Pup My Ride: 5,000 dogs saved (and counting)

It all began quite unexpectedly. Four years ago when Best Friends started pulling dogs out of Los Angeles shelters and driving them up to Salt Lake City, no one thought that someday the program would have expanded to Las Vegas and then the Midwest. But Pup My Ride did that and more. Last month, the combined Pup My Ride programs hit a milestone that in the beginning none of the staff dreamed would happen: 5,000 dogs. Pup My Ride has saved these dogs from shelters’ "red lists" and from Midwest puppy mill cages, and we want to celebrate by giving you a behind-the-scenes peek at what it’s like to do the work.

The idea behind Pup My Ride is simple: basic supply and demand but with lifesaving flair. In places like L.A., there are shelters full of small dogs like Chihuahuas and mini poodles — so many that they can't find homes. Meanwhile, in other areas, shelters have very few of these dogs, so potential adopters are leaving empty-handed. We work with rescue groups and shelters to pull dogs out of areas with a severe overpopulation (and therefore, high euthanasia rate) and bring them to areas where there is a high adoption demand.

I’ve been part of the Pup My Ride team since we first started the puppy mill dog transports, and I can say that in many ways it has changed my life. I know the rest of the team feels the same way, so I decided to talk to many of those involved in the work to get their impressions about how we made it this far together.

Starting out

Nikki Sharp, Best Friends' senior manager of local programs, was there for the inception of both branches of the Pup My Ride program, and is responsible for the idea to try Pup My Ride out of Los Angeles in the first place.

She remembers, "It was the summer of 2007, and I had recently started working at Best Friends and was just starting to get to know people. I somehow got an email from Robin Harmon in L.A. about shelter dogs who were ‘red listed.’ I was shocked to see how many small dogs were on the list Robin sent." Nikki lives in Salt Lake City, and she’s savvy about the animal shelter situation there. She says, "I knew there were hardly any small dogs in the shelters; in fact, there were waiting lists for them. When I saw pictures of all those little dogs that were scheduled to be put down if no one took them, I called Robin and said I thought there might be an opportunity to save those dogs with a transport." And with that, Pup My Ride was born.

Nikki put Robin (Best Friends’ Los Angeles rescue and shelter coordinator) in touch with a Salt Lake rescue group she knew well and had them start putting together a transport. Robin says, "When we started planning the first transport, the receiving group started out saying they could take six to eight dogs. But then as we went through the list together and they looked closely at those dogs’ photos and bios, the number soon became 12, and in the end they took 21 dogs. We should have known at that moment that it was only the beginning."

Neither Robin nor Nikki ever imagined that several years later the transports would be going every two weeks, and that they’d be celebrating the rescue and transport of over 5,000 dogs. Nikki said, "It really just began with one list of dogs."

The Los Angeles program’s success was one factor that helped us make the leap to include rescued puppy mill dogs in a new branch of the program. It was 2008 — the beginning of Best Friends’ puppy mill initiatives (then called Puppies Aren’t Products), and we had been doing a lot of research about the puppy mill issue and what was needed most. We started forming relationships with groups who regularly took cast-off dogs directly from puppy mills. Puppy mill owners typically won’t hold onto a dog when he or she is no longer useful to them. They’ll sell it, euthanize it or give it to rescue. All of the rescuers we spoke with were overwhelmed with the number of dogs coming out of mills and haunted by the number they had to turn away because they just couldn’t take them all.

From there we came up with a plan to do our part to take as many of those dogs as possible and move them to the Northeast where there is a high demand for those types of dogs. It’s also one of the highest-density areas for pet stores. We wanted to bring those same pet store–type dogs to the area — dogs that the shelters didn’t often get, and if they did, were immediately adopted.

Challenges

Pup My Ride isn’t all warm and fuzzy fun (though a lot of it really is!). Any project this big involves challenges, and Pup My Ride comes with some tough hurdles. Robin, who is in charge of rounding up shelter dogs for each L.A. Pup My Ride says, "The hardest thing is choosing which dogs to take. There are so many that fit the criteria, and you can only take the dogs you can take. You’re saving lives and there are other lives you can’t save."

Imagine facing a veritable Sophie’s choice every two weeks. But Robin does it. She explains, "I make myself do it. I totally understand people’s feelings when you hear them say they can’t go to the shelter because it’s too sad. But I also believe that you can do whatever you need to do if you’re strong enough. And, I look at every dog we transport as saving two animals. If we transport 30 dogs, we open up 60 spaces — 30 spaces from the dogs we took and 30 more for the dogs that come in and don’t have to be put down right away because there’s no space."

Both branches of the program can bring staff people into places that aren’t so animal friendly, but it’s especially true with the puppy mill program. Elizabeth Oreck, manager of Best Friends’ puppy mill initiatives remembers, "About a year after the program was underway, we attended one of the many dog auctions that occur regularly around the country. We don’t typically attend auctions, as we primarily work with rescuers to whom breeders just give dogs away, but I knew these auctions existed and wanted to see one for myself. Hundreds of dogs were being sold, but toward the end of the day, the crowd thinned out and there were very few bids. As we watched, dozens of dogs sold for less than a dollar. The bidding was in five- and ten-cent increments. Auctioneers told the audience that they had vets standing by to euthanize the dogs that didn’t sell. It was heartbreaking. Although we had not planned on this, we ended up taking all of the dogs that didn't sell that day, paying a penny apiece for these wonderful, healthy, adoptable animals."

Successes

Reaching the staggering number of 5,000 dogs rescued is a huge success, but the people who do the transports will tell you that every life saved is a success in itself. We all have our favorite stories — dogs who stood out as individuals from the masses, the dogs whose faces and names we remember even hundreds of dogs later.

For Robin, it’s the moms and puppies. She remembers, "Earlier this year, I was contacted about a hound mix named Sweetie who was at the Castaic shelter. She had 12 newborn pups, and all of them — mom and pups — were going to be put down. That happens all the time. In Sweetie’s case, I was able to get them transported to the Baldwin Park shelter because Lance (the shelter manager) said yes. He’ll do just about anything for us and we’ll do just about anything for him. We have an amazing relationship. I knew we had a group that would take moms and puppies of any kind, and so Sweetie and her pups were transported to Help for Homeless Pets in Montana. They went into a foster home right away and now that they’re old enough, all but two of her puppies are in homes and Sweetie has a potential adopter." It was a happy ending for a whole family of dogs whose lives almost ended the day they were dropped off together at the shelter.

And sometimes, the dogs we remember are the ones who mean something to us in the big picture. Nikki says, "A favorite story of mine is the litter of silky terrier puppies that were supposedly blind that the breeders didn’t want because they couldn’t sell them to the broker and then to the pet store. That’s something that the general public doesn’t realize — that when they go to a pet store, that for every puppy in the window there are more that didn’t make the cut. Those silky terriers had been cast aside as damaged goods, and they were these gorgeous little puppies. We brought them back to the Sanctuary, and it turned out they weren’t blind at all; they were perfectly healthy."

Special Thanks to …

There are literally hundreds of people who make Pup My Ride possible — from the shelters willing to go the extra mile, to the people who help fund it, to the volunteers who do the heavy lifting, to the shelters and rescue groups who take in the dogs. For example, the Los Angeles portion of Pup My Ride has been especially popular, and maybe only possible because of, that certain breed of folks so often found in the area: celebrities.

Robin is grateful for what all that attention has done to help the dogs who need the L.A. Pup My Ride. She says, "A couple years ago when the transports were new and struggling for funding, some volunteers created a chip-in account to raise money, and Nancy Heigl saw it. Right away, she came to the Baldwin Park shelter and brought Katherine [Heigl]. She gave the shelter a check that day and agreed to fund Pup My Ride for 2009, and it all just took off from there. It’s my favorite story because it allowed the program to continue. It brought more interest and validation to the program, and now we have more help and more visibility to the public. All that means we can save more dogs. It opened up doors to everything."

But let’s be clear — you don’t have to be famous or well-to-do enough to fund an entire transport to make a difference. We need help of all types. Elizabeth says, "Our volunteers are amazing. Some of these folks use their vacation time to fly in from around the country at their own expense to help with Pup My Ride simply because they love the program and want to help these dogs get out of mills and into forever homes. Their dedication is truly inspiring. We are so grateful for each and every one of our volunteers because this program would not be possible without them."

Arianna Pittman, puppy mill initiatives coordinator, especially appreciates the organizations willing to take in dogs from the transports. She says, "I have met so many wonderful, compassionate and dedicated people. These puppy mill dogs are not only in need of a good grooming and love, but also dental work, spaying/neutering and sometimes costly surgical procedures. Some dogs are so emotionally damaged that they require months of rehabilitation before they are ready for adoption. Despite all this, the groups take in as many dogs as they can handle, often wishing they could take in more. A woman from one of the groups we work with once said, ‘These dogs are like little diamonds just waiting to be polished.’ It’s so true. They take in these scared, broken dogs and work hard to help them become happy dogs that are wagging their tails and rolling over for tummy rubs. Whether they take in one dog or 20, each group is a key component in our work to help give puppy mill dogs a second chance."

What’s Next?

While Best Friends continues to work tirelessly towards a time of No More Homeless Pets, Pup My Ride will keep on truckin’. We all have ideas about how to make the program bigger and better. Robin says, "I wish we could get a plane." I wish we didn’t have to do Pup My Ride at all. It’s a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth, who adds, "I'm hopeful that the increased awareness about puppy mills, the fact that more and more legislation is being introduced to regulate commercial breeding, and people's decision to adopt rather than buy is moving us toward a time when puppy mills won't have a market to sell their ‘product’ and all dogs will be able to live normal, happy lives."

That will be a dream come true when it happens someday. In the meantime, though, we’ll keep working to end animal overpopulation and stop puppy mills, and we’ll keep diving those miles between the places where animals are in danger to where they’ll be safe and loved for the rest of their lives.

How you can help!

  • Click here to make a donation and help realize a time of No More Homeless Pets.
  • Join the puppy mill initiatives group on the Best Friends Network. You'll find recent success stories, calls to action and resources.
  • Join the Best Friends Legislative Action Center and take action for animals! Get legislative alerts with easy-to-follow instructions on how to lend your support on issues that matter to you.