Rolling dog ranch: a sanctuary for disabled animals

Set in the spacious grasslands of Montana, Rolling Dog Ranch gives sanctuary to disabled animals.

Rolling Dog Ranch began as a dream in the minds of Steve Smith and Alayne Marker. Over the years, the couple had adopted six dogs and six cats, all with special needs that labeled them unadoptable by shelters and rescue groups. Some had suffered chronic abuse, while others had serious medical conditions. All were viewed as hopeless until Steve and Alayne stepped up to give them a chance.

“When given enough love and excellent veterinary care, each one of them blossomed,” says Steve. “That experience made us realize how much we could do for animals that other people might have given up on.”

The couple decided to create a special sanctuary where they could help as many animals as possible. “We looked around and asked ourselves, who are the most vulnerable animals in our society?” says Steve. “And that’s when we decided to focus on the disabled.”

rolling dog ranchSteve and Alayne, who both worked corporate jobs in Seattle, saved up a bankroll to get their sanctuary started. In 1998, they bought 160 acres of cottonwood-dotted grassland in Ovando, Montana. Over the next two years, they raised buildings and installed miles of fencing to prepare the property for its first residents. In the fall of 2000, they were ready to open Rolling Dog Ranch.

The name was chosen to celebrate one of the sanctuary’s favorite canine activities. “Our dogs love to roll around on their backs in the sagebrush and grass-covered meadows,” Steve explains. “We’ll have as many as four dogs at a time rolling around upside down, feet straight up in the air, scratching their backs in the fields.”

The couple saves special needs animals, giving hope to otherwise hopeless cases. “We don’t generally take animals from private individuals because they may have other options for placement. When a shelter phones us, often it’s the last call that will be made before the animal is euthanized.”

The sanctuary currently shelters 58 animals with a wide variety of disabilities, including blindness, deafness, missing limbs, muscular dystrophy and other physical impairments. There are 40 dogs, six cats and 12 horses. Most will stay with Steve and Alayne for the rest of their natural lives, but appropriate cases are offered for adoption through

The canine residents at Rolling Dog Ranch live in cottages rather than kennels and get daily outdoor play time in a safe area. The cats live in Hoedad’s House, named for a starving kitten rescued by Steve in Sri Lanka. There’s an outdoor enclosure and plenty of perches inside.

In the ranch’s early days, Steve and Alayne continued to work their day jobs from a home office, as well as caring for the animals and property, so they could cover their operating expenses. Eventually, donors began to help financially, and by mid-2006 they were able toquit their outside jobs and devote themselves to Rolling Dog Ranch full time.

The sanctuary is now a not-for-profit organization funded completely by private donations. Steve says 85% of the money comes from individuals, with the rest being funded by occasional grants and estate behests. There are also monthly volunteer days for locals who wish to help with animal care and general maintenance.

Veterinary care is the single largest expense, as might be expected at a place that specializes in giving a home to disabled animals. Vet bills totaled $46,000 last year, and covered care from veterinarians as well as specialists in oncology, internal medicine, ophthalmology and other areas. Alternative therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic are also used.

Of all the animals that have lived at Rolling Dog Ranch over the past nine years, Steve says an elderly German shepherd named Pappy went through the most dramatic transformation. The limping, starving, dehydrated dog showed up at a video store where he collapsed and refused to leave. The store owners kept him overnight, then took him to a rescue group which eventually sent him to the ranch.

Steve and Alayne were sure Pappy would be a hospice case and planned to make his last days as comfortable as possible. They took him for a medical exam that revealed the cause of his malaise. His hip was completely dislocated, causing constant excruciating pain from bone grinding directly on bone.

Pappy had surgery and returned to Rolling Dog Ranch three days later a completely different dog. Even thought he was still recovering from the operation, he was already chipper and anxious to start enjoying life again. As he healed, he went from death’s door to a happy, healthy dog. He soon became the self-appointed “chore dog” and followed Steve and Alayne around the property every day, supervising their work and vividly demonstrating how love and proper medical care can change an animal.

Pappy passed away a few years later, but his spirit lives on at the ranch as new residents get the same chance he did. Whether it’s a blind cat or a dog with an orthopedic impairment, the lucky animals that find their way to Rolling Dog Ranch enjoy the best possible quality of life.

Find Rolling Dog Ranch on Facebook here.