Cover Story: Tucson Rescue Now – From the Kennel to the Couch

Tucson Rescue Now helps older dogs at the Pima Animal Care Center find forever homes.

By Emily Dieckman Photos by Candice Eaton

George Fangman can’t bear going to dog shelters—he says it just breaks his heart. So when his friend John Gilbert told him about an event he and his neighbor Jace Powers were putting on in a vacated store space at the Foothills Mall, with dogs up for adoption as well as prizes, food and live music, Fangman was excited to show up. He walked out of the mall with his new dog, a Boerboel who he named Rosco—technically Rosco No. 2, in honor of another Rosco Fangman used to own.

“He hit the jackpot when he found me,” Fangman said. “And I hit the jackpot when I found him.”

Old Dogs, New Beginnings

The event, Doggie Home for the Holidays, was the first one Gilbert and Powers hosted for their new venture, Tucson Rescue Now, a non-profit dedicated to helping older, often overlooked dogs at the Pima Animal Care Center find homes.

The two neighbors, who first became friends because they bonded over the fact that they’d both adopted dogs from shelters, are regular volunteers at PACC—Gilbert is there every day, and has been known to hand out hot dogs to the dogs he walks and spends time with (with permission, of course). Powers likes to take the dogs on day trips to go swimming.

Both men would see older dogs left at the shelter for months as families came in to pick out puppies and younger pups. Many times, older dogs come to the shelter because of a medical issue their families can’t afford to pay for, or because their owners die. They go from a loving family to a kennel at the animal shelter, and, in the confusion and devastation, are often too scared to act calm or approachable for potential families.

“We wanted to get the dogs out of the shelter so people could see their personalities and how cool they are,” Gilbert said. “But when we come up with ideas, our ideas go to the moon.”

So they went big for their first event, renting out a 15,000-square foot venue at the Foothills Mall and showcasing a group of dogs, in part through a “doggie fashion show.” They sought out sponsors for the dogs—gift certificates to local veterinarian’s offices, a donation from Reed Pharmacy to help pay for the cost of a dog’s Valley Fever medication. They hoped offsetting some of the costs of having an older dog would alleviate some people’s concerns about adopting one. Then, they started thinking of other creative ways to showcase the dogs. They didn’t want any kennels at the event, so they asked the Salvation Army if they could use some couches for the dogs to sit on, so the dogs could be more comfortable and people could see how the dogs act in a homier environment.

“As soon as you get ‘em out of the shelter, they become who they are,” Powers said. “And having both worked in retail, we know that interacting with a dog for the first time is like a test drive for a car. You’ve got to get people in the front seat.”

It worked: Ten dogs found new homes, including the dog who needed Valley Fever medication, who had been in the shelter for more than six months. People loved being able to sit and cuddle with the dogs and get to know their personalities. Powers recalled proudly that there wasn’t a bark in the whole place—the dogs were feeling much more relaxed, and the human attendees were seeing the dogs as much more adoptable.

The volunteers loved it too. When they decided to host a Valentine’s Day Event, “Find Your Perfect Companion,” they got all the volunteers they needed within two hours of putting out a call. At that event, they found homes for several more dogs, and used couches they’d decided to purchase.

“It gives them an opportunity to show off, even though they don’t know it,” Powers said. “They’re becoming dogs, becoming themselves.”

The Motivation Behind the Madness

Gilbert retired in 2018 and could spend his time any number of ways. Powers owns his own shaved ice products company, so this work is done on top of his regular job. So, why do they do it?

Powers does it in part in honor of his rescue dog named Merlin, who was about 5 when Powers adopted him from the Humane Society of Southern Arizona at an event at La Encantada.

Though Merlin has Valley Fever, tick fever and thyroid issues, Powers said he wasn’t the only one who recognized what a special dog Merlin was. Shelter volunteers would take him home for the night, so he didn’t have to spend the night in the shelter, but he wasn’t getting adopted because of the expense of his medications. Now, Merlin is 11 or 12 years old, and Powers jokes that Merlin—his first rescue dog—is his “car payment” because he’s so expensive. But he wouldn’t change it for the world.

“It’s kind of in honor of him that I do this,” he said.

Gilbert had owned German Shepherds throughout his life when he moved to Tucson in 2006. A woman from the Humane Society knew he liked the breed and she called him up one day about a German Shepherd she had at the shelter, who was so sick that he only weighed about 40 pounds.

“He’s probably going to die, but can you just foster him?” she asked.

Gilbert spoke to his wife and they agreed to pick him up. He couldn’t keep food down because he was on so many different medications. Gilbert decided he wanted the dog, whom he named Jake, to have the happiest last few days possible, so he threw away the medications and fed him good food like hamburgers and steak. Jake started to get stronger, and to play with Gilbert’s other two dogs. He ended up living with Gilbert for six more years.

“That was my first introduction into rescues,” Gilbert said. “And I would never get anything other than rescues.”

Today Gilbert has a chihuahua mix named Lily, because he wanted a small dog that could travel with him for business—he joked that she has more airline miles than most people do. He also frequently takes home little dogs from the shelter for overnight visits, to help them come out of their shells.

“I just do things I really, really have a passion for,” he said. “I had no plans for after retirement. Jace and I started doing this because we saw a need for it.”

Why a Senior Dog?

Both Gilbert and Powers are big believers that adopting a senior dog could be lifechanging for both the human and the dog.

“If a dog is 12 or 14, maybe he does only have two or three years,” Gilbert said. “Those should be the best years of his life.”

And adopting an older dog isn’t purely an act of charity: There’s a lot of benefit in it for the person doing the adopting. Older dogs often come trained and understanding basic commands, and many are calmer and more laid back than puppies. Because they have a longer attention span than some younger dogs, you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. For many people, like one elderly woman who came into PACC just looking for a small, calm dog she could cook for, they’re a perfect fit. Gilbert couldn’t help but smile when one older couple met a dog in the shelter and said they really liked him but wanted to know how long Gilbert thought he would live.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “How long do you think you’re going to live?”

Full Hearts and Wagging Tails at WOOFstock

Tucson Rescue Now made an appearance at the Tucson Dog’s WOOFstock event in March 2019, where all three of the dogs they brought were adopted. Their area at the event was full of fun: Not only were there couches draped with dog- and bone-patterned blankets and a crew of lovable senior pups, but they were even selling shaved ice with a note that it was available “for senior dogs only, must show ID.” Next to the sign advertising the shaved ice, they put up another silly sign, advertising, “fake IDs for senior dogs.”

One little girl fell in love with a dog with crooked paws named Louie at the beginning of the day. She spent hours walking around the event, where there were dozens of adoptable dogs from organizations all over Tucson available for adoption.

“She came back, sat on the couch and said, ‘I want Louie,’” Gilbert said. “People didn’t want him because of his funny looking feet, but the little girl didn’t care.”
Another young man took home a 10-year-old dog named Achilles, who was originally brought into the shelter to be euthanized because he had cancer. An operation removed all the cancer, and Achilles got to start a new life once he found a home.

There are few things more rewarding, Gilbert and Powers agree, than finding the perfect dog-human match.

“Our thing is really all about the dogs,” Gilbert said, explaining that some people pushed back against their idea to feature the dogs on couches, because not all people let their dogs on the couch. “We want the people that want to let their dogs on the couch anyway.”

For more information on Tucson Rescue Now, and to keep up with their fun-filled, couch-filled, dog-filled adoption events, visit the Tucson Rescue Now Facebook page.

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