GRAND RONDE — Many small businesses have struggled to survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survival of Angie and George Peterson’s business has been a mixed blessing, as it means they have to offer their services to an ongoing forgotten segment of the population — abandoned dogs.
The father/daughter duo oversee operations at the Ruff Life Rescue, located in the far, northeast corner of Polk County in Grand Ronde.
Angie, 51, with her love of canines, has been rescuing dogs nearly her whole life. However, even their nonprofit couldn’t escape the impact of COVID-19. She said last year they rescued 49 dogs, way down from the years since they started the rescues in 2018.
“Before COVID, we could have our adoption events. Take them to Pet Mart in Lincoln City. That was a great turnout for our dogs. Adoption events are the way to go,” Angie said.
These days, however, she said with social distancing restrictions, adoptions are by appointment only, as perspective “parents” find Ruff Life’s dogs through Facebook, Adoptapet.com or PetFinder.com. She added it’s rough to also schedule home checks to make sure the rescued canine is a match for the prospective owner.
Her dad also detected a pattern during the pandemic affecting the available supply of dogs.
“At the beginning of COVID, once everybody had to stay home from work, everybody decided to get a dog. They wanted a companion at home,” George said. “Now we’re starting to see a lot of them turned back in because people have to go back to work.”
“But they only got the fluffy little ones,” Angie added. “So the rescues got all the big dogs and the shelters were emptied of the little dogs.”
The Petersons first acquired the 4,800 square-foot facility to build 53 kennels in 2017. They try to keep between 15 to 30 filled with rescues, mostly from Southern California kill shelters.
“We take a lot of owner surrenders, such as it bit someone, or the owner is moving and can’t take the dog,” Angie said. “There’s usually nothing wrong with the dog, but they end up on a list to be euthanized. We get so many emails daily from shelters saying they’ve got dogs that are going to be euthanized in days.”
And in particular, pit bulls and chihuahuas.
“Pit bulls are my passion,” Angie said. “But California breeds them too much and kills them too much. And they’re a great dog.”
She added thanks to socialite Paris Hilton, chihuahuas became a fashion accessory when she put one in her purse and carried it around with her.
“But not all chihuahuas are like that,” she said, adding they also eventually get old and the owner wants a new, younger, cuter model. “A lot end up getting abandoned on the streets of L.A., abused, picked up and dumped in shelters. Nobody wants them because nobody knows anything about them. You can’t approach them. So they become rescue only.”
The Petersons partner with volunteer organizations in Southern California which pick up the dogs from the kill shelters. The dogs are then put in temporary holding kennels and once a week on Saturday, transported north — a 14-hour “Freedom Ride” as Angie calls it. Along the way, the dogs are met at freeway exits by various other rescue organizations. Ruff Life takes in their rescues on Sunday, while the transport continues to Bellingham at the Canadian border before heading back south to L.A. to start the process all over again.
George has a full time job running a fresh produce company in Southern California. He figures Ruff Life has the ideal location in the country, along a main thoroughfare between Salem and Lincoln City and between Portland and Lincoln City.
Angie is the only full-time employee and is assisted by three, part-time volunteers. Ruff Life can always use more volunteers, but George cautions you won’t be just sitting around playing with dogs all day. In addition, there’s the cleaning of the kennels, dishes and laundry, and don’t forget the poop patrol after the play sessions in the four “zoom” zones.
But it’s Angie who is there nearly non-stop.
“I see them get off the transport at one stage and watch them grow,” Angie said. “Because I’m with them morning, noon and night. I get to watch them come out of their shell. We had a shepherd who stood in the back of his kennel and wouldn’t do anything. But after a week, he came out. He’s in a great home now with kids.”
Each dog is spayed or neutered, receives a checkup and is microchipped. For those services, Ruff Life partners with West Valley Veterinary Hospital in Sheridan, Dallas Animal Hospital and Lincoln City Animal Clinic and receives any additional care from Dr. Jennifer Choate at Homeward Bound in McMinnville. George said on average they put between $400 to $500 into each dog before it’s ready to be adopted, including shelter and kennel fees down south, transport up, kennel and feeding here, all the vaccinations and medical checkups.
Ruff Life has a $300 adoption fee and a four-page application that ensures each dog goes to the right home of perspective owners.
“We do a home check that has to have a fenced yard,” Angie said. “Some dogs don’t get along with other dogs or along with cats. And I’m a little particular about knowing what type of breed you’re going to adopt and if you can handle some of these breeds.”
“I think rescues get a bad rep,” George added. “We’re told, ‘We want to adopt a dog but you’re putting all these blockades in front of us.’ Well, the reason we’re putting all these blockades is trying to direct you to the correct dog, one that fits your home. If it doesn’t fit your home, it’s going to end up back with us.”
It would be the same if they went through the Humane Society, he added.
At times, dogs also come through with special needs that can’t be adopted out to just anyone. Currently, they have a white, American Bulldog, Boyo, that is deaf. Another time, they had a dog for three years before finding the right owner.
“It came to us from an abuse situation,” George explained. “A husband beat his wife and the dog, a very beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback.”
“It had major issues and would attack any male because what he’d been through,” Angie added. “But after three years, we found him the right home, a lady down in Depot Bay. She came and visited him, played with him, five-six hours a day, until we could say, yes this is the right fit for this dog.”
Another time they held on to Lawrence for a year, a special needs dog that came to them with a broken jaw and fracture behind his eye.
“Nobody wants to deal with a special needs dog,” Angie said. “Then a family that already had a special needs dog came. He was a retired vet tech and she works at a vet’s office. They just oohed and awwed over him. They had the perfect house for it. They came and sat with him. So people like that have no problem with the application process.”
To offset the expensive operational costs, the Petersons host online auctions. George said he hooked up with several online auction societies, with members from Alaska to Europe, ready at the drop of a hat, to donate hundreds of items to sell off to generate revenue for Ruff Life. They used to hold one big annual auction in August. But demand grew so much, they added another last April and just hosted another for the holidays.
“That helps bring in a good chunk of money. If it wasn’t for those types of donations, we’d have a hard time making it,” he said. “Rescues is a very expensive operation. I have a lot of friends who went into deep, deep debt with their rescues. You let your heart take over. You start pulling every one of them. But you can’t afford it. I’ve probably dumped 10 to 15 thousand dollars of my own money this year.”
Other dog rescue networks hit up the Petersons to accept dogs all the time. George said if he had his way, he’d take them all.
“But the No. 1 goal is to survive in this business. You’ve got to be able to make enough money to pay for all that you do. Otherwise, you’re going to fold your tent in a year or two,” he said.
Besides, Angie added, they have to maintain enough room for her boarders. She still gets people who go to vacation homes for the weekend and want to board their dog.
“The rescues and boarders go hand-in-hand,” George admitted. “This is a business you’ve got to start out slow. You gain momentum. It just grows and grows and grows. You’ve got to stay on top of it.”
“Our thing is we want the dog to be happy. We want the people to be happy. And that’s what it’s about,” Angie explained. “It’s not about sitting here making the almighty dollar.”
Ruff Life Rescue
29795 Salmon River Highway, Grand Ronde