Heather Gutshall’s love of animals has always been a part of her life.
This innate love isn’t surprising. When you speak with Heather, you’re filled with an overwhelming sense of how deeply invested she is in providing the best behavioral and medical care for dogs, both in the rescue she co–founded — Handsome Dan’s Rescue — and her dog training and behavior modification company Outbound Hounds.
The story of how Handsome Dan’s rescue began, and how Heather came to adopt him, isn’t as apparent as it might seem.
After volunteering and fostering dogs who were mainly Pit Bull–type dogs with a large New England–based rescue, Heather decided to go out on her own and began Outbound Hounds Rescue. Heather’s desire to work with dogs who had medical and/or behavioral issues, as well as dogfighting survivors, is what drove the beginnings of OHR.
Within a year-and-a-half of founding OHR, Heather had adopted her “heart dog” — known to the world as Handsome Dan, one of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels — and changed OHR’s name to Handsome Dan’s Rescue.
In what came as a surprise, it wasn’t Dan who inspired Heather to begin HDR, though he was the reason for their incredible following and support.
No, Dan wasn’t the original dog that Heather had eyes for when looking to adopt a dog. Originally, she applied for Little Red, who lives in Wyoming with her mom, Susan, and a clan of furry brothers and sisters. But Little Red wasn’t ready for adoption at the time.
Based on recommendations from an adoption specialist at Best Friends Animal Society, the next dog for Heather was Mel, with Handsome Dan as a backup pup. Mel is now adopted and sharing his life with his dad, Richard, in Texas.
In what could be described as pure chance, a coincidence, or what was simply meant to be, when Heather flew out to BFAS in Kanab, Utah, she ended up meeting Dan before she had a chance to meet Mel. After taking Dan for an overnight stay, she knew that he was meant to be her best friend.
HDR is as Heather says, “Small by design due to the population of dogs [they] serve.” They focus on dogs in local shelters who are not likely candidates for adoption because of medical and/or behavioral issues and victims of dogfighting. Because of their intense focus on dogs who require medical care or behavioral work, HDR invests a great amount of resources into not only their dogs, but their volunteers who work with the dogs.
HDR has two distinct behavior modification programs, the Shelter Dog Enrichment (SDE) Program and Take My Lead (TML). Started by Heather and now run by Jacqueline Baffoni, an Assistant Trainer at OH and volunteer with HDR, the SDE Program pairs local shelter dogs with HDR’s Enrichment Specialists. These specialists have gone through weeks of training and will help the dogs overcome their behavioral issues.
Once a dog is evaluated, Heather and Jacqueline often create a behavior plan which they review with the dog’s assigned Enrichment Specialist. (Yes, each dog in the SDE Program has their very own person.)
HDR pays for medical care, if needed, all training supplies, as well as a new enrichment item every time the Enrichment Specialist visits with their dog. These visits anywhere from once a week to three or four times a week depending on the individual dog’s needs.
Additionally, most of the dogs in this program also attend Outbound Hounds’ Pits and Pal C.L.A.S.S. weekly with their Enrichment Specialist. Further proving HDR’s commitment to the dogs in the SDE Program, these dogs continue in this program until they are adopted — no matter how long that takes.
Because of these expenses, HDR relies heavily on donations from kind humans.
Take My Lead “provides training and behavioral support and supplies for a recently adopted dog as [they] transition into [their] adoptive home.” Once adopted, a certified dog trainer or behavior consultant meets with the family to work on “previously identified behaviors or those that present as the dog is transitioning.”
Heather’s work with dogs extends beyond HDR. Outbound Hounds (OH), Heather’s dog training and behavior modification business, began about seven and a half years ago when she realized that she was doing more rescue work at her own job than actual work. After obtaining her training credentials as an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer–Knowledge Assessed, Heather began taking private clients. Coupled with the desire to give the best to dogs in her care and to help further understand Dan, OH began to specialize in fear and anxiety behaviors.
Heather’s commitment to ensuring HDR and OH are able to provide the best and most up–to–date care is incredibly impressive and it comes as no surprise that her two children, Cam and Josephine, look to their mom as an example.
Cam has worked at the Rhode Island SPCA for four years now. According to Heather, he does everything from “fixing things, cleaning, walking dogs, meet and greets [to] oversee[ing] the adoptions.” In a trait reminiscent of his mother, Cam spends time with some of the most shutdown dogs in order to help them overcome their fears and begin to blossom.
Josephine, the tiny, rosy-cheeked companion to Handsome Dan, “doesn’t know anything other than dogs always around.” Because it’s so vital that children are taught from a young age how to respect and interact with animals, Heather has ensured that her daughter understands safe dog handling and that she isn’t to approach a dog. Josephine also plays a role in getting dogs adopted by lending her smile to photos of child-friendly dogs.
Together, Dan and Josephine have helped to share that many dogfighting victims have the ability to live with children and to become their best friends.
Since 2010, Dan has become Heather’s best friend, too. Dan is a fearful dog, but he couldn’t have a better mom. She doesn’t push Dan to be anything that he isn’t.
As part of Dan’s six–month court–mandated foster care, the court required him to earn his Canine Good Citizen certification. This meant that Dan had to master the art of the walk – something very easy for most dogs, but not so easy for Dan.
After about four months, Heather saw how shutdown he would become and decided no more walks for Dan (unless he’s in his Pope Mobile). The trainers at BFAS agreed. For Heather, it came down to what Dan was telling her. As she explained to us, “For fearful dogs, you really need to listen to the dogs.”
Thanks to her impeccable listening skills, Heather has created both a flourishing rescue and a business that help save and improve the lives of so many dogs.
HDR’s small but formidable team of volunteers relies on donations to do their important and much–needed work. HDR and Dan himself can be followed on Facebook. If you would like to contact Heather regarding dog training and behavior, you may do so by clicking here.
Featured image via Heather Gutshall