Rescuing one of the pit bull dogs seized from NFL player Michael Vick’s house in 2007 has spawned more than just a home for a dog in an unfortunate situation. Taking in ‘Handsome Dan’ ignited a passion that began years ago and is still going strong hundreds of dogs later.
Several foster parents, trainers, shelter dog partners, donors and volunteers help keep the rescuing and training going, and one of them wanted us to consider Heather for our animal hero award.
We received the nomination for Heather by a nominee who wishes to remain anonymous:
Heather Gutshall, her fiancé Mark Stoutzenberger and her family adopted Vicktory Dog Handsome Dan. When Handsome Dan came to their home, he was completely shut down from the horror of his previous life. They had the patience that allowed Handsome Dan to thrive and come out of his shell, and they allowed the world to watch his progress.
Because of this they started Handsome Dan’s Rescue for Pit Bull Type Dogs. From there they have been on a mission: they pull dogs that have the lowest chance of being adopted. They get them vet care if needed, find foster homes until they can be adopted and most of the time, they stay at their home until they can be evaluated. They have pulled two female pits that were very pregnant. Within a few days of being rescued they gave birth in a warm home instead of a cold shelter where they may have been put down. Momma Penny had 8 puppies and Ginny had 10 puppies.
They also came across a couple of dogs that had the worse case of demodex mange that they had ever seen. It was so bad their fur was gone, and they had to wear sweaters to protect their skin.
Heather is also head trainer of Outbound Hounds and has a program called Pit C.L.A.S.S. She is also a volunteer adoption coordinator for pit bulls for PAWS New England to make sure that the dogs that are saved will be placed in the right home for the family and the dog. They have fundraisers for the shelters to take kongs and treats to the dogs in the shelters along with other items to make sure that as long as they are there, they will be comfortable.
This family are angels on earth and they are showing their children this way of life to continue in their footsteps.
Here’s what each of our Animal Hero of the Month award winners receives:
- A feature article like this one
- Social media mentions across all of our platforms
- A permanent spot on the list of winners
- Our custom, engraved gold-tone paw print medal with ribbon
- $50 cash award
- $50 gift card to Pet Food Direct
The donation represents Pets Adviser’s ongoing commitment to give back to the animal welfare community.
About Heather’s Organization
Heather Gutshall, CPDT-KA, along with her fiance’ Mark Stoutzenberger, founded Handsome Dan Rescue for Pit Bull Type Dogs named after the dog they gave a second chance. Handsome Dan was fearful and shy at first, but their loving home environment has allowed him to relax and be himself, as well as be part of the welcoming committee to new dogs coming through the rescue.
The rescue focuses on dogs that might be considered unadoptable or have issues that need to be addressed. Some of these are medical issues while others are behavioral.
For those that are in a shelter situation, the rescue’s Shelter Dog Enrichment program pairs them up with an HDR Enrichment Specialist — someone to assess dogs, train them and reduce negative behaviors — through regular visits, play sessions and taking the dogs to training classes. The classes use positive reinforcement and strengthen the relationship between dogs and their people. A Pit C.L.A.S.S. (Canine Life And Social Skills program) is run on Saturdays by Outbound Hounds, a training and dog service company run by Heather and Mark.
The rescue also sees its fair share of dogs in horrible conditions: Dogs with mange so severe their fur is gone, pregnant dogs abandoned so thin that it’s a miracle they even survived to give birth and dogs riddled with gunshots found on the street such as Liam (pictured at right) are just a few examples of the many animals helped through the rescue.
As horrible as these conditions sound, it is through Heather, Mark, their family and a host of people that these nightmares are transformed into happy endings with dogs finally enjoying the loving homes they deserved in the first place.
Action doesn’t end with the dogs. The rescue also holds regular fundraisers and drives to help every shelter in Rhode Island. Their popular “Kong drive for shelter dogs” receives donations of Kong toys and peanut butter which the volunteers stuff and deliver to every homeless dog in a shelter in Rhode Island.
These activities and so much more take place while the rescue, training and Outbound Hounds work continues. This vital network of animal lovers doesn’t end with dogs; several of their volunteers, board members and foster parents also help out cats and other animals as much as possible.
Rhode Island’s residents and animals are blessed to have such a great network of rescuers and advocates in their state, and we’re honored to be able to highlight the hard work and dedication by naming Heather Gutshall our Animal Hero of the Month for July.
Q&A With Heather Gutshall
1. Heather, what got you started helping animals?
The need. At various points either Mark or I has felt that we needed to take a break, but then there is just one more dog that we can’t let die alone in a shelter, maybe never feeling loved or that he or she mattered.
At times, fostering has taken a toll on our finances, our house, and our patience — especially the dogs we seek out, which are frequently those rescued from abuse or neglect, those who were never properly trained, and those who for various reasons need a lot more time and patience than your average dog. But it’s the enormous need that keeps us going. The realization that we are literally saving lives, one by one, sweet and valuable lives that would have been extinguished without us.
2. What’s your earliest childhood memory that is animal-related?
One of my earliest dog-related memories that relates to me being a dog trainer is visiting a neighbor’s home when I was about 5 years old. They had recently acquired a beautiful young-ish GSD and let her out to greet some of the neighborhood kids.
I was not at all afraid of dogs, but for some strange reason as soon as I saw this dog come bounding out of the house I became frightened and ran from her… and just kept running. As dogs do, she ran after me into neighboring yard, following me as I ran around bushes and trees. The owner was assuring me that she would not hurt me, and that I needed to stop running in order for her to stop chasing me. I had lots of experience with dogs at this age, large and small, but for some reason this dog, on this day, frightened me.
The man finally tackled the dog, and after a few minutes I was over with the other kids petting her and giving her treats. I use this story to remind clients when training a solid recall with their dogs that if we excitedly run from a dog, the dog will most likely chase us, and if we stop and stand still, they will most likely stop chasing us, so run and clap and get the dog to chase, when they get to you mark, reward and repeat.
3. How old were you when you got your first animal?
My parents purchased a Cocker Spaniel puppy from a breeder a few months before I was born. Piper was a wonderful friend throughout my childhood.
4. What is your favorite animal?
Dogs. I am partial to dogs with big blocky heads and stalky bodies. I am drawn to seniors, or dogs with fear issues. I would take a one-eyed, senior pit bull type with fear issues over a fuzzy wiggly puppy any day. Speaking as someone who currently has a litter of five-week-old foster puppies living in her laundry room, puppies are over rated.
5. Tell us about the one animal you will never forget.
Lady. Lady is the dog who started it all for me. I was a foster mom with a rescue group when asked if I could take Lady, a senior, incontinent pit bull who had been pulled from Providence Animal Control a few weeks prior. Sure, why not? Not many of the foster homes at that time were open to pit bulls. Mark and I had no problem with it, so into our lives walked Lady, and everything changed. She won us over to a group of breeds we had previously given little thought.
Had I known then what I do now, Lady would have never left my home. But we found her the best home in the world, with Dracut, MA ACO Virginia Courtenay  who has kept Lady (now named Abby) 13-years-old for many years. Lady’s health is failing so recently Virginia brought Lady back to me to say good bye. I am so grateful for that amazing gift.
6. What are the least and highest amounts of pets you have had at one time?
None at one time, and currently we have 12. Our own Handsome Dan and Ocean, our foster dog Ginny and her litter of nine puppies. Never again will we foster a pregnant dog and her subsequent puppies. But then, I said that last time too. We usually have a few boarding or board-and-train clients as our guests as well.
7. If your pets could talk, what would they say?
I don’t know, you would have to ask them. Hopefully Handsome Dan would tell me what more I could do to help him conquer his fears.
8. If you could solve one problem facing animals, what would it be?
Two problems. BDL and over-population.
9. If you could be reincarnated as any animal, which would you choose and why?
I would definitely not choose a shelter pit bull as currently, only 1 in ever 500 finds a home and family.
10. If the rainbow bridge exists, which pet would you most like to see waiting for you on the other side?
Handsome Dan, thought he is still with us here on Earth, he is, unfortunately, mortal. Dan is my “one”. I am terrified of him leaving me, though I know it is inevitable. Mark reminds has been pushing me to find a therapist now, so that when that awful day comes I have a relationship in place.
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Photos are copyrighted and used with permission from Heather Gutshall.