Sometimes in meeting someone, you’re struck by how confidently they occupy their place in the saddle, as if to them, life has an order to it that aligns with intention. Fifty-five-year-old Road King-riding Cristene Justus is such a person and was reader-nominated for a new feature in this column.
Born in Wenatchee, Washington, the “Apple Capital of the Northwest,” the family moved to Scappoose, Oregon, when Cristene, the youngest of three girls, was eight. Horsemanship had been central to childhood, with 4H, barrel racing and riding. But the 1898 farmhouse on acreage meant riding would be a 365-day occupation.
Each of the girls had their own shelter dog and found kittens were regularly carried home from trail rides. But it was Cristene’s horse Jodi-Lee who she fretted over most, particularly during a lighting storm. Stealing tires from the barrel-racing course, she rolled four together into a hoof-spaced pattern flat on the pasture. Then, walking her bridled horse slowly into position, when each hoof was within a tire rim, Cristene would bring Jodi-Lee to a stop. Until risk of lighting passed, the 10-year-old, likely in braids (unmanageable hair I’m guessing since it’s naturally curly now), would hold vigil so Jodi-Lee would remain in Cristene’s protective field.
I asked, “Did you stand in a tire yourself?” She answered, “No, I was just worried about the horse.”
It was 2009 when an Idaho friend called with news of an eight-week-old blind Australian Shepherd brought to a Kellogg, Idaho, shelter to be euthanized. Cristene named the pup “Bunny, our brand for Double J Dog Ranch.” Bunny was rendered blind by way of a gene responsible for a desirable dapple, a.k.a. a merle-patterned coat. If both the sire and dame have the “merle gene,” and if it doubles up in a whelp, loss of sight, undersized eyes and/or hearing loss is possible. In educating herself, Cristene was alarmed to realize what it meant for an otherwise healthy dog’s mortality. She explained of the rescue born that fateful day, “It was never a plan or dream. It just unfolded out of necessity for these dogs.”
The 501(c)(3) charity with local permitting allows 25 rescue dogs and five personal dogs on her land. She participates in Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, broadcast after the Super Bowl, and a 2017 front-page story in USA Today has helped raise awareness about special-needs dogs.
Most days Cristene’s schedule begins at 5:00 a.m., often with a run just as it gets light. She puts in a full day as partner in a grain commodity business, Justus Trading, a patron business for DJDR. At the ranch she works solo or with one or more fellow volunteers where 100 percent of every dollar donated goes to the care of the dogs, even donating the fuel she uses in shuttling dogs to and from offsite care.
She’s the contact, marketer and driving force behind Double J Dog Ranch, hands on in every aspect, from feeding, grant writing, rehoming and loving on dogs that would often be put down because they’re either blind, deaf, dying or all of the above.
Because of the prevalence of this condition in Aussie mixes, there are a number of Aussies enjoying a contained safe-roaming zone surrounding her home. But whether it’s Rider, the blind husky, or Big George, a deaf- and sight-impaired Great Dane newly arrived from Kentucky, the 30’x40’ multiple-doggie-door heated shop provides reliable shelter. The 100-year-old farmhouse, where dogs are welcome, “but not all at the same time,” was idle on the market for years before purchase in the early ’90s. Here, the dogs aren’t kenneled or crated, and each dog receives training with hand signals for the hearing impaired or by touch with the blind before moving on. Knowing each dog’s personality allows Cristene to better match pets to a family.
For every dog that is re-homed, another can be saved.
When we spoke in March she was arranging for transport of two blind Aussie mix sisters going to a new home in Baltimore. If an adoption doesn’t work out, regardless of how long a dog has been away, they are welcome to return to their Hauser Lake home, at DJDR’s expense. A Facebook page holds photos, video, stories and updates.
The $55,000 annual operating budget is sustained in part by two fundraisers, the Barking Lot Sale, an auction of donated items filling a shipping container, and the Ice Breaker 10K run which brought 500 runners to Hauser Lake last year. Sustaining patrons, patron businesses, support from community and the generosity of individuals allows the nonprofit to stay ahead of its needs.
Double J Dog Ranch offers sanctuary to special-needs dogs in jeopardy of euthanasia, offering hospice care, covering veterinary care costs for eye surgeries, spay and neutering services and more. The nonprofit serves to educate the public about what wonderful pets special-needs animals truly are.
As Cristene explained, “After all, the dogs don’t know they’re any different.”