Living Grace Canine Ranch provides forever home for senior dogs

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By Rachel Madison

BERTRAM — Rhonda Minardi doesn’t just love dogs. She also believes they deserve respect, especially as they age. That’s the main reason she started Living Grace Canine Ranch in Bertram in early 2020.

“My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,” Minardi said. “Her first worry was about her dog, Lucy—not the shock that she had cancer or was given just a couple weeks to live, but what was going to happen to her dog—the love of her life. That right there was inspiring for me. I thought, ‘Who is going to take care of these dogs?’”

Minardi, who is a Georgetown resident, said after that experience, she started to see the great needs surrounding senior dogs because they were not adopted as much as younger dogs.

“The shelters near me were inundated with senior dogs,” she said. “Either their pet parent would pass away, and they’d go to the shelter, or people wouldn’t want to be bothered with the bills that come with a dog’s old age.”

Now, Living Grace Canine Ranch, a 501(c)(3) animal welfare organization, is the only dedicated senior dog sanctuary in Texas, and Minardi’s ultimate goal is to provide a home-like environment that promotes physical and emotional wellness for its canine residents.

The five-acre ranch currently has one building that houses the approximately 30 dogs living at the ranch, but a second building is under construction, thanks to a sizable donation from Jack and Camille Garey, who also donated the lands and funds to build Garey Park in Georgetown.

“Rhonda is having a second building built, and the plan is that the big dogs will be over there and small dogs will [stay in the original house],” said Jolene Wells, volunteer groomer and overnight employee for Living Grace. “There will be a veterinary office in there as well to take care of the dogs. It’ll be called Garey’s Big Dog House, and the first building will be the Little Dog House.”

The second building’s construction has been delayed the last few weeks due to weather, but the hope is to begin working on it again this month and have it finished within the next few months.

Wells added that besides the handful of people on the actual payroll, most of the work done at the ranch is done by volunteers like her. Volunteers do everything from walking and cuddling the dogs to playing with them and soothing them during anxiety-ridden times such as storms.

“There is somebody here 24 hours a day,” she said. “When the second building is finished there will be someone in each building. We try to take turns staying the night with the dogs. Rhonda is basically here 24-7. She doesn’t technically live here, but the kitchen is fully functioning and the bathroom is fully functioning, and she sleeps here with the dogs more often than not.”

About 70 percent of Living Grace’s residents are there because their pet parents passed away or went into hospice or assisted living. The other 30 percent come from area shelters, Minardi said. A dog must be 7 years or older to be considered a senior. While some of the dogs come to the ranch with few issues or concerns, others have had difficult and often abusive pasts.

There’s Little Red, the newest resident of Living Grace, who was thrown out of a car window in Waco and left on the side of the road. He has a cracked vertebrae in his neck and will need care the rest of his life. There’s also Jack, who was shot in the mouth by his owner for barking and went through multiple surgeries to repair the damage. Other dogs have serious health complications because of their age and need around-the-clock care to keep them comfortable.

“That’s what’s important to me,” Minardi said. “Some of these dogs have never known love. If we can give them love, and we are taking care of them and they know what love is, we’re doing God’s work.”

While the dogs are not allowed to be adopted—the ranch is their forever home—they are allowed to be fostered. Ginny Stubblefield, fundraising and events director at Living Grace Canine Ranch, got involved at the ranch after losing her senior dog last fall.

“I was heartbroken, and I saw something about Living Grace, so I decided to look into it,” she said. “The next thing you know, I was fostering two dogs, Cupcake and Molly.”

Stubblefield said applying to foster a dog can be done online, along with signing up to volunteer. Volunteers must be at least 16 years of age or can be 12 and up with an adult chaperone.

“We always need volunteers,” Minardi said. “We are going to need more employees soon. I’m not advertising that because it comes from within. I believe you come here because you love it, and then it goes from there.”

Because Minardi wants to make the ranch feel as much like a home as possible for the dogs, many steps have been taken to keep the dogs as comfortable as possible.

“Rhonda doesn’t want them to feel like they are in a kennel or imprisoned,” Wells said. “We have three different enrichment yards the dogs can use, with a pool to swim in and platforms to train on. Dogs are very much mentally motivated. Mental stimulation is very good for them and it’s especially important for older dogs.”

Ally Johnson, who sits on the ranch’s board as enrichment coordinator, also works as a dog trainer for the ranch residents. She trains the dogs on everything from nose work to keeping their minds sharp with puzzle toys.

“This training is for them to live the best life they can,” Johnson said. “We want them to feel like nothing is scary and make things as low stress as possible.”

Minardi envisions her ranch creating awareness for Texas and the country when it comes to the way people view senior dogs.

“I want to start changing the laws, like tethering and treatment of animals,” she said. “There has to be a punishment for that. I also want to teach our children. I want to go in and talk to our schools or invite schools to come out here. I want to teach children that it’s important to teach seniors with respect, whether it’s a senior person or a dog. You don’t just get rid of them because they’re old. We will change that. We are here for more than just a handful of senior dogs. This is bigger than that.”

Minardi said having volunteers out to her ranch is teaching people to look at senior dogs in a different light, because they are able to see the result of dogs who were mistreated during their lives, or dogs who were loved but no longer have their pet parent and feel lost.

“It’s all about what we can do to make the rest of their lives the greatest ever,” Minardi added. “This ranch is for senior dogs like an assisted living center is for your grandma. We don’t settle, and we don’t skimp. We are setting the bar high. We aren’t just getting by and doing the bare minimum. When others have their eyes on us, we want them to want to model us. We want to be their model.”

A fundraising Bingo night for Living Grace Canine Ranch is being held on June 24 at 7 p.m. at Agape BBQ. Donations will be accepted for Bingo cards, and the theme is “Dogs Rock Music Bingo.” For more information on Living Grace Canine Ranch or to sign up as a volunteer or foster parent, visit www.livinggracecanineranch.org.

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