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Pet-owner unity through respite, training

April 3, 2020

A group of women with passion and compassion for dogs is at the heart of Tucson’s Sol Dog Lodge and Training Center, a nonprofit organization. The community has recognized their dedication: they have garnered the annual Arizona Daily Star’s Readers’ Choice Award for best dog daycare/boarding for the past four consecutive years.

Sol Dog does provide traditional boarding services from a small kennel on Prince Road near Interstate 10. But, in the big picture, the lodge aims to keep dogs in forever homes and out of shelters. In that capacity, it provides temporary shelter to pets when their families have emergency challenges, sometimes training or boarding pets in crises or providing other support care through the Hearts at Ease Program.

Some examples are:

  • A beloved dog was placed in respite at Sol Dog while his owner was in rehabilitation following surgery.
  • When a couple added their first baby to the family, they wanted to ensure their large mastiff would be gentle with the infant. The dog entered training at Sol Dog boarding day camp* to ensure that.
  • Recently, a dog’s owner died unexpectedly, and the dog was surrendered. The staff is working to rehome the dog. If the new home situation doesn’t work out, the pet will come back to Hearts at Ease for another placement.

“The goal is for one less worry during stressful times,” says Valerie Pullara, executive director and board secretary.

“I really cannot say enough great things about Sol Dog,” says client Jenny Albright-Perry on Sol Dog’s Facebook page. “I discovered them when I needed some help with my dog who was reactive to other dogs. I took Mabel there for four days of day training, and [trainer] Terra Hockett was just wonderful with her. Not only did Mabel learn and grow in just four days, Terra gave me very useful tips to bring home that have helped me to continue to work on Mabel’s reactivity. Mabel is now able to easily interact with other dogs and attends their day camp a few times a month to ensure she has opportunities to socialize. She always comes home exhausted from her play day, and she’s getting better and better with her interaction skills!”

“We receive calls every day, the need is so great,” says Shelley Harris, director of marketing and community outreach, who also is board member. “Not through the fault of existing animal shelter services or the different rescue groups we work with, it’s just a gap in the system.,” she adds.

Last year, the organization received about 600 inquiries for help with boarding, training, and respite care. While not every call was an emergency, they were able to help about 48% of the situations.

The organization is constrained by space. A local builder designed a new facility for the organization’s future 12,000 square foot campus on 4.5 acres in Marana that will triple operation space and provide six times the capacity.

Today, Sol Dog helps about 75 pet owners  annually with non-emergency respite care. In the new space, this capacity will grow to 300, Harris says.

The Hearts at Ease program trains dogs for therapy, psychological and emotional support, K9, or a specific service. They select dogs that have the appropriate temperament, and the work gives the dogs a purpose in life. Currently, they train about four service dogs annually. In the new facility that will grow to 24 service dogs.

Because of its robust training program, Sol Dog often provides training for the 24 different dog rescue groups in Tucson. “We take the toughest of tough dogs to get them to the appropriate calm state so they can be adopted,” Harris says. Such training can keep dogs out of shelters and get them into forever homes. “We work with rescues and shelters to see other aspects of the dogs,” Pullara adds.

Common behavioral issues that shelter adoptees may exhibit are resource guarding (not allowing people to touch a food bowl, toy, or bed without growling), lunging when walking on a leash, or aggressive behavior. Pullara explains that after a consultation, an individualized training plan is created, based on the dog and the person. “The strategy is to identify what’s happening and work with the dog to redirect the behavior and with the people to be consistent with their response,” she says, adding that it often takes people longer to respond to the training. Other common training programs includes obedience, behavior, and K9 Good Citizen.

“We work to help active-duty military and first responders,” Harris says. “We want them to be able to do their duty with a free mind.” During Hurricane Dorian last August, a first responder needed to deploy urgently to the Bahamas and wanted to ensure his dog, Chance, was safe. Chance stayed at Sol Dog and was reunited when his owner returned.

The Arizona Greyhound Rescue board had a dream for such a facility eight years ago but didn’t put pen to paper until 2015. “We knew the need,” says Harris, who has a background in hospitality marketing and always has been a dog lover. She and Pullara both left their jobs in the last three years. “We’re all in. The five board members put skin in the game,” she says. Four of Sol Dog’s board members also are on the board for Arizona Greyhound Rescue, which is rebranding this year as Arizona Heartfelt Hounds.

Through rehoming greyhound rescues, “we saw the emergency needs. We found we were [meeting emergency needs] more and more, seeing it through rehomed dogs and our expansive adoptive network,” says Harris. Arizona Greyhound Rescue worked with Rachel Molyneux, owner of the original for-profit Sol.DOG Tucson kennel. With the merger, the new Sol Dog Lodge & Training Center nonprofit was formed in July 2018. Molyneux has a lifelong career in shelter operations across Southern Arizona and remains with the group as the director of dog care and kennels. She is revered in the dog community for her professional talents.

With the move to the Marana campus, expected by the end of the year, Sol Dog will be joined by Arizona Heartfelt Hounds and another nonprofit, Asavet Charities. Founded by two veterinarians in 2014, Asavet promotes affordable veterinary care, responding to requests in Arizona and New Mexico. They work with indigent referrals from other vet providers to provide owners with lower-cost options and provide mobile vet services. Asavet will occupy a 2,000 square foot clinic at Sol Dog’s Marana campus. For more information or to contribute to the organization’s capital campaign, go to sol dog lodge.com.

*As of March 23, Sol Dog Lodge suspended its day camp in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check their website for updates.

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