Volunteers expand homeless dogs’ worlds

Susan Fishbein sitting outside in the sand with a large brown dog
From walks and car etiquette to first-time sleepovers and long-term fostering, Susan and Dan Fishbein have opened many doors for dogs at the Sanctuary.
By Sarah Thornton

A gray-faced beagle relaxing on a couch. A brindle hound dog stretched out by a warm fire while snow swirls outside. A big white bulldog perched politely on the passenger seat of a car, watching the world fly by. Fairly standard doggy activities, you may think, but for these three it’s all a pretty big deal.

Until more recently, scared and shy Mary Jane and Cordelia had never really experienced a peaceful moment in a home. And Calvin was a bit too energetic and bouncy to safely go on regular car rides. But with help from volunteers Susan and Dan Fishbein, a world of new opportunities is opening up to them. And they are far from the only ones benefiting from the dedicated couple’s care.

A lives-changing trip

It was nearly two decades ago that Susan first learned about Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. A professional dog trainer with her own training business, she was also involved with a local German shepherd rescue organization. And, she says, “When you’re in that community, you become aware of Best Friends.”

Her interest was already piqued, but when the National Geographic DogTown TV show began to air in 2008, she knew she had to go see the Sanctuary for herself. When she told her husband that she wanted to visit Best Friends, Dan was incredulous — she wanted to go to an animal sanctuary for a vacation?

It took a couple years for the Fishbeins to visit the Sanctuary, but then, Susan says, “We both just fell in love with the place.” Spending time with the dogs, surrounded by red rocks and wide-open skies, both Susan and Dan were hooked. As their vacation was wrapping up, they were already making plans to come back the next year. And then the next. And the next.

[An enormous thank-you to Best Friends volunteers]

Dan and Susan became familiar faces at the Sanctuary, building friendships with caregivers and canines alike. They’d take dogs on walks, car rides, and sleepovers, and with repeat visits, they even got to know dogs who took extra time to warm up to new people. There was always a flurry of wagging tails and wiggling bodies to greet them when they arrived.

“It got to a point where we hit the edge of town, and you could feel every bit of stress drain from your body,” says Susan.

So when she and Dan began thinking about retirement, they had a pretty good idea of where they wanted to settle. In 2018, Susan moved out to Kanab, Utah, just 15 minutes south of the Sanctuary, with Dan following in 2019.

They wanted to do all they could to help the dogs they’d come to love — and the ones they hadn’t yet met. So with their own pets in their home, they had a cottage built on their property so they could continue taking dogs from the Sanctuary on sleepovers. And they’ve been hanging out with dogs ever since.

Giving dogs new opportunities

Dan and Susan now spend four days each week at the Sanctuary, and they've become invaluable members of the team. “Dan and Susan have taken many dogs on sleepovers, often ones who take a little time to build a relationship with, who would otherwise not have the option (to go on a sleepover with someone new),” says Dogtown caregiver Ben O’Riordan-Tingley. “Their most recent guests were Chaplin and Cordelia.”

Since pairing up with the super-shy Cordelia as her confident canine companion, Chaplin hadn’t been on a sleepover in a while. Cordelia had never gone on one. But their caregivers were sure that if anyone could give her a good first impression, it would be Susan and Dan. It turned out Cordelia was more than ready.

[Meet two heroes for dogs]

“It was one of those days that, overnight, a big snowstorm blew in,” Susan recalls. “And my big concern was whether Cordelia would come in the house (after potty breaks outside). But she was like, ‘I am a house dog, and the weather outside is cold and icky. I’ll just wait for it to get nicer.’” They were both the perfect house guests — which opened up the possibility of future sleepovers for the pair of them, as well as giving the adoption team a good idea of how Cordelia might do with a new family.

“Both Dan and Susan have spent a lot of time working on some of our dogs’ skills,” including their comfort riding in a car, says Ryeleigh Campbell, another caregiver who works with the couple. Having good car ride manners helps with getting dogs to the clinic and lets them go on even more adventures, such as sleepovers and hikes away from the usual canyon trails. Ever-enthusiastic Calvin, Ryeleigh says, is now a model citizen in the car. Instead of wanting to seat-surf and crawl all over the place, he now snuggles with his blankets and rests calmly in his seat, enjoying the ride.

Then, there’s Mary Jane, Dan and Susan’s foster dog. The little beagle had spent her early years in a situation with lots of other dogs but little to no human interaction. Even with time to unwind at the Sanctuary, she wasn’t really coming out of her shell. She’d worked her way up to walking on a leash if she had her roommate beside her, but she shied away from any sort of petting or other handling. And when she had to have surgery on her knee, Sanctuary staff were faced with a challenge.

“The vet said unless you can keep her quiet during her rehab, there’s no sense having the surgery because it was a complicated one,” Dan explains. So we said, well, we could bring her over to our house.” For six weeks, Mary Jane needed to be on dog bed rest. She had a nice big kennel she felt secure in, and when she needed to go out, Dan carried her — kennel and all — to the backyard to do her business.

At the end of those six weeks, Dan and Susan extended Mary Jane’s stay with them.

“Long story short,” Dan says, “she’s still here.” She still doesn’t want to be petted, but Mary Jane will take treats from their hands and hop up on the couch to snuggle in for some screen time.

Dan and Susan have opened many doors — both car and home — for many dogs. And they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

“We get a lot from forming relationships with these dogs and working with great caregivers who are devoted to the work they do,” says Dan. “So we get a lot of rewards coming our way, too.”

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One of the greatest gifts you can give pets at the shelter in your community is your time (OK and maybe a treat or two).

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