Best Friends-backed degree inspires, guides new animal rescue organization

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Intern Jenny Yamaha with a dog
Jenny Franz shifted the focus of Better Together Dog Rescue to better address critical needs in the community.
By John Polis

Sometimes the best laid proposals don’t work out exactly as planned. They work out even better than imagined.

Jenny Franz had a dream of one day operating her own dog rescue. She was already the executive director of a nonprofit charitable foundation in Belchertown, Massachusetts, but the lifelong animal lover longed to devote more of her time to animals. In 2011 she began to dabble in rescue and after meeting Miss Piggy, a pit-bull-terrier-like dog who stole her heart, Jenny’s future began to come into focus.

“I had my first baby at the time,” Jenny recalls, “and it hit me hard to see this mother dog without her babies. I found a foster-based rescue to take her in and she was adopted. But after that, something just clicked, and it all felt right for me.”

Jenny remembers a trip to the local dog impound facility and being disturbed by what she saw: “It was a shack built off a public works garage with one outlet, no heat or air and no storage. As a result, some members of the community and I got together to see if we could make some changes for the good of the animals.”

The group found it had an ally in Anna Fenton, the animal control officer Belchertown, who knew changes had to be made. She welcomed the help. "Anna is an animal lover to the core,” says Jenny. She recognized that the facility no longer suited the needs of the community, so with the support of the town and its members, a new safe and welcoming animal control facility was built.

It was at this point that Jenny began to seriously think about eventually having her own dog rescue organization. “It looked like a five- to seven-year plan,” she says, “because I had young children and knew what my commitment would have to be. So, I started slowly with ideas, but it all ramped up more quickly when I decided to get my master’s degree.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Franz

Best Friends symposium opens the door

Since her employer donated money to Best Friends, Jenny had a good idea of the organization’s work and decided to attend a Best Friends professional development symposium: “Reaching New Heights in Contemporary Animal Services,” which was presented in partnership with Southern Utah University (SUU).

“It was an amazing symposium that they ran,” she says. “At that time, they were talking about their partner program with Southern Utah University and the possibility of people turning the symposium into college credit. When that happened, I almost immediately applied for admission to the program and it went from there.”

Thus began a nearly two-year, intensive study of animal services. Her studies included a six-week online course from SUU, “Principles of Contemporary Animal Services,” for which she earned college credit. And upon learning about SUU’s Master of Interdisciplinary Studies program with an emphasis in contemporary animal services leadership (curated in collaboration with Best Friends), she decided to go for the advanced degree.

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By the time she had finished, her plans for a rescue organization and its focus had slightly changed. “What’s phenomenal is that Jenny had an idea to create a rescue organization primarily based on transports,” says Aimee Charlton, Best Friends senior manager of learning advancement. “She learned about the community-supported shelter model and realized there’s very much a human element to this work. It completely changed her business model to include the human aspect of rescue.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Franz

A master’s degree, hands-on internship

Part of the requirement for her master’s was authoring a thesis or doing an internship, among other options. It was an easy choice for Jenny, who headed out to southern Utah for a five-week, hands-on internship at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. She had already learned a great deal, but her studies were far from being complete. Next up was the important stuff, the fun stuff.

“A ton happened at the Sanctuary,” she says. “Of course, there was the big picture of leaving my family behind for five weeks. But it was really important for me to be immersed — something I was missing running my own organization. It was important to be there every day, working hard, seeing the ins and outs of caring for the animals and learning how to handle behaviors and build trust.”

That included meeting a quite tall, black-and-white dog named Polo, who had trouble trusting people. “With the help of (his) caregiver, I learned how to take it slow and how to build trust with him,” Jenny says. Polo doesn’t trust many people, but he let Jenny into his inner circle. That trust even extended to six months later when she returned to the Sanctuary for a visit and the trust she’d built with Polo was still there.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Franz

Helping a dog named Ellie to relax

Another dog at the Sanctuary who left a lasting impression on Jenny was Ellie, a small gray-and-white, senior. She had a history of being reactive when she was on a leash, and Jenny wound up taking her on as a project dog. “I took her home with me every night for two and a half weeks and she was completely different at home,” says Jenny. “Having her suddenly be able to calmly walk on a leash down the street was mind-blowing for me. She also needed fluids every few days and it usually took three people: one to hold her, one giving treats and one giving the treatment. When I had her with me, I could do it all by myself.”

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Her internship complete, Jenny completed her master’s degree in December. At the SUU commencement ceremonies in Cedar City, Utah, this past April, she was named the top student in the university’s Master of Interdisciplinary Studies program.

Aimee says that one of the main goals of the program is to help people confidently lead change through learning. She shares a quote from author Leo Buscaglia: “Change is the end result of all true learning.” Aimee adds, “Jenny is a great example of someone who took immediate action based on what she learned, to make changes in the foundational elements of her own organization and support positive change within her community.”

The biggest impact the program with Best Friends and SUU had on her, says Jenny, was learning to see animal welfare as supporting people, too. It caused her to take a second look at her long-term goals and change her organizational mantra to the following: “Supporting dogs and their people through adoption and community support.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Franz

Big plans for the future

The proof in the pudding is Better Together Dog Rescue (BTDR), founded by Jenny in 2021. It will not only transport dogs from one area to another where they’re more likely to be adopted, but also provide a variety of services to both pets and their people: mobile spay/neuter, mobile pet pantry and free store with bowls, leashes, collars etc.

Helping people find the services they need to keep their animals home and healthy, especially during a difficult economy, is the key. “We are about adoptions, rescue, community engagement and support,” she says. “And we are about reaching beyond the norm to really try and fix an issue instead of putting a Band-Aid on it. When you are saving lives, it’s clear that a Band-Aid doesn’t get the root of the problem.”

Jenny has signed a contract on some property, the future physical home of Better Together Dog Rescue. “We’re looking at building designs,” she says. “And fingers crossed, we’re launching our capital campaign, if everything goes as planned, in September.”

Jenny will be co-hosting the second season of the podcast “The Animal That Changed You with Katya Lidsky,” featuring two dog moms (one of them Jenny) who are also human moms, passionate about animals. Their banter is witty, wild and heartfelt. This season will focus on the maternal aspect of loving animals, creating a safe, honest, funny and realistic community for animal lovers and workers.

Right now, the rescue organization is entirely volunteer-run, though the hope is eventually to have paid staff, Jenny says. “We have about 20 foster families who are just as much a part of the organization as we are.”

Jenny has come a long way since she first saw a challenge facing animals in her community and decided to do something about it. Today she’s venturing forth into her chosen field, confident and ready to apply what she’s learned to helping both animals and people.

Photo courtesy of Jenny Franz