Sue Shemuga got her first poodle, Crackers, as a present from her parents when she was 2, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.
As founder and head of the nonprofit Toy Poodle Rescue in Dover, Shemuga works around the clock if necessary to rescue, rehabilitate, and find homes for all small poodles, not just the young, healthy, adorable ones.
She accepts toy and miniature poodles from all kinds of circumstances, whether it be a breeder with a puppy whose medical bills are running too high, an owner with a problem dog, or a poodle rescued from abuse or surrendered to a shelter.
Since opening Toy Poodle Rescue in 2008, Shemuga has assisted more than 100 dogs. She specializes in toy and miniature poodles, and has connections with rescue organizes that handle the breed’s largest size if a standard poodle comes to her attention.
She houses some in her home, and others live with volunteer “foster families,” who take care of the dogs on a temporary basis, while Toy Poodle Rescue pays for all expenses, including food.
“We depend on donations and really operate on a shoestring budget,” she said. “I think the most we’ve ever had in our account is $5,000.”
Zivah is one of Shemuga’s rescues, and, according to her, the little dog’s story is typical.
The 2-year-old toy poodle was left at a shelter in Western Massachusetts with a crushed pelvis after being hit by a car. Her owner couldn’t pay the veterinary bills, and no one was willing to adopt her.
Shemuga heard about the dog and drove to the shelter.
“She had been sitting there for 10 days with no pain medication, no care,” she said. “It was her final day and they were going to euthanize her, so I took her.”
Weeks passed and Zivah’s pelvis healed, but she could no longer walk. So Shemuga went to work on her rehabilitation. Each day she would put a sling around Zivah’s midsection, and step by step she strengthened the tiny dog’s muscles and retaught her how to walk. Zivah was not out of the woods, however. She had been born with a heart defect that needed to be corrected.
Unwavering, Shemuga took her to Angell Memorial Hospital for surgery, and is still paying off the hospital bills.
Zivah is now at home in New Hampshire with a couple who had been mourning the death of their 17-year-old poodle.
“We were just sick over the loss of Kramer,” Joanne Ronsivalli said. “And to ease my grief I had been reading different poodle websites and reading profiles of dogs.”
She reached out to Shemuga after reading Zivah’s story.
“She touched my heart,” Ronsivalli said. “What can I say? I’m just thrilled. Zivah made our house a home again.”
But Ronsivalli said she didn’t go into the poodle adoption process wearing rose-colored glasses.
“I thought, could this really be legitimate? Could she be telling me the truth about all Zivah had been through?”
She said Shemuga never asked for a cent to pay for Zivah’s past medical bills, and brought Zivah to her home with a packet from the heart surgeon, and every medical record in order. The adoption cost Ronsivalli $350.
“I brought her for a checkup with my vet, and her eyes were bugging out of her head looking at Zivah’s history. She couldn’t believe what excellent condition Zivah was in,” Ronsivalli said. “Sue is the fairy godmother of poodles.”
Shemuga gets emotional when she talks about Zivah.
“No one would have taken her on,” she said. “But she’s got so much life left to live.”
Shemuga and her husband, Gary, got their first poodle 17 years ago, and Ben is still going strong. A believer in combining conventional and holistic medicine, Shemuga will get acupuncture treatments for her rescued dogs if she thinks it will help, and she provides dietary supplements alongside her homemade dog food.
A trained nanny, Shemuga says with a smile that dogs aren’t really all that different from children. They all have a personality, and with proper training and education, they can fulfill their potential.
Take Chanel, for example.
She came to Shemuga after being surrendered by her owner because she was “a biter.”
“We’re the only poodle rescue that will take biters,” she said.
Shemuga says Chanel is a very smart dog who was so bored with being left alone all day that she acted out when her owners got home.
“She’s a tiny little thing, and super smart, and she was just trying to possess everything in the house,” she said.
Shemuga sent her to an overnight obedience class and then “gave her a job” doing agility drills, and while it took a year of training, Chanel is now living with a family in New Jersey that adores her.
“She was just really bored,” Shemuga said.
Chanel is still going to agility classes and competitions, and her owner, Amy Huntington, said she’s a star.
“We get to class and she’s so excited, she just needed that kind of activity,” Huntington said. “She’s such a happy girl now, it’s hard for me to comprehend that she used to be such a scared and mean little dog.”
A self-described “straight talker,” Shemuga says she won’t place one of her poodles in a home she doesn’t think is a good fit.
“I tick a lot of people off,” she said. “But it’s not about just finding a home, it’s about finding the right home.”
She holds monthly “meet and greet” events where people can see the poodles ready for adoption, and takes the dogs for home visits before placing them. She drove to New Hampshire with Zivah to visit the Ronsivallis, and spent several hours in New York City traffic making her way over the George Washington Bridge with Chanel on her way to visit the Huntingtons.
“Sue is a rare person who will actually work with difficult dogs,” Huntington said. “Her heart is in it 120 percent. She loves these dogs, she wants them to have a good life, and I admire her for that.”