"Dogs are the gateway to teaching children and others compassion for animals."Since starting her nonprofit in 2007, Sherri Franklin, founder and CEO of Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, sought to change the idea that older dogs in shelters were undesirable and unwanted, and has placed nearly 6,000 senior dogs in forever homes. Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, talks to Sherri about taking a nonprofit from a vision to reality and what makes senior dogs so special to so many, and her hope that others will follow the Muttville model of success.
Can you tell us how you got the idea to start a nonprofit with a focus on senior dogs?
About 20 or so years ago, I started volunteering at animal shelters and fell in love with an older dog, but I quickly got my heart broken. I came in one day as a volunteer, and she was gone. At first, I thought, “Oh, great. She was adopted.” And then, I heard, “No, she was euthanized.” I had no idea. She was euthanized because she was older and she’d been there too long and nobody adopted her. They needed to make room for younger, more adoptable dogs.
I felt a little helpless. I started taking one dog home at a time and finding them a permanent home on my own. I did that for about 10 years. Sometimes, I’d have a lot of dogs at my house. I also was going broke because, as you can imagine, I was spending a lot on veterinary bills.
During that time, I looked into starting a nonprofit, but it all seemed like way too much — so many hurdles to start a nonprofit. Plus, I was working full-time at another job.
But every day I got up and took one more step towards starting an official charitable organization, and in 2007, I received nonprofit status for Muttville. We’re the first organization to do senior dog rescue in California. Previously there were only two organizations in the whole country that focused on senior dogs.
How do you distinguish yourselves as a different sort of rescue, one that specializes in adoptable seniors?
When I was starting out I thought, “Well, I hope we can create a market for these dogs.” Obviously, the shelters aren’t doing very well by them. I wasn’t quite sure how we were really going to market these dogs. So our mission at that time was “Let’s make senior dogs sexy.”
We marketed our dogs as being the best dogs ever. Older dogs — they’re soulful and they’re easy and they’re like putting on your favorite pair of slippers. We tried a lot of different things.
What marketing channels and strategies did you find were most successful?
We discovered that you need to have different marketing ideas that attract different kinds of people.
We decided to put out positive, hopeful stories instead of emphasizing sad moments. With old dogs, you’ve already got that sadness part: they’re old and they’re abandoned, or somebody’s passed away. There’s always some information that you can share about their past. So we try to turn that sadness into the happiness of making this dog’s life really great; making the last chapter really happy. We decided we would make ours the hopeful, happy endings. Our first tagline was “Because every dog deserves a happy ending.”
That strategy attracted us a certain kind of person — the rescuer in all of us — that wants to take the senior dog. I have people that come in and say, “I want the dog that’s been there the longest.” “I want the saddest story.” Then you have other people who want a perfect dog that has always lived a great life.
The first thing we did was to create a very incredible, beautiful-looking website. The website was important because Facebook wasn’t as big and there was no Instagram. Things have changed quite a bit since we first started. Facebook is incredibly important now to animal rescue. We have over half a million Facebook followers and we share the dogs’ stories, along with other news.
What does success look like at Muttville? How many dogs do you find homes for and how are you doing with fundraising?
When I first fell into the nonprofit world, everybody said, “You’re never going stop asking for money.” Fundraising is always on my mind. It’s not cheap to save old dogs, because there’s a lot of veterinary bills that go into that. So the fundraising is constant. I think that also goes along with our success stories and everything else, because pushing out all these wonderful stories helps to raise funds.
We ran Muttville out of my house for five years. The first year I started Muttville, we rescued 27 dogs. Last year, we rescued and found homes for 1,052 dogs. We've gone from that first handful to over a thousand dogs a year being saved and finding homes for them. That’s our growth, 10 years since we started.
At this point, we’ve rescued almost 6,000 senior dogs.
You proved that people are willing to adopt older animals; essentially changing previous notions about animal adoptions.
Right, and we’ve made people aware that the animals have so much to give and so much love. We need to address it, just like with senior humans that get forgotten and isolated. It’s interesting because we have an aging population (I’m a baby boomer as well). We have to address isolation and be caring and responsible to our elders, whether they’re dogs or humans.
What's next for Muttville Senior Dog Rescue?
We have a hospice program which is really new and cutting-edge in the animal world, and we’re creating a manual for organizations that want to implement a similar program. We’ve been able to give wonderful last chapters — dogs don’t know they’re sick, they just know they’re having a great time!
We are also working on holding a conference in San Francisco to spread the word about our programs, and for other people to share the interesting things they are doing in rescue. More people are adopting rescue animals and things are changing so quickly — we want to talk about all these changes and trends.
What’s your hope for the future of Muttville?
The biggest hope of my life would be: the world doesn’t need Muttville. But unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime. Putting myself out of business would be great.
But, I have two hopes. One is we are looking for our own forever home — a shelter that is ours, that we own, that we design to have the capacity to do all of the things that we do. We do a lot of community work, we work with senior citizens, we work with children, we provide humane education and we do some cutting-edge work in our clinic. We could do so much more of everything if we had our own home. That’s my big goal before I leave Muttville.
My second goal and the thing that we’ve really been successful at is sharing what has worked for us with other organizations so that they can do what we do. Now that we know what works, we know what’s successful, what didn’t work, how much bang for your buck we’re going to get — we have a blueprint now of how to replicate what we’re doing.
We are starting to share that now, but my hope is that we can do a lot more. There are people that have come to us, from as far away as New York, to follow our blueprint and start their own senior animal rescue or add seniors to their other programs.
I love seeing that a lot of shelters now are putting their senior dogs up for adoption rather than just automatically euthanizing them. I think that we’ve influenced the way the country is dealing with an aging population of animals. Part of that is our own rescue work, but part of that is because our success has encouraged others, and we work hard to help them do the same.
Dogs are the gateway animal to teaching and learning compassion and empathy. If we can teach that, the world will be a better place.
Muttville Senior Dog Rescue 10th Anniversary video!
Muttville Senior Dog Rescue takes in senior dogs over the age of seven from shelters — high-kill shelters, mostly — in and around Northern California, sometimes Southern California and even Asia. Learn more about the work that Muttville Senior Dog Rescue does, including adoption, foster, hospice and seniors for seniors.
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