Some people were dining at a local establishment in Saranac Lake recently when, in the course of friendly conversation, they asked their waiter what else he does in life.
He told an interesting story of a no-kill dog shelter he and his fiancee started back in 2006, which he said has become somewhat of a passion in life for them, maybe even an extended family of sorts. The waiter was Jim McHugh, his fiancee is Lisa Coryea of Mountain View, and they operate a nonprofit, 501(c)3 dog shelter/kennel/home on their property called Precious Pups Animal Rescue.
They take in stray and unwanted dogs and find suitable, stable homes for them. Coryea is the dog enforcement officer for the towns of Bellmont and Duane, which are up near Malone, and she and McHugh are on a mission to improve the quality of life for the dogs in their area - a goal that, as it turns out, thanks to word of mouth and the Internet, has a wide reach.
Jim McHugh and Lisa Coryea, who are engaged to be married, pose on top of Mount Jo near Lake Placid.
McHugh said all of the strays are spayed or neutered upon acceptance, which cuts down on the number of unwanted dogs that roam the towns and have to be picked up by the dog control officer.
"We've always taken in dogs," McHugh said this week. Since 2005 they have taken in an average of 70 dogs per year. Many of those dogs would have been euthanized if McHugh and Coryea hadn't taken an interest in their well-being.
"We're saving their lives," McHugh said.
"Even when shelters are advertised as 'no-kill,' they are only no-kill as long as there is room for them to stay, so every dog we adopt saves two dogs' lives," Jim said, "since one dog doesn't get put down, and then there is room for one other dog in the shelter."
Not only do they save and find good homes for stray dogs in their own town, but they have a good working relationship with many other towns that sometimes rely on their services. One example is the Mohawk nations on both sides of the border between the U.S. and Canada, where in the past there has been a growing problem of stray and unwanted dogs roaming free in the streets.
"We met with the tribal chiefs and sub-chiefs from both sides of the border and worked out a system where dogs are spayed and neutered," McHugh said. "They are always willing to pay the cost of that."
In Saranac Lake, the dog control officer covers a wide territory, but here the Tri-Lakes Humane Society has a good no-kill shelter which really is a no-kill shelter. Jim gives the example of one dog who was with them for five years. There have been times when McHugh didn't have room at Precious Pups for more dogs and they have been transferred to the Tri-Lakes Humane Society shelter with what he calls excellent results.
That's not always the case in other towns, though. McHugh tells of one town where the animal control officer was supposed to run a no-kill shelter, but that turned out not to be the case, much to McHugh's obvious dismay.
Dog control and sheltering strays is definitely a seasonal business, according to McHugh. In winter, there don't seem to be as many strays roaming around as there are in summer and fall, so sometimes there is room at the shelter and sometimes there is not. When there is no room at one shelter, McHugh has developed a network of shelters that may be able to take them in.
There is Eleventh Hour, a dog shelter in Saratoga, Pit Bull Rescue in Albany and a list of others throughout the North Country and in Vermont he can rely on to take in strays, where they will be cleaned up, fed and hopefully adopted.
Each year, Curtis Lumber holds an event they call Pet-A-Palooza, at which hundreds of pets from area shelters and rescue groups are offered for adoption and people can meet the vets, groomers and trainers who take care of the animals.
To learn more about this and other aspects of McHugh and Coryea's dedication to "see that every dog has a comfortable, lifelong home," people can visit their website at www.thepreciouspups.com, search pictures of pets up for adoption and learn more about their mission. They can also be reached at 518-483-7528.
"Some people just drop them off for whatever reason, whether they can't take care of them anymore or they don't get along with the other pets in the house, or maybe they are runners that keep getting away," McHugh said. "When we adopt a dog, our main goal is always to find a good fit in a home where the dog will be well taken care of and is a good match between the dog and the person or family. We want to find them a 'forever' home."
After a dog is placed in a home, they keep track of where it goes and how it is doing. They always ask that the family give them "first right of refusal, so that if the adoption doesn't work out, they will call us first so we can take it back and let us try to find it another home," McHugh said.
Of course, as you might have guessed, people like this who love dogs would have pets of their own, and you might think they would have the cream of the crop with all of those choices that cross their threshold.
That's not the case, however.
"All of our pets are failed adoptions," McHugh said.
A half-dozen dogs now know McHugh and Coryea's home as their home as well. Sadie is a whippet walker hound mix, and she's a runner. They first adopted her to a home in Vermont, but after she ran away numerous times the people said they couldn't keep her, so she came back and was adopted to a family in Malone. That never worked out, either.
"We've never put a dog out for adoption three times, so now she's our own dog," McHugh said. Then there's Scruffy, a little terrier mix, that has what McHugh laughingly refers to as Napoleon issues, especially toward males, either dog or human.
"He considers himself the alpha dog of the pack," McHugh said. "But he's happy here. He's never shown any aggression. If they do, then it's not plausible to adopt them."
Myra is a little beagle they took from the North Bangor shelter, and she is just a little "tipsy" because of a brain stem injury. That made for a hard adoption, so she lives with them now, too.
Old Oliver is a black Labrador that spent 12 years of his life chained to a doghouse out behind a fence.
"We went to a home to pick up two dachshunds the people couldn't keep any more, and we saw him back there and asked if we could take him home, too. He was 11 at the time, and we just figured we'd give him another year or so in a comfortable home life," McHugh said.
He thrived under their care, and now he's 16.
Another is Charlie, a husky they found wandering in Deer Valley. He wound up in Malone at the North Country Animal Shelter. He was full of porcupine quills, which they promptly pulled out, and now he lives a happy life at their home.
As McHugh takes a break from unloading bags of dog food so we can talk, Charlie barks at the back door because he knows it's time to eat. He doesn't run away anymore.
Finally there's Molly, a hound mix that is very skittish. She doesn't go up to people, but she's still an eligible adoption if the right home came along, according to Jim.
"That's my pack," Jim chuckles. "They're an older pack all the way from tiny Scruffy, the alpha dog, to Sadie who doesn't bother anybody. They're all good companions, and they, along with us, make a stable pack."
Each night, the dogs take turns rotating into the house, where they sleep like royalty, spending the other nights in the "dog room." They are never caged.
As potential family dogs, the strays that come through Precious Pups are socialized, house trained and tested for aggression, especially food aggression. As McHugh puts it, "We get to see what kind of dog they are when they're in the house and they become part of a well-adjusted pack."
The dogs that are eligible for adoption to a family that may have little kids, other pets or other concerns will be ready to go when the time comes.
This situation is almost unique among animal shelters. Even the Tri-Lakes Humane Society, which McHugh praises and holds in high regards, treats the dogs with excellent care, but they are still kept in cages.
"A shelter is not like the life they have here," McHugh said. They have full run of the yard, there is a brook in the back where they can go and get a drink or sometimes swim on a hot day, and then we get to see if they run away.
"They don't usually run away from here, because they know when it's time to eat," McHugh said. "We try to give them a good quality of life while they're here. Some dogs don't like much commotion and others are very active, so we get to see that and set them up with the right people and the right situation. Some dogs are not for certain people."
One thing is for sure: By the time they leave Precious Pups, they're always good companions. They've adopted a lot of dogs to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and to all the way as far away as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and all over.
One dog was found with a broken jaw and would have died if not for McHugh and Coryea. They brought him to Cornell University, where they performed major surgery to the tune of about $4,000. He made a full recovery but was tragically hit by a car later, just when he got his life back. His name was Jax, and he's immortalized as the running husky you see on the Precious Pups' website.
It all started for both of them by donating time to shelters when he was at American Management Association and she was a schoolteacher. She loved to walk the dogs from the shelter as a passion. She started a program at her school that gave children the option of either serving detention or volunteering at the dog shelter. Of course, they mostly chose the shelter.
McHugh taught himself how to create and operate the website, which is linked to PetFinder. There are lots of stories of dogs who have found their way back home because of these efforts, many times in uncanny circumstances.
McHugh said he has worked at Nonna Fina for three years, and Coryea is a day care inspector for Franklin County.
Coryea grew up in Malone, and McHugh was raised in Plattsburgh on the Air Force base. McHugh lived in Long Beach, California, for 10 years and attended grad school during that time. He moved to Saranac Lake for a job at AMA and then spent four years in Cincinnati, Ohio under the employ of AMA.
Both of them always had dogs growing up, and now they estimate they have changed the lives of at least 11,000 dogs, each of which they have, in one way or another, saved, rescued, spayed, neutered, brought back to health, trained and basically loved since 2005.