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The Kentucky Humane Society’s new Sam Swope Pet Retreat doesn’t look like an animal shelter, or even a fancy veterinary hospital. It looks more like a model home, with a living room, a dining room table, an office, and some cozy chairs by a fireplace.

Dog pillows and toys are here and there in the space, and a beagle puppy named Butterbean snoozes in a large crate next to the desk. Sandie, a senior terrier mix, rests in a bed in the next room.

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

This is a place for dogs who can’t yet safely be adopted out because they have behavioral problems. KHS behavior manager Kat Rooks says the space is set up to mimic what a dog would encounter in a home.

“Many of them have lived outside for their entire life, so part of our work is to get them acclimated to a home,” Rooks says. “We want them to understand about getting on and off of furniture on command, to learn what a vacuum is, what a blender is, so that when they go into a home they don’t have a complete meltdown in fear and terror when those things start showing up.”

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Crate Training for Butterbean

Besides getting some rest, Butterbean is also learning how to be calm and relaxed in his crate while people come into and out of the room.

A door just past the dining room area leads to a more traditional-looking shelter setup. A couple of large indoor playrooms lead outside to a play yard. The facility has 20 kennel spaces, each with its own private outdoor yard.

“Our job is to identify the dog’s triggers for stress and anxiety, and change their emotional response in those settings,” Rooks says. The kennel windows are all set high off the ground so the dogs inside can’t catch a glimpse of other dogs, which can sometimes cause stress and aggression.

Listed outside each kennel is information about its occupant, with records of when they last ate and went outside, as well as notes on behavioral challenges. Notes like, “Watch for stiffness around strangers,” and “Can finally sit on command! (When it is convenient for her).” Some dogs are identified as survivors of abuse or trauma.

Laura Ellis | wfpl.org

Minnie’s kennel notes

The stakes are high for the dogs behind these doors. Every dog in this facility is considered unadoptable — for now. They might stay in rehab for a few weeks to learn basic self-control techniques. Or in more difficult cases, like a dog who can’t tolerate human contact at all, it could take a couple of months for them to slowly learn to trust people.

But it’s not just the 20 scrappy dogs here that benefit from the opening of the new shelter. “By having them out here, we’re keeping our space at our main campus available for dogs that are ready to go up for adoption,” Rooks says. “That space is available for them to move through quickly and help maximize the number of dogs that we can save over the course of the year.”

The facility is named for late Louisville auto dealer Sam Swope, whose $1 million donation to KHS was used, in part, to purchase and renovate the new pet retreat. His daughter, Patti Swope, says the donation is in keeping with their family’s philosophy on giving back.

“We believe in dedicating our resources to making our community a better place to live,” she says.

And animal-related philanthropy was a natural fit.

“We’ve always been a family of dog and cat lovers,” says Swope. “We grew up with them, we all love them so much. So we wanted to be the voice for homeless pets.”

Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects.