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Betting on better behavior

Las Vegas nonprofit crowdfunds training and therapy for shelter dogs

From Animal Sheltering magazine Summer 2019

Melo represents the group at Camp Bow Wow’s Give a Fetch event.Henry, pictured with Kathy Carr of Canine Bodywork and Aquatics, receives water therapy thanks to donations through Pawtastic Friends.

There may be no sure bets in Las Vegas, but local shelter dogs are seeing their chances of adoption increase, thanks to a program that raises money from the public to get them trained.

Dogs are getting out of their kennels and being socialized, fine-tuning their leash skills, mastering commands and tricks, and enjoying water therapy through Pawtastic Friends, a nonprofit that provides “enrichment training scholarships” to needy dogs at 18 local rescues. Donors can log on to the dogs’ personal fundraising pages on the group’s website and sponsor one-on-one sessions with a professional trainer. As of early spring 2019, 175 dogs from the program had been adopted.

The nonprofit was founded in October 2016 by husband-and-wife team Michael and Melissa Novelli, who were longtime volunteers at the Nevada SPCA before launching Pawtastic Friends.

“The dogs’ needs really vary, but a lot of them need confidence-building,” Melissa says. “This is a way to help them get out [of their kennels] and to really showcase themselves and shine.”

Trainers take videos or photos after each session. Melissa writes updates from the dogs’ perspective and posts them on Facebook so sponsors and potential adopters can follow the pooches’ journey.

“People from all over the United States follow us and donate money because they’re able to feel a part of a family [and] help and watch their special dog,” Melissa says.

Pawtastic Friends works with five trainers and offers aquatics therapy. Potential donors scroll through a list of dogs on the Pawtastic Friends website and decide which pup they’d like to support by buying a training session. A $25 donation ($30 for aquatics) pays for a one-hour session with one of the trainers, who provide services at a reduced rate. On average, there are about 70 dogs in the program at a given time. The nonprofit spends about $5,500 a month on training.

About 30 volunteers in the Pawtastic Friends’ Boarding Buddies program walk dogs kenneled by two of its partnering rescue groups. MGM Grand Las Vegas, Vdara Hotel and Spa, and Tao Nightclub have even sent employee volunteers to walk dogs as one of their team-building exercises.

“What makes Pawtastic Friends innovative is that they’ve identified a gap in the rescue community,” says Heather Carpenter, western regional director for the Humane Society of the United States, a Pawtastic Friends platinum sponsor. “Many dogs are harder to adopt due to behavioral issues, and Pawtastic Friends’ enrichment program provides that training and behavior modification.”

In her personal time, Carpenter has raised training funds for Melo (a shar-pei/pit bull-type mix) and promotes the group on social media. Melo, whom Carpenter started fostering in March, swims once a week and also does agility and obedience training: “He’s a pretty popular dog, and many people are following his journey and donating to his enrichment and training.”

Laurie Straten, a senior vice president for a finance company, connected with Pawtastic Friends via Facebook. “I love their training videos and thought it was a fantastic idea,” she says. Straten, who lives in Henderson, Nevada, is a volunteer dog walker and has sponsored and fostered many dogs enrolled in the program, including a favorite, Dodge, a pit bull-type mix whose anxiety in the shelter manifested in spinning for hours. “Dodge went to the Pawtastic trainer as a whack-a-doodle,” Straten says, but made huge strides and has since been adopted.

For emotionally shut down dogs, water therapy is often the first time they’ve heard nothing but soft music, had loving arms wrapped around them and felt the bliss of floating in 89-degree water, says Kathy Carr, who owns Canine Bodywork and Aquatics in Henderson and works with Pawtastic Friends. “It’s so important for them to just decompress and not ‘do’ anything—they can just relax and chill.”

Thanks to aquatics, Naomi, a beautiful pit bull-type mix found hogtied in the desert, was slowly rehabbed “into the most wonderful, funny, one-of-a-kind special girl,” Carr says. Every Monday at 9 a.m., Naomi came for water therapy, and began to love swimming and the occasional massage. She was eventually fostered by “an amazing family” and officially adopted the day before she succumbed to a brain tumor. In her honor, the program’s swim component is now named the Naomi Memorial Aquatics Enrichment Training program.

“Many dogs are harder to adopt due to behavioral issues, and Pawtastic Friends’ enrichment program provides that training and behavior modification.”
- Heather Carpenter, the HSUS

Melissa, who manages a salon, also hosts an annual “block party” through the business, where employees provide haircuts, manicures, chair massages and more at discounted prices, donating 100 percent, including tips, to Pawtastic Friends. The party draws as many as 700 people and features entertainment, food trucks, vendors and a silent auction. Last October, the group rented a yacht for a Halloween cruise on Lake Las Vegas. There are plans for a September sock hop at Nostalgia Street Rods, a local car museum, complete with a disc jockey and poodle skirts.

The Novellis hope to one day build an enrichment training center and expand the program across the country. Michael’s advice to anyone thinking of modeling their program? “Just be dedicated and passionate,” he says. Both he and Melissa have full-time jobs and run the nonprofit in their spare time. Melissa alone spends about 25 hours a week on social media updates and accounting tasks, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When you see these dogs transform, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” she says. “When I do the final update on Facebook and Michael posts the adoption, it’s like a victory—not just for [us], but for the whole Pawtastic Friends team.”

Learn more at pawtasticfriends.com.

About the Author

Pamela Babcock is a writer and editor based in the New York City area. She has written frequently about pet behavior and animal health. Find her online at pamelababcock.com