For as long as Marsha Panuche can remember, she has had a strong affinity for dogs.
The Bird Key resident remembers begging for a dog as a small child.
“Mom kept giving me dolls, but, for me, it was always dogs,” she said. “I always wanted a dog for Christmas.”
When Panuche and her father conspired to get a dog, it started a lifelong love affair with man’s best friend.
Today, she and her entrepreneur husband, Don, are putting their entire fortune into a groundbreaking facility that will care for dogs, providing housing and veterinary services and a new line of herbal medicines for dogs. And all of it will be headquartered at a yet-to-be-determined location in Sarasota County.
“We have no family, no kids,” Panuche said. “This is going to be our legacy.”
If not for her grandfather’s dachshund, Beauregard, Panuche may never have developed a love of dogs at an early age.
Her mother was deathly afraid of dogs, because she had been bitten when she was a young child.
Panuche was never allowed to have a dog in the house.
“After years of getting stuffed dogs, I wanted the real thing,” she said.
Panuche’s father wanted the same thing for her. So, when she was 8 years old, the two of them made a deal — they would bring her grandfather’s lively dog to their home so often that her mother couldn’t help but grow attached to it.
“Dad and I did everything we could to get her to love that dog,” she said with a smile.
It only took three weeks before her mother relented. Panuche has rarely been without a dog ever since.
“There’s just something pure about a dog,” she said. “They’re unbiased and loving. They forgive us, even when we betray them. I just hold them in a different spot.”
At 18, Panuche began touring the world as a concert pianist. No matter where she was, she made it a point to visit the local dog shelter.
“I always wanted to bring them all home with me,” she said.
She was never able to, of course, but one time in Thailand, Panuche was taken by one particular street dog that spent the majority of its time in front of one business.
Panchue wrote the business owner a check and asked him to use that money to care for the dog. He did so — begrudgingly at first — but as the years passed, the dog grew on him, and when Panuche checked in for an update on the dog, the business owner would happily provide one.
Through the years, Panuche became a successful jewelry designer and fashion consultant, with several celebrities as clients. As her career blossomed, marriage waited. But her love of dogs was never placed on hold.
Standard schnauzers became her favorite.
“They are little gentlemen,” she said. “Bright, funny, and they just want to cuddle.”
Through work she met Don, who owned an electrical-manufacturing company in Chicago.
The two wed in 1990.
“By the time we got married, it was later in life, and children were out of the question,” she said. “But I met a man who shared my passion for dogs, and that’s how Donte’s Den came about.”
Leaving a legacy
About 10 years ago, Panuche began to wonder what would happen to her dogs when she was no longer able to care for them.
“Who’s going to take care of my dogs, when I’m not around?” she asked herself. “We have no family.”
The Panuches realized they were not the only ones in their position, and they wanted to also help those people.
They began to discuss plans for a facility that would care for the dogs of people who have died or who have to live in nursing homes.
“It’s more than just a shelter,” Panuche said. “It’s special housing. We’ll dedicate 40% of the facility to people like Don and me — people who don’t have anyone to care for their dogs.”
Pets will be willed to the facility, and the staff will follow the owner’s instructions on how they want their dog to be treated.
“They’ll live in ‘dog condos’ and receive the best medical care,” she said. “All we need are people’s hearts — we’ll take care of the rest.”
When it was time to choose a name for her facility, Panuche wanted to use one of her dog’s names. She currently has three dogs and has owned 15 during her lifetime, but only one name was every really considered.
Donte is a standard schnauzer whom Panuche found seven years ago. He was just 6 weeks old, but Panuche said they locked eyes, and she knew that was her dog.
Being as young as it was, she was not able to take him home for several weeks, and she feared he would get lost among his littermates.
“They told me that they would know which one Donte was, but that wasn’t good enough for me,” she said.
“I put a little ribbon on his paw, so I’d know for sure.”
Panuche has grown closer to Donte than any of her other dogs.
“He’s a little boy with fur,” she joked. “Each of my dogs is precious, but he has an exceptional quality, so it was very easy to choose a name — Donte’s Den.”
One of the most unique aspects of Donte’s Den is that it is creating its own line of herbal medicines specifically for dogs. Their sale will help support the facility.
The Panuches hired Dr. Ruan Jin Zhao, president of Sarasota’s Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine, to create those medicines — remedies that they first tried on their own pets.
About 15 years ago, the Panuche’s dog Max developed cancer and was only given six weeks to live.
“The vets said there was nothing they could do for him,” said Panuche. “That wasn’t good enough for me.”
She asked Zhao to create an herbal medication for Max.
“He came up with a special herb that was sprinkled on Max’s food,” she said.
Max lived for 16 months.
Years later, another dog, Asti, began suffering from seizures. He wasn’t supposed to survive past 8 years old. Again, Zhao created an herbal remedy that eliminated the seizures and allowed Asti to live until he was 14.
“There is something to be said about alternative herbal medicine,” Panuche said.
For Donte’s Den, there was no question the couple was going to have Zhao play a big part.
“This man is working miracles,” she said.
As the Panuches search the county for a piece of land on which to build their facility, they have assembled a team of advisers and pet professionals to help them choose the best features for dogs.
Although she’s not exactly sure when Donte’s Den will open, she has envisioned the day when she finally cuts the ribbon and realizes her longtime dream.
Said Panuche: “When we see dogs’ tails wagging in there for the first time, I will just say, ‘We did it.’ Everything we’ve ever worked for is going into it. It’s the ultimate legacy.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]