A Home for Old Dogs

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram April 26, 2010

Lounging on a couch with legs up in the air and head plopped on the armrest, Koda clearly doesn’t lead a typical shelter dog’s life. Koda was relaxed as he stretched out for a nap Monday morning, but the adult shepherd-retriever mix suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. He is a permanent resident in Bob’s House for Dogs, a foster care and adoption center that accepts older canines from animal shelters and rescue organizations around Wisconsin.

Bob’s House, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, provides a comfortable, happy home for dogs that may have been abused, abandoned, alone after an owner’s death or accustomed to the miserable conditions of a puppy mill. Some old dogs come to Bob’s House that never had slept on a soft bed before, said director Amy Quella, who co-founded the nonprofit center with her husband, Travis, on their 10-acre property in rural Eleva.

While Bob’s House cares for the gray-muzzled dogs that often get overlooked by visitors at animal shelters, the nonprofit also reaches out to two-legged seniors through its Canine Company program. Volunteers bring dogs picked for their temperament and behavior — including Koda, who’s about 7 years old — to interact with residents at 20 area nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

“Some people wait by the doors for the dogs,” Amy said. Senior residents pet and cuddle with the dogs and converse with the Bob’s House volunteers.

With the success of that program, Bob’s House is launching a new canine interaction program for hospice patients. The nonprofit also is looking into adding a new building for older dogs that would like a quieter place to live out the end of their lives. Looking back at the past five years, Travis said what surprises him and Amy is how Bob’s House has changed the lives of people as well as animals.

Bob’s House, built near the Quellas’ home south of Eau Claire, is a cozy place with brightly painted walls, photos hanging on the walls and windows letting in natural light. There is a family room with couches for pooches and people, a reception area, a laundry and bathing space and some kennels for dogs recovering from surgery or illness or being housebroken.
Dogs roam freely instead of staying crated, which can cause anxiety and depression. They regularly go outside for walks or play in a fenced-in area used by the family’s own eight dogs.

Dogs in kennels might feel anxious and not show their best side, but the center’s open environment relaxes dogs so they show what they are really like, Travis said.

Twelve to 16 dogs stay at the center at one time. The center only accepts well-behaved, well-socialized adult dogs ages 5 and older. Most are older.

Peter, a gentle 12-year-old miniature poodle, is a permanent resident. At nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, he often curls up in people’s laps.

“They all want to hold this one and they don’t want to give him up either,” said Carrie Burnett of Eau Claire, a Canine Company volunteer.

Felix, a 13-year-old fluffy Pomeranian, came from a puppy mill and will stay at the center for good. Felix has anxiety-induced seizures but feels secure at Bob’s House.

“He wouldn’t come near us at first as he was not socialized,” Amy said. Now he visits seniors for Canine Company.

Also there to stay are Bear and Midnight, German shepherds born with defects such as extremely short, bowed legs and nearly backward feet. Their brother Scooter died recently. Travis takes the German shepherds to presentations at schools and camps that teach children it’s OK to be different from others.

Before a dog can be put up for adoption, it must undergo a medical evaluation and resolve any medical issues. Some older dogs are dumped at shelters because they have an untreated urinary tract infection, Amy noted. Many have arthritis. Some have dementia — including Molly, a yellow Labrador retriever who confusedly barks at walls. In 2014, 62 dogs were adopted. Last year the center had a lot of “unique” cases requiring longer-term care, Amy said, including hoarded and abused dogs.

About two-thirds of the center’s dogs are adoptable. Getting people to choose a senior dog is a challenge, Travis acknowledged; many prefer a young pet that will live longer. But older dogs typically are housebroken, unlike puppies. They usually have some basic obedience training, and they have lower energy levels, Travis said. “They’re able to relax and just be.”
Part of the center’s mission is raising awareness of the lifelong commitment to companion animals and promoting the value of older animals.

Remembering Bob

Amy and Travis Quella and their daughter, Ellie, built Bob’s House in honor of a beloved pet.
The family adopted two rescue dogs — brothers Blizzard and Flurry — in 2003. The American Eskimo-Samoyed mixes, renamed Bob and Tom, were found in a culvert during a bad snowstorm in Washburn County.

While the Quellas love all their dogs, “Bob was extra special,” Travis said.

In 2005, five of the family’s dogs escaped after a door to their house didn’t latch. Four returned home, but Bob was hit by a car and killed on Highway 93. Devastated by Bob’s death, the family decided to fast-forward plans to open the canine foster care and adoption facility. Travis said he and Amy had talked about helping dogs some day.

When they lost Bob, they wanted to “make something positive” out of his death, Travis said.
By September 2008, the couple had erected a 1,400-square-foot steel building with roughed-in heating, plumbing and a septic system, which they funded personally. Loans and community support allowed the Quellas to finish the center.

In April 2010, Bob’s House started canine adoptions.

Travis, 46, works as a sergeant at the Eau Claire Police Department. Amy, 43, quit her job as a treatment coordinator at a dental clinic to become the center’s director.
The center has two other full-time employees, a certified veterinary technician and an adoption coordinator, and three part-timers for weekends.
Dogs in the facility are all fostered for another organization. “They do not belong to us,” Amy said.
If people want to adopt, they must file papers with the shelters or rescue organizations from which the dogs came, and those groups get the adoption fees. Bob’s House covers the cost of caring for the animals there, including the expensive medications and special diets seniors may require.
“We don’t take any of their budgets and that’s important to us,” Travis said.
The Quellas said they get “wonderful support from the veterinary community,” including reduced fees and some donated services such as acupuncture.
The center, which has an operating budget of $150,000, depends solely on private donations and fundraisers, with a board of directors and Friends of Bob’s House committee doing a lot of the fundraising work. It will have to raise additional funds for the second building.
A Galloping Gala fundraiser is slated this Saturday at Wild Ridge Golf Course. The Kentucky Derby-themed event will feature a dinner buffet, games and silent and live auctions.
Helping paws
Bob’s House relies on a core group of 40 volunteers. About 20 people help with Canine Company. “There is no turnover rate for volunteers. ... There is a waiting list for (new) volunteers,” Amy said.
Burnett, the Canine Company volunteer, takes her daughters with her on visits to Grace Edgewood, a retirement and assisted-living facility in Altoona.
“They really enjoy it,” said Burnett, who adopted a dog from Bob’s House.
On-site volunteer Sally Carlson, a town of Seymour resident, has volunteered with Bob’s House since it opened. She adopted two dogs from the center.
“It’s the cheapest form of therapy there is,” Carlson said with a laugh. She brings her grandson and daughter with her sometimes to volunteer.
“I’ve always loved dogs, but there’s a limit as to how many dogs you can have. Here they’re unlimited,” Carlson said.
Among the dedicated volunteers are Katie and Gary Vorce of rural Eleva, who have been involved with Bob’s House since it began operation. Katie runs the Canine Company program.
“It is an organization that we feel very strongly about. We are happy to do whatever we can to help them. Their mission in ours also,” Katie wrote in an email.
Because Gary is a veteran, they have a special interest in bringing the dogs to the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Chippewa Falls. “(It) brings tears to our eyes as we enter and see the veterans light up with such happiness as we make our rounds,” she said.
Bob’s House plans to partner with St. Croix Hospice in Eau Claire to begin providing therapeutic pet visits for hospice patients.
“To see the joy we give our senior friends is beyond words. I am sure visiting hospice patients will also give everyone the same joy. Such a blessing to help the elderly and (the) sick feel happy with life for as many minutes as our visit allow,” Vorce wrote.
Angela Kjellberg, care transition coordinator with St. Croix Hospice in Eau Claire, said the organization is in the process of defining what the  program with Bob’s House will look like.
“We’re excited about partnering with them,” Kjellberg said, adding it will offer an opportunity to provide respite for patients from their illness through the comfort and affection of a therapy pet.
Support from the community
Along with starting the hospice program, Bob’s House is gearing up for the new building project.
The goal is to build a second facility within the next two or three years for vulnerable older and unhealthy dogs that need a quieter place. “It can be hectic here,” Travis said.
These dogs still would be available for adoption, but they would have a more comfortable environment to live out the rest of their days, he said.
While treating the slight pain that can make dogs uncomfortable, “we don’t do extraordinary care,” he noted. “We make the loving decisions any pet owner would make for their pets’ lives.”
There are some sad cases, said longtime volunteer Danica Lowry of rural Eleva. “No one wants to adopt a dog with cancer.”
“I would love to see us set up at least a capital fund or new building fund within the year,” said Lowry, president of the Bob’s House board of directors.
“My secret dream is to have some cats in the new building. We love cats dearly,” Amy said.
Lowry has seen Bob’s House evolve since it began five years ago — including gaining the community’s trust. When the center was built, it was a new concept.
“We had to really sell ourselves and explain our role and what we do. To me the most exciting thing is people trust us and are willing to fund things as they see what we do in the community,” Lowry said.

The center has shown the community that older dogs, despite their age, “still have a lot of love to give and still make great pets,” she said.

Very few adopted dogs get returned to Bob’s House, Lowry said, adding the center’s crew is good at picking out dogs for adopters.

Facilities like Bob’s House, which provide senior canine adoptions and foster care, are “almost nonexistent across the country,” Travis said. He and Amy dream of launching satellite centers in other places some day.
Feeling “part of the solution” is why Lowry keeps volunteering. “I am making a difference in the lives of these dogs,” she said.