A passion for rescue
Heather Gutshall rehabilitates dog fighting survivors and shelter dogs
Tillie the pit bull spent most of her life in chains so heavy her legs broke repeatedly, leaving them bowed outward. She had litter after litter of puppies that were trained to fight in a multi-state dog-fighting ring that spanned Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. She was left chained outdoors in the cold, beaten, starved, and forced to fight.
And then her luck changed.
When the ring was raided in 2013, Heather Gutshall, of Cranston, volunteered at the temporary shelter where more than 350 dogs were being processed. Drawn to Tillie’s wise face and soft eyes, Gutshall adopted Tillie, bringing her home to Cranston. She had golf ball-sized tumors running the length of her mammary chain, a broken sternum, and a broken tail. She was extremely underweight and tested positive for heartworm. Yet, despite her health challenges, and the abuse she suffered, Tillie trusted people and cuddled up to the people she met.
Tillie was pampered and doted on by Gutshall, the founder of Handsome Dan’s Rescue (HDR), a non-profit that makes life better for pit-bull type dogs that are in the animal shelter system. Gutshall expected to provide “hospice care” for Tillie, but Tillie had other plans. She lived for 18 months, basking in the love showered on her, and visiting schools and the state house.
To honor Tillie on the first anniversary of her November 2015 death, Handsome Dan’s Rescue created a Compassion Hold Program that provides “a kind hand, good food and all of our love” to dogs that are in the final days or weeks of their life because of serious and untreatable health, behavioral or mental issues. HDR is not a shelter, it’s an organization that cooperates with local partner shelters to provide extra enrichment and services to pit bull type dogs. Dogs accepted into the Compassion Hold program are scheduled to be humanely euthanized, and will spend their last days enjoying compassion, love and compassion from HDR volunteers.
Foster care program
The Compassion Hold program expands on the services the organization offers, which primarily are focused on helping the dogs accepted into the program are given the best possible chance of finding their forever home. Their foster care program coordinates volunteers who welcome rescue dogs into their homes and care for them until they are placed with their adoptive families. The shelter enrichment program mobilizes volunteers to provide socialization and enrichment to hard to place dogs in partner shelters, helping to keep the dogs’ stress levels down and their minds engaged. These services help the dogs become more adoptable. HDR also helps at-risk dogs in the community by providing spay and neuter services free of charge, and through “Take My Lead” raises money to help provide training and behavioral support to families who adopt dogs served by the organization, helping to ensure the adoptions work out and the families learn how to set their new pet up for success.
The organization was named for Handsome Dan, a dog Gutshall rescued after the property of former NFL player Michael Vick was raided by federal authorities in 2007. Seventy dogs on the property were part of what was alleged to be a dog fighting and gambling ring, and there was widespread media coverage at the time documenting how the dogs, most pit-bull type breeds, were brutally hanged, drown, electrocuted and shot, in addition to being used in the fight ring. Vick and three others served time on federal conspiracy charges, Vick also submitted a guilty plea to a Virginia felony charge of dog fighting and received a three-year suspended sentence.
Twenty-two of the dogs were sent to Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, which provides a high level of comfort and care for former fight dogs that may not be adoptable as pets and also places the dogs that can adopted into appropriate homes. Gutshall, who had been volunteering at shelters, was ready to adopt a dog of her own, and wanted adopt a dog rescued from Vick’s property.
“We flew out thinking we were going to adopt Little Red, but she needed more time,” Gutshall said. Another of the dogs rescued from Vick’s property, Mel, was a possibility, “but I met Dan and knew he was my dog.”
Gutshall said that adopting Dan was a six-month process, but it is obvious that this match was meant to be. Dan is a beloved member of the Gutshall family.
Handsome Dan’s Rescue is a non-profit organization, and they rely on volunteers and donations to operate. Funding provides collars, harnesses, leashes, toys and treats to a dog in the Shelter Dog Enrichment Program; a dog’s participation in the Take My Lead program, which pairs a newly adopted dog and their new family with a trainer who can help to continue the training and behavioral modifications that the dog has been working on; and the care of a dog brought into the Compassion Hold Program Helping dogs in local shelters, rescuing dogs from fight busts, helping dogs in the community and educating the public is Gutshall’s mission. For more information visit www.HandsomeDansRescue.org.