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Shelter pets find work (and homes) as hotel 'lobby dogs'

The innovative programs allow dogs to socialize, enjoy a more pampered setting, get exercise and also gain exposure to people who might not be actively seeking a pet.
Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa
/ Source: TODAY

Walk into the lobby of the Inn by the Sea, an oceanfront Maine resort near Portland, and you’ll be greeted by a smiling human and a tail-wagging dog. The dog might be big or small, young or old, but one thing’s for sure: He or she will be available for adoption.

Inn by the Sea has lobby dogs to help them get adopted
Ramey is one of 148 lobby dogs adopted through Inn by the Sea by guests from across the country.Courtesy of Inn by the Sea

For several years, the inn has fostered dogs from the nonprofit Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland to give guests a chance to interact with a dog and potentially take one home. So far 148 dogs have been adopted through the innovative program, according to Rauni Kew, Inn by the Sea public relations manager.

“We care for the dog and give it a temporary home here until somebody falls in love and adopts the dog,” she told TODAY. “I can’t tell you how many guests have said to us, ‘There’s no way we would’ve gone to a shelter; we had decided we wouldn’t have another dog.' But they’ve fallen in love with the dog behind the desk.”

Inn by the Sea partnered with an animal rescue to foster dogs
Inn by the Sea has partnered with Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Maine to foster dogs like Reyna for four years.Courtesy of Inn by the Sea

The staff is incredibly proud of the program, which has found homes for many different breeds and mixes, as well as a blind dog and a bonded pair adopted together. Because the property is pet-friendly — with a gourmet dog menu and special area where guests can dine with their pups — many of the former lobby dogs return as guests.

“We get to see old friends. It’s really fun to see them with their families a year or two later,” she said.

Across the country in Southern California, the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage runs a similar foster program called the Dog Samaritans Adoption Project in partnership with the nonprofit Animal Samaritans.

A lobby dog hangs out in a little doghouse and playpen so guests can spend time cuddling a pooch or taking them for a walk around the property.

Lobby dogs at the Westin Mission Hills have a dog house that resembles the hotel.
Lobby dogs at the Westin Mission Hills in California enjoy a doghouse that resembles the hotel.Courtesy of the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa

The program helps dogs get used to socializing with people and children, and gives guests a chance to spend time with a dog, which can be particularly meaningful if they’re missing one at home.

Raquel Wood, executive assistant to the general manager, runs the program, which has re-homed 137 dogs. Some are adopted by vacationing families, others by business travelers who take a dog for a walk between meetings and inadvertently fall in love. Eight have even moved to Canada with their new families.

“Our dogs have been adopted all over,” she told TODAY. “It’s just great to see.”

Hotels help shelter dogs find homes: Frenchy gets adopted
When dogs like Frenchy are adopted from the Westin Mission Hills, there's a lobby celebration.Courtesy of the Westin Mission Hills Golf Resort and Spa

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, though Wood said there are occasional complaints from guests who are allergic to pet dander. Those people are referred to a sister property next door that doesn't allow pets.

Bubbles greets visitors at The Aloft Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina
Bubbles found a new home after being a lobby dog at The Aloft Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina.Derek DiLuzio / McKibbon Hospitality

Every August, the hotel hosts a free reunion for people who have adopted dogs through the program, staff and volunteers from Animal Samaritans, and local residents. The chef cooks peanut butter cookies for the canine guests and bartenders mix dog-themed cocktails like “Salty Dogs” and “Frisky Chihuahua Margaritas” for pet parents during a “Yappy Hour.”

“To see the dogs thriving, it’s just such an incredible feeling,” Wood said.

A foster dog program at the Aloft Asheville Downtown in North Carolina proved so popular that three other properties managed by McKibbon Hospitality have implemented programs as well. Ninety-five dogs have been adopted from Aloft Orlando (with an upcoming celebration planned for the 100th adoption); 56 from Aloft Tallahassee; 78 from Aloft Greenville; and 124 from the flagship program in Asheville.

Emma Ledbetter, corporate food and beverage manager for McKibbon Hospitality, helped implement the program in 2014 after a chance encounter on an airplane with a board member of the nonprofit Charlie’s Angels Animal Rescue. The first lobby dog from Charlie’s Angels, a Chihuahua mixed breed named Gabriel, was adopted after only three days.

“The dogs come from all different sorts of backgrounds. It could be that their owner died, that someone just didn’t want them anymore, that they’d been abused,” Ledbetter told TODAY. “It just makes me so happy to think that something worked out to where these dogs are now safe and have a home, and will be taken care of.”

A bonded pair of dogs named Summer and Spencer were adopted to a family with two kids, so each child got to have their own dog.

Hotels help shelter dogs find homes, like this bonded pair that needed to be adopted together.
Spencer and Summer delighted Aloft Asheville guests by frequently cuddling. They found a forever home together.Courtesy of McKibbon Hospitality

McKibbon Hospitality covers half the adoption fees for employees who want to adopt a lobby dog. Ledbetter adores the shy dog she adopted named Ladybug.

“I would come into the back office, and she’d be sitting in my chair waiting for me,” she said.

Hotels help shelter dogs find homes: Ladybug was adopted by Emma Ledbetter.
Ladybug took to following Emma Ledbetter around the Aloft Asheville. So Ledbetter took her home.Courtesy of McKibbon Hospitality

Sasha, the lobby dog at the Bobby Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, is not available for adoption: The boutique hotel is her forever home. Management printed special towels for every room with the pup’s face; when guests purchase the towels, the hotel donates the proceeds to Country Road Animal Rescue, the nonprofit that rescued the dog from beneath a bridge. So far, they’ve donated over $6,000 in Sasha’s honor.

Rescue dog Sasha is the lobby mascot at the Bobby Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee
Sasha was rescued from under a bridge by Country Road Animal Rescue. Now she's the beloved mascot of the Bobby Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.Courtesy of the Bobby Hotel

“Sasha is Bobby’s best friend, and is a member of the family,” Maya Stanic, director of marketing, told TODAY in an email. “She’s got an important job as part of the Bobby Hotel crew: being the furry companion many travelers miss when they’re on the road, and raising awareness about how awesome rescue dogs are.”

Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii helps dogs find homes through hotels
Tiny Tim relaxes on a Hawaiian beach during a field trip from the Kauai Humane Society.Courtesy of Kauai Humane Society

Shadyside Inn All Suites Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, offers another twist on promoting dog adoptions: When guests stay five or more nights, the hotel will cover up to $250 in adoption fees if the guest decides to adopt a dog at home or on vacation.

Jonathan Plesset, president and CEO of the hotel and co-founder of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, said the offer ties into his passion for animal rescue and love of pets.

“It’s a program we’ll probably just continue doing until they bury me,” he told TODAY with a chuckle.

Even if a hotel doesn’t offer a rescue dog program, travelers can check with local animal shelters about programs for people on vacation. For instance, the Kauai Humane Society in Hawaii offers “Shelter Dogs on Field Trips,” in which tourists can borrow a dog to hike a trail or hit the beach.

Mirah Horowitz, executive director of Kauai Humane Society, said the program runs six days a week and has grown so popular that now upward of 18 dogs get to head out on adventures every day. It gives them extra exercise and socialization and, since they wear an “Adopt Me” vest, a chance to meet people outside of the shelter and get adopted.

“It’s super helpful for the dogs,” she told TODAY. “And people write to us all the time how it was the highlight of their trip.”

Horowitz said spending time with shelter dogs on vacation is a terrific way to give back to the local community.

“Our guests not only have a really fun time taking a dog out and doing all that stuff for the day, but they have that added satisfaction of knowing, ‘I made a difference in this dog’s life today, and I have made a difference in the community in which I am visiting,’” she said. “That’s such a special opportunity.”