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Where dogs with disabilities are given a leg up on life
Kirk Rees is the co-founder and chief dog handler at his Love Handlers Ranch in Greeneville. The facility is a non-profit, no kill rescue center and a refuge for dogs with disabilities.
It’s nestled on a hill so far back in the woods, you may wonder if you’re in the right place. But the cacophony of joyful barking that greets you when you arrive will quickly reassure you that you are.
Rees moved to Greeneville from Palm Springs, Calif., to build the facility after he retired from his job as an airline attendant. He chose his 60 acres in the blue-misted valleys of Greene County because he spent time over the years hiking in the Smoky Mountains, during which time he became attached to the region.
All the dogs who reside at Love Handlers appear gleefully happy, and Rees seems preternaturally drawn to working with them. But his rescue operation had a bittersweet beginning.
“It really started with Apples, her full name was Appalachia Bloom,” Rees said. His beloved dog, Apples, developed glaucoma and went blind very quickly in the dry desert air of California. And Rees threw himself into helping her adapt to sightless living.
“I wanted her to have the same quality of life that she had with sight,” he explained. “So we went swimming, we went hiking, we did everything. And people could not believe the dog was blind.”
Rees’ fact-finding frenzy for Apples also opened his eyes to the unhappy fate of thousands of other dogs, destinies he quickly became determined to change. “It was (through) my research in helping her that I realized how horrifying it was; how many animals were being put down because they went blind, or because of the situation,” he said. “Nationally there’s over 14,000 cats and dogs a day, but dogs mainly, that are being killed. That’s over 4 million a year.”
Rees set a massive goal to take death out of the equation for as many dogs as he could at his new ranch. Sadly, Apples died of cancer nine days after Love Handlers opened in the fall of 2007.
Though she did not get to see the full benefits of the ranch, the whole operation is clearly Apples’ legacy.
The doggie dude ranch currently houses 52 dogs, almost all of whom are up for adoption. “I think our top (dog count) was 66, and we’ve had about 68 adoptions,” Rees said.
Rees with Trinket, who was dipped in flea medicine for a larger dog. Trinket has fully recovered from the poisoning.
Dogs arrive with a vast array of health problems, and some are perfectly healthy but were simply abandoned, or have no real background story. They all undergo an intensive screening and evaluation process conducted by Rees to determine whether they’ll fit in the LoveHandlers program.
Then Rees and his volunteers create individualized rehabilitation plans to restore each canine to its highest possible quality of life.
Rees has no formal training in evaluating or rehabilitating dogs. But as a lifelong dog owner and canine lover, he has learned what to do, and in many instances he just simply knows. He is uniquely and powerfully tuned in to canine communication.
“I’ll work with them, and it sounds a little crazy, but it’s almost like I can hear them, and they’ll just tell me what they want,” he explained. “It’s in their body language, the look on their face, the way they respond.”
All the dogs roam and lounge freely around their various corral spaces, except during meals and at bedtime, when they’re locked down for safety, and for periodic observation by Rees.
“In a lot of rescue facilities they get locked down at all times,” he said. “I like to work outside the paradigm, and rescue should be immediate; when they come here they start living life.”
Every dog who comes to LoveHandlers receives inoculations, and each one is spayed or neutered. “Everything that comes in is spayed or neutered within 5 days if they are in good health,” said Rees.
“All the dogs are fed a high quality kibble without fillers like corn, or any added chemicals. “Eating corn gives them organ problems, it gives them skin conditions, hot spots that open up, yeast infections, ear infections — chronic infections, and hair loss,” Rees explained.
The dogs are housed by size, and to some degree by temperament. Rees had a timeout zone built — that looks like an old west jail — so dogs who aren’t managing well can take a break from the pack.
Most of the dogs bunk down in a 1,700-square-foot barn. And ranch headquarters houses a laundry room, grooming area and several spaces that are used for quarantined recovery from contagious illnesses like heartworms, or other serious health issues.
Some dogs that come to Rees have been physically abused, while others may have been hit by a car. Still others are struggling to recover from well meaning, but poorly planned, care such as too much flea dip on too small of a pooch. “When you put Frontline or Advantage for a 20-pound animal on a little 2-pound dog, you are covering them with poison, with pesticide,” he explained.
Rees is also housing a dog with Lupus, and his ranch is a temporary home for deaf and blind tail-waggers. But they all seem to find a way to thrive with Rees’ solicitous support.
Some days, just scooping poop in the barnyard is interrupted by a miraculous surprise.
“When Angie came to us they said she would never walk again. I am told that she was hit by a car, and became paraplegic with spinal injuries,” Rees said. “We put her in a wheelchair, and I noticed that one leg had some push back, so I started working with her.
“One day, I looked around and I just dropped everything. She stood up just like a newborn calf. All of a sudden she walked to the first fence post and fell over.”
Angie slowly worked her way out of the wheelchair, using it as walker. Now she has a slight limp, but she barrels along with the rest of the
Little John (John-Boy) has an empty eye socket that has been stitched closed.
pack, loping contentedly everywhere Rees goes.
Then there is Ziggy, a compact and energetic part Jack Russell terrier, who is deaf. Rees communicates effectively with Ziggy using sign language, to which Ziggy has adapted completely. “He is the ranch foreman,” Rees said. “He goes everywhere with me, and he is my special buddy.”
Rees explained that in general, just being consistent with the tools and therapeutic measures he uses for each dog seems to be part of what promotes each animal’s success. He is also extremely selective when it comes to choosing a prospective owner for each animal. “Our adoption fees are $255,” he said. “You weed out a lot of people at that price. If you do the $10-80 thing, these animals could be going back where I just got these animals out.
“If somebody is going to spend a hard-earned $255 plus a $145 transportation fee, and they send me that application, then the chances are this animal is going to a good home, and not going to end up in a kill shelter.”
Rees uses his website to advertise dogs for adoption, and he scrutinizes every potential owner by carefully looking over each application, and by having a targeted conversation with him or her over the phone.
“I want to hear the person, I want to talk with the person, and listen between the lines,” he explained. “Really, I’ve only turned down less than a handful of people.”
In order to make a match that will last a dog’s lifetime, Rees also tells interested parties the absolute truth about an animal’s personality before the adoption process proceeds.
“I don’t cover anything up. If they are yappy, I’m going to tell you that they are a yappy dog,” he said. “I don’t want you to get a Love Handlers dog that you are going to be disappointed in. I don’t want a dog to fail, and I certainly don’t want people to feel like they have failed.”
For more information about LoveHandlers, visit or call (423) 329-0554.
— Elizabeth Cloyd