to come and wait for their chance to get their forever families," she said. There are soft beds for the dogs and cats to sleep on, in addition to plenty of room to play and run around. The dogs might arrive in carriers or crates to the half-dozen adoptions event in Northern Virginia each weekend, and it's common for volunteers and prospective adopters to see that and pity the dogs, but at the end of the typically three-hour adoption event, the dogs are clamoring to get back into the crates and head back to the ranch. They're eager to get back — partly because the events are filled with people and new smells, and that's a lot for the dogs to deal with, Hutcherson said.
Predominantly, the dogs and cats come from overcrowded shelters in other counties across the region, from Prince George's County in Maryland to rural shelters in West Virginia.
As part of the ASPCA/Rachael Ray $100,000 Challenge, Lost Dog is trying to outdo their adoptions from last summer.
The goal is for 1,500 adoptions between June 1 and Aug. 31. As of Monday, July 15, 451 dogs and cats have been adopted during the challenge. June 2013 has had 176 more adoptions than June 2012.
It's a big job to do, but Hutcherson is confident the group can, at a minimum, surpass the adoptions completed last year, when more than 560 animals were adopted.
To put those numbers in perspective, more than 18,000 animals have found homes courtesy of Lost Dog in the past 12 years, Hutcherson said. The group typically takes in as many animals as it adopts out, with roughly 2,400 animals coming in to Lost Dog's care in 2012 and nearly the same number finding homes.
People who find and fall in love with a cat or dog during an adoption event get to take their pet home the same day, a feature not common with other rescue groups and one that sometimes creates friction between Lost Dog and other organizations.
Another attribute of Lost Dog that makes them stand out: If pet owners who adopted their cat or dog from the foundation find themselves in a position where they can no longer care for the animal for any reason, the rescue group will take custody of the animal again.
"A few months ago, we had a dog returned who had been with her family for 10 years," Hutcherson said. "Her person just fell on some really hard times ... But we are dedicated to the animals," and within a few days of the dog returning to Northern Virginia, she found a home with another older dog, Hutcherson said.
"Older dogs have so much soul," she said. "We've had a lot of success placing older dogs," because puppies require a lot of energy and attention, and some people want a family dog without having to go through the trials of house breaking all over again.
Lost Dog is the only organization in Northern Virginia participating in the ASPCA challenge. The rescue had to verify its numbers and qualify in order to participate, proving the volunteer base and "the commitment to really take this challenge and run with it," Hutcherson said.
"The contest was designed by the ASPCA to help rescue groups and shelters," she said. "They haven't just said, OK, here's the money. They provided a list of ideas on how to get better. If you have questions about a specific aspect, you can call and get help. They've provided a ton of resources."
If Lost Dog wins one of the grants provided through the challenge, the winnings likely will be used for vet bills. Nearly all the animals that come into Lost Dog's care have medical issues, ranging from the typical need to be spayed or neutered, to flea or heartworm treatment, to surgery or serious, long-term medical care. The only reason Lost Dog would turn an animal away is if the costs are so great they couldn't care for that animal, a situation that the rescue tries to avoid.
"It's difficult when you're looking at a list of shelter animals and you have to ask if you can afford the big vet bill for one animal" compared to smaller fees for multiple animals, Hutcherson said. "We want to take them all. It's uncomfortable, but we want to do every single thing we can."
The funding for the rescue comes from adoption fees, but also from donations, made during adoption events or online, and from proceeds from the four Lost Dog Cafe locations across Northern Virginia and the one Stray Cat Cafe, next to the original Lost Dog Cafe in Westover.
More information on Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, including a short video of the ranch, is available at www.lostdogrescue.org.