“The Guardians of Dogtown” sounds like it could be the title of an action flick, but for the dog caregivers at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, it’s a fitting moniker.
Nestled within Angel Canyon’s winding red rocks and desert landscape, the hustle and bustle of the community inside the borders of Best Friends is akin to a town within a town — one that operates like a well-oiled machine.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary was born nearly four decades ago in Southern Utah and since then the organization has grown a strong national presence, all while expanding their flagship location in Kanab. Today, Best Friends is the largest no-kill sanctuary in the United States, which houses and cares for up to 1,600 animals on any given day, according to the organization.
When hearing the word “sanctuary,” one might picture a large building or two with an outdoor space. But Best Friends’ sanctuary, specifically the organization’s Kanab location, could fairly be described as a compound — one where the dirt roads are marked with intersecting street signs and you’ll want a car or a golf cart to navigate the grounds.
The sprawling 4,000 acre sanctuary includes an on-site vegan cafe, a veterinary clinic, memorial sites dedicated to pets who have passed, a wildlife refuge and rehabilitation center and individual havens devoted to the care of dogs, cats, horses, pigs, birds and bunnies.
Much of Best Friends is open to the public, where over 30,000 visitors tour the sanctuary every year.
Best Friends’ Dogtown
The sanctuary’s dog department, dubbed “Dogtown,” has dogs of varying sizes, ages, personalities and medical needs in its care. This section of the sanctuary is made up of 36 buildings (soon to be 39), 50 employees, dozens of volunteers and has between 350 and 400 dogs in its care at any given time.
Dogtown has separate buildings designated for new intakes, behavioral-needs dogs, mother dogs and their puppies, senior dogs and dogs with specific medical conditions.
The Puppy Admissions building, a space for mother dogs and puppies, is run with the precision and dedication akin to a maternity ward — just the dog equivalent.
Puppies “are some of the most vulnerable dogs in a shelter environment,” says Alison Waszmer, director of Dogtown. “So for a lot of shelters, it can be hard and resource intensive to provide care.” Because of this, Dogtown does its best to help shelters with large puppy populations, according to Waszmer.
Because un-spayed female dogs can produce an average of two litters per year, and each litter is generally between six to eight puppies — Dogtown sees a lot of pups.
“The biggest flex (in Dogtown’s numbers) is usually what we have in our puppy building,” says Waszmer, “so if we have six litters of ten puppies, that’s sixty dogs.”
The two caregivers who supervise mothers and puppies in this building, Paige Blair and Landon Schobert, donned in scrubs and Crocs shoes, act as the department’s “nurses,” in a way. They provide round-the-clock care for their four-legged patients and coordinate their medical needs with the sanctuary’s veterinarian.
“Every litter teaches us something new”, Blair says.
The puppy department, like most areas in the sanctuary, has its operations thoughtfully fleshed-out — down to the small but important details, like sanitization practices.
There are two sides of the Puppy Admissions building, and due to how easily infection and disease can spread from side to side, the caregivers have their hygienic procedures organized down to the nitty-gritty details. Each side of the puppy clinic has separate airflow, as to not spread airborne sicknesses, and both Blair and Schobert change their shoes after working on each side. When physically working with the dogs and puppies, they suit up in gloves and surgical gowns.
Whether they’re keeping track of vaccination schedules, weighing puppies twice a day, removing ticks off of new intakes or cleaning up messy accidents, Blair and Schobert develop connections with the dogs in their care.
“It’s fun watching the moms, once they’re finished with their pups, have their personality come back,” Schobert says. “I have a thing for the moms, there is a caregiver bond between the two of you, like you’re raising these children together.”
“Honestly, there’s one puppy in every litter that you fall in love with,” Blair says. She adopted one of the puppies in her care, named Pilot, who was the runt of the litter. “I spent an hour picking ticks off of her, and just held her like a little baby,” says Blair. “By the end of the hour, I was like, ‘well, I’m in love with you.’”
The dogs of Dogtown
Many of the dogs at Best Friends come from the Navajo Nation and seventeen shelters throughout Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, according to Waszmer. The sanctuary also supports and assists three local animal control divisions and takes in local owner surrenders.
Dogtown also takes in special cases from all around the U.S., something the sanctuary is able to do thanks to its unique resources — namely time, money and space.
“We are very different than any other facility anywhere in any other organization,” Waszmer says, “so we will get special requests from all over the country for behavior dogs and medical dogs.”
Dogtown has also supported regional law enforcement authorities in instances when animal neglect or abuse may be present. The sanctuary recently took in twenty-two dogs from a single case in New Mexico and is now providing the dogs with much-needed medical attention and TLC.
Many of the dogs in Dogtown are able to leave the sanctuary fairly quickly, either by adoption or by being transported to another Best Friends location in the U.S. In other words, oftentimes Dogtown serves as a much-needed pitstop for dogs as they continue on their journey to finding a forever home.
Many of the dogs “just really need a soft place to land, some spay/neuter and basic medical and then they’re ready to go on transport to another Best Friends location or to direct adoption,” says Waszmer.
Because the sanctuary has its own veterinary clinic on site, the Best Friends staff is able to perform full-scale dentals, ultrasounds, x-rays, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, surgeries and spay and neuter procedures.
While Dogtown aims to get as many dogs as possible adopted into loving homes, the sanctuary does house a few dozen permanent residents, or “true sanctuary dogs,” often due to specific behavioral or medical needs.
If these special-case dogs had found themselves in a different environment, their particular needs might have meant euthanasia due to lack of resources. But because these dogs have landed in Dogtown, they get the chance to happily live out their lives at the sanctuary, Waszmer says.
“If you have to be a homeless dog, this is the place to be,” says Michelle Sathe, communications strategist at Best Friends.
What makes Dogtown different?
Looking around Dogtown, throughout the dozens of buildings in this canine corner of the sanctuary, two words come to mind: customization and accommodation.
The sanctuary has the staff, space and time to accommodate dogs with needs ranging from confidence building to laser therapy. Adequate staffing, sufficient kennel space and time to keep animals for extended periods are three key resources that many animals shelters throughout the U.S. find themselves in need of.
In many of Dogtown’s buildings, it’s not uncommon to run into an “office dog”; Whether it’s a couple of old ladies lounging on beds or a dog that is practicing socializing with humans, you’ll likely see a pooch peeking their head over the counters and desks in the different work spaces.
Dogtown’s behavior specialists hold daily playgroups, where dogs are able to roam the play yards and interact with one another under supervision, helping to improve behavioral issues and foster dog-to-dog socialization.
“We can house dogs long-term because there is no risk of euthanasia here,” says Melissa McCormic, senior manager of behavior at Dogtown. “We can keep dogs and do a bunch of behavior work with them and explore different things. We have the budget and we have the creativity.”
Both McCormic and Emma Smith, a behavior specialist at Dogtown, come from municipal animal shelter backgrounds, and though they laud the work shelters are able to do, they recognize the positive impact a sanctuary environment can have on dogs.
“There isn’t that pressure to fix them in a timeframe so that they have that second chance or they have that happy outcome,” Smith says. “Here, they have as much time as they need.”
Most dog kennels here even come equipped with a doggy door leading to an outdoor space for each individual dog — a little private patio. Many of the kennels also have floor to ceiling walls, which can help reduce the volume of the inevitable choir of barking, something that can be stressful for some dogs.
For new dogs coming into the sanctuary, each intake kennel has separate airflow to help avoid the spread of possible viruses or diseases. With the amount of space the sanctuary has at its disposal, Dogtown can also quarantine dogs with sicknesses until they are given a clean bill of health.
Beyond that, Dogtown has an entirely separate living space and recreational area reserved for dogs with brucellosis, a contagious, infectious disease that primarily impacts dogs’ reproductive systems — and one that often comes with a mandatory death sentence depending on individual state regulations due to the risk of infecting cattle.
The disease can be spread to humans, although rare, if an infected dog’s bodily fluids come into contact with a person’s open sore or wound.
If a dog becomes infected with the bacteria, it can be quickly transmitted to other dogs. Although there is no cure for brucellosis, it can be treated during flare-ups. The disease can cause degenerative conditions, but generally will not negatively impact a dog’s quality of life.
Dogtown currently houses five dogs with brucellosis, and two of those dogs are Elton and Hannah — a couple of pooches in their golden years who are seemingly entirely unaware of their diagnoses. Their own dedicated dog park and walking trail at the sanctuary probably doesn’t hurt.
Dogs with brucellosis can be adopted as an only pet or as a pair by owners who live in certain states where it is legal to own a dog with the disease, according to Dogtown supervisor Davalynn Edmond and caregiver Tom Williams.
With Elton and Hannah, “there are no outwardly manifested symptoms that we can recognize. They live normal lives, they live happy lives,” says Williams. “Will it shorten their lifespan by having brucellosis? Probably, a little bit. But can we measure that? Not really.”
The Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile
About five miles down the road from the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, a pet-friendly lodging option for travelers passing through Kanab. The roadhouse comes equipped with pull-out pet beds, food and water bowls and fenced dog parks.
The roadhouse is also a convenient fit for hosting an adoptable pet through Best Friends’ “sanctuary sleepovers” program, a unique opportunity for visitors and volunteers to give a rescue animal some one-on-one time and a change of scenery.
“What’s neat about some of our local volunteers is they develop relationships with these dogs, and they’ll do things like take them for car rides, take them into town for an outing, sometimes take them for sleepovers,” says Sathe. “Every dog here has their little family.”
When hosting one of Dogtown’s pooches for a sleepover, the quality time can help the sanctuary better understand how each dog behaves in a home-type setting, making them more likely to find the perfect adoptive family.
How Best Friends is celebrating National Dog Month
Dogs in shelters throughout the U.S., including Utah, are at the highest risk of being killed since 2017, according to Best Friends’ latest data release.
“Unfortunately, in 2022, our data shows that there was a backslide in dog life saving,” Sathe says. “There has been a lot more intake and much less adoptions.”
With that in mind, Best Friends is offering their own adoption specials and participating in the “Clear the Shelters” initiative for the month of August, National Dog Month.
Adoption fees for puppies at the Best Friends sanctuary in Kanab are waived for the month of August, and all Best Friends locations are offering $10 dog and cat adoptions in August for “Clear the Shelters,” according to Sathe.
Despite the current state of life saving in animal shelters, Dogtown, and Best Friends as a whole, is still taking one step at a time towards its goal to make America’s shelters no-kill by 2025.