When Kim Hunniford brought her daughter Sophie to the Blowing Rock Horse Show (North Carolina) for the weekend earlier this summer, they weren’t planning on acquiring a dog. They’d mused over possibly getting a companion for their 8-year-old dog, Luke, but that trip was just supposed to be about watching the horse show they attended every year. Then Sophie, 17, told her mother she’d met a special puppy named Isabella at the Danny & Ron’s Rescue tent and convinced her to check it out.
“We FaceTimed with my two other kids, and my husband was there,” Kim said. “I’m probably the one who’s more practical. They were all like, ‘Bring her home.’ ”
After the adoption paperwork was signed on Aug. 6, Ron Danta, who co-founded the rescue with Danny Robertshaw, shared that Isabella was the 14,000th dog to be adopted from the rescue since they started doing work in 2005. To celebrate the milestone—which occurred at Blowing Rock’s 100th anniversary show—Sophie, Kim and Isabella found themselves center ring for a ceremony with Danta and Robertshaw.
Once the Hunnifords got Isabella home to Charlotte, North Carolina, they renamed her Lexi and watched her and Luke become fast friends.
“She’s a little crazy, doing puppy stuff,” Kim said. “But it’s like a baby; she’s so loveable you can’t be mad at her. Luke’s life is so much better. They play, wrestle, sleep together. They have two crates, but go into the crate together to nap. It’s really precious.”
An Amazing Journey
Lexi’s journey to the Hunnifords began two months earlier when Lexi found her way to the rescue, covered in fleas and suffering from kennel cough, coccidia and giardia.
“She was found as a stray and taken to a local animal shelter in Camden [South Carolina],” said the rescue’s director of marketing, Kim Tudor. “She went on a stray hold there, and no one came to pick her up or claimed her. We went over and picked her up, and she was absolutely a bundle of energy, full of wiggle waggle. She was a little submissive, but it didn’t take her very long to warm up. She knew nothing about training or walking on a leash, so we worked with her on that. She’s good natured, well behaved, and so sweet.”
Danny & Ron’s Rescue is unlike a traditional rescue as it’s based out of Robertshaw and Danta’s home in Camden, where up to 140 dogs live at any one time. Caring for so many dogs—many of whom have medical issues—requires 33 employees and a lot of organization.
“It’s pretty cool to see 80 to 90 cups of medications with dogs’ names on them and food bowls for 130, 140 dogs,” said Danta. “When people come to the dog house they still say, ‘How do you keep it so clean?’ We do 30 commercial washer and dryer loads a day. Every dog’s bedding is washed every day. Every dog is washed every week. We’re big on the house staying clean because we still live there.”
The rescue got its start in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when Danta and Robertshaw started saving dogs affected by the disaster. They became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2008. Not only has the organization adopted out thousands of dogs since then, but it has also established many other initiatives to help animals and people.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Danta. “When we look way, way back, we never thought we’d have a dog rescue.
“We believe in outreach,” he continued. “We help elderly people keep their pets. If they can’t afford medical treatment, we help with that. In Palm Beach County, we donate money to Meals On Wheels, so if anyone has an animal they deliver food for them as well. It’s called Animeals. We help veterans so they can keep their pets and handicapped people. The rescue is saving animals, but there’s so much more you can do by giving back. And that’s why we have all of those different programs.”
The group recently sent $10,000 to the Maui Humane Society from its disaster relief fund to help with the aftermath of the island’s devastating wildfires. Closer to home they supported efforts to help dogs affected by Hurricane Idalia in the Southeast.
While their work is primarily based in the United States, they sent donations to Australian organizations after the historic 2019-2020 fire season, earning them legions of fans in that country too.
The organization brings adoptable dogs to shows throughout the year, including venues like Wellington International (Florida), Bruce’s Field (South Carolina) and Upperville (Virginia), where often as many as 16 dogs are adopted in a weekend, but most of their adoptions come from their website.
Tudor described Robertshaw and Danta as “angels” who “walk the walk.”
“They are two of the kindest, most generous individuals,” she said. “They’re patient with their animals, and it’s hard for them to say no to anyone.”
Finding Their Way
Danta estimates the organization gets between 60-80 calls a day from people wanting to surrender their pets. They also get constant calls about animals in horrific conditions at puppy mills and backyard breeding operations. Danta says that after hunting season ends, emaciated hunting dogs, discarded by their owners, find their way to them, as well as well-intentioned Christmas puppies that don’t work out.
“Christy [Edens] that manages the dog house—she goes home every night to 30-40 calls,” said Danta. “We have a policy of no matter who they are or what they are, we call them back. We hear all the time, ‘You’re the only rescue that could call me back whether you could take my dog or not.’ Then we get a gazillion calls for medical help because of our surgery outreach program. We assist a lot of people whose pets would otherwise be euthanized.”
While the organization vets each adoption applicant—staff make video calls to every member of the adoptive family—it’s an easier process because so many adoptions come from within the horse show community, making it more likely that rescue staff will know potential adopters and their references. Most of the adoptions come from the hunter/jumper community, but Danta said that reiners, dressage riders and eventers have also adopted dogs from them, as well as many non-horse people.
Another policy that sets the organization apart? There’s no set adoption fee—the group just requests “a donation.” Tudor estimates that the shelter typically spends about $600 per dog on medical treatments and food before they find a home.
“The horse business runs the gamut of demographics,” said Tudor. “You’ve got owners, riders, trainers, grooms, ring crew, support staff—it really is a cross section of the rest of the country. You can say our sport is an affluent sport, but the support people who are within that sport aren’t uber wealthy. The key is to adopt to people we know love their pets.”
Robertshaw and Danta wrote a book called “Forever Home,” which chronicles their efforts to save dogs, and a series of children’s books called Life In The Doghouse. In 2018, the two were the subjects of an award-winning documentary, “Life In The Doghouse.”
“It’s amazing how people are still watching it, and our fan base has grown so much,” Danta said. “We have almost have 100,000 fans on Facebook. I remember we were so excited when we got to 10,000 fans.”
Their latest effort is to start a junior board to get children involved, knowing they’re the future of dog rescue.
“Kids will shovel snow or mow grass to earn money for the rescue,” said Danta. “We want to get them active as a junior board, so they can learn the meaning of this. We’ve set up the rescue so our rescue will continue on after we’re gone. We’ve left the house [to the rescue], and it’s a pretty turnkey operation right now.”
Young people are also key to the organization’s most high-profile fundraiser, the annual Kids Lip Sync, where singer Gloria Gaynor has been an honorary guest for over a decade. Gaynor first connected with the rescue 12 years ago, after young performers wrote to her to see if she’d donate money as they were “singing” her seminal hit “I Will Survive.” Gaynor called Danta and Robertshaw and said she wanted to get involved, and she’s been a key friend to the rescue ever since. She donated profits to the rescue from masks emblazoned with the words “I will survive” during COVID-19, and when she was nominated for a Grammy she invited Robertshaw and Danta to the ceremony in 2020. (She won.)
Despite the Herculean efforts that go into running a rescue, that’s not Robertshaw and Danta’s main obligation. The pair train out of Beaver River Farm, a top hunter/jumper stable. Robertshaw, who retired from riding in 2008, was honored with the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and he’s also been inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall Of Fame. This October he’ll join the Devon Legends club.
“The horses are going really well,” said Danta, the 2012 Chronicle of the Horse Show Hunter Horseman of the Year. “Danny and I are wanting to slow down, but our number of horses and customers keeps going up.”