Making A Difference For Senior Dogs
By Si Si Penaloza
Brandon Lee and Alexander Stevenson are on a mission to make a difference. As co-founders of Haven Rescue & Pet Services, the passionate animal advocates make gourmet pet treats with a feel-good mandate: to provide senior dogs with a better chance at forever homes. The distinctive treats have steadily gained a loyal audience with discerning pet parents. With a vital cause and a focus on fresh, quality ingredients, the pair is focused on expanding premium offerings in the pet care space. Get Leashed gets up close and personal with the co-founders as they open up about the profound life experiences that led to the launch of the company.
Tell us about how your love affair with dogs began:
Alex: My love affair with dogs began when my sister brought home our first family dog. His name was Rocky, a big name for a little pup. Rocky was a 5 pound Teacup Poodle. Rocky was everything you could ask for in a dog. He was loving, affectionate, well trained with a huge personality. He was my best friend growing up. Rocky was the first dog I fell in love with, but I knew he wouldn’t be the last.
Brandon: I’d say from when I was a kid. I grew up in South Africa, which is very pet-friendly and I was always surrounded by dogs.
What are your obsessions, breed wise? When moonlight inter-breed mojo and magic happens, what makes for your favorite cross?
Alex: This is such a tough question to answer. I love all types of breeds from Yorkies and Bichons, to Pitbulls and Boxers. The dog I have always been obsessed with is the Husky. My life will not be complete until I have loved and cared for a Husky. One of the most beautiful breed combinations I have ever seen is a Husky and Shepherd mix.
Brandon: I don’t think I could choose just one… I really just love dogs in general.
Can you share the genesis story on what led to your latest passion project, Haven Rescue & Pet Services?
Brandon: I’d been living in Toronto for a number of years as a wedding planner and blogger, and sadly in the time I was here, I lost a lot of family members and friends. Most of them I couldn’t get to say goodbye to because of the distance. My mother died when I was very young, two days after my brother was hit by a truck (he survived). I was raised by my grandmother who died in a tragic accident in 2009 at 68 years old, followed by my only aunt to cancer two years or so after. Needless to say, I was carrying around this weight inside. Then my younger sister died of cancer two years ago. I had a bit of a breakdown and attempted suicide. I survived. I then realized that this life is not meant to be lived the way I was living it. I came back from my sister’s funeral and literally gave away everything I owned. I quit what I was doing and stayed on a mattress in a friend’s spare room with my dogs, doing some serious soul searching. My love of animals and the need to save them just outweighed everything else and it just felt right.
Alex: Haven Rescue was originally Brandon’s concept. Brandon and I met at a time in my life when I was re-evaluating my career choices. I have always wanted to work with animals, but always believed that in order to work with animals you had to be a veterinarian. It was through much conversation and research that I realized there were many different avenues in which one could work with animals. This is when I made the decision to join Haven Rescue as its co-founder. I started taking courses in Dog Training and a Canine Massage Therapy Course at the Royal Canadian College of Massage. I know that working with dogs is what I am meant to do.
Haven Homemade Pupcakes cupcakes
Thank you for opening up with such meaningful responses. Get Leashed recently published a thought piece pondering whether, in this progressive day in age, we should consider ourselves as pet owners or pet parents. What are your thoughts?
Brandon: As much as I love my dogs, call them my children, and have no issues with the expression “pet parent”, I think there is a fine line in the treatment. Pets are still animals, and this needs to be remembered. I think a lot of people tend to push too many human ideals onto their animals.
Alex: I personally believe that we should consider ourselves pet parents. I say this because a domesticated dog, like any child, relies on us for its very survival. They depend on us to feed them, provide water, ensure they exercise and above all are being loved. Like any parent of a child, we form lasting relationships with our dogs, and when we are apart we miss them. If you can check any of the above mentioned boxes, you are a “pet parent”.
Older dogs that are given away or abandoned at a shelter by individuals or families in favor of getting a younger “model” evoke much ire on social media. How can we educate potential adopters about the importance of establishing a “forever home”?
Brandon: Sadly the truth of the matter is, some people just want a puppy. You can’t blame them; let’s face it, we all love puppies. But there are those that do go to shelters to adopt an older dog; we need to focus more on supporting these pet lovers. That is why we are starting Haven. We want to focus on giving senior dogs a forever home for the last few years of their life. So technically, all dogs go to Haven before they go to Heaven. We shouldn’t spite people who are only wanting a puppy, that should be directed to the person who gave up their older dog to get another puppy. Those are the people that irk me. They should not be allowed to adopt a bag of Cheetos!
Alex: The best way to educate potential adopters is through open and lengthy discussion. If potential adopters are provided with as much information about various pros and cons of adopting a younger dog versus and older one, it would better prepare the adopter as well as ween out adopters that may return an older dog. It is heartbreaking when an older dog has to be re-homed multiple times. If we start by ensuring the potential adopter has all the requirements to adopt an older dog, it reduces the likelihood of a senior dog being returned or surrendered.
Bringing home a puppy can amount to a 10 to 16 year commitment. Some first timers really don’t get that. Do you feel shelters do enough to get prospective adopters to consider older animals?
Brandon: Most shelters I’ve dealt with are very fastidious in providing information and screening potential “pet parents”. I don’t think they need to necessarily push people to adopt older dogs. Honestly, a lot of people aren’t cut out to take an older or sick dog, become attached and then have to say goodbye when the dog moves on. Those that are, give their lives to this cause.
Alex: I don’t know how much effort each individual shelter puts into ensuring their senior dogs have an equal opportunity to be adopted. Part of our goal at Haven Rescue will be to work in closer proximity with Ontario shelters to ensure equal opportunity for senior dogs and prospective adopters. This may be through educational programs, or through offering to help with their adoption and screening techniques.
If you were to come up with a catch phrase or hashtag campaign extolling the virtues of rescuing an older dog, what would it be?
Brandon: #SaintsForSeniors. When an old timer gets saved, you are a saint to them. “Forever a Puppy”; I mean come on, have you seen how playful an old dog is when it finally gets a loving home?
Alex: #stillgotit, #seniors4humans, #puppyatheart, “Anything puppies can do, we can do better”, “There is no love like a senior dog’s love”
What have you learned in developing your company’s animal reiki programming and protocols?
Brandon: Let’s just say pets aren’t as easy to lay on a massage table! For me as the practitioner, it’s the feeling of connecting with an animal on a universal level. As I transition from practicing reiki on animals, instead of solely on humans… I’m learning more about adaptive modalities before bringing it to the public.
What are some of the doggy pop culture moments or start up brands that inspired your canine culinary treats?
Brandon: None come immediately to mind. I had been collecting recipes for so long and reading about nutrition. Seeing the lack of nutrients in most treats, I thought that there would be a market for it, and I could use treat sales as a revenue source to fund the rescue.
Alex: I was working for a canine boutique in downtown Toronto that sold a variety of baked goods for dogs. After doing much research, I realized how many treats contained ingredients and preservatives that were less than desirable for our dog’s health. I took this information to Brandon, who had been doing his own research on pet nutrition for many years. With our combined knowledge, we created our own recipes. This was where my inspiration truly derived from.
Tell us about some of more unusual or unique ingredients in your treat lineup.
Brandon: I would definitely say the chlorophyll in our Breath Bites treats. Chlorophyll is the reason dogs eat grass, but they can’t digest grass in order to get it. Chlorophyll is almost the same as hemoglobin, except for one molecule, which essentially strengthens your dog’s blood. It helps cleanse the cells, fight infection and detoxify. The best part? Eliminating doggie bad breath!
What is the number one most popular treat in your current offerings and why do you think it’s such a hit?
Brandon: I’d say our Pupcakes cupcakes because they look so good and are made fresh. Oh and of course the Old Faithful, hence the name, which is peanut butter based and dipped in carob.
What vitamins and minerals should we be sure our pets are getting enough of?
Brandon: Honestly, all of them. A dog needs a balanced and healthy diet that can sometimes be more complex than ours. That’s why we put the best in our treats. We are also exploring launching a little web show to teach people about pet nutrition, and the little things they can do at home to add these elements into their dog’s everyday diet.
What is hardest to master in making the perfect pet treat – texture, aroma, flavor or shelf life?
Brandon: Appearance! While dogs may love the flavor, it’s owners who buy it. So we need to appeal to that sensibility. Secondly, I’d say shelf life… while our treats last weeks due to extra steps we take, fresh produce will never last as long as those with preservatives.
If you are obsessed with keeping your dog’s coat silky and shiny, what treat should we stock up on?
Brandon: Coconut Oil. I put it in all my treats.
Thanks for the candid tips! It’s great that you are now catering to cats. Are cats harder to please than dogs in your taste testing experience?
Brandon: As a dog person, I think cats are just fussier by nature. But we seem to have found the perfect treat combination for them. It was hard, that’s why we only have two cat treats at present.