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An animal lover since childhood, Liesl Wilhardt founded Luvable Dog Rescue 17 years ago, using an inheritance from her mother to begin building tiny cottages for dogs on 55 idyllic acres in Eugene, Oregon. Mom to 10 pooches herself, Wilhardt has dedicated her life to dogs, staying up overnight to deliver pregnant pups' litters and building the cottages herself. "It's been 17 years of hard work and building this very slowly and carefully," she tells PEOPLE.
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A mix of pit bulls and "littles," as Wilhardt calls the rescue's smaller mixed-breed pups, live at Luvable, and enjoy the big perk of calling these 55 acres home: space! "It's just outside the city limits," Wilhardt explains. "There are very few neighbors, it's quiet, private. It's been a perfect place for a dog sanctuary."
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Pit bulls get their own cottages, while littles live six or eight to a home. "They have windows looking out on the forest, bunk beds," Wilhardt says. "It's cozy, not like a traditional shelter." She designs the structures herself, and staff helps build as the organization continues to expand. "I didn't have a lot of money [in the beginning] so I couldn't build a big building, I could only afford to build one house at a time," she explains. "But it allows us to have different levels of quarantine, sterility. It is cute, it's fun and I think the dogs love having the customized work."
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"A lot of the décor is donated," Wilhardt says. "I got a lot of it when my mom and grandmother died, a lot came from their homes. But we do have people donating art and La-Z-Boy recliners. Obviously the dogs are hard on that stuff so we don't want anything really nice or valuable. The wear it into the ground!"
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The Luvable team plucks pups from high-kill shelters and houses them for as long as it takes to get the adopted in Oregon. But even with the space she has, Wilhardt has to turn dogs away "every day," she says. "That's definitely the hardest part of the job — how often I have to say no. We only have space available when we get someone adopted and their space opens up."
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"Currently, we have 25 little dogs, 13 puppies and normally we have between seven and 10 pit bulls," she says. "Littles usually get adopted within a month. Those roll over quickly. But pit bulls can be here for many months before we find a home." One mother/daughter pit bull pair has been at Luvable for two years. "It's really sad," Wilhardt explains. "The only reason they're still here is that they're dog-aggressive, reactive. They're not great with strange dogs. They've been through a lot of training and are much better, but I think people are hesitant to take on that extra level of responsibility and management."
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An added perk for Luvable staff members who love working with dogs: exercise! "I walk and hike several hours a day with the dogs," Wilhardt says. "I got a FitBit from a friend and it turns out I walk 16 miles a day! My staff is in great shape — walking and hiking and being out in nature is such a big part of our program here." It also helps the dogs cope with kennel stress, "a big problem for lots of shelters," Wilhardt explains. "Being outdoors and knowing they're going to get that hike everyday, to know they have a routine, that helps our dogs. Some pits are here for months before they find homes, so we have to be sure they don't deteriorate from kennel stress."
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"I know this sounds weird, but I swear that the dogs that are here know that it's a safe and loving place, that they can relax," Wilhardt shares. "You see how quickly they trust us, relax, accept the routine. We watch them go from terrified and neglected to happy, outgoing, hopeful animals; that can happen in a day or two days. Our purpose is to give love to these dogs — that's the relationship we treasure here."
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Wilhardt is eternally grateful to her dedicated staff and volunteers, but one stands out from the rest: manager Ashley Olson (in purple), who's been on the team for two years. "She's completely devoted to the well-being of our dogs and works long hours, holidays, the middle of the night — whatever the dogs need, she will do," Wilhardt says. "She also cares greatly about the people who come to us looking to adopt a dog, and spends countless hours getting to know our adopters so our dogs can be placed with the most compatible families."
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When people come to Luvable for the first time, "they can't believe it, they usually start laughing," Wilhardt shares. "They say, 'Wow, this is just such a happy place, it's like a summer camp for dogs.' They're happy because they see that the dogs are happy."