When Carla Phillips first invited me to visit her home, I was a little apprehensive. Her house is a home where dogs go to spend their final days. Phillips provides hospice care to rescue dogs who have not found homes of their own.
I was afraid the house would be chaotic. I was afraid that the needs of the dogs would be overwhelming . And frankly, I was afraid it would be just too sad for me to handle. My first sign that things might not be as dire as I feared was a whimsical sign that marks Phillips' driveway.
What I didn't expect was to be mobbed at the door by excited, happy, social dogs. I didn't expect to be charmed, again and again, by dogs many would consider cast-offs.
Dogs like Matthew, a huge, red mixed breed who was found as a stray in a major city. Matthew has hip dysplasia so severe that his whole hind end trembles as he stands. His excellent social skills are testament to the fact that he was obviously loved at some point in his life. He leaned solidly into my legs for affection, as he held my arm gently in his mouth.
Dogs like Sugar, a small black puppy whose spine is twisted and whose back legs hang uselessly, ravaged by the effects of distemper. Even when at rest, his diaphragm and legs jerk to rhythmic muscle contractions. But his demeanor is pure happy puppy, thrilled with any sign of love or affection.
Or Sugar's best buddy, the senior Pug, Froggy. Froggy is a previous puppy mill stud, who spent his first few months at Carla's biting anyone or anything who came near. He and Sugar have an amazing and unexpected connection.
Dogs like Wilson, whose mother had distemper when she was pregnant. Wilson was born missing part of his brain. He is unable to stand, sit or walk on his own, but has no issue at all wheeling around in his cart, running over anyone who gets in his way.
There are nine hospice dogs at Phillips' home, each and every one an individual happily demanding his share of attention. Deaf dogs, blind dogs, dogs with incontinence. They are an incredibly social and outgoing bunch.
There is no sense of sadness in this house. There is no feel of a hospital setting. This is a home, plain and simple. A home which has been set up with the dog's well-being in mind. The flooring is an easily cleanable laminate. There are pillows, dog beds, and blankets spread everywhere. There are multiple water stations. The door opens onto a ramp, so that each dog can make his or her way outside unassisted. The backyard is set up to allow the dogs the greatest possible freedom. As blankets festoon the clothes line, billowing in the breeze, insuring the dogs have the comfort of clean bedding at all times.
The dogs who are mobile are allowed to sleep wherever they like, including on the bed with Phillips. Sugar and Wilson, who have such severe mobility issues, have matching playpens where they spend the night in cushioned comfort.
Carla Phillip began her working life as a human nurse. But frustration with some of the things she saw led her to her ultimate career: an attorney. For years she practiced law while she raised her family and planned her retirement. In 1992, she visited an animal sanctuary, which changed her life. She knew exactly what she wanted to do when she retired: make a difference for the dogs no one else wanted.
In 2006, Phillips moved to Utah and began her labor of love. In the past ten years, she has provided a loving home for 47 dogs who needed a safe and secure place to live out their final days. Each dog had the best of everything, including medical care. And when the end came, each was laid to rest with honor and dignity; their site adorned by a bronze plaque commemorating a life that mattered.
I asked Phillips what she looked for when she was deciding on a dog to add to the mix. She told me that she likes to keep her number close to eight and her only requirement is that the dog be able to interact safely with the others. As she pointed out, the dogs in her care are prey. Many of them have absolutely no way to get away from an attack. It's critical that any dog joining the home be able to get along well with others.
I think the thing that most explains Phillips' sense of commitment and mission is her reply when I asked if I could do a story on her and her family. She told me that she would be thrilled...because it might convince others to do the same thing: offer hospice care to special needs dogs. I hate to break it to her, but I think she's a pretty special woman, unique in her approach to rescue. And I know that there are 58 dogs who would agree and who are thankful this is how she decided to spend her retirement.