As Jason Cooke spoke, Manning rolled in the grass, seemingly trying to reach some itch that his nose and paw couldn’t touch. Or, maybe he just liked the feel of the sun-heated blades on his back.
Throughout a conversation that lasted a good 10 minutes, Manning never once barked. He showed he was curious, but didn’t try to pull Cooke away, and never imposed on Cooke’s companion.
In many ways, it seems that Manning, a 60-pound pit bull, would make an ideal addition to a family.
Yet, Manning is probably still alive only because of Cooke. A stray picked up by the Mahoning County Dog Warden, Manning has heartworm, a potentially fatal disease spread by mosquitoes.
“The adult worms are 12 inches long,” said Cooke, of Brookfield. “They attack the heart and they attack the lungs. They essentially suffocate the dog. There’s no reversing the damage that they did.”
Yet, heartworm is entirely preventable with once-a-month treatments and, if it is diagnosed early enough, can be eradicated by medication. Many dogs lead long, productive lives after heartworm treatment.
Cooke created the Healthy Hearts and Paws Project in April as a non-profit corporation to treat and rehabilitate heartworm-positive dogs and get them into homes, formalizing work he had done since last summer. He also takes in a few hard-luck cases that bend his heart.
“This kind of just fell into my lap that, wow, these dogs were being euthanized and not given a chance,” said Cooke, the former president of Humane Society of Mahoning County.
He approached the Mahoning County commissioners with an offer. “I said, ‘Look, we can save these dogs, and I’ll help you.’ The relationship we have with the Mahoning County Dog Warden is amazing. We’re nearing 40 dogs that we’ve treated out of that facility since August (2018).”
All told, Cooke has treated 70 dogs, and 40 of them have been adopted into homes. Most of the dogs go to shelters for adoption after their treatment ends, although Cooke has handled a few adoptions on his own.
Healthy Hearts has taken dogs from Mahoning, Trumbull, Cuyahoga, Summit and Hocking counties in Ohio, as well as Oklahoma and Texas.
Running the operation out of his mom’s home on Collar Price Road, Cooke uses the 40 acres of property, much of it forested, to allow the dogs the build up their strength through long walks and, if they like the water, swims in a pond.
Cooke uses a heartworm treatment protocol that calls for 30 days of rest, either at his home or in a foster home. If he doesn’t have the space, the dogs stay with Countryside Veterinary Service in Kinsman.
For a dog like Manning, heartworm treatment costs about $600, an expense that many shelters are unable or unwilling to pay. Few have the management ability to handle dogs that require long-term care, he said.
Cooke formed Healthy Hearts after concluding he needed help.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Since becoming a 501(c)3, a lot of things have changed for the better.”
A non-profit more easily attracts volunteers, has access to grants, and allows contributions to be tax deductible.
“Right now, I’m surviving just through Facebook and Instagram donations,” he said, although more structured fundraising activities are planned. “The support has been overwhelming.”
He also has shaped his corporation board so that he has realistic expectations of what he can accomplish.
“I am the only crazy dog lover that’s allowed on my board,” he said.
His volunteer crew includes Shannon Arkwright, who calls her dog-walking duties therapeutic – so much so that she typically stops by four days a week.
Andrea Thompson spends four hours a day with the dogs who do not do well with other dogs. One of them, Nitro, is an expert retriever of underwater items, and Cooke is looking into finding search-and-rescue training for him.
With partners in Friends of Fido Inc. of Youngstown, Animal Welfare League of Trumbull County, Friendship Animal Protective League in Elyria and other shelter and advocacy groups, Cooke knows there are more dogs that need help than he can ever provide. Still, he does as much as he can.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to give them a second opportunity and rehabilitate them,” he said.
Cooke can be reached through the Healthy Hearts and Paws Project Facebook page.