BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — When they first started rescuing dogs from kill shelters in the deep south, the founders of the Berkeley Heights-based Home For Good Dog Rescue — modestly working out of a nearby Summit home — gave themselves a rule.
They would transport just 10 dogs a month from South Carolina and Georgia — where overpopulation leaves thousands of animals ignored and unwanted — to New Jersey, where local families are waiting with open arms.
Founders of the nonprofit wanted to bring back as many animals as they thought could be adopted out, and no more. Ten dogs a month seemed plausible. But on their first trip in 2010 they ended up returning to Union County with 30 dogs, all of whom were swiftly taken in and given new homes.
“At that point, they realized they had to do something more,” said Matt Holowienka, a member of Home For Good Dog Rescue. The organization recently celebrated saving 4,000 dogs in five years, at a rate much higher than 10 a month. “We want the dogs to lead a good life, maybe not like what they had down south. A lot of the dogs were in abusive situations, we just want to make sure they’re going to homes that are good for them.”
In order to do that, the leaders of Home For Good Dog Rescue have decided against operating a shelter, although they own a headquarters in Berkeley Heights. Instead, they’ve built a devoted base of about 75 local foster families in the Berkeley Heights area, who take care of the dogs before an adopter can be found.
These foster families socialize the dogs in a home environment — a process which is especially important for impressionable, developing puppies — and figure out what kind of family matches well with any given animal.
In a kennel, said Holowienka, it’s hard to know if a dog will be good with cats, kids or any other factors, a problem that’s solved with the network of foster families.
“The main reason we do it is because we believe in the cause. It’s a huge time investment and devotion, but as a family, we’re doing something that we know makes a difference,” said Donna Durando, a longtime volunteer whose New Providence family has fostered seven dogs. “You’re the end of the chain. People go in there and save the dogs, and I get them after they’re bathed and vetted, but then I care for them. You’re socializing them, sometimes you’re nursing them, teaching them the basic commands, so they become more adoptable.”
Dogs are typically with foster families for about three weeks, said Holowienka, a time which is often dramatically happier than their experiences in South Carolina and Georgia.
In those states, overpopulation leads to overcrowded and underfunded animal shelters that are pushed to their limit.
The result is that dogs are commonly euthanized or put down.
“It’s a cultural thing. They don’t really spay and neuter their animals like we do up here, so there’s a big population problem. People don’t want puppies and they’ll leave them at shelters or the side of the road,” said Holowienka. “We save the ones we can. Even if we only take a few at a time, we’re helping. And the community has been really great to us, for that. We have a lot of supporters in Berkeley Heights, all of our foster families are from this immediate area.”
And Home for Good Dog Rescue is looking to expand beyond the immediate area, through a property it owns in South Carolina called Almost Home.
Facilities at Almost Home help put the dogs in a good state before they’re transported to New Jersey — when people see the dogs here, said Holowienka, they’re seeing them “at their best” — and, when fundraising and construction for the $2.5 million wellness center is complete, it’ll save the lives of yet more animals.
“It will help us take more dogs than we currently take. We have the property down there, we have the kennels down there, but we want it to be the kind of place where the dogs can live there, foreseeably, for a few weeks,” said Holowienka. “If the dog is sick, we can provide it with medical care. We’ll have a grooming area, a spay and neuter clinic, and hopefully the clinic will eventually be able to support itself with its income.”
In Berkeley Heights, the success of the foster program was highlighted in late November with Stella, the sole surviving member of her litter from Swainsboro, Georgia, who became Home for Good Dog Rescue’s 4,000th adopted animal.
Almost a quarter of those dogs have found new homes in 2015 alone. An Adopt-a-Thon event, held before the Berkeley Heights Winter Walk on Saturday, Dec. 5, brought the nonprofit’s total for this year close to 1,000, a new record.
And while that’s a number that can seem bittersweet for at least some of the local foster families in Union County, they’d like to see it continue to rise in the coming years. The more dogs they can save, they said, the better.
“When the dogs do get adopted, it can be heartbreaking. But I know she’s in a good place, and you need to let go because there’s thousands behind her,” said Durando, who added that her family’s time with Home for Good Dog Rescue has been fruitful. “You’re saving dogs, it’s really rewarding, and you meet amazing people — people that genuinely care.”