By Natalie Lykins
Have you ever wondered what it sounds like when 50 plus pugs are slurping and snorting through their meals simultaneously? Neither have I, but I found out when I visited Pug Nation Los Angeles. The pitter patter of little paws echoes through the building, and you cannot help but smile. We spoke to the rescue director, Gwenn Vallone, about the clowns of the canine world, and how Pug Nation is working to save as many pugs as possible.
Where did your passion for pugs begin?
Years ago, I signed up for something called “Best Friends Brigade”. That was when Best Friends [Animal Society] was just a big national organization. They didn’t have “No Kill LA” or anything like that. It was a program that was designed for people all across the country to be able to help out. They would assign us to local shelters, and we would show up and help in whatever way they needed.
I don’t remember exactly where I was. It was a shelter in the area where I live. I showed up, and they had a bunch of pugs. At that point I had never even met a pug. This was literally 20-something years ago. They said “sit on the ground. We are going to let the pugs out”. They let all these pugs out, and they were snorting and climbing all over me. In that moment, I was in love.
After that, Best Friends had a super adoption fair. I signed up to volunteer and they put me in the cat tent. I love cats, but I was a little bored. I started walking around and I came to a booth that ended up being a pug rescue. They were called Little Angels Pug Rescue. The woman there said they really needed help, so the rest of the day, I ditched the cats and I stayed with the pugs.
Long story short, I started volunteering with Little Angles Pug Rescue. I got really involved with their organization and I ended up adopting my first pug. His name was Theo, and his owner had passed away. He was 12, he had one eye, he was deaf, and he was my first love.
The rescue world in general is very overwhelmed, but it seems that now, more than ever, dogs are pouring into shelters. Have you seen a drastic increase in abandoned pugs?
When people ask me about that, I say “it’s a perfect storm”. I think that the pandemic has a lot to do with it. When the pandemic started, our numbers went down to maybe 13. I think during the pandemic, everybody wanted a dog. Pugs became popular, I think, from the movie Men in Black. The talking pug, “Frank”. You know how things ebb and flow. They were basically the breed of the year. A lot of backyard breeders started breeding their pugs and they were selling them like hot cakes. Then, when the pandemic ended and things opened back up, the market dried up because there were no longer people in their homes wanting companionship. A lot of people lost their homes, the economy was bad, and people had to go back to work after working at home for so long.
I think all dogs suffered, but specific to pugs, because they were such a hot commodity, the people who were breeding them suddenly had a litter of eight puppies they didn’t want to deal with, so they started dumping them. Vet care costs have skyrocketed, so I think that is another factor. There is just a lot going on. Before the pandemic we focused a lot on seniors and special needs. If we got a puppy or a young, healthy pug it was like a miracle. Now, its crazy how many pregnant dogs and litters we have gotten. The climate has changed. At first, I thought it was a post-pandemic thing that would kind of fade out, but it hasn’t. I can’t explain that.
Sometimes breed visibility can be amazing, like when Life magazine put a Shar Pei on their cover and saved the breed from extinction. Other times, however, it can be incredibly detrimental, like with “Frank” from Men in Black, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, or Game of Thrones. It seems like breeds are turned into fads overnight and then backyard breeders pop up to meet the demand and profit from it.
I think, also, that people don’t research breeds before they get them. People think pugs are so cute with a great reputation. They think they are great with kids, they are great family dogs, which they are, but people don’t realize the upkeep. If I had to say the number one reason why pugs end up in shelters, it would be the medical costs. They can poke an eye out, have chronic skin conditions… stuff like that.
Pugs are so often portrayed as being round, sluggish, lazy dogs, but that really isn’t true. What other misconceptions do you think people have about pugs as a breed?
Shockingly, a couple people have said they want a pug because they have short hair and don’t shed. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. People think they don’t shed because they have short hair, but that could not be further from the truth. People think that because they are friendly and family oriented that they will be easy to train, but they are stubborn. People think that small dogs in general don’t have much upkeep, but us seasoned pug owners know there is a ton of upkeep. They have a lot of health issues. People have this idea that they are easy, and they are just not.
It is extremely rare for a rescue organization to have a physical facility. How does this asset improve your ability to rescue pugs?
We are so blessed with this facility. I have a ton of respect for rescues who do it all foster-based. Our advantage is that, if there is a pug, we can snatch it up. We do not have to advertise for a foster, then verify that the foster doesn’t have other dogs if the pug is sick, and things like that. We have our own isolation ward, so we can quickly act on any pug. It is also so much easier to facilitate adoptions. The adopters just have to visit us, and we can show them 50 pugs, whereas with fosters, they have to arrange one-on-one meet and greets. Because we have them here, it is easy if they suddenly have to go to the vet. There is no go-between for the health questions at the vet because we personally have our hands on everything. I feel that they get really great care that way.
With so many pugs in your care, there must be so much to get done every day. What is daily life like at Pug Nation?
The short answer is “insane”. I’m not complaining. I absolutely love what I do. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It depends on who you are, but basically the kennel staff come in first and feed the dogs, which, in itself, is a big production. Then we take all the dogs off the floor so we can put solution down, let it sit, and disinfect. We have to have holding pens for all the dogs. Then, later in the afternoon we may have adopters coming in or volunteers to instruct. Then we feed dinner. Overnight we restock supplies, and all the while we are bathing pugs and walking pugs.
I mentioned isolation. Those pugs have to be walked five times a day. They can’t just be stuck in a cage. So that would be the kennel staff. The administrative staff would include our Dog Care Coordinator. At least once or twice a day she is making a vet run. All our dogs need to be examined. We have another staff member who is in a supportive role. In the morning, she will take dogs who are having procedures to the vet. After that she tackles emails. We have another support staffer who oversees the kennel, taking pictures of our new intakes and putting bios on the website. Obviously, there is cleaning and laundry all day long. My specific position is supervising all the above, speaking with adopters, approving applications, and assigning house checks. I also handle the HR side. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The quick overview of daily life.
We want people to understand everything that goes into what you are doing on site every day. All the pugs need specific care, and that takes a whole village to accommodate.
That doesn’t even count the emergencies and the intakes. We get individuals relinquishing their pug, or a transporter will bring a new dog in, so we have to look them over and make sure there are no emergencies happening. Then we weigh them, get them a bath, give flea treatments, trim their nails, name them, and enter all their information into our computer. It really depends on the day.
Can you describe what the biggest challenges are for you and your staff with the rescue world the way it is right now?
The biggest challenge is dealing with the number of dogs we have. Pre-pandemic, we were usually around 30-35 dogs. We got really low during the pandemic, but since everything has opened back up, we are always hovering around 50-60 dogs. There are more to feed, more to handle, more to bring to the vet, more fighting amongst the dogs, and more disease. We have our isolation, and we have protocols. Obviously, we gown up and use gloves, but the more dogs you have in a facility, it’s just a fact that there will be a rise in disease. There are tons of challenges for staff. It’s just too much for them. We are coping the best we can.
It is very common for pugs to have health problems. They are genetically pre-disposed to allergies, skin problems, and a plethora of other issues. How do you think a fresh food diet, like JustFoodForDogs, makes an impact on their overall health and well-being?
First of all, they love the food. Picture a dog that was relinquished, who was on crap food for the most part. In the old days, when they would transition to our house diet, they still weren’t crazy about eating. Because JustFoodForDogs is so good and so easy on their stomach, we don’t get that transition sickness. We also give them the JustFoodForDogs Probiotic, and that makes it a seamless transition.
The number one benefit I see is that the dogs love to eat. If you think about a scared dog who lost their home or was on the street eating crap, watching them eat is number one. We want to get them the nutrition. As far as the diets go, it’s amazing how many we have to choose from. If one of our dogs is a bit of a picky eater, we can just switch them to a different recipe and it’s great.
One of the biggest problems with pugs is their skin. We get a lot of dogs with out-of-control skin. We mostly give them the Fish & Sweet Potato and it really clears up their skin.
People will see the dog come in on social media, and then come see the dog in person and not believe the improvement. The diet is one of the biggest parts of that. We also have a lot of pugs with sensitive tummies. The food is great for that. There is very little diarrhea and vomiting. All of that kind of goes away on this food. We get a lot of pugs who are overweight as well. Having them quickly drop weight in a healthy way is really helpful. JustFoodForDogs is like a godsend for us. These dogs just transform.
How can the public best support Pug Nation?
There are so many ways. Not everybody has extra money, but the obvious answer is to donate funds. This isn’t even counting staff salaries, but our medical is between $20-$30k each month. Most funds that come in go straight to medical. We get dogs with luxating patellas… that’s like $3,000. We get a dog with a liver shunt… that’s $8,000. So, the first way they can help is funds.
Even something as simple as sharing a post can help. You never know who is going to see that dog. For people living in Southern California, if you sign up for a Ralph’s card and designate us as your charity, every quarter we get about $1,000. That is just from shopping at Ralphs. We have Amazon and Chewy wish lists, so if you would rather send items, you can go on and ship us Pill Pockets. If you are a person with no dogs, we are always looking for fosters with no other dogs. Adopting if you have room for another dog on your couch. We have a great volunteer program. You can come in and do an orientation and then sign up for shifts at the facility. You can do laundry, walk dogs, and cuddle dogs who may not otherwise get lots of one-on-one attention.
We also have a program called our HiPPo program. It stands for Honorary Pug Parent. It’s for those who can’t adopt or foster but want to be a part of a dog’s life. The dogs who don’t get along with others stay in nice little suites, but they are separated, so they don’t get as much attention. We ask people to commit an hour a week. You pick the dog that you want to HiPPo, and you spend time here with your dog. You can take them on a field trip, go to get a puppaccino, go to the beach, or even take them on an overnight once in a while. We have seen dogs that come in angry and isolated start to open up. They are so smart. They know when their people are going to come. We do require people to be volunteers first. Then we make the program available to them. It’s very rewarding for the people. We love when people take photos and post them on social media. A lot of the dogs who have a HiPPo end up being adopted faster.
If you are interested in supporting Pug Nation, you can find more information and resources at www.pugnationla.org. You can also follow them on social media at @pugnationla.