Hank’s painted portrait captures his handsome face and gentle spirit. There’s that goofy grin. The bright eyes. The perked-up ears and drooping tongue.
“It’s a good likeness,” said Jason Viscount, new dog-dad to Hank, a 5- or 6-year-old pit bull. “He’s a lot prettier dog than the photos.”
An artist with Cheddar Paws Dog Art painted Hank’s likeness, which Viscount prefers much more than the pictures he saw.
“I don’t think the photos did him justice,” Viscount said. “His head looked so much bigger than his body. It looked like he was going to topple over.”
Members of this unique consortium put brush to canvas, or mouse to monitor, to help find homes for hard-to-place dogs, and the occasional cat. The portraits hang in local businesses, go on fliers distributed by pizza shops, and circulate on social media, reaching potential adopters who might not be looking for a dog until that perfect face finds them.
Cheddar Paws launched in summer 2019 after Karen Spidle and Natahnee Miller, both involved in local animal rescues, discovered their shared interest in art. Miller painted a shelter dog, and they saw a new avenue for promoting adoption.
The two now lead a loose affiliation of eight local artists. Shelters submit photos of those dogs that just can’t find their forever homes. One of the artists will volunteer to turn the photo into a painting or graphic rendering that starts making the rounds.
Shelter dogs “don’t get much choice in life,” said Miller. “We make all the decisions as far as where they end up. If I can help them end up in a better situation or have a better life, I gladly will, because they don’t have the ability to change their own destiny.”
To date, Cheddar Paws artists have painted 76 dogs. Spidle, it seems, can name each one. Butterscotch. Coors. Susie. A cat named Leo. If an artist can paint their eyes, she said, “You have captured their soul.”
One sweet pit bull named Tempest lingered in foster care through Pitties Love Peace for more than 18 months. Timid, ill and unsuitable for kids, she received not one adoption application.
Then a Cheddar Paws painting began circulating. Suddenly, 11 applications flooded in, and PLP Vice President Jessica Blouch says there’s “no way” they could all be due to the shutdown-fueled surge in adoptions and fostering.
“This poor dog, she is so sweet, but she hasn’t had any attention, and all of a sudden, she gets more apps than any dog we had during the shutdown,” said Blouch. “Cheddar Paws is a great organization.”
Adoption, Blouch adds, moves a dog from the limbo of foster care or shelter life to “getting to start the rest of their life.”
The artists paint dogs that are lingering “to help give them that little extra push of exposure,” Miller said. “Why is this dog still sitting here? It’s almost like his perfect person or her perfect person is somehow missing them.”
Zella Smith Anderson, founder and executive director of Central PA Animal Alliance, admitted to being “in awe at the talent of these people and the willingness to help in such a special way.”
“Not everybody’s on Facebook,” said Anderson, whose alliance operates HOPE, the Hounds Of Prison Education program pairing state prison inmates with shelter dogs to train. “Not everybody is going to go to Petfinder or the rescue websites to find these dogs.”
Spidle and Miller cultivated local businesses and shelters where the paintings hang. Two pizza shops distribute fliers. Some businesses created galleries. At the artist-friendly Tiger Eye coffee shop in Paxtang, “the dogs on the wall sure do get a lot of attention,” said owner Makayla Burton.
While customers wait for their coffee, Burton hears them naming the dogs depicted in colorful, imaginative portraits.
“Everyone’s reading about Prince Naveen and Ida and Iggy,” she said.
A painting of an overlooked shelter dog plants thoughts of adoption by making it feel much more personal, she said.
“The dogs are real,” Burton said. “They’re there. People have put time into them already. Why wouldn’t I do that?”
The Cheddar Paws’ social media strategy regularly gives those businesses a shout-out. The portraits, posted to great acclaim, draw from 900 to 1,700 views.
“To me, that’s a lot more than just a regular post on (a shelter) website of a dog,” Spidle said. “It’s shared and shared and shared.”
Spidle doesn’t know for sure if any Cheddar Paws paintings led directly to adoption, but 33 of the dogs painted now have homes.
When the dog is adopted—when Jaxx or Bella finds a home—the new owner gets the painting.
Hank, the sociable gray pit bull, found his home with Viscount, well-known chef and owner of Greystone Public House. From their woodsy enclave in the Boiling Springs area, Hank can sit on the patio for hours, enjoying the breeze and the scents, although he might bolt after the occasional deer.
“He definitely likes to play, but he’s kind of a couch potato,” Viscount said, while Hank sprawled contentedly on the driveway. Hank’s portrait will go to Morgantown with Viscount’s daughter, a West Virginia University senior who bonded with Hank.
The Dogs’ Den has a portrait of Unique hanging at Ted’s Bar in Annville, said Denise Durkay, founder and president of the Grantville-based rescue.
“When you get more than just, quote, ‘dog people’ looking at a picture, sometimes they finally realize, ‘Maybe I can do this. Maybe I can adopt a dog,’” she said. And her adopters are “tickled to death” to learn that their new four-legged family member comes with a portrait.
Spidle wants to keep Cheddar Paws fun, so there are no plans to turn it into anything formal.
“Art, dogs and fun,” she says. “What’s not to love?”
When Miller paints a dog, she sees a beautiful creature whose home is out there somewhere. The right person just isn’t seeing it, she says.
“I guess we just hope we’re making some love connections.”
Follow Cheddar Paws Dog Art on Facebook. Find portraits at Doglicious Spa & Wellness Center, Abrams & Weakley, Keystone K9, Boneshire Brew Works, Pet Authority, Doggie Delights, The Tiger Eye and Ted’s Bar and Grill in Annville.