Maddie Tyssen and Tylar-Grace Masnaghi know that not all homes should have a dog, but they believe with every bone in their body that all dogs should have a home.
While they know that is a tall order, the two friends founded Free Dem Dogs to try.
“We're never gonna save them all, but we believe that if we work together, we're a hell of a lot more likely to,” said Masnaghi.
Founded in December 2020, Free Dem Dogs is a volunteer-run, not-for-profit rescue organization with a focus on fundraising, educating and advocating.
It all started a couple years ago when Tyssen’s dad approached her asking if she could help him purchase a puppy.
Tyssen, a Collingwood resident, has a rescue pup of her own named Zeke and she has always advocated that her loved ones “adopt, not shop,” so she started researching, wanting to help him at least find an ethical and reputable breeder.
But when they arrived at the farm, Tyssen was horrified.
“It was a borderline puppy mill,” said Tyssen. “I was blown away and brought to tears. I couldn't handle it. How are human beings treating dogs like this?”
There was one dog, in particular, named Cloe, that stole Tyssen’s heart. Now nine years old, Cloe spent the majority of her life being bred. After she became too old to generate a profit, her owners retired her to spend the rest of her life at the kennel with no love and barely even the basic necessities.
“I just kept repeating in my head, ‘I need to save that dog,’” said Tyssen.
When she got home later that day she called Masnaghi immediately. An old friend and coworker, Masnaghi has been working with various rescue organizations in different capacities for the past five years. Within a few hours, Tyssen and Masnaghi had a number of rescues across Ontario willing to help. With their support, Tyssen drove back to the breeder the next morning and convinced the owners to hand over Cloe on the spot.
“It was just incredible, the support we got,” said Tyssen. “There were so many rescues who were willing to help. We thought, how can we give back?”
After debriefing the situation, the duo realized how good it felt to know they played some small part in saving Cloe’s life. Financial hardships are so familiar to local rescue organizations, so Tyssen and Masnaghi started brainstorming ways they could help ease some of the financial stress.
“Because of a rescue, she will live out the rest of her days in a warm, loving home,” said Masnaghi. The problem is, a situation like Cloe’s is not unique.
Unfortunately, puppy mills are all too common in Ontario, so Tyssen and Masnaghi wanted to help educate others on this harsh reality as well.
“The problem is all these backyard breeders and puppy mills that are just banging out dogs for the purpose of profit,” said Tyssen. “People don't realize that there are thousands of them in Ontario that are happening right in our backyard.”
They started coming up with different ideas and decided to sell t-shirts to raise funds for rescue organizations, as well as raise awareness about the greater issue.
They started Free Dem Dogs as a website and Instagram page and released their inaugural “f*ck puppy mills” t-shirt. Within a day they had completely sold out.
“People really wanted to help,” said Tyssen. ”And this was kind of trendy and cheeky.”
In less than a week they had built a huge following, and it has only grown from there.
The idea is that the funds will help pay for the various costs and vetting bills a rescue must front when they intake a new dog. Free Dem Dogs now has several different products available and has raised almost $20,000 for rescue organizations since December 2020.
So far, they have also been able to help rescue 18 dogs from unsafe situations.
Tyssen and Masnaghi do everything themselves, from designing the products and promoting the brand, to packing purchases and shipping inventory across the county, on top of attending teachers’ college and working full-time jobs, respectively.
“It's definitely emotionally draining, especially because you have this compassion fatigue. It's hard, right,” said Tyssen. “But it's so worth it in the end.”
Tyssen and Masnaghi have built a network of different partners that range from local organizations to international, spanning across North America, India, Mexico and the Cayman Islands, so far. They rotate the funds between all of the organizations and are always looking for new rescues they can support as well.
One hundred per cent of the proceeds are donated to their partner organizations and occasionally, they release a product with a specific fundraising goal in mind. Their main slogan on a lot of their products is now “Support your local rescue.”
“That's really our mission, helping to ease some of that financial hardship so they can focus on what really matters, which is saving the dogs,” said Tyssen.
Free Dem Dogs also serves as a platform to facilitate adoption as well as an educational space for anyone who has questions about the adoption process or wants to vet a breeder.
“My heart melts when you see those final photos. The happy stories,” said Tyssen.
They are also currently looking for local businesses they can partner with to continue raising awareness. Their merchandise is now sold at Maker’s Outpost in Collingwood and Penny’s Motel in Thornbury, and so far, they have held fundraising pop-ups at establishments like Power Yoga Canada Collingwood.
“Having our stuff in stores allows people to keep having these conversations,” said Tyssen. “And it helps bring foot traffic to the local businesses as well.”
This summer, Free Dem Dogs will have a booth set up at a market in Muskoka every Tuesday, and Tyssen and Masnaghi are planning several pop-ups in Collingwood and beyond in the coming months as well.
At the end of the day, their goal really is to just help as many dogs as they can.
Tyssen and Masnaghi currently have three rescues between them and they know how much joy a dog brings to their lives.
“These dogs, they really are just so loving,” said Masnaghi. “There are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners.”
“It's truly just about educating and just doing our part,” added Tyssen. “It's a passion, right? I just feel so much joy when I'm able to help a dog in need.”
As they continue to grow, Tyssen and Masnaghi are working to keep refining not only how they operate, but how they can help local rescues and expand partnerships so they can make as much of a difference as possible.
“I truly believe that this is like my purpose that I'm here to just help the animals,” said Masnaghi.