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Dog Aide comes to the rescue for Detroit dogs

The nonprofit helps over 200 families keep their pets by providing free food and medical care

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News
Dog Aide volunteer Dawn Lamsa, left, and executive director Jen Clarkson bring treats and a toy to Coco, a pit bull living in the Brightmoor section of Detroit.

Jen Clarkson pulled up to the curb in her gold Chrysler Town and Country minivan, the inside scuffed with dirt and a lingering scent of fur from hauling hundreds of dogs. She took out a chew toy and treats for Coco, a 3-year-old pit bull, and headed toward a steel kennel.

“With mostly outdoor dogs like she is, they can get pretty bored,” Clarkson says, “so we’re always going to try to bring things that will stimulate her mind.”

Clarkson, 46, is the executive director of Dog Aide, a nonprofit that built the outdoor kennel for Coco, got her vaccinated and spayed, and drops off monthly food supplies to her Brightmoor home. About 60 volunteers, called Dog Aides, offer the free services for over 200 low-income pet owners in Detroit.

As the Dog Aide website states, “ ‘to aid’ is a verb, ‘aide’ is a noun. Being a part of Dog Aide is not what we do, it is who we are.”

On this 87-degree August afternoon, Clarkson of Bloomfield Hills and volunteer Dawn Lamsa of Sterling Heights filled Coco’s blue water dish and spent a few minutes playing, lovingly calling her “a little stinker” when she escaped out the open gate and scooping her up to put her back inside.

Coco’s owner, Cheryl Hudson, came out the side door of her home and greeted the women like old friends.

“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have that dog,” says Hudson, 51. “I can’t afford dog food and heartworm medicine and things for fleas.”

Coco’s late mother, Ginger, was one of the first dogs that Dog Aide assisted when the organization launched in March 2012. One of the five founders was traveling through the neighborhood when she spotted Ginger in terrible shape: She was skin and bones and covered in flies. So she asked Ginger’s family if she could nurse the dog back to health.

“When they took (Ginger), she had bad heartworm, she was on the edge of dying,” Hudson says. “When they brought her back, she was so healthy.... It looked like a different dog. She was beautiful.”

Dog Aide’s Jen Clarkson hugs Coco’s owner Cheryl Hudson, left, as she and volunteer Dawn Lamsa delivered the treats and a toy.

Helping Detroit families keep their pets healthy by providing food and medical care is just one of the goals of Dog Aide, which was founded by dog lovers who worked with several animal rescue organizations.

“We realized from rescuing in the city of Detroit that there was no way to get ahead of the problem we were seeing, which was lots of stray dogs, lots of issues with how owners took care of their dogs, lots of dogs that ended up in the over-taxed shelter system,” says Clarkson, while driving to check on a Doberman Pinscher named Cupcake. “So we all kind of came together and started to really brainstorm what we could do instead of rescuing dogs.”

The group started by walking door to door in Brightmoor neighborhoods, where trash litters curbs and tall grass engulfs the lawns of rundown houses.

“(We’d) talk to people as we saw a dog that looked like it was skinny or a dog that looked like it needed some more care or dogs that were running loose,” Clarkson says, explaining they’d sometimes follow dogs home to track down the owners and offer assistance.

Making a difference

Five years later, Dog Aide has a growing base of volunteers from Detroit and the suburbs who organize monthly supply drop-offs and weekly wellness checks. This month, seven teams delivered 1,000 pounds of pet food to 41 owners. The nonprofit recently started providing free spaying and neutering — fixing 17 dogs and a cat one day in July — and vaccination clinics.

Dr. Maria Rivera, a veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital in Southfield, volunteered for the vaccine clinic, which provided rabies vaccines and other shots at owners’ homes on a Saturday. For the most part, the owners don’t have time to take their dog to the vet during the workday, or simply can’t afford to pay for the visit.

Clarkson points out that vaccinated pets are less likely to end up in shelters due to illnesses owners can’t afford to treat, while Rivera emphasizes vaccinations prevent the spread of diseases.

“When these animals get loose, or they get into trouble, we know we have taken care of them, so they’re not a danger to society,” Rivera says.

The education Dog Aide provides is as valuable as the medical care, she adds.

“(Owners now) understand the importance of taking their animal to the vet,” she says, “and they’re learning a lot about how to take care of their pets.”

Girl, a shy 4-year-old pit bull, was one of 23 dogs who got shots that day. When Dog Aide first met her, she was suffering from flea dermatitis.

“She was itchy and her hair was falling out,” Clarkson says, “so they called us.”

Clarkson took the dog and got her treated by a local vet. She also made sure she got spayed and licensed with the city of Detroit, all treatments paid by Dog Aide. Clarkson said Detroit Animal Control picked up Girl after finding her roaming around.

“Now we can intervene, and get his dog back,” she says. “We’re that stopgap to make sure that dog doesn’t end up in the system or dying in the street because she’s sick.”

“They do a good job taking care of my kid,” says Girl’s owner, Myron Buckley, as the pit bull watched over her “father” from her daybed.

Buckley, who uses a wheelchair, says Dog Aide visits every month to ensure she’s bathed and fed. The volunteers’ kindness sometimes extends to the owners themselves, as Lamsa arrived with treats for Girl and a box of Tim Hortons donuts for Buckley’s 51st birthday.

Besides assisting with the basics of pet ownership, Dog Aide “builds long-lasting relationships with families,” says Detroit Animal Control director Melissa Miller, a Dog Aide founder who stepped down as the nonprofit’s director of operations when Mayor Mike Duggan appointed her the DAC director in December.

“It’s not just all about the animal in the backyard,” she says. “It’s also the kids and the family and what resources they can be connected with.”

The pet food and medical care is funded from donations and fundraisers, like Dog Aide’s Aug. 27 barbecue at Paint Creek Cider Mill in Rochester.

Lamsa, a certified public accountant, is organizing the event that also will benefit the animal assistance nonprofits Good Juju Rescue Fund and C.H.A.I.N.E.D. Inc., which she also volunteers with. A cat owner, Lamsa used to be petrified of dogs. That changed after she discovered Detroit residents chaining their dogs outside.

“I just learned to overcome my fear,” says Lamsa, 46. “I used to cry thinking that dogs were outside with no shelter, chained up and couldn’t move. I just had to do something.”

So she started volunteering with C.H.A.I.N.E.D., which aims to enhance the lives of outdoor dogs by providing kennels and insulated dog houses. Lamsa joined Dog Aide last fall after she visited a house with a colony of cats that weren’t spayed or neutered. To prevent overpopulation, she was going to pay for the procedures herself, but then found out Dog Aide would cover the cost.

“Even though Dog Aide mostly does dogs they stepped up, and they didn’t just leave them,” she says.

Continuing the outreach

Clarkson volunteers with the nonprofit as if it’s her full-time job — though she doesn’t get paid. Her motivation stems from a black-inked pit bull named Ace tattooed on her left forearm.

Ace was a stray who in 2011 wandered in a Ace Hardware store on East McNichols seeking warmth. According to the no-kill shelter Detroit Dog Rescue, Detroit Animal Control picked up the bare-bones dog before DDR could get there. In a fight to get him released, Clarkson co-founded the grass-roots group called Save Ace. But instead of releasing him, animal control euthanized him, she says.

“For a lot of us in animal welfare in the city, he was kind of the siren for us that we needed to do something,” she says.

She says the city’s animal practices have since improved, and the community now knows to call Dog Aide when they need help.

Though she’s seen a lot of dogs in rough shape, Clarkson doesn’t fault the owners, who she says try their best to care for their four-legged friends.

“These are not people who don’t love their animals,” she says. “They just sometimes need more assistance.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Dog Aide fundraiser

Paint Creek Cider Mill 4480 Orion Rd., Rochester 48306

1-6 p.m. Saturday

$20 for adults; $10 for kids under 10. Contact Dawn Lamsa at dawnlamsacpa@hotmail.com or 586-864-3827. Buy tickets at eventbrite.com.

To volunteer with Dog Aide, email info@dogaide.com or call 313-744-6DOG (364)