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Colleen Combs, renowned among Sonoma County’s dog rescuers, dies at 57

How to get help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780.

Advocates for animals mourn the death of Colleen Combs, the Sonoma County woman who committed herself to saving abandoned and stray dogs from being put to death after her own dog died defending her.

A decade ago, Combs co-founded with renowned Wine Country chef Douglas Keane the nonprofit Green Dog Rescue Project. Located at Combs’ existing dog day care, boarding and training business in Windsor, Green Dog Rescue was a global pioneer in resolving aggression and other traits that can cause dogs to be put down by allowing the animals to move freely in, and to learn from, a pack.

Family members of Combs believe she took her own life in Fairfield on March 11 amid the distress of a financial crisis that jeopardized both the Green Dog Rescue Project and her allied business, King’s Kastle. She was 57.

Sonoma County is a hot spot for individuals and organizations that rescue, treat, rehabilitate and seek permanent homes for dogs that without help would face misery on the streets or death. Combs was a leader in the field.

“She was just brilliant at it,” said chef Keane, a fellow opponent of putting dogs to death. “She spoke the dogs’ language, and she was their voice.

“She was like the Michael Jordan of dog rescue,” Keane added. “There was no one better.”

“She found she had more in common with dogs than she did with humans,” said Combs’ son, Scott Van Dyke of Colorado.

Born into a Navy family in San Diego on Nov. 27, 1963, Combs attended high school in Sonora, then married and reared her son and a daughter in and near Modesto. She studied American sign language and aspired for a time to become an interpreter for people who are deaf.

“But she drifted over toward animals,” her son said.

More than 25 years ago, Combs sensed a potent desire to leave the Central Valley and make a new start elsewhere in California. Her partner, Shelli Byers, said she tossed a dart at a map of the state.

It struck near Monte Rio, on the lower Russian River. So Combs and her two kids moved there.

She had moved to Cloverdale when she began to board and care for dogs. She’d relocated to Windsor and was running King’s Kastle when Keane became aware of her and her reputation as a dog whisperer.

In 2011, Keane sought out Combs because he needed help with a quest to save dogs he thought were unnecessarily and inhumanely at risk of being killed at the former Healdsburg Animal Shelter.

“I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I just had a feeling it didn’t need to be like that,” said Keane, who is a partner with Sang Yoon in Two Birds/One Stone in Napa and operates Healdsburg Bar & Grill.

Keane and Combs clicked and found a shared passion to act against the putting down of dogs they believe might need only to be freed from maddening cages and given a chance at life and adoption.

Combs rejected the presumption that at shelters dogs must be placed in individual kennels to prevent them from attacking each other or spreading disease. She told The Press Democrat early in 2019, “The stress of being in kennels actually creates and exacerbates medical conditions.”

She blamed much aggression and erratic behavior in shelter dogs on the anxiety that results from isolating social pack animals in cages. She said in the 2019 news story, “The pack itself helps rehabilitate them.”

She and Keane together founded the Green Dog Rescue Project, the name denoting that homeless dogs should not be thrown away but, if at all possible, given a chance to be recycled into new lives and hopefully new families.

There is more on Green Dog Rescue at its website, greendogproject.org.

Combs would recount that her passion for saving dogs from abuse, neglect and death was fortified by what a dog did to save her.

She said she’d gone through a nasty divorce and her kids were 4 and 9 when an intruder appeared in her home and held her at gunpoint. Her dog, Kyshka, a Siberian husky/wolf hybrid, was outside.

“I heard glass break,” she said, “and Kyshka had gone through the window of the kitchen door and came into the house and attacked the assailant.” She said the gun discharged and Kyshka was shot and killed, but the attack on her was stopped.

Combs believed a great many dogs that might well make loving companions to people are instead put down for behaviors that could be remedied.

“”They are willing to give us everything they got,“ she once said, ”and we haven’t even taken a step in giving them something they deserve.“

Combs’ partner, Byers, said business at King’s Kastle dropped off sharply this past year as many people stopped going to work and stayed at home, with their dogs. Byers said Combs applied earlier this year for a Payroll Protection Program loan, and through a mixup her business received PPP loans from two different financial institutions.

Byers said Combs was advised to keep the money, and to be prepared to pay it back. But two weeks ago she went to issue payroll checks to King’s Kastle employees, Byers said, and she saw that a huge chunk of PPP dollars had been seized and her company checking account was $85,000 in the red.

As Combs struggled to resolve the problem and to save King’s Kastle, her partner said, she was horribly stressed and suffered debilitating migraines.

On March 11, Combs drove to the Fairfield area, ostensibly to pick up a dog, and she did not return. She was found dead, and signs pointed to suicide, her family said.

She and Byers had been planning to move to Eugene, Oregon, and to open an animal behavior training center there. People closest to her said all she ever wanted to do was work with dogs, especially ones that others dismissed as beyond salvage.

“She saved so many dogs,” Green Dog Rescue co-founder Keane said. ”It’s a huge loss.”

In addition to her partner in Windsor and her son in Firestone, Colorado, Combs is survived by her daughter, Holli Combs of Oroville; her brothers, Kevin Combs of Modesto and Rick Combs, whose hometown could not be determined on Saturday; and four grandchildren.

Combs’ family plans a celebration of her life later this year.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

How to get help

North Bay Suicide Prevention Hotline: 855-587-6373

24-hour Emergency Mental Health Unit: 800-746-8181

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-SUICIDE

Resources also are available for those who have lost someone to suicide.

Sutter VNA & Hospice offers several support groups, including those for survivors of suicide, children who have experienced a loss and parents who have lost a child. Call 707-535-5780.

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