Saving Some Souls

Non-profit focuses of rescuing bully breeds

Article by Savannah Vasquez

Photography by Robert Young and Mirko Bertossi

Originally published in Destin City Lifestyle

Piercing blue eyes peered out at her, the fear palpable in the skinny mutt’s eyes. Carmen Ionascu had come to Saving With Soul after contemplating the idea of fostering a dog in need. It was May of 2020, right at the beginning of the national pandemic lockdown, and Carmen thought fostering a dog would give her newfound time at home a greater purpose. 

Now, three years later, Destin City Lifestyle Publishers Josh and Carmen laugh as they call themselves failed foster parents. After having Lucy, a beagle and husky mix, for just two weeks, the couple decided to keep her. There was just no denying those big blue puppy-dog eyes. 

Lucy has fully become part of the family. Carmen and Josh say she is like their child and her personality makes her irresistible even today. The couple says they call her a cat because Lucy makes them beg her for attention and she is scared of everything.  

However, the little terrified dog has come a long way from that first day at the non-profit. Today, Lucy is a very spoiled and happy dog. She spends her days cuddling with her parents, riding in the golf cart and running on the beach.  

Carmen and Josh chose to foster with Saving With Soul because they see it for what it is; a true grass-roots non-profit. No frills or gimmicks, no politics or agendas, just honest people trying to make the world a better place for lost and abandoned pets. When it comes to what they do, Saving With Soul is really all about saving the animals. The non-profit quietly rescues over 2,000 dogs a year.   

“It never occurred to me that this is what I would be doing; running a dog and cat rescue,” said Saving With Soul’s Founder, Jennifer Hagedorn. “I was a writer; I wrote books for the real estate industry. I ended up writing about a local animal shelter and while there, I just had a wonderful time. Soon, I found myself going every day and I became the unofficial volunteer coordinator.” 

Jennifer said that slowly but surely the rescue work took over her writing career and in 2017, she launched Saving With Soul as an official non-profit. Today the non-profit has seven employees and about 200 volunteers and foster families working to save dogs and cats in Okaloosa and Walton Counties.  

“We are not breed or size specific, we basically say if it’s a nice dog or cat, we can save it,” Jennifer said. “We take in dogs and cats with special medical needs, old pets, you name it; we just don’t knowingly take in aggressive animals.” 

When it comes to the highest percentage of dogs that are labeled as “bully breeds,” Jennifer said that 75-percent of the dogs in animal shelters are pit bulls, the most misunderstood breed. Luckily for the pit bulls in the Northwest Florida area, Saving With Soul has now partnered with Flex Fitness to offer the bully breed a new future.  

"What we do is we sponsor the bully breeds adopted from Crestview Animal Services, Santa Rosa County Animal Shelter and Saving With Soul Pet Rescue,” said Dan Foster, owner of Flex Fitness. “When someone fosters or adopts a bully breed from one of those locations, they get a 3-month free membership to our gym." 

Not only does Dan sponsor those opening their homes to misunderstood pit bulls and bull dogs, he is also leading by example with his brand-new police dog training program Pit Bulls on Patrol (POP).  

“We are taking pit bulls from local animal shelters that are toy-driven and training them for law enforcement,” Dan explained. “So far we have been working with Covington County in Alabama and we have given them two fully-trained dogs.” 

Dan explained that the first dog he trained, Tyson, was a donation to the Covington County police force, to prove that the program works. Tyson was donated in May of 2022, and Dan said that not even six months after he became a deputy, the police force was offering to pay for a second dog.  

"Tyson was the first pit bull police dog in the state of Alabama," Dan said proudly. "Our second pit bull, Ingrid, that we are almost finished training, will be the first female pit bull deputy in the state of Alabama."

Dan said he chose the pit bull breed to train for police work because not only are the dogs loyal, but they are also known for their powerful and keenly-focused personalities. 

“The reason we take the law enforcement route is because pits are such a loyal and high-energy breed," he said. "We try to take that energy and use it for the right reason. I’ve been a pit bull owner and advocate for 20 years and I try to show people the good in them because they have such a bad stigma.” 

Dan is now in the process of building a custom facility for his North Crestview gym location. Flex Fitness will soon occupy a 12,000-square-foot building with excess property on which Dan plans to grow Pit Bulls On Patrol into a full-blown operation to train and certify future bully breed dogs for patrol.  

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