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Local group helps match rescue dogs with new homes

When times get tough and pets aren't cared for, shelters step in to help. A safe and sheltered roof sounds like an easy solution for financially challenged owners and a lifesaver for dogs rescued from hostile conditions, but providing these services requires resources and dogs in need are plenty. 

Working hand in hand with the Athens County Dog Shelter, the animal welfare group Friends of the Shelter Dogs, or FoSD, tackles that problem. Starting out in 2007 and gaining nonprofit status in 2013, the volunteers at FoSD go above and beyond to make sure every dog in need is vetted, fed and taken care of. 

The group formed over a group of citizens' concerns about the shelter's high euthanasia rate, back when around 85% of dogs being taken in did not make it out alive. Rescuing dogs and transferring them to partner organizations or getting them adopted is the key to solving this problem.

Today, the shelter is considered a no-needlessly-kill shelter. Redistribution is a key factor of their work, with the small Appalachian community around the shelter having an insufficient foster base and many more dogs than adopters. 

"There's been an explosion of dogs this year," said Marishka Wile, the group's current president. 

Like most organizations, the volunteer group and the shelter also suffered from the effects of COVID-19 and the current inflation. Too many dogs are being returned to the shelter due to housing changes, no-pet policies and general financial difficulties. 

Now more than ever, FoSD continues to organize donations, host events and walk the dogs. With the county lacking funds and prices for emergency procedures being too high for the average adopter, FoSD takes care of almost all the vetting of the shelter dogs. 

Volunteer work may be the backbone of many shelter processes, but it takes its toll. 

"We see the results of the very worst of humanity," Wile said, referring to the sometimes unbelievable state of houses dogs get rescued from. 

Jacque Rock, a member of FoSD of around six years, describes volunteer work as something that only those with experience will understand. With the emotional stakes high, especially in a foster environment, letting dogs go can be tricky, but it is always the goal.

"You know that's what you did it for, to get them a home," Rock said.

Similarly, Wile does it all for her greatest reward: watching the dogs' transformations from being in bad shape into becoming adoptable. Having previously been a teacher for 20 years, Wile sees her new position as a reinvention of herself. 

"I feel like I've made a better difference in the 10 years that I've been doing this than I ever did teaching," she said. 

Wile and Rock encourage dog owners to spay and neuter their pets to keep the shelter population down in the long term. For this cause, FoSD regularly hosts a mobile spay and neuter clinic at the shelter. The message is clear: consider adoption over puppy shopping. While all dogs deserve loving homes, the impact of adoption is huge. 

"You're talking about a difference between a life and a death, potentially," said Wile, who currently owns four dogs from shelters herself. 

Weekly write-ups and pleas are published describing the dogs searching for new homes to raise awareness of adoption opportunities. Meeting potential adopters and fosters in person, FoSD hosts a number of events, like their annual classic car cruise-in or a drag show for the doggies. This year's cruise-in alone allowed the organization to spay and neuter many dogs at high risk of being adopted for breeding purposes or owned by community members eligible through financial assistance.

Always in need of more volunteers, the group has to take on their work one day at a time.

"It's really hard to make huge long-term goals when every day is an emergency," Wile said. 

There are many ways to better the situation through small steps most people are able to take: donating items and food to the shelter, financially supporting the veterinary fund or becoming a volunteer. 

"Homeless dogs are everybody's issue," Wile said.

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