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Ain't nothing but hound dogs

Bassets show off their assets at the Basset Rescue Network in Acton

Posted: February 14, 2009 11:48 p.m.
Updated: February 15, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Cheyenne carries her toy across the play yard at the Basset Rescue Network ranch in Acton. The ranch is home to nearly 100 basset hounds seeking adoption.

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They ain't nothing but hound dogs - all 96 of them. And that's exactly what Dawn Smith of Basset Rescue Network loves about the pack of rescued dogs that live at her five-acre ranch. "The way their long ears hold drool, the way they're able to slime your knees, there's just nothing better," Smith said with a smile.

"Actually, basset hounds were bred by royalty and they know it. Basset lovers will tell you once you've been owned by one, you just fall in love."

Smith has fallen in love with every one of the nearly 2,000 or so bassets that have come through the doors of the nonprofit Basset Rescue Network, since their doors opened seven years ago.

The dogs are pulled from shelters or dropped off by owners - many are the offspring of puppy mills and backyard breeders.

"Every single one of the dogs at the ranch would have been euthanized if we had not existed. By buying from a pet store or disreputable breeders instead of adopting from a rescue or shelter, people have created this overwhelming social problem," Smith said.

Meet Jake
Jake, a handsome, stocky eight-year-old boy whom Smith considers a prime example of the breed, was a neglected backyard dog, overweight and under-exercised, when he was brought to Basset Rescue. Why? His owners' home was foreclosed.

The economy is now the number one reason for owner surrenders, a drastic change from just a few years ago. "It used to be that 50 percent or more of owners would give up their basset because they just had a baby. Now it's because they lost their job or lost their house and just can't take care of their dog anymore," Smith said.

While Smith has been extremely successful in finding homes for the bassets over the years, the adoption rate has fallen from the usual 400 to approximately 250 in 2008.

Licensed for 100 dogs, the organization immediately rescues another basset for every hound that they adopt out. Basset Rescue Network is currently tracking 14 basset hounds at local shelters and has a waiting list of 20 "owner surrenders" looking for a spot at the ranch.

While there are nine basset rescue operations in Southern California that rely on foster homes for rescued dogs, Basset Rescue Network is the only basset rescue facility with a full-fledged kennel in the United States.

It's a heavy toll at the moment. "This is the first time since we've opened that I've had to turn any dog away," Smith said, tears forming in her eyes.

The basset lady
The love of bassets was bred into Smith at an early age. A fourth generation basset lover, her great grandfather and grandmother raised and showed basset hounds, while her mother rescued them.

"My family likes to joke that I was whelped rather than birthed," Smith said.

Raised around the breed, Smith became enamored of their unique characteristics: low slung bodies, extremely long ears, droopy eyes, and incredible sense of smell (some 16,000 times stronger than that of humans).

Originally bred as hunting dogs, the basset hound was descended directly from the bloodhound and became immensely popular in Europe after its debut at the 1863 Paris Dog Show. The breed, recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1885, was prized for its ability to hunt fox, rabbits, opossum and pheasant.

The modern basset, not so much. "Now they hunt for potato chips and snacks," Smith said.

A former business manager involved in corporate litigations, Smith found herself struggling with the transition to full-time rescue difficult at first.

"I cried my eyes out. It was so hard, there was so much poop, there were no sick days or vacation. I thought to myself, ‘Why do I do this?," Smith said.

Once Smith established routines, became educated on the ins and outs of rescue work, and took training classes, the stress eased and the answer came.

"When you take a homeless dog and place them in a loving family, there's nothing better," Smith said. "And I've never slept better at night. I used to toss and turn and have to take sleeping aids when I was in the business world, but not now."

Life at the ranch
Life at the ranch which is run by Smith with the help of one 30-hour per week employee is one of hard work. Smith, who calls herself "chief pooper scooper," said the ranch includes a 2,500-square-foot kennel facility with 36 runs.

Feedings are twice a day, at 9:30 a.m. and at 9:30 p.m. to avoid bloat, a common disorder for the basset breed, as well as to simulate a normal home feeding schedule. Smith insists on feeding super-premium foods and is a staunch believer in using holistic treatments whenever possible.

After waiting an hour for their meal to process, Smith releases the hounds for some fun. They rush out of their indoor/outdoor kennels, sniffing the ground, ears flying, tails wagging, some howling in excitement.
Smith grabs a megaphone and starts singing "Hi Ho, Hi Ho" from "Snow White and The Seven Dwarves." Soon she is mobbed by bassets, each of whom she knows by name. Bellies are rubbed, ears are fondled and sweet talk is spoken.

When asked if she had a favorite, Smith thought for a moment. "My favorite dog is whoever is most needy at the time," she said.

Right now, that would be Juliet, a 17-year old with cancer who is in the heated "Daphney Suite," convalescing alone on a fluffy dog bed. Ramona, a 10-year old with cancer, is faring a bit better due to intensive holistic therapy - she frolics freely with the others in the general population.

Very social dogs, the basset hounds at Smith's ranch enjoy spending time together as a large pack and receive eight to 10 hours of exercise per day, weather permitting. On this sunny February day, a brindle mix named La Tigra, a 1-year-old rescued from the Bakersfield shelter, is wrestling with a half dozen other dogs.

The playful girl rolls on her back, completely submissive, as the other dogs bark and nip at her. This interaction is also vital for bassets that didn't learn socialization as puppies, Smith said.

"A lot of dogs people purchase are taken away from their mother and litter mates as young as four or five weeks old. That can lead to food aggression, toy hoarding and possession, and a host of bad behavioral issues. All of that could be avoided if the dogs were adopted out at 12 weeks or older, when they've had a chance to learn hierarchy and how to play fairly," Smith said.

At Basset Rescue Network, there are hounds ranging from puppies to seniors, such as Ashley, a 10-year-old with pale markings and an especially loving demeanor. "Ashley spent most of her life at the end of a rope in Barstow, being bred to death," Smith explained.

Now Ashley can often be found sunbathing on a converted Ikea day bed. While the dogs at Basset Hound Network have a pretty nice life, Smith never takes her eyes off the prize.

"As much as we give these dogs, it's not as wonderful as having a family of their own. That's our goal for every dog."

Weathering the storm
Some days at the ranch are particularly challenging. For Smith, one of the worse days in recent memory would be Dec. 17, when a freak blizzard hit Acton and the surrounding areas.

Within 24 hours, there was three feet of solid packed snow on the ground and a five foot drift. Smith couldn't leave the premises for a week due to road closures, and was perilously close to running out of water.

The blizzard hit hard the ranch's electrical, plumbing and pumps and destroyed several runs. "It takes a long time and a lot of muscle to recover from something like that," Smith said.

Couple severe weather with the financial meltdown of the last year and it's a perfect storm for nonprofits like Basset Rescue Network, which relies on grants and private donations to cover operating costs of at least $8,000 a month.

"Volunteers and donations are at an all-time low. The number one call I get now is an offer to volunteer, followed by the question of how much they'll get paid to help," Smith said. "Over the summer gas prices killed us. It cost people $100 to get here."

Smith has a core group of 10 to 12 volunteers who help, usually on weekends, and the occasional Girl Scout troop, church group, or high school student looking for community service hours to fill in the gaps.

Funds are raised through events such as the annual Hound Hoe Down, scheduled this year for May 9. The Hoe Down offers dog lovers a chance to meet the hounds, enjoy some barbecue, win raffle prizes and play games.

In May Basset Rescue Network will also be featured on "Groomer Has It," a popular Animal Planet Show and has had world-famous animal trainer Victoria Stillwell tape a segment on location at the ranch.
Smith hopes the exposure will eventually lead to her ultimate dream.

"I'd love to go to the ocean on weekends, I'd love to shut down," she said. "I wish these dogs weren't abandoned and neglected and in need of rescue, but they are. I'll keep rescuing them as long as they need me."

For more information on the Basset Rescue Network, visit or call (661) 269-2682.


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