A chance garage sale encounter led to a match made in heaven for musician Bobby Church and a golden retriever named Charlee.
It was all thanks to Donna Neals, founder of a new nonprofit pet matching service called Paw in Hand Match.
The premise is that the dogs stay with their current family until a new family is found, then they travel directly from door to door, bypassing shelters, rescues, foster homes, humane societies and animal control.
For a decade, dog rescuer Neals found homes for dogs whose owners could no longer care for them in her Goldenrod neighborhood. She created a matching system based on answers to questions about the pet's breed, temperament, medical history and family lifestyle.
“People were desperate — all the shelters were full and they had exhausted the resources of friends and family. I was doing it every week and saw there was a real need for this service,” Neals said.
Neals met Church who is confined to a wheelchair and was looking for a service dog. Within a month, Neals discovered a family that needed to surrender a 3-year-old golden retriever named Charlee. Two years later, Bobby and Charlee are still inseparable.
“From the beginning we've been a team,” Church said.
The duo travel everywhere — around their neighborhood, on Access Lynx, on the train and to music events.
“He's gentle, very friendly and he loves people. It's great to have a companion that cares about you and that you care about,” Church said.
Neals said this match changed Church's life. “Charlee lifted Bobby out of his depression with unconditional love. They are a unit. Charlee gave him a reason to get up every day. They were meant for each other.”
Dog behaviorist and trainer Paul Pipitone helped create the questionnaires of weighted questions about the dog and adoptive families.
“When dogs are in a shelter, they are frightened and stressed. It is impossible to tell their true temperament,” said Pipitone, who serves as operations manager for Paw in Hand Match.
Neals and Pipitone agree that adoptive parents should research the breed and be honest about their own lifestyle when looking for a pet.
“People often adopt a pet because it's cute, and they don't make good choices for their family, the pet or the breed,” said Neals. That's where the questionnaires and pet match programming come into play. Pipitone said that if more than one family matches with the pet, they will arrange phone interviews and site visits to complete the match.
The adoption fee will generally be lower than those charged by shelters, with no charge to register a surrendered pet on the Web site, which plans to go live in June.
Also there is the Needy Paws and Resident Dog programs, which are designed to find and train service and therapy dogs for people with disabilities and for eldercare facilities.
Paw in Hand Match will kick off its first launch and fundraising event Wednesday, May 12 at the Enzian Theater. “Dancing for Dogs” will include dancing, music, entertainment, raffles, gifts and discounts from pet-related vendors.
Neals will dedicate the new company to her late husband Walter Neals, who shared the dream of finding homes for animals, saving them from euthanasia, abandonment or the stress of overcrowded shelters.
“People leave dogs tied to signs, trees, in front of pet stores or inside the house where they are left to die. We want people to know they have an option that is in the best interest of the dog,” said Pipitone. Paw in Hand Match currently matches dogs but will eventually include cats.
There is a match that Neals says she will always remember.
“Charlee loves his toy squirrel, chasing birds and his nightly cookie dog treats. He sleeps on the bed with Bobby … Dogs can change your life.”