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Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News
Stacie Ward, co-founder of Ruff Patch Rescue, speaks with another volunteer next to Brody, a 2-year-old bulldog, during Ruff Patch Rescue's dog adoption event Saturday, April 7, 2018, at PetSmart in West Jordan. “When you see them go to a home that is the perfect match, there is a really good rewarding feeling," Ward, co-founder of Ruff Patch Rescue, said about dog adoption. Ruff Patch Rescue holds adoption events every Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the PetSmart in West Jordan.

WEST JORDAN — It started with a chicken.

Stacie Ward, the woman with the tattoos, shaved head and soft heart, spotted a stray chicken near her home in West Jordan. Soon she had family and friends giving chase, eventually surrounding the terrified bird and catching it.

“Now what?” somebody asked.

Ward hadn’t thought things through that far, but she brought the chicken home, named it Colonel Roosevelt and let it have the run of the house until she found a farmer who would take the Colonel off her hands. That was the first adoption she arranged.

Then came a stray dog her husband, Matt, saw each morning at a local convenience store where he stopped on the way to work. The dog entered the store’s automatic doors whenever he needed a handout. Matt Ward finally brought the dog to his wife. They found a home for him, too.

Thus was born Ruff Patch Rescue – and the motto: Saving the lives of homeless dogs — which finds foster homes and eventually permanent homes for the animals. During the last decade, the organization has spared hundreds of dogs from a potential death sentence. The dogs come from animal shelters or from owners who no longer want them. As the Ruff Patch Rescue website states it, “we’re working hard to give every abandoned, homeless, abused and neglected dog a second chance with a loving family.”

With the full involvement of her husband and two children, Stacie Ward has formed a network of some 100 volunteers to provide boarding, walking, transporting and grooming services while she finds permanent homes for the dogs via Facebook, Petfinder.com and an adoption event at the West Jordan PetSmart store every Saturday afternoon. At any given time, there are 40-50 dogs in the Ruff Patch program, which boasts a 100 percent placement rate, although it can take anywhere from three to 12 weeks.

“I can’t manage anymore; it’s quality, not quantity,” Ward says.

She spends about 10 hours a day on Ruff Patch work and more on weekends, while also raising two kids and working a part-time job at Stone Ridge Veterinary Clinic. At the end of the day, she sits up in bed and fills out paperwork and answers 40-60 emails from clients and volunteers.

“It’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time,” she says. “It’s an all-day job.

Every dog lives with her and her family for a couple of weeks before being assigned to a foster home. This enables Ward to assess the dog’s personality to better determine what environment or family a dog is suited for, as well as assess the animal’s health, training, behavior and so forth.

“Shelters won’t know that; we do. We get to know the dogs,” she says. “We don’t try to flip them. If we get a dog today, he won’t be available for adoption for two weeks. I find out if they’re going to bark, jump fences, dig, if they’re good with kids, if they get along with other dogs; if they’re calm or nervous. You can’t decide that in 24 hours.”

Growing up in Wisconsin, Ward made a habit of hard work and caring for animals. Her dad worked three jobs, her mom two, and by the age of 14, she entered the workforce. She delivered newspapers, waitressed and labored in a retirement community. She graduated from high school at 17, became a customer service agent at a phone company at 18 and owned her first house at 19.

“I wanted it for all the pets,” says Ward, whose grandmother also collected animals on a small farm – horses, ostriches, mules, cows and any other stray she came across.

Ward began foster-caring dogs in her new house, which seemed a natural for someone who, over the years had brought home a number of stray dogs, not to mention rabbits, birds and cats. (She likes to note that she was born in 1982, the year of the dog, according to the Chinese zodiac.) Once she had her own house, she collected more animals — pigs, dogs, cats, ferrets, squirrels and a coatimundi (a raccoon-like animal), and this was besides the dogs she fostered. At one point she was working 50 hours a week, taking classes in the evening and spending another 12 hours a week on foster care.

When she was 21, she sold her home and accepted a job offer from a cousin in Salt Lake City, where she soon got married, started a family, settled in a home on an acre lot in West Jordan, then dived into the dog rescue organization.

“She’s just always loved animals,” Matt Ward says, “and so do I, although not as much as her.”

Ruff Patch is a nonprofit organization and a demanding, expensive undertaking. It’s all the more expensive because Stacie Ward accepts dogs with special needs, which means more work and medical bills that run into the thousands of dollars. Some are injured, some have orthopedic needs or neurological disorders, and some are just old. Two of the dogs have spina bifida.

“We do find homes for them,” she says. “A lot of families are looking for special-needs dogs and senior dogs. We’ve had some long-timers who will probably be with me even longer. People have come forward for them, but we haven’t found the right families. We say ‘no’ more than ‘yes’ in our adoption of some of the harder cases. We talk reality with (potential owners) about the animals. The adult dogs usually choose the family. You can see the way they respond to the family.”

Dr. Alan Cunningham, who works at the Stone Ridge clinic, marvels at Ward’s dedication.

“She will take any animal that needs a second chance,” he says. “Many are unadoptable due to health or behavioral reasons. Several of the animals have to be diapered. She has to change them several times a day. But as long as an animal is given the best treatment and is happy, she will keep trying.”

To stay afloat, Ruff Patch relies on donors and puppies born to dogs in the program (puppies being the most popular choice of clients). Adoption fees range from $160 to $350, depending on the specific dog and the needs the animal required while in Ruff Patch’s care. The price includes spay/neutering, vaccines, microchip implantation and registration, 30 days of pet insurance, and a wellness exam.

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”Everything we take in needs to go back to the animals,” says Stacie, whose work is helped considerably by Stone Ridge, which donates medical care at cost, and Cunningham, who donates his time.

Many of her waking hours are dedicated to dogs. She carries a scanner in her car for the occasions when she finds stray animals with a microchip.

“When you start something like this, you don’t look at the big picture,” she says. “Ten years ago, I did not think it would be like this. But I have no regrets. It’s rewarding. It’s our lives. If we didn’t have it, we’d feel empty.”