Marley's Mutts dog rescue.

The founder of this rescue estimates he’s saved more than 600 dogs over the past few years. But he says the dogs have also rescued him.

At just 28, Zach Skow was in end stage liver and kidney failure from drug and alcohol abuse. After an extensive stay in hospital, he was told if he could stay sober for six months, he would be put on the transplant list for a new liver.

In September 2008, Zach left Cedars-Sinai with yellow skin, no muscle tone and weighing only 130 pounds. “I’d fostered large dogs for the Humane Society before the hospital,” says Zach. “After I came home, I worked with Canine Canyon Ranch and learned how to give vaccines and control the large dogs. By doing so, I gained confidence in my own life.”

When the ranch moved, Zach decided to start his own rescue. Marley’s Mutts is located on 16 acres in Tehachapi, California. The rescue is named after Marley, a Rottweiler/pit bull mix who acts as the rescue’s enforcer. “He’s very calm and dominant, but not aggressive,” says Zach. “He helps new dogs ease into the pack. He doesn’t like fights so he breaks up any arguments. He lets them know they can focus on dog stuff, not on defending themselves.”

Marley’s Mutts operated as a DBA (doing business as) sole proprietorship for a year in order to build relationships and reputation before becoming a non-profit organization. “People witnessed the transformation. It became a feel-good story so they came to help. We got support from family, friends and veterinarians. We got foster homes. We got more dogs out of overcrowded shelters. We won a Best Dog Rescue award.”

Stray, abandoned and abused dogs find a caring place to stay at Marley’s Mutts, where they are socialized and rehabilitated then adopted out to permanent homes. As a non-profit, the rescue is always looking for more volunteers, foster homes and donations to feed and shelter all the dogs who come through the doors to be healed.

Socialization is a specialty

“Dogs like structure, routine and love,” says Zach. “When a new dog comes along, he’s afraid. Most have never touched another dog except in a confrontation. They’ve only seen each other from one cage to the next. I let the new guy out of the car to meet the pack. After a few minutes of sniffing, I say ‘let’s take a walk’ and off we go. The pack knows to follow me and the new guy doesn’t want to be left behind. By the time we get back, any issues are worked out. It’s the best part of the day to see them go from ears back and wild eyes to running for the fun of it. They shed their anxiety and fear and remember how to be a dog again.”

Zach is also involved in community outreach to drug and alcohol organizations and local schools. He takes a dog along to act as an icebreaker and talks about his past drug and alcohol abuse. “I’m still young enough that the kids listen and can relate,” he says. “I tell them exactly how close I came to not making it out alive.”

Zach says he is adding a new building to his rescue. His goal is to increase the number of dogs he saves and re-homes. He specializes in large dogs – many times the bully breeds – although small dogs like Paco the Chihuahua show up from time to time.

Many happy endings

“We work in a beautiful place with dogs,” says Zach. “There are so many miraculous stories, one after another. It’s a spellbinding, spectacular domino effect.” Take the story of Geronimo, for instance. When he first arrived at Marley’s Mutts, his ears were badly infected. “Somebody must have thought he was a pit bull and tried to crop his ears themselves – we think with scissors. Geronimo now shows no signs of trauma and is a happy pup.

“We’ve adopted out seven dogs in the last year who were brought to us with gunshot wounds,” Zach continues. “Two others had third degree burns over large areas of their bodies. Grossman Burn Center was instrumental in saving these dogs. Now, they visit pediatric burn units as therapy dogs.”

Zach is eager to share more amazing success stories. “Pudge was a breeding stud dog for a fighting ring. He now visits schools to show how good a dog can be, even when he comes from a bad background. Soldier, meanwhile, was recently found in an orchard near Arvin, California. Doctors think he was hit by a car, resulting in a broken pelvis. He has severe mange and will need an operation to fi x his hip. An elite force of American soldiers in Afghanistan have adopted Soldier as their mascot and are following his recovery via email.”

Given his difficult past and subsequent health problems, Zach wouldn’t be blamed for concentrating solely on his own well being. But he finds that helping other creatures in need has contributed hugely to his own recovery. “I stay sober because of the work I do with the dogs,” he says. “After ten months, the doctors found I no longer needed a liver transplant. I credit all that to the dogs. This work keeps me out of my own head and gives me focus and purpose.”