St. Clairsville Pet Rescue Matches Dogs With Families
WHEELING — The dogs are excited. One muffled “woof” quickly turns into a wild chorus. But, Jodi Hunt is in no way distracted from her phone interview with the Sunday News-Register.
“The goats are out playing in the sunshine and they just made a thump,” she calmly explained of what prompted the eruption.
This day, only the family’s three dogs are involved. Other days, things might get a whole lot woofier. The Hunts have, in fact, had 20 some dogs pass through their home in the last year while pet fostering.
“It’s a lot of work, especially when you get little puppies,” she acknowledged of managing a brood that also includes three children, two goats, two cats and two turtles. “But it’s fun. It’s really been nice to play with them, especially during quarantine.”
A long road home
“Sometimes I just look at them and wonder, ‘How did you get here?’ “ Hunt said of dogs she has fostered for the St. Clairsville-based The Road Home Animal Project.
One black lab particularly made her ponder.
That would be Clyde — an “absolute goof” who likes to lounge on the sofa, sometimes sitting upright like a human. She knows that, for all his joy, he was rescued from a rural shelter in Kentucky that was suddenly abandoned, leaving a kennel full of dogs with no food or care for two weeks. And, before that, he had lived in Louisiana.
“I feel like maybe he belonged to a homeless person who sat and rubbed his belly all day long,” she said with a laugh. “He could happily live like that.”
Other dogs have a clearer-cut origin, such as the litter of St. Bernard-looking puppies that was rescued when someone heard whimpers coming from an abandoned house.
Hunt said foster dogs sometimes arrive frightened and a bit on the scruffy side — although given her full-time remote job and family life she doesn’t accept dogs that need an extreme level of care.
“I like to pet them and tell them, ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ “ she explained of one element of her full-family-exposure technique. “They settle in really quickly and accept your love.”
The next step
Clyde seemed to settle into their northern Ohio County home sooner than the others.
“Before he ever got here, I thought, ‘Oh boy, we’re in trouble,’ “ she said of his photo reminding her and husband Jay Hunt of a beloved lab from early in their marriage. “We felt drawn to him. He just kind of got here and he was home.”
Clyde wound up being their only “foster failure,” Hunt joked of him staying on as a permanent family member. But, the other 20 some dogs have moved on to forever homes elsewhere.
That’s one of the more difficult parts of the fostering experience, she noted. Even though many of their placements are with them less than three weeks, Hunt said she and one daughter tend to bond with them quickly.
“We’ve had tears with almost every dog, but they’re happy tears. You have to be happy for that dog and that family.”
On the plus side, the Hunts tend to get updates and even visitation privileges from many forever families. One family living in the Woodsdale neighborhood of Wheeling offered such for Edge — a silky, black dog to whom daughter Kaylee Hunt had especially bonded.
A Cleveland couple who recently adopted another foster, Sasha, recently sent happy images of that canine’s first trip to Lake Erie.
And, two other dogs — including one of the St. Bernard-looking puppies — are even easier to access. Hunt’s brother adopted them and they now live in West Liberty.
“My sister-in-law has even done DNA tests on them to figure out what mix of breeds might be involved,” Hunt laughed.
Even if dogs are placed as far away as New England — and some are — Hunt said how the non-profit operates makes it easier to let go when that time comes.
“These ladies are amazing matchmakers,” Hunt said of the project’s board. “They have an impressive screening process that finds the most perfect adopters.
“I am constantly amazed at how perfectly the pups fit with their new families. I never have any hesitation when I hand over our fosters — despite a few tears.”
Mandae Lewis of St. Clairsville, vice president of the nonprofit’s board, said matchmaking is how it all began. In 2014, a group of women found out about more than 30 horses and several dogs in the region that needed “rescue, rehab and rehome,” according to the project’s website.
That accomplished, six women including Lewis decided to make a longer, larger commitment.
“We wanted to offer an alternative to shelters … another option, especially when they’re overflowing,” she said of what she believes is the project’s niche — caring for dogs in real homes where their personalities can be on full display and potentially good or bad matches can be made more obvious.
The method seems to be working. The Road Home Animal Project now places about 400 dogs a year, Lewis said. This is done with no paid employees and no facility other than a couple of transport vans that can carry as many as 15 dogs at a time.
“We are entirely based out of homes,” Lewis said. There are, in fact, nearly 30 homes in the Ohio Valley that take in project dogs — generally for one- to three-week placements. Some fosterers take in dogs with longer-term medical needs, as well, she noted.
That mix of placement possibilities has been a blessing during the pandemic.
“COVID has been a double-edged sword,” Lewis said of having more families willing to foster but more dogs coming to them because of job loss, relocations and, even, death among their humans. “Our foster families are pretty amazing.”
And, so are the dogs, of course.
“We love the underdogs,” Lewis said. “The three-leggeds, the senior dogs. We just have a lot of compassion.”
Foster dog mama Hunt agreed.
“There’s just a really neat feeling about it when you get to know the animals and their personalities – where they’ve been and where they’re going to go,” Hunt said. “It’s like fate definitely stepped in.”
Readers interested in fostering, adopting or donating can find out more by visiting the 501(c)3 organization’s website at theroadhomeanimalproject.org or by following the group on Facebook or Instagram.