Lucky Dog Animal Rescue is a volunteer-powered, foster-based dog and cat rescue in the Washington, DC metro area. They saved over 16,000 animals since their founding in 2009 but have had to alter almost all of their programs since the start of COVID and are continuing to work with more rural, high kill shelters around the US. Previously relying on their weekend adoption events and averaging a monthly transport number of 100-150 animals from our partners — They have since gone completely virtual and have managed to save / commit to nearly 700 dogs and cats from just March 16th to May 2nd. That’s 3-5x their average. They have successfully placed over 600 of them in adoptive homes as well. It’s been an unbelievable problem to have as well with the number of foster and adoption applications outweighing the actual number of dogs and cats they have available but they are thrilled to be able to continue to help shelters in need!
“Welcome to the Animal Rescue of the Week podcast, where we feature outstanding organizations from around the country, that are helping animals and the people who rescue them. This podcast is probably sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert connects animal shelters with volunteers, to do animal transport and fostering. Learn more and sign up for free at www.Doobert.com. Let’s meet this week’s featured animal rescue.
Lucky Dog Animal Rescue is a volunteer-powered, foster-based dog and cat rescue in the Washington D. C. Metro area. This organization has saved over 16,000 animals since their founding in 2009, but they recently have had to alter almost all of their programs since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. And they’re continuing to work with more rural high kill shelters around the U.S.
Hi, Colleen Welcome to the show. Hello. Thank you for having me. You are very welcome. We’re happy to have you and learn more about Lucky Dog Animal Rescue in Virginia. So you are the Director of Operations, is that right? That is correct, yes. Perfect. So how long have you actually been in that position? That’s an excellent question. I started with Lucky Dog, actually, as an adopter about six years ago and got my first Lucky Dog and now I have two. Which I’m always happy to chat about. But about a year into that, I started volunteering, as just a handler, at our adoption events and kind of wanted to get more involved. As the days went on, I became an Adoption Coordinator and then joined full time in 2017 now, around in August, September-ish. And was in charge of our adoption events and then kind of worked my way up to Senior Program Manager of Operations, which is kind of an all-encompassing thing and then director, referring of a couple of months ago, towards the end of 2019. Okay, Wow. So I mean, you’ve definitely been with this organization for, you know, a couple of years now, you kind of know some of the ins and outs and worked your way up. So that’s awesome.
Go ahead and jump right in and just tell us a little bit more about Lucky Dog and just a little bit about your guys’ mission and maybe some of your goals that you have. We are completely foster-based, but we have an administrative office in Arlington, Virginia, but otherwise rely very heavily on our volunteers and fosters to kind of do our day to day operations. Since I started, that has significantly grown and changed just kind of adds, you know, the climate changes of what people are looking for in our area and as we continue to grow our volunteer base, in general, and our staffing. We were founded in 2009 from our Executive Director, Mira, who, it was all volunteers at that time. It took a couple years to get a first, you know, real staff member. And since then we’ve grown to about seven staff members now and are looking to continue to grow, obviously as our goals and kind of everything changes in the future. Especially now, as the climate is very different there with COVID, basically, from when I started as a volunteer, there were a couple of staff members who kind of oversaw a variety of things, day to day. And we continue to grow our kind of shelter base that we worked with. A lot of people ask us questions about, you know, can I come to your office and see all the animals? We always have to explain that they live in foster homes, full time and that we depend really strongly on our fosters in order to be able to bring up as many dogs and cats as we do every weekend. Kind of in general, in the last couple years and since the beginning, we’ve worked with a variety of shelters that are generally in the southern rural areas, high kill shelters, who are underfunded, understaffed, but have phenomenal volunteers, who work with them to help us pull the dogs and cats that we do.
Our dog program is a little bit bigger than cats, but in the last year or two, that has seen a significant change as well, which is awesome. So we’re bringing up a lot more cats, too, especially kittens and with the dogs, especially puppies. So that’s great. But in that we also basically need a variety of volunteers on the back end. So we’re continually trying to see how we can have people who reach out and say I want help, but I don’t know how and how do we continue to grow those teams? Prior to COVID, we relied really heavily on our adoption events. That’s how we got the majority of our dogs and cats adopted, and they happened every Saturday and Sunday like clockwork. Rain or shine. Saturdays were pretty small when we wanted to focus on smaller kinds of event spaces. Things like, you know, not necessarily PetCo or PetSmart, a smaller area that we could have 5 to 10 dogs at and focus on the dogs that needed a little bit extra help and exposure. And then Sundays we had everyone in the area invited and essentially required/suggested to come so that our adopter base could come and see everybody, kind of one time. Those events, since I started as the full-time events manager in 2017 now, could be anywhere from 50 to 60 animals to 100-120 animals, and those are at much larger PetSmarts and PetCo’s and kind of bigger pet stores. That’s how we relied mainly on getting our dog’s and cat’s exposure. Obviously they were posted on our website still and fosters did a great job of, you know, promoting them on their own social media and ours as well. But adoption events were how we kind of got them out there.
And our foster base was really great because we have a very different, transient kind of community here in D. C. So it’s a variety between Virginia, Maryland and D. C. Of what people’s availability is, they can’t necessarily adopt to have a full-time dog, but they want to help in some way and get their dog fixed. Or they’re only here for a couple of months, you know, for work. So how did they get involved? We have really a lot of great ways to do that, one being our overnight and then full-time foster programs. So that has been really successful in the area where someone could basically come and pick up a dog or cat on a Saturday, take them for a night and then bring them to the adoption event the next day. And that’s the whole reason that that dog or cat was able to escape the shelter is because of that overnight foster. But we also know that people can’t keep them forever or full time because they have crazy work schedules or whatever it might be during the week. So that’s a really awesome program for people to get involved. And then basically, after the adoption event, if they weren’t adopted, they were on their way. The dog or cat went to a different home for fosters that could full time them, quote-unquote, or you could full time them, right off the bat. Of course, keep them until they’re adopted. So that’s kind of how our organization has run before COVID and everything that’s happening. Right now, it’s obviously a little bit different and I’m happy to talk about that, too. But that’s essentially, you know, educating the public, talking about how we can help the shelters and have people help us. Fostering and volunteering is kind of how we run day to day, right now. It definitely seems like you kind of have your ducks in a row, as I would put it. You know, it seems like you guys are very on top of the people that you have within your community and just your organization between your adoption events on Saturday and how different they are from Sunday just to kind of, you know, keep within those realms that you guys know. I mean, I find it awesome that you guys are actually so in tune with, you know, not just your animals, but also your community as well, to kind of do what kind of works, to help ensure that these animals are getting adopted. So that’s awesome that you guys are so in tune with all of that.
I kind of want to jump in a little bit more into what your community is like, for some of us that may not be in that general area. I know personally, I’ve never been to Virginia. In your area, do you have, like, an overpopulation problem? Or it seems like you guys have a lot of animal advocates just from your prior comment about having people that still want to help out, even though they can only help out a short time. Can you share with us a little bit more about your community and what some of the struggles are for the animals there? Totally. So we, as you kind of alluded to, is a very populated area. People coming from either, all over the world or who have been here for a long time. And that means that there’s also a lot of different rescues and a lot of different shelters, in this physical geographic area. So we actually pull from shelters that are in the rural south or as far as Puerto Rico and Kaui, in Hawaii. And so we don’t focus personally on the dogs and cats that are in this general, like actual area. A lot of the local shelters do a phenomenal job at doing that and other rescues very similar to us. Our foster base has, you know, actual facilities. Some don’t. We don’t, obviously, as I said that, we just have our administrative office. So we actually want to focus on and our mission is to help the animals, dogs and cats both and people that are in the shelters, working tirelessly day in and day out, who don’t have local adoptions. Kind of our mission is to focus on these high kill shelters that just have a much higher return or surrender or stray rate than they do adoption rates. So they don’t have adoption events. They don’t have a community there who knows how to properly spay/neuter or why it’s important to do annual vaccinations and exams. So we’ve run, you know, special, spay/neuter clinics, vaccine clinics as far as Puerto Rico or with our partners in South Carolina, for example, to kind of help educate their communities. I find personally, the communities that we’re in right now, in the D.C. area, are pretty educated. They really want to help. A lot of times right now, especially, we have an inundation of applications for fosters and adopters that want to help. So they’re kind of much more aware of what’s happening and to know that there are so many rescues in this area searching to help the shelters that don’t have any other hope.
And we’ll talk about this a little bit too, I’m sure. But in the climate that we’re in right now, we’re also working with a lot of shelters kind of around the country as far as Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, who are just grabbing at straws to find rescues to help them because they are seeing, you know not only a higher surrender rate or whatever it might be due to the health crisis going on right now. But also that they are understaffed because they just simply are not allowed to have that many people in the facility or they already didn’t really have a lot of staff and now have fewer. So it’s definitely a struggle that if we weren’t able to help them, they wouldn’t have anyone else to turn to. And I think a lot of rescues are in that, of course, same boat and rely on, you know, finding new shelters and figuring out ways to help them, whatever that might look like.
So right now, we’re bringing up transports every weekend, which was our normal in previous times, just a little bit fewer in terms of the shelters and how many animals. But right after everything kind of ramped up mid-March of this year, we also are starting to work with a lot of different shelters that were during the week. I’m kind of how do we help them? So I think our community physically, around the D.C. area and Virginia, Maryland, because it’s also close, of course, are honestly reaching out to multiple rescues and shelters. Seeing how they can help, you know, can they donate? Could we do our Amazon wish list? Are you taking crates? How do I foster? However, it might help you or I’m home now you know I can full time foster. You know, that wasn’t my previous lifestyle, so how can I help? And how do I continue to help the shelters that we’re helping? Does that make sense? No, it definitely makes sense. And it definitely sounds like you guys are doing a great job and working with other organizations and helping out cause this pandemic has affected each area, and I think each state differently. So it’s great that you guys are acknowledging that different states and you know where these rescues and shelters are experiencing different things, and they’re needing help. So it’s great to hear.
I always love to hear when organizations are working together, and I’m happy that you brought up your transports every weekend. That was actually one of my questions. How are you guys getting animals from these other organizations and bringing them in because from Texas to Virginia, that’s quite a distance there. Yes, it’s kind of a multi-faceted question and answer. The shelters that we work with regularly, so for example in South Carolina, North Carolina, where, you know, it’s still a trek, but closer to like seven or eight hours, or even as close in Virginia that maybe three or four hours, that’s pretty simple for us to coordinate if we already had that partnership if it makes sense too. So if they have a van or volunteers who could drive or a transport service that someone is kind of kindly donating to physically bring the dogs and cats up here. And then we basically meet them at one of our partner stores, that we work within Arlington, Virginia, that we welcome them. It could be 7 AM, 9 AM, 6 PM, hopefully on a Saturday, if not during the week at our office in the back, which is for much smaller transports. But we’ve been regularly since mid-March, bringing in, you know, 100 or so animals a week and at the liberty of the crisis, right now that it’s, you know, limited staff for us to meet them, and everyone to say socially distant, is really important. It depends on the shelter to kind of get down to how we’re working with them. So we have funded some of the transports. They have funders that are helping them. They have volunteers that have offered to help because they’re just so excited to get the animals out. And we’re having such a high adoption rate that by the time the transport is even scheduled or on its way, half the animals are probably adopted and going into directly their adopters homes, versus fosters. Which is always a goal of ours, of course. But it’s a little bit different because normally a lot of people relied on our adoption events to meet them a little now that they’re adopting sight unseen, which again has always been an option for us, we’re just seeing a higher rate of that way of adopting.
And I’m also happy to talk about too, how we’ve kind of gone virtual from that, which I think sets us apart a little bit cause we all put our multiple hats on. And the beginning of this is how do we have this new normal? Because we relied on hundreds of people coming to one space from 12 to 3 on a Sunday and now we can’t. So we’re working a lot more virtual of course, at hosting virtual adoption events and virtual meet and greets and kind of thinking outside the box of how to help. Because we have so many people looking to adopt and foster right now. But back to the original question about the transports, It certainly depends on the shelter. And we have fabulous volunteers, not necessarily from us, but from the shelters themselves, or from transport services that they’re finding, that make that long leg. Just this past weekend, we had someone from Mississippi, two drivers volunteered, just cause they were so excited to get these animals out. Obviously, that’s wonderful and not always the case, but we’ve been seeing that a lot recently because they just want the animals to find their forever homes as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. So we have people who are driving, you know, they leave at 6 PM the night before and arrive in Virginia at 9 AM, the next day and are driving all night with them. That’s definitely a drive, but I mean, my goodness, that’s awesome that you have such dedicated people that are willing to help and get those animals transported. Yeah, it’s amazing. Yes.
So tell me a little bit more about the changes that you’ve had to make, you know, because of this pandemic. I mean, it seems like you guys have an increase in numbers and you guys are getting more people that want to be a part of your organization and foster and everything. Can you please just, like, tell us how that’s been for you guys? First I want to start with, it’s an amazing problem to have and also be transparent that it’s 100% overwhelming and exciting and a lot of work. And I think we’ve seen, not only the rise in people wanting to adopt but people also saying like you have free time now. How can I help and us having to be a little creative because a lot of times, people would come and help at adoption events or, you know, come to our office and help, and now that’s not safe. So how do we kind of figure out how they can help on the back end. We’ve been basically learning everything we possibly can about how to go virtual. That means in a couple different ways. One we were starting to get kind of, I’ll talk about the fosters and then turn to adoption. But fosters have obviously enjoyed our programs prior because they do have the option, again to be overnight fosters versus full time fosters. And those are two different things you can sign up for on our website. Since COVID has started, the overnight fosters have fallen to the wayside because we don’t want multiple moves of these animals. We want to obviously limit that social contact. So our goal is once you sign up to foster, of course, unless something you know, crazy happens or you have to go out of town for whatever reason, if that’s possible, of course we’ll help you and move the animal. But the goal is to have that animal stay with you. And so it’s limited, you know, moves for them and also helps them with transition and ensures us that we won’t have to work, you know, around the clock, even more, to move them if needed, that they have that stable kind of area. However, in just the first couple weeks of all of this happening we received, I am not exaggerating over 4000 foster applications. So that did, the number went down once we figured out who wasn’t actually in the area. So I think they were just looking at everywhere because we do want it to be local, obviously for, you know, vetting reasons and adoptions. But still, the D.C., Maryland, Virginia area does expand pretty quickly. People live all over. So we were receiving those applications literally, again, not kidding, every four seconds. We did the math of how often we were receiving them. So that again is a phenomenal problem to have. Of course, it always results back in some customer service too that we want to ensure people that are trying to help and that we appreciate them so much. But we just physically couldn’t get through that many applications. Our volunteers were entirely working around the clock to figure out how to get them all through. And then the weird problem after that was that we didn’t have events. We were bringing up hundreds of animals a week, and half of them were automatically going to adoption. You know, adopters homes and then the others, we were getting. One time, for example, our foster and transport coordinator got 97 responses in the first 7 minutes of sending out one of our needs for animals that needed fosters, and it just doesn’t stop. So again, phenomenal problem to have, but something we definitely had to figure out how to help and how to keep engagement. Which is always a goal for any volunteer or nonprofit organization, of course, but we ensure these, you know, fosters that were signing up, that we will have animals for you. It just might not be right now. And we, of course, encouraged them all to stay on as fosters after this ends, hopefully, one day that we can, you know, still have them, but obviously, need them, and will eventually hopefully go back to the overnight kind of program as well.
But that also meant we had to ramp up, how do we get more screeners? We call them to screen the fosters and get them through the process. How do we figure out and how to make this virtual? So we now have all of our foster trainings, which are normally held twice a month, in volunteers’ homes, happening multiple times a week, via Zoom or Facetime or Google Meet, and then also we made a virtual resources page so that everybody can go and see our handbooks right away and answer questions and have someone to talk to because we just never needed that that quickly. We always had someone, but, you know, it took a day or two, was there a normal to have those conversations. And now we’re getting inundated with questions about when will I be processed? When can I get an animal? Why did they get adopted so fast? And then on the flip side, for adoptions, we moved to completely online applications, last fall, which has been phenomenal. But we were, I am now receiving hundreds of applications a day to adopt. So similarly, you know, our fosters are both excited and frustrated that they might not get an animal right away, but excited to help. And then the adopters are taking them right off the market, faster than we can post them and adopting because their lifestyle now allows for it.
So with that, it’s important to also have enough adoption coordinators and screeners and volunteers to take them through the process. So all of our home visits have become virtual, which was always an option, but now are mandatory virtual home visits. It’s really important to our integrity to keep our process the same. So we don’t want to expedite anything and look over anything just because of the current climate. You want to make sure we’re still taking you through a screening, a vet check, a landlord check, a virtual home visit, make sure we’re setting you up with our matchmaking program. If you have questions so that we can help match you with an animal that fits your lifestyle. You know, depending on what kind of exercise you can provide them. But it’s been in overdrive. So we’ve had, you know, as many as hundreds of animals coming in every week, hundreds of animals also going out. So they’re getting adopted right away. And people are doing essentially everything virtually now, in terms of meet and greets are happening. Virtually our contracts and payment are happening prior to pick up. We’re doing everything to make sure that it’s safe and socially distant, but also that we’re still keeping the process important and part of that. So it’s been a crazy turn of events since this when our average kind of monthly intake was about 100 to 150. And now that’s our weekly intake. Holy smokes. I don’t even know what to say because it’s like there’s so much going on. It’s like you would think with the pandemic and everything closing and everything being, you know, kind of put on hold for the moment. It definitely seems like for you guys it’s booming and like you said it, it is a problem to have. But I can only imagine how different you guys are having to look at things and handle things that, I mean, over 4000 foster applications, like that is amazing! But like you said, I’m sitting here like, How would you go through all of those? Exactly. And sometimes it’s just not physically possible, so we have to be super transparent, and I’d rather be transparent with adopters and fosters about why it’s taking this long. And once you explain it, they’re like, Oh my gosh, well, that’s good, so much they’re like, I was a little upset you didn’t respond to the, you know, in a day or two and now I’m like, yeah, you’re good, like, well, That’s a good one thing. And I was like, Oh, okay, thank you. Like, I don’t want you to think we don’t need you because that’s absolutely never the case. Of course, any rescue because we do. It’s just a different shift in priorities because we are still having the same amount of animals here, right? Like to take care of in our current fosters, that we have to focus on but how can we continue to help more, all over, basically, you know, in our normal shelters and new shelters that we’re working with. Yes, exactly.
So, Colleen, I kind of want to pivot a little bit and kind of talk just a few minutes about you, and I can tell that you really enjoy what you’re doing. And I’m just curious, what is your favorite thing about working in the animal welfare industry? I think the ironic part about this question is that my answer often times are the people. Obviously, I love animals. I made a crazy career change a couple of years ago, used to work in, and once I started volunteering, I was like, I’m just kidding maybe I like this. When I did that for a change and I can’t imagine going back. However, I think, you know, brainstorming with like-minded people in terms of how do I get creative with this? How do I engage volunteers? How do we work with our adoption coordinators who are also just as tired, get encouraged and getting those adoption updates from the adopters and hearing how we helped them, literally is the only way to get through the day. Because obviously, right now, too, we’re working from home and even when we didn’t and I was in the office, you know, a couple of days a week. I’m not seeing animals besides mine, who I love, but, you know, they’re used to being my co-workers. So it’s not that I get to actually work with the animals every day, which would be amazing if I could. But a lot of people think that’s what my job is, and it’s actually a lot of customer service, a lot of working with humans and helping them, and I think having those educational conversations and knowing that we encourage someone to adopt over anything else. Not only did they adopt, but they’re having a great experience, and are telling other people to adopt is the most rewarding part of it. I definitely think it is my favorite part too
. That’s an awesome response, in my opinion, because you’re right. Usually, you hear about Oh, you know, we love animals and this is what you know we decided to do so. It’s nice to hear that it’s more of the people side of things. And the fact that you do get to educate people just kind of warms my heart a little bit because I feel like people always need that extra push as to how this industry actually works. What needs to happen and what, you know, would be appreciated if more people could do. So, I think that that’s an awesome response. And I’m happy that your organization has somebody like you. And I’m sure you know this and anyone in the animal industry knows, it’s not easy work. It’s emotionally taxing. It’s hard, some days are awful and some days are amazing. But when you get a little word of encouragement or you see that an animal is doing well, it’s because you helped you know, volunteers cultivate that relationship with an adopter or you did it yourself or, you know, obviously I’m not talking to the hundreds of adopters we have every week, by any means. Those are volunteers doing that. And I think it’s really important to know that I started as a volunteer too cause I remember how rewarding that is. And I lose that now sometimes being staff, just to be transparent because I’m not talking with those people all the time I’m not really talking with the people who have an issue with something. So it’s not all rainbows when I’m talking to them. But when you do get that little nod of encouragement, that’s really awesome to know that we’re making a difference that way. Definitely. And you know, I think it’s cool that you pointed out, you know, sometimes you have to remember that you started as a volunteer cause, you know, I think anybody would kind of lose sight of that some time to time. You know, you kind of just have to take a breather or take a step back and just be grateful and everything. I think that you guys were doing such a great job over there, and I like that you guys have literally taken this whole pandemic and kind of turn it around and spun it to where, you know, it’s helping you guys as an organization that’s helping the people of your community and just those organizations that you guys are helping out. I mean, that’s you know, it’s truly amazing that you guys are working together.
So one of the things that I’m curious about is if you guys I know you guys have plenty of foster applications right now and I’m sure you guys have an abundance of volunteers. But if there’s any of our listeners that want to help you guys out, whether it’s to donate or just overall support you guys, what is the best way that they can get in contact with you guys? Yeah, that’s a perfect question. So obviously as we’re going a lot more virtual, we never intended. We have our virtual adoption event I host twice a week now, where people can kind of get a break from their day and see the animals and see how they can help more specifically. And then we also have, just general is to just donate on our website. So if you go to a luckydoganimalrescue.org and to donate at the top there’s a tab there. It actually, we break down every single dollar that you give us, where that would go. So you know how much it would cost to do one vaccine, three vaccines, spay/neuter, transport, etcetera. So you can do a one-time donation. Or be a lucky star and, you know, donate monthly and there’s a nice little pie wheel there that kind of breaks down where everything goes because obviously when you’re about to donate somewhere, you want to know what you’re actually helping with.
Or we also have an Amazon Wish list that you can find on our website too, that links not only to donate to us but also to one of our shelters in South Carolina, so you can actually send bags of food directly to their doors. Karenna beds, you know, litter, anything, kitten food, bottles from nursing, etcetera. That just goes so much further than also just a monetary donation, which obviously goes very far. But donating those physical things as well. It’s really helpful because it’s specifically what they need and want at the time. We, if you’re local, do take donations still to our office, it’s a little bit more limited now, obviously because of the contact issues. So we do take sealed things and new things and send that down to South Carolina every single weekend as well. Or you can also sponsor a particular dog. If you watch our volunteer or virtual adoption events or if you see a dog on our Instagram or Facebook, you can sponsor the heartworm treatment or spay/neuter or something specific. Even have a dog right now who was just returned to us and is literally the cutest thing ever, has two bilateral ACL tears in her back legs that are gonna need surgery, on the same day, next week. So donations are phenomenal. She is good and just so stinking cute and doing great and our foster home. But obviously that surgery is gonna help her feel better. So things like that, a general donation or something specific you can find on our website is unbelievable. Wouldn’t be able to do that without everything that we do every day without the support of people around us, and as far as you know, across the country, it’s so helpful.
Yes, well, I’m thankful that you were able to jump on with me today and chat with me about your organization and a little bit about you and how you got started. And ultimately I wish that you know, that little puppy or I call her a puppy, but hopefully, her surgery goes well next week. And you know, I hope that our listeners feel inspired by your story and are willing to help you out as much as they can, but ultimately Colleen, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you and I can’t wait to check in with you guys in the future. No, thank you so much, I think as far and wide as he can reach, just like any rescue would want to. We all have the same mission at the end of the day, so it’s important to continue to support each other as well as a local community. And I’m happy that we got to chat too.
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