As Samantha Wahl prepared for a nearly yearlong deployment with the Army National Guard, she agonized over what to do with her dog, Dozer.
Boarding facilities and house sitters were charging more than Wahl, a mechanic, could afford, and she didn’t feel comfortable with the services they were offering. Wahl’s parents agreed to watch her smaller dog, but Dozer was an 80-pound American bulldog boxer mix who didn’t get along with her parents’ dog.
Wahl was running out of options. She contemplated giving Dozer up until a friend told her about the nonprofit Donte’s Den Foundation.
“I went by to look at the facilities, and it was like a little heaven on Earth for dogs,” Wahl said. “Set me up with a cot in the back, and I would stay there for a year.”
One of several services Donte’s offers is the Semper Paw program. While dog boarding is available to anyone for $65 a night, active military members and first responders called away for duty only pay $25 a night. Monthly rates cap out at $700 for Semper Paw, $1,950 for others.
“For me, at that time, it was the cheapest thing I could find anywhere, and I didn’t worry whatsoever,” Wahl said. “Dozer had a window. He had a view. He got to go out and play with other dogs. He was living it up. Dozer had a better life than me while I was deployed.”
Wahl and Dozer were Semper Paw’s first clients in 2015. Since then, the program has served reservists, firefighters, state troopers and police officers.
Wahl said she felt “in the loop," and her mom was allowed to visit Dozer. Her mom and the staff members at Donte’s sent Wahl pictures and videos throughout her deployment.
The foundation sprawls across 50 acres in Myakka City. The campus includes a welcome center, adoption center, dog dens and a veterinary clinic and hospital.
Dogs are provided grass and astroturf yards for playing, along with a bone-shaped pool with a fire hydrant sprinkler. There are also three pastures that are now home to a herd of rescue cattle, a donkey and a mini horse. There are boars, ducks and even three formerly pet otters roaming the property.
“If Marsha wants it to be rescued, it will be rescued and live here forever,” Director of Operations Sean Hill said.
Marsha Panuce is the founder of Donte’s Den, which is a 24-hour, staff-run, privately funded nonprofit.
“One of the reasons we chose to be privately funded is because we can move a lot faster on decisions,” Panuce said. “When we want to do something and it hits a particular criteria, we take it to our board, we get approval and we get moving.”
A similar thought process is why Donte’s doesn’t rely on volunteers. There are 11 full time staff members and three part-timers. Every staff member has to interact with every dog, and not every dog that is rescued or boarded is a cuddle muffin.
Hill has 35 years of dog training under his belt. Both fresh and healed bite marks and scratches run along both of his forearms. He shuns harsh training methods that employ the use of devices like shock collars in lieu of love.
Part of the “Donte’s difference” is that every employee must love and care for their Donte’s animals as they do their own.
Penny was a dog that ran wild around the Sarasota Square Mall for months. Her penchant for pizza is what finally trapped her when she kept returning to the same pizzeria day after day. Animal Services was going to euthanize Penny because she was deemed untouchable, therefore, unadoptable.
“Penny’s a great dog. She was just scared and needed somebody to care about her,” Hill said. “She’d been running loose for so long that she had lost the ability to trust. Here at Donte’s, we’ve instilled that trust back into her.”
Dogs like Penny are how Donte’s got its start. Panuce drove around from shelter to shelter and asked to see “death row.” She fit seven dogs into her car on that first trip.
Panuce and her staff make it clear that Donte’s is not a rescue, it’s a sanctuary. Animals that can’t be adopted because of behavioral issues, or simply won’t be adopted due to age or health conditions, have found their forever home when arriving on campus.
The foundation’s boarding, adoption, training and veterinary services are open to the public and help offset the costs of running Semper Paw and caring for the unadoptable animals. Panuce donates her earnings from “Animal Outtakes,” a half hour TV show that airs on Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. on WWSB ABC7, but said Donte's couldn't survive without donations.
“I get very emotional about this because I can see in my head the 10 years of dogs that we’ve given a second chance to. We’ve had a couple tied up to our front gate,” Panuce said “We take them in, and they become our family.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.