Local News

The healing touch

—When Suzanne Ruffini contemplates making breakfast for the family, it’s quite an undertaking, though only two or three of the place settings will require utensils.

The rest of the meals will be consumed by a variety of animals.

Official family pets include Carson, a great Pyrenees mix, and a bearded dragon. Of a more transient nature, are usually a few dogs, some outside cats, and maybe a possum or raccoon depending upon what Ruffini has come across in her travels.

Ruffini is a rescue rehabber, canine foster mom or a full-time canine therapist, depending on how you would like to characterize her lifestyle today.

Over the years, she estimates she has taken in and helped place nearly 400 dogs in permanent homes.

While many foster dogs can be quick turnarounds because they are healthy, young, or a popular breed, some have stayed longer.

She has loved each and every one of them, bringing them into her home and treating them with the highest levels of care and respect.

Her children have been right there by her side, helping with the rehabilitation process at home, volunteering at adoption events and assisting with animal rescue transports.

Ruffini’s daughter, Victoria, a sophomore at Sebring High School next year, has helped her mother since she was about 6 years old. “It was fun growing up surrounded by new dogs all the time,” she said.

Ruffini’s son Nick just started working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics with a minor in astronomy at the University of South Florida.

Ruffini took in her first rescue dog around 2004 after losing Barkley, her 12-year-old golden retriever.

“I missed having a dog and my heart wasn’t ready yet, but I just felt like something was missing. I decided to try fostering because it would be like grand kids – the dog could visit for a while, I’d feed and take care of it for a bit, but it wouldn’t be my dog,” she said.

Her best success story started with a feral dog she spotted while searching for Mandy, a previous rescue dog that had run away from her new owners.

Mandy had tested positive for heartworms and lived with Ruffini for about eight months while on medication.

“The bond between us was so strong, I knew it was my obligation to find her,” she said.

She spent her free time searching for Mandy, traveling at least seven times from her home in Naples to Jupiter Farms. Ruffini alerted rescue organizations, organized searches and even had a helicopter searching for Mandy at times. She even placed an all-points-bulletin alert online.

After spending another morning searching for Mandy on her 30th day missing, Ruffini was headed for home.

She and Nick spotted a pair of feral dogs that had avoided capture on previous rescue attempts, at an abandoned shack near Jupiter Farms.

With some rotisserie chicken from a local deli, they hoped to catch both of the puppies.

“We were able to get the male, and had once before, but the female was much more feral and wouldn’t come away from the building they lived under,” she remembered. After getting him secured, they resumed the journey home.

Just as they were getting to the highway, Ruffini’s phone rang.

It was a man who lived in Jupiter Farms.

“He said, ‘I think I’ve got your dog – the one in the flier.’ I replied that I had pretty much given up hope on finding Mandy and doubted that it could be her, but he insisted the dog looked exactly like the one in the picture. He told me that the dog was sitting off to the side watching his daughter in the pool. That was something Mandy always did, so I asked him to get the dog on a leash if possible.”

She headed back and met them, discovering it was Mandy.

“I had been in that same neighborhood just a few hours earlier with a megaphone calling for her; maybe she had heard me searching for her. I took her home with me and we found a new home for her in Naples, where she still lives with a retired couple,” she added.

Of course, also coming home that day was the feral puppy.

Victoria decided he should be named Benji because he looked so much like the famous movie dog of the same name.

The homecoming was rough.

“Every time we looked his way, he would release his entire bladder! I put him in the bathroom with Coda, my golden retriever. They became fast friends and everywhere that Coda went, Benji went, walking so close together that they were touching,” Ruffini said.

When he was ready, she put Benji on a website for adoption, with the information that he would need a gentle touch.

“I received quite a few inquiries because he was so cute, but I had to tell everyone that this wasn’t your average adoption dog,” she remembered.

After several weeks, a couple sent an inquiry on Benji.

“They had each lost their spouse to cancer and the loss had brought them together, with a wish to help other cancer patients.”

They came to meet Benji that summer; it just was an” instant match.”

In November, they called to say they were coming back through Naples for a visit and asked if they could stop by for a visit with Benji.

Benji hopped out of the car not wearing a leash and Ruffini panicked, saying, “I didn’t realize he had grown that confident and tame. In fact, by this point, Benji was already a certified therapy dog.”

In talking with his owners, Jill and Cary Gould, she learned that Benji was a regular visitor to Arden Court Alzheimer’s facility in Sarasota.

They shared stories about Benji and his therapy dog work.

Ruffini said: “Jill was telling me that while many of the residents had memory issues, they always called out ‘Look, Benji’s come to visit,’ as soon as they entered the facility.”

Cary Gould said: “Suzanne’s the best! We owe everything to her. She came to visit us, made sure Benji would have a good home and has been incredibly supportive. She’s very committed to animal rescue and successful placements.”

A few years later, Ruffini moved to Highlands County.

She started dating Brent and every time he would see her, she’d have a couple of dogs with her.

Ruffini laughs as she recalls: “I’d take them for walks in sets of four, and he’d usually see me with two sets. He asked me how many dogs I had, so I finally had to admit that I had a total of 15 dogs at the time.”

He looked at me and shook his head, and I said “How could I let her stay on the street? There’s a reason why they find me.”

Six years after rescuing Benji, Ruffini and Brent went to a backyard picnic in Winter Haven to meet some friends of his.

Benji came up in conversation in the most unlikely --and emotional -- way.

“We were sitting in the living room with their grand-daughter, Kayla, who is an outpatient at the St. Joseph’s Hospital Cancer Center for Children in Tampa and talking about her experiences there,” Ruffini said.

It was a fairly bleak picture simply because of everything the kids have to go through during the treatment process and Ruffini asked her, “Is there anything good about the hospital?”

Kayla replied, “Well, yeah, there’s this little dog named Benji that comes to visit. I love that dog!”

“It still didn’t click for me,” Ruffini said. “And I said, ‘Oh really?’ just to keep her talking about something good. Well, Kayla continued her story, saying, ‘Yeah, I guess some crazy rescue lady got him when he was a feral dog and took him in.’

“I was so shocked at the coincidence and I cried when Kayla told me how much she loved her time with Benji,” she remembered.

Ruffini is proud of Benji’s accomplishments.

“Benji makes such a big difference in the lives of so many people, that it makes it all worthwhile. He’s affected so many lives and is a regular visitor at many area healthcare facilities and cancer bereavement camps. Benji has hosted fundraisers and has his own Facebook page,” she said.

In talking about the rehabilitation process, Ruffini explained: “A lot of what these animals need is consistency and someone that cares. Some of these dogs have been through so much and still have so much love to give. You get to know your animal and how much you can interact with them until they trust again. They need a lot of reassurance.”

Rescue dogs often suffer from physical or mental issues as a result of their prior neglect.

Among the more common physical conditions are malnutrition, heartworm and mange.

Mental issues are usually connected with inappropriate forms of aggression.

During rehabilitation, Ruffini said,“Food is a big way of rehabbing, both physically and emotionally.”

Ruffini and her children have spent countless hours hand-feeding dogs and subtly working with the dog on aggression issues.

As a child, Victoria helped take care of a lot of dogs, some cats and a few unusual rescue animals, including raccoons, squirrels, possums and a vulture.

Ruffini remembered: “We’d find them by the side of a road; their mom was probably hit by a car. We’d pick them up and take care of them until we could get them to a specialist in wildlife rehabilitation.”

For several years, Ruffini has been working closely with Heidi’s Legacy, a rescue operation centered in Lithia.

Ruffini encourages those interested to check out the website or attend adoption events, but cautions: “We don’t do any ‘on-the-spot’ adoptions – most rescue organizations don’t because when you’re at an adoption event, there is a lot of emotion and people want to have the dog right then and there. After they’re home for a couple of days, they want to return the dog because it was an impulse. We ask that they go home, fill out an application, let everything quiet down, then we meet them in their homes with the dog and see if it’s a match.”

For more information, visit http://www.heidislegacydogrescue.com/

Lori Hoffman, founder of Heidi’s Legacy, has known Ruffini for about nine years and considers her a valuable asset to the organization.

“Suzanne has been incredible for us, a true blessing,”Hoffman said.

Ruffini said most rescue organizations are full of choices for pets and that “you can get just about any breed, male or female, young or old. There’s no breed that’s discriminated against in being abandoned by their owners.”

She is quite passionate about paying it forward and encouraging others to think about something beyond themselves – to have a love for something else that is unconditional.

Ruffini encourages others to “help out where you can, be conscious of your environment and not to evaluate personal benefit when contemplating a task…it simply can’t be dependent on what is in it for you.”

Recalling some of their more unique canine visitors, Victoria said, “We’ve had dogs missing a leg or two, and a Chihuahua puppy that was missing an eye. He was so cute and we called him Nacho Man.”

Ruffini said that being a canine foster parent offers many advantages.

“There is no long-term commitment as an owner, plus it helps the pet socialize in different environments.”

Explaining the need for additional volunteers, Ruffini said, “Most of these dogs just need time and love in a place they feel safe. We need people that have the time to simply be with the dog and give them some measure of comfort, even if that’s only for a few days.”