ALEXANDRIA, VA – Some people, when faced with heartbreak and loss, withdraw into themselves and their grief. Luisa Paucchi, the founder of Lu’s Labs in Alexandria, did the opposite: she founded a dog rescue organization that will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a barking good time on Saturday February 29 at Arlington Rooftop & Grill.
“I’m that person who rescued dogs off the streets since before I could walk – a cat or a dog or a rabbit or a chicken,” Paucchi said. As an adult, when her first dog, a chocolate Labrador Retriever, Petey, died from cancer, Paucchi immediately got involved with rescue.
“Fosters helped heal my heart”
In fact, she started out by helping transport dogs for other rescue organizations. Hurricane Sandy hit while she was involved with her first transport, and “we ended up having that dog for a week. Fosters helped heal my heart and from then it was just moving forward.”
Unfortunately, there was more heartbreak to come. After volunteering in rescue organizations in a variety of roles (an intake role, transporter, adoption coordinator, transport coordinator), it became Paucchi’s dream to have her own rescue. In fact, she and her late husband, Rick Harrelson, made a goal of starting a rescue that they would run when they retired and moved South. Paucchi and Harrelson began to put together Lu’s Labs in early 2015. Sadly, Harrelson died in September of that year.
“One of his tasks was to put together our 501(c)(3) status,” Paucchi said. “Three weeks after he passed away, I got a letter from Virginia that we had been approved on the date of his death. It was our last joint venture together.”
“Labor of Love”
Paucchi threw herself into Lu’s Labs, her “labor of love”, setting a goal of 50 rescues in their first year, and ending up with 150. “When we started, there were only three of us, and I had like three fosters,” she said. “We are foster based, so we can only rescue as many dogs as we have foster homes for. I got about four hours of sleep a night for the first two years.”
Now five years in operation, and Lu’s Labs has seven board members, four divisions, more than 300 volunteers, and has rescued more than 1,000 dogs. Even more amazing, the organization is 100 percent volunteer run, with no paid staff. Paucchi herself is a full-time schoolteacher.
“Putting the Dog’s Best Interest First”
Lu’s Labs Board Member and Vice President of Operations Jen Heishman-Smallwood said, “Lu works 24/7 to make this operation successful. Her ideas are clearly in line with mine – putting the dogs’ best interest first.”
Most of the dogs rescued by Lu’s Labs come from the South, mainly Louisiana, Texas, and the Carolinas. Lu’s Labs look for Labrador Retrievers and Labrador mixes in shelters in these areas, where, according to Paucchi, there is a large population of Labrador Retrievers living outside and in shelters.
Once a dog is identified for rescue, Lu’s Labs has an extensive process to look out for the best needs of the dog. A dog is first vetted to be sure he or she is good with dogs and people. Lu’s Labs then sends the dog to a veterinarian for a medical check, followed by 2-3 weeks in a foster local to the shelter where the dog was identified.
According to Heishman-Smallwood, this process ensures time “to get to know the dog well and have them interact with children and other dogs and cats to make sure we don’t miss anything that needs to be addressed.”
“If We Don’t Have a Foster, We Beg for One”
From the local foster, Lu’s Labs then transports the dog to the DMV area to be fostered, ideally for one week. “If we don’t have a foster, we just post and beg for one,” Paucchi said. “We check them like we do for adopters, with a home check, etc.”
The foster process is very important to Paucchi: “I don’t want to pull a dog from a shelter and put them in a cage, plus boarding costs money so we would save fewer dogs. Plus we like the two foster recommendations on a dog. Dogs change depending on environment, and different personality traits come out.”
Elizabeth Shea has known Paucchi for 20 years and started volunteering two years ago as a foster parent. “I had lost my furry friend, and I thought I would never adopt a dog again because it was so painful to lose a family member,” Shea said. “Luisa suggested becoming a foster parent, and I was inspired by her story, and I think they had an emergency where they needed a foster parent who could take a dog that day. And I loved it – I just loved the experience.”
Norman and Other “Foster Fails”
Over the past two years, Shea has fostered seven dogs, including one “foster fail” – that’s when a foster parent decides to adopt the dog themselves. “That’s my dog today, Norman,” she said.
Norman came to Lu’s Labs from a shelter in Texas. Shea said he was about five years old when he was found, unneutered, in an abandoned garage with black tar spots and animal bites on his body, and about 20 pounds underweight. He was also heartworm positive.
Heartworm positive status is very common in the dogs that Lu’s Labs rescues, according to Paucchi. Treatment is possible for these dogs, but it is expensive and timely, and Lu’s Labs is committed to providing it. “There are a lot of veterinarians who give us discounts, both in the South and the North, who are very good to our dogs,” Paucchi said. “It’s heart warming when you find so many vets in this area who care so much about rescues.”
Nevertheless, the organization spends about $270,000 on medical expenses every year, and the adoption fees the organization charges do not cover them. Everyone involved with Lu’s Labs puts a priority on covering these costs, however, because of the mission of saving every dog they identify.
“We will spend the money if we need to spend the money,” Heishman-Smallwood said. “Even if we don’t have it! We spare no expense for each individual dog.”
“Norman is now great with children, a big cuddler, loves to go on walks,” Shea said. “He’s an old soul with a quiet disposition, but he likes to show off for other dogs,” she added with a laugh.
Heishman-Smallwood is another “foster fail” story, with four fosters that have become members of her family over the past five years, including one, Sunny, who had been hit by a baseball bat and had neurological issues and was very fearful of humans. Sunny is quirky, Heishman-Smallwood fell in love with her, and she is now a beloved member of their family.
“98% Success Rate”
Those looking to adopt through Lu’s Labs go through an application process that involves vetting, interviews with all members of the household, references from neighbors, and finally a home check. Moreover, anyone adopting a dog aged three or under signs a training addendum committing them to enroll their dog in Lu’s Labs-approved behavioral training.
“Luisa put a lot of thought into her procedures and policies, and we have probably a 98 percent success rate in matches for dogs and applicants,” Heishman-Smallwood said. She added that Lu’s Labs currently receives about 40 adoption applications each week and has received approximately 5800 since 2015.
“We do everything to make sure the dog ends up in the proper home,” she said. “These dogs have been through so much. We are not just looking for a warm bed. We are looking for a castle.”
All Adoptees Become “Lu’s Alums”
For those who do end up adopting through Lu’s Labs, they automatically become “Lu’s Alums” for life and have access to a very active Lu’s Alums Facebook page. “Once Lu’s Labs, they are always Lu’s Labs!” Heishman-Smallwood said. It is indeed a close bond: one alum had a dog in emergency surgery recently, “and Luisa herself was texting with the owner to let them know if there is any way we can help, we are always there,” she added.
Tickets are still available Lu’s Labs fifth birthday party, Bowties and Tails, is a cocktail attire party taking place Saturday at 7 p.m. at Arlington Rooftop. The $85 ticket includes beer, wine, food, prizes, and of course music by Smokey the DJ! $25 of the ticket price will go straight to the rescue. Donations are always welcome to continue the mission.
“It’s amazing what Luisa has done for so many animals,” Shea said.