Old dogs, new tricks: Muttville volunteers are giving second chances to senior canines

There is joy in Muttville.

It’s in the organization’s volunteers, who eagerly line up to take the old dogs for a walk, who offer to foster them in their own homes or who agree to help out at weekly adoption fairs across the Bay Area.

It’s in the face of Muttville founder Sherri Franklin, who felt compelled to save senior dogs that would otherwise waste away in caged sorrow.

But mostly it’s there in the rekindled spirit of the dogs — rescued from the pound, spared the euthanasia needle and given a late-inning shot at happiness.

This year marks Muttville’s fourth anniversary, and to celebrate the agency’s 1,000th dog adoption, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has proclaimed May 10 as Muttville Senior Dog Rescue Day.

How did Franklin pull this off in only four years? Muttville, which is based in San Francisco, is the nonprofit epitome of the capitalist dictum: Find a need and fill it.

As a longtime SPCA volunteer, Franklin, 55, watched as countless older dogs — all perfectly adoptable — lost out to the young and the cute. She knew she had to do something.

According to a recent Humane Society survey, at least 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized nationally every year. Proportionally, senior animals (dogs over age 8) are much more likely to remain unadopted and die in shelters.

When she started in 2007, Franklin estimates, there were no more than a handful of rescue outfits working exclusively with senior dogs. Muttville was her way of giving back. In doing so, she drew the attention of the animal rescue world and beyond.

“I get 100-plus requests a week [to take in dogs] from shelters and private parties,” Franklin says in her airy, dog-filled Potrero Hill home, which doubles as Muttville headquarters. “We only take dog-friendly, people-friendly animals that can go right into a foster home, regardless of health.”

Sometimes Franklin does specialized dog placement, as with the Seniors for Seniors program, which matches dogs with the elderly.

“I’ve had more than a few lonely seniors on the phone crying, ‘Do you have my dog yet?’ And when I deliver the dog, they cry,” Franklin says, adding, “I am a doggie yenta.”

Sherri Franklin at a Muttville adoption fair in San Francisco photo/chris stevens

No wonder. Spend some time with the Muttville mutts and just try to keep the heart from melting.

There’s Fifi, a half-blind tickle-bug of a poodle. There’s Hero, a long-muzzled 10-year-old shepherd mix with terminal cancer. There’s Winston, a 14-year-old Chihuahua deemed “unadoptable” by a vet at an East Bay shelter.

Franklin doesn’t want to hear the word “unadoptable.” She’ll find Winston a home, no matter what it takes. And apparently it takes a village.

Muttville is no one-human shop. It’s a lean-and-mean volunteer haven, with only one and a half paid positions. “I’m the half,” Franklin says with a laugh. She works as a hair stylist while overseeing an army of 200 volunteers and one full-time office manager.

Some of the people volunteer at adoption fairs, where every dog wears an “Adopt Me!” collar or “Thanks for saving my life” bandana.

Some volunteers walk the dogs; some are animal behaviorists who assess the dogs before Muttville takes them on. Others keep track of Facebook and Twitter pages, donate supplies or dream up fundraising events, such as the Bark Mitzvah and the Muttcracker Ballet (two events on the Muttville drawing board yet to be scheduled).

Last year, combined fundraising efforts brought  more than $100,000 into the Muttville coffers. But it’s never enough to fill the need.

A conversation with Franklin never goes uninterrupted. Before long she must break away to tend to her yammering charges — usually about a half-dozen, but often more.

Patty Stanton and Frankie photo/dan pine

Kirby, a frail Maltese that could fit inside a coat pocket, needs a little lap time to ease his trembling. Ernie and Bert, two cocker spaniels, each with a nasty case of cherry eye, grow frisky and need to go out. Somewhere in the living room, Dorritt, a grinning Pekinese, has gotten a bit too gassy for mixed company.

These dogs, and hundreds like them, have come to Muttville over the years, each with a sad backstory.

Many came from homes where their elderly owners died or could no longer care for them. Others came from abusive owners. Some were “foreclosure dogs,” reluctantly given up to shelters by families that had lost their homes.

“One woman who has terminal cancer wrote to me,” Franklin recalls. “The last thing she wanted was to give up her dog but she can’t keep it. We had a lady whose son had died. The last thing she wanted was to send his dog to a shelter. We’re not just helping dogs, but people, too.”

Once accepted, every dog is examined by a veterinarian. Franklin says most need dental work. The neglected or abused animals often need more extensive care. Dogs that come from the homes of Alzheimer’s patients can be overweight because the owners constantly feed them.

“We do see dogs in pretty bad physical condition,” Franklin notes, “but once we get them cleaned up, they bounce back.”

Just in time for people like Patty Stanton, a Muttville volunteer and board member. She had wanted to adopt a family dog two years ago, so along with her partner and her son — a student at Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School —  she went to Muttville. There, the family chose a Lhasa apso mix named Frankie.

Or, more accurately, Frankie chose them.

Shayla Goldlist and Pip

“He was found in Merced with a heart murmur and a 4-inch gash in his neck filled with maggots and foxtails,” Stanton says. “We think he was lost.”

After animal control officers found Frankie on the streets, they contacted Muttville. Franklin took him in, cleaned him, got him proper vet care, then fostered him out to a dog-loving Jewish girl in Lafayette.

Shayla Goldlist, 12 at that time, had wanted to do a tikkun olam project for her approaching bat mitzvah. Her cantor had been teaching her “about the Torah,” she recalls, “and  how you’re commanded to take care of God’s creatures.”

Shayla owned an old dog at the time, and knew the special sweetness that only senior dogs possess. She took in Frankie, too, to provide a temporary home until someone could permanently adopt him. That experience taught her the ins and outs of fostering.

“From the time I saw Frankie, I really fell in love with him,” Shayla remembers. “Every day I fed him and gave him his meds. The most important thing is to get the dog back in shape, make sure they’re calm, maybe socialize them so they can go with another house.”

Finally the day came when foster parent Shayla had to return Frankie to Muttville — and on the day Stanton adopted Frankie, Shayla broke down in tears. But with 20 dogs put under her care since then, she has learned that part of compassion when fostering a dog is learning to let go.

Shirley, a dachsund adopted at a Muttville adoption fair photo/chris stevens

“Though it’s sad for me, it’s so important for the dog,” adds Shayla, who today attends San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay. “It’s exciting for the other family. Without getting them adopted, they wouldn’t have a chance.”

Stanton, a former radio sales rep, was so impressed with the work of Franklin and Muttville, she began volunteering in any way she could, and now sits on the organization’s board.

“Her heart and passion are so apparent for this,” Stanton says of Franklin.

It’s not like Franklin dreamed of running a dog rescue operation her whole life. But a lifelong love of animals, coupled with a drive to make a difference, led her at age 49 to launch Muttville.

Long before that, she had enjoyed a Jewish upbringing in Costa Mesa. Her father was a doctor of the sort unknown these days: He would spend time with his patients, as much as they needed.

“My father was fairly obsessed with World War II,” Franklin remembers. “He was always talking about Jewish suffering. It seriously impacted me. I became overly compassionate about everything. I had a feeling of wanting to make things better.”

She did not have dogs in her home while growing up, but after moving to San Francisco in 1985 for a job as a hair stylist, she got involved in animal rescue. “There’s a sensitivity, a compassionate part of the Jewish mentality that a lot of us have,” she says. “It extends to other creatures; it goes beyond the human barrier to all beings.”

It started with volunteering as a dog walker at the SPCA. Soon she was taking dogs into her home. And not the puppies.

“I love old dogs,” she says. “I see an old dog and run up to it. What was hard for me was seeing the old dogs come in to the shelters, their bewildered looks. The puppies would get adopted, but every day I’d see Heidi the old beagle or Susie the old hound dog. I was taking senior dogs home who were going to be euthanized.”

She did more than keep the dogs. Franklin learned day by day how to foster, heal and best help senior dogs. In 2000, she began a six-year tenure on the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare. She says the idea for a senior dog sanctuary came to her 10 years ago. For various reasons, however, she didn’t move forward with the idea.

But her friends hounded her. Recalls Franklin: “Finally one of them said, ‘I’m so sick of hearing about it. Why don’t you just do it?’ ”

Franklin studied up on nonprofit management, polled her friends and clients, pulled favors and finally got Muttville off the ground.

Starting small, Muttville grew rapidly, even during the economic crunch of the last three years. Dog lovers wanted to help, both as volunteers and donors of money and materiel. Local veterinarians provided services at reduced rates.

The volunteerism Franklin encouraged paid off.

As one of Franklin’s stalwart supporters and volunteers, Stanton turns up at many of Muttville’s weekly adoption fairs. They rotate from San Francisco to Walnut Creek to Novato (and other places), often taking place in Pet Food Express parking lots or public spaces such as Duboce Park in San Francisco.

Stanton also takes her dog, Frankie, regularly to the Jewish Home in San Francisco, where he serves as a therapy dog for the senior residents and short-term care patients.

“These animals can’t speak for themselves,” Stanton says. “They’re in these situations through no fault of their own. My heart goes out to them. Plus this is a great organization with wonderful people.”

So wonderful that even“ The Oprah Winfrey Show” took notice. When the call went out from Oprah last fall to submit names of people “who made a difference,” Stanton sent in Franklin’s story. Soon after, she received a pair of tickets to a taping of the show in Chicago.

Stanton and Franklin went together last November. They stood in line for the second taping of the day, and watched as the first show’s audience filed out, laden with goodie bags as only Oprah can bestow.

It had been one of Oprah’s “Favorite Things” shows, during which she touts various luxury products that she loves, then gives samples away to her adoring audience.

And they missed it.

“Cameras, lasagna dishes and all kinds of chazerai,” said Stanton, describing the free swag. “Then we move in, and Oprah is sitting on stage, getting her hair and makeup. She says, ‘I bet you’re pretty disappointed seeing all those people walking out with bags.’ Then she says ‘We’re doing it again.’ ”

Though the two weren’t featured guests, they did not go home empty-handed. Oprah gave them Le Creuset cookware, diamond earrings, coach bags and iPads.

And a new car. Each.

They get their new 2012 Volkswagen Beetles in September. Franklin will use hers for Muttville business. They kept the iPads, but almost everything else went on the auction block to raise money for Muttville.

With steady donations coming in, Franklin has a vision for Muttville: to move out of her house and into a permanent headquarters where she can take in more dogs, nurse them back to health and get them adopted.

Maybe even stage a few seminars, adoption fairs and community events.

“We do adoptions all over the Bay Area,” she says, “but this would be our place. I want [Muttville] to be the blueprint others can take somewhere else and do it.”

Meanwhile, Franklin intends to keep on doing it locally as long as there are lonely, abandoned or neglected senior dogs on the prowl for a little love.

“It’s completely changed my life,” she says of Muttville. “I don’t see myself slowing down, because this gives me a reason to get up every morning, to stay healthy and do something good.”

Muttville founder Sherri Franklin plays with rescued senior dogs Chrissie, Helen and Bert at her home in San Francisco.

“Moolah for Mutts,”
an annual fundraiser for Muttville, is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 16 at the  Swedish American Hall, 2170 Market Street, S.F. Tickets and information: www.muttville.org or (415) 272-4172.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.