A labor of love. The rescue dog, Darwin, who inspired a career 180
By The Get Leashed Doggy Style Team
Unconditional love: it’s how our pets enrich our lives and become our family. For many abandoned dogs the dream of a forever home does not become a reality. For Marion and Michael, their busy careers in healthcare and finance did not deter them from taking on the labor of love of rescuing Darwin (who hammed it up for the camera like a pro!). Powerful breeds like the German Shepherd crave discipline, so there are no ‘off days’ for Mike to stop practicing the commands and training that helped rehabilitate Darwin and make him the dog he is today. “He was not the easiest dog for our lifestyle” recalled Marion, “but when we met him, we knew we couldn’t leave him.” With Mike’s past experience in training other rescues and large breeds, they were well-equipped to give Darwin exactly what he needed.
So, was their choice worth it? Read on as we hear about how Darwin inspired Mike’s career 180, from a 15-year stint in finance, to founding a new Urban Daycare and Rural Boarding Service for dogs.
Their unique story warmed our hearts, and is a true example of the value of never giving up on the ones we love.
Please tell us about yourselves, your profession, and what a typical work day is like:
Marion: I work in private healthcare as a Manual Therapist with a primary focus in women’s health, pediatrics and rehab. There is no typical work day for me; every day is different, which certainly keeps things interesting.
Michael: My story has actually changed quite a bit over the last year and the change was largely catalyzed by Darwin, our GSD (German Shepard Dog). After a 15-year career in the financial industry I decided to retire my career path in pursuit of my dream to work with animals. Over the past couple of years we’ve interacted with a large number of pet service providers in the GTA. We’re very lucky that Toronto is such a pet-friendly city and there are some excellent service providers operating here. I always felt that something was missing though, that there were some gaps in the services offered that, if corrected, would have made Darwin’s experiences, and our experiences, more positive and beneficial. Rather than talking about it, I’m now following my dream and I am very happy to say that our first Urban Daycare and our first Rural Boarding Facility will be opening this fall.
Please tell us a bit about your dog. How did Darwin come into your life?
Darwin is our beautiful GSD. He is around 7 or 8 years old (we can’t say for sure), and we rescued him in Barrie, ON just over 2 ½ years ago. We had been itching to rescue a new dog for some time and decided to start our search on a cold and calm November morning.
We saw Darwin on the OSPCA’s website and 24 hours later we leashed him up to go for a walk and begin some temperament testing. Darwin had been at the shelter for so long that he had been permanently moved to a Dog Daycare in the area where the inspiring and generous owners cared for the extra dogs that the shelter couldn’t house for capacity reasons. Darwin had been living there, watching other dogs go home at night, for roughly 9 months. I can’t begin to imagine what that must have been like for him, always wondering why he had to stay behind while the others left with their owners.
When we first saw him, he was under-weight by about 30lbs, with scruffy fur and gentle but distant eyes. He came out from the back, greeted us with a very quick nose touch and then curled up on the floor to rest. We were told he was 9 ½ at the time (was that ever wrong!), which was perfect since we had planned to adopt an old dog in an effort to give him an amazing end-of-life story since the old guys are so often overlooked. “Lots of people have come to meet him but no one has taken him home. Probably because he’s not very affectionate and doesn’t like to be touched,” is what they told us when we inquired about his history. That last line quickly became our most rewarding memory from the rescue process; this is easily, and by far, the most affectionate dog we have ever been so lucky to have.
A quick 90 days later and we had a healthy 95lb GSD, with a beautiful thick new coat of shiny fur, intelligent and friendly eyes and a bright warm smile that seemed to say ‘thank you’ every time we said hello.
The 90 days leading up to this healthy new dog were quite a different story. With his new owners came a very fierce case of separation anxiety and leash aggression. It was as though he was afraid if another dog came too close we would trade him off for them, and while in the house he would constantly follow me around, minute by minute, day by day.
We began a relentless training regime to break the anxiety and dependency issues. Our first real moment of relief came after about two months when Darwin picked himself up one night and slowly trotted off to bed in our bedroom while we remained in the other room. This was an incredibly humbling and rewarding experience.; this was the first time that Darwin exhibited behaviour that showed he trusted we wouldn’t abandon him.
Darwin’s mental health was progressing nicely, but we still had to address the physical signs of discomfort and neglect we were seeing. With Marion being in healthcare and focusing primarily on rehab, Darwin was particularly fortunate. His back legs were in rough shape and the joints and muscles were extremely impaired and poorly cared for when he arrived home for the first time. Marion quickly set-in with a regular course of massage therapy to heal the muscles and improve mobility in his joints. As a result of her ongoing treatment Darwin is now jumping and running with dogs half his age without any limping or stumbling. It was amazing to see this poor, pathetic pup come back to life in such a short amount of time. Rescuing can be effortless when you focus on the rewards.
It’s probably getting easier to see where our inspiration to launch Buddy’s Friends Forever (BFF for short) was coming from, yes?
How would you describe your personal style?
Marion: I would describe my style as feminine and classic. I don’t wear a lot of color. I wear a lot of neutrals (mostly white and greys) and then use accessory pieces to add pops of color. Working in healthcare I am limited with what I can wear day to day–usually sneakers and casualwear–so when I’m not working I like to dress up. My style is varied but I always go with what makes me feel great.
Michael: I’ve never really thought to define my personal style before. Maybe eclectic, contemporary fashion but with a punk flair? Urban Edgy? I like that, let’s go with Urban Edgy. Much of my style choices are rooted in my love for classic punk bands and grunge music but most important to me is the cut and feel of the clothing when I put it on. If I don’t put it on and LOVE IT, then I don’t buy it. Marion loves to joke that I change three times a day and that I’m definitely the shopper in the family. I think my love of urban-edgy style really comes through in my pursuit of unique accessories like interesting shoes or custom jewelry. One of my favorite jewelers in the city is Erin Tracy, she does some really cool stuff, and she even made my wedding ring. A little secret about my ring: it has a Maya Angelou poem inscription on the inside, written in Elfish. So now you know I’m also a huge Sci-Fi and Fantasy nerd.
How would you describe the look and feel of your home?
We worked really hard (if you can call it work when you love it), to create a home that felt classically-elegant with an urban edge to really reflect both of our personal tastes. We love to entertain and creating a home that was inviting and comfortable to friends and family was the heart of our decision-making process. Our home needs three things to be a home for us: dogs, friends and family. With these three things we could live anywhere and always be happy to be home.
What does your ideal weekend look like?
Coffee and dog adventures always start the day. We like to drive to different neighborhoods and go for long walks so that Darwin gets exposure to new scents and sites throughout the city. We could be down at the waterfront in Mimico, strolling the beautiful streets of Rosedale or lazily poking around Christie Pitts. As long as it’s different, it’s good for Darwin and good for us. This desire to keep him stimulated was the motivation behind our Urban Daycare model. Our shuttles actually take dogs to new and interesting locations every day. It’s unnatural for a dog to go to the same place every day so we worked hard to create a new solution for Toronto pet owners that avoided this common trend.
Now at BFF you can give your dogs this amazing new opportunity at a great low price, and all thanks to Darwin. We’re living proof that this dedication to new stimulating environments can turn even the most challenging situation into a calm and loving relationship. It just takes a little education, and a lot of love and commitment.
What inspires you?
We’re the kind of couple that takes a lot of joy in sharing in the good fortune of our friends and family and quite often our inspiration comes from the pride we feel from having such incredible friends. And then of course, the biggest and most impactful inspiration is Darwin! He certainly gets the credit for the big decisions we make since he’s the true catalyst for all the major changes in our life.
Darwin needed a backyard and a calmer neighborhood, so we moved from Queen St to Wychwood. Darwin needed to run more often and had challenges with other dogs while on leash; so we’re building a state-of-the-art boarding facility in Northumberland to let him run and socialize off-leash. Darwin came from a life of neglect and abandonment, so we’re opening the BFF Rescue centre to help ease the strain on crowded shelters and to help some of the other dogs with similar stories to Darwin.
We’re evening starting a vulnerable youth program to provide care and support for street youth with dogs, since unknown to most, these dogs are often closer and better loved by these kids than many of the dogs that we might ‘perceive’ to be in great homes. At some point, very soon, you will even see our mobile vet program doing check-ups on these dogs in the neighborhood.
We see BFF as a win-win-win for Darwin, our valued clients and our community. And I suppose that’s the ultimate guarantee from us, that we’ll work relentlessly to be the best for our clients and at the same time we won’t be using your money to buy ourselves fancy new red Ferraris (no offence to those who own fancy red Ferraris of course!), but instead we’ll be investing back into our communities to benefit all dogs, regardless of where they come from.
Finally, can you leave us with a funny story about Darwin?
He’s a ridiculous dog and has a great sense of humor so we could probably leave you with about 40 or 50 funny stories if there was time.
Here’s a quick one for you. Darwin is, to our knowledge, the world’s first Indoor Dog. Maybe because of his abandonment fears, or maybe because it’s believed he had never been allowed inside a home before, but for whatever reason, when Darwin got his first taste of that sweet, sweet in-door life, there was no turning back. He refused to go in the backyard alone and even to this day will run outside, do his business as quickly as he possibly can, and then sprint back in. We can sit in the backyard for hours with the door open and other than popping out for a quick hello, Darwin will almost always choose to settle down in the kitchen and lazily watch the day go by through the window rather than face the great dangers awaiting in our lush flower gardens. On the plus side, if you ever need a heart breaking photo of a sad looking dog–think Sarah McLachlan singing Angel for the ASPCA circa 1998–just put Darwin in the backyard and close the door for about 2 to 3 seconds; then get ready for your closeup Mr. DeMille!
Mike & Marion’s new Urban Daycare and Rural Boarding Service:
Follow their Instagram account for an adorable BFF series: @bffplaycare