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AP Rescue Partner Spotlight: Unconditional Senior & Special Dog Rescue

This senior and special needs rescue discusses the public perception of these special pups, as well as what they are doing differently to change the narrative.

By Natalie Lykins

Unconditional Senior and Special Needs Rescue has made it their personal mission to re-brand the socially perceived “underdog” and make senior and special needs pups “cool”. I spent time with their President, Amy Mack, as well as their COO, Sabrina Neas, to discuss the public perception of these special pups, as well as what they are doing differently to change the narrative.

How did the initial concept for Unconditional Senior & Special Needs Rescue come to be?

A: Personally, we had adopted senior, special needs, and overlooked dogs for quite a while. Most people think they are sad and kind of depressing, but the cool thing is that they are really so happy. They make sense for so many people. It is often thought that senior dogs are most suitable for senior people, and they are, but they are also great for young people and active people! They are just fantastic dogs.

Special needs dogs are some of the most rewarding dogs to care for. We experienced that ourselves and felt like it was a secret that only we knew. We wanted to get the word out there. We learned just how many senior and special needs dogs were being put down in shelters because they just don’t show well. They are usually the ones in the back of the kennel, and not the ones that you initially feel will make wonderful family members. We felt like we needed to do something about it, and we needed to do something different. The idea for Unconditional was born from that.

You are currently building a beautiful facility that is intentionally modeled to look and feel like a home. Why do you feel the cage-free, open floor model is so beneficial?

S: Amy touched on it a little, but any dog is going to feel scared and overwhelmed in a traditional shelter environment. It is especially the older dogs that have spent their entire lives in a home that really shut down in these shelters. So, while the young, energetic dogs are up at the front of their kennels begging for attention, the dogs who are older are usually hiding in the corner. And for dogs with special needs, these shelters simply do not have the set-up to accommodate them, despite their best efforts. So, with the Unconditional model, we want to give them all a stage to feel comfortable and at home, since that is when their personalities really come out. Thus, making the adopters fall in love more easily.

It is so easy to focus on the sad and unfortunate pasts of many senior and special needs dogs. You have made a point to focus solely on the positivity and joy these dogs bring. What do you wish more people understood about senior and special needs dogs as a whole?

S: That there is nothing sad about them. The only sad thing about these adoptable dogs is that they don’t have a home. If you’ve ever seen a blind dog in a doggy playgroup, you can tell that they have no idea they are different from the other dogs. Or when you walk a dog in a wheelchair alongside a dog without wheels, they go just as fast and are just as excited to be on that walk. And the seniors seem to just be extra grateful for a comfy bed and love from their owner.

And on the human side, every pet requires a level of effort to integrate them into your life… so these needs are just a little different, but not harder. On top of that, they brighten everyone’s day! People are constantly stopping us on the streets to meet these special dogs and their resilience and positive attitudes are just so inspiring to everyone.

dog in booster seat

Medical care is one of the largest expenses for any rescue, but when senior and special needs pups are your focus, medical costs outside of the routine are almost unavoidable. You have created built-in relief for Unconditional residents through your amazing sister facility, Rise Pet Health. Tell us more about the vet hospital and how this location will support not only Unconditional, but the public as well.

A: Medical costs, for any rescue, are about 50% of the operating budget. You can imagine, for senior and special dogs, it could be higher. That just is not a great model in terms of sustainability. Every year you are out fundraising, trying to get that 50% of your operating budget, just to keep the dogs healthy and make them adoptable. A lot of rescues have taken on the model of bringing the medical in-house, so they will bring in a doctor.

With senior and special dogs, one of the barriers to adoption is that they come with medical problems, so we wanted to make sure that with Unconditional, with this re-branding of senior and special dogs and how amazing they are, that we can vet out any medical problems they have. When a dog comes in, we give them a thorough exam, and then for healthcare purposes, we want to be able to get them the care that they need so they can go to a new family and have the best chance possible. That, we felt, involved specialty care.

We built Rise Pet Health, which is an amazing 20,000 square foot specialty veterinary clinic in Laguna Hills, so it is about 15 minutes away from Unconditional and it operates as a “for profit” organization. However, all of the profits go back towards providing the free care for Unconditional. That way, when we have a dog that needs a surgery, we can just take that dog to Rise, check them in, and then get them checked out with no bill due. That basically eliminates half of our operating budget and ensures that Unconditional can keep doing its good work, in a sustainable way, year after year.

Wow, this is really incredible!

A: We are so excited. No one is really doing this. People are bringing care in-house, which is great, but 20,000 square feet, with an MRI, a CT, two digital X-Rays, an endoscopy room, cardio ultrasound, six surgical suites that are state of the art… you cannot really do that by bringing it in-house. It is too expensive and it is too big.

When you bring it in-house, you are limited in terms of what you are able to do medically for dogs. You will see organizations having to raise $10,000 for a surgery, cardiac care, or neurological care. It’s taxing on the teams to constantly be begging for money. We can solve that problem in a structural way and in a sustainable way. Also, our donors who are supporting us work really hard for the resources they earn, and they want to know that their donations are going to an organization that is going to be a good steward of that and will make the most of those resources. Rise enables us to say we are doing everything we can to stretch those dollars.

shihtzu dog

Another large cost for rescue organizations is food. The JustFoodForDogs Adoption Project has partnered with you to sponsor all the dogs in your care. What does a partnership like this mean for your organization?

S: We are so grateful for the JustFoodForDogs Adoption Project because from the moment a dog enters our care, we know that they will be receiving the best human-grade nutrients to help them thrive. There is a diet for every condition and need that we come across, so coupled with the medical care from Rise, we know we are doing everything we can to set these dogs up for success.

And thanks to the Adoption Project, the financial donations we receive from the community can go towards finding forever homes, not short-term food, and supplements. And I just love the peace of mind knowing our dogs are eating ingredients that I recognize and understand. We are feeding them as well as we feed our own pets. It is not just healthy, too… they LOVE it and it’s a huge treat for them to eat!

What lessons can we learn from senior and special needs dogs?

A: There are so many things. It is honestly such a privilege to care for a senior or special dog. For everyone it’s different, but for me, a type A personality, it slows me down a little bit. It grounds you. It is nice to have a dog who is very chill and relaxed. It also really brings out the best in people. When you walk a senior or special dog, it is kind of cool because people just gravitate to you. They are so cheerful, and you see their best side. So many people will say. “This just made my day” or “This was the best thing I’ve seen all month”. It is really kind of cool. It’s a lesson in humanity. Really caring for something, a little being like a senior or a special dog… it’s just so rewarding. You will not find a more grateful recipient of your care anywhere. I think in the back of their mind, they know there is something a little bit different about them and so they just have that little bit of extra gratitude that displays in every interaction.

S: I think there is also a humor to them. I had this really old dog who would just stop in the middle of the street. She was 75lbs and I couldn’t move her. She knew… she knew exactly what she was doing. All the cars were cracking up and driving around us. I do think they give you a new outlook on life and ground you, and they make you appreciate the small moments a little bit more.

A: There is also an inspiration to it. One of our dogs, Stan Lee, was turned into a rescue when he was about six because he was dragging his back legs and his owners didn’t want him anymore, or couldn’t care for him, so we adopted him. He had a swagger to him, like he had too many martinis on New Years Eve or something. When he would walk, we would go up this huge hill, and he would just keep going. He would have a big smile on his face the whole time. You think about going through something in your life that is hard to do, or that is a challenge. Here is this little creature, this 15lb pug, and he is going to go up the big hill and smile the whole way. He, among other senior and special dogs, really inspires other people.

happy dog on beach in wheelchair

How can the public best support Unconditional?

S: There are a lot of ways to support us! If you live in or around Orange County, CA, you can sign up to volunteer or foster. Fostering is a direct way to allow us to save more dogs and we will provide all the supplies and medical needs. If you don’t live nearby, you can help us by sharing our adoptable dogs! Follow us on Instagram at @unconditionalrescue and share the videos and posts of the pups who need homes.

And then finally we need financial support. While our model IS sustainable, we’re asking for the community’s help to get our doors open. You can donate, volunteer, or foster by going to unconditionalrescue.org and clicking on “How to Help” in the menu.

A: Whether you are a fan of social media or not, when you think about a senior or special dog, they are unique. They are one of a kind. Every dog is, but especially senior and special dogs. For every one of these dogs, there is a family out there that would be a beautiful compliment to merging those two lives together. Our job at Unconditional is to try and figure out how to make that match happen as quickly as possible for the person, as well as for the dog we are helping.

One of the very best ways to cast that wide net is through social media. If you are someone who interacts a lot, please interact with us, because those interactions help other people see us and see those dogs. That opens up the aperture of available homes and allows us to make that match quicker.

S: And it works! It has worked for our dogs. Someone will share our video and I’ll get a DM saying, “Can I meet him?” And then, happily ever after!

A: One thing we have found that has been really successful, that Sabrina has done a great job with, is coming up with creative content to showcase the personalities of the dogs. I think, many times people are in a rush and a rescue will post a video that doesn’t actually show you much. What is truly special about that dog? It’s about finding that and highlighting that. We spend a good bit of time and creative storytelling to get that messaging out to people, so our content is fun and uplifting. That is a really big thing that someone can do, because you never know how many people you will reach when you share something.

S: And our videos will never make you sad. If they don’t make you smile, then I am doing something wrong.

If you want to know how you can support Unconditional, please visit their website at www.unconditionalrescue.org.

Follow them on social media at @unconditionalrescue

Natalie Lykins is the manager of the Adoption Project. She has an extensive history in animal care, having volunteered with many rescue organizations since her early teens, and previously worked at a vet clinic. She has found her true mission at JustFoodForDogs and, according to her, would not want to be doing anything else.