The sign in front of the property said: free dog. A closer look revealed the Queensland Heeler mix chained to the obviously vacant house. Adriana Barnes wasted no time in putting bolt cutters to work, freeing the sweet dog from his lifetime of living outside and months of relying on the kindness of neighbors for food and water.
“The owner passed away in October, and he was just left there,” says Cheri Lucas, dog behaviorist and founder of Second Chance at Love Humane Society in Templeton, California. She and Barnes, a friend and fellow trainer, worked together to save the dog in April. Barnes handled the rescue near her home in Santa Clarita and transported the dog three hours north to Lucas, who could provide him with much-needed medical care and find him a forever family.
Named Brigado, a shortened version of “thank you” in Portuguese, because Lucas felt such gratitude from him, his medical care involved removing the large, cancerous tumor on his right hip. It had burst and become infected and also infested with flies. He needed neutering, treatment for ear infections, dewclaw removal, and a full dental, too. Many of his teeth were missing or worn down, the latter from trying to chew through the chain that held him captive. The vet estimated his age at about nine and said he also had hearing loss.
With Brigado’s body on the mend, Lucas began working on his behavior. She kept him in her personal pack instead of with the 40 or so dogs at her shelter, also located on her property and dubbed Second Chance Ranch.
“I kept him at the house because he needed to be socialized. He just hadn’t had that experience before,” explains Lucas. “My pack is really balanced, which helped him move forward. He was smiling from ear to ear in no time.”
Brigado was ready for his forever home and made available for adoption. His senior status earned him placement on the popular Susie’s Senior Dogs website and Facebook page. It was there that he caught the attention of Meika Zelenova.
The longtime cat person — she and her husband, Serge Zelenovo, have five rescues — followed the Facebook page after learning of it through Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York project. His girlfriend, Erin O’Sullivan, runs the website, which spotlights senior dogs in need of a forever family. Zelenova found the stories touching, but had never considered adopting a dog. Plus, most of the animals were on the East Coast, thousands of miles from their home north of Sacramento — until Brigado.
“His face was just super cute, and his story was so tragic,” she recalls of seeing him for the first time online. “All of the dogs have sad stories and need a home, but I thought, ‘I need to save this dog.'”
Despite that initial impulse, Zelanova hesitated. She saw that many others were interested in Brigado, and she hadn’t lived with a dog since childhood.
“He got reposted three weeks later and I said, ‘OK, I really should meet this dog.'”
Zelanova contacted Second Chance and began the application process. She had many questions for Lucas — was he good with cats? — and Lucas had many questions for her. Both wanted to ensure a good match.
A few weeks later, the couple traveled nearly five hours south to meet Brigado. They brought with them a bed, water dish, and toys. Zelanova had already spoken to a trainer, who would help them introduce their new dog to the resident cats.
“We also hired her to train us, to help us figure out what we needed to teach him,” she says with a laugh.
Brigado has now been with his new family for a month, and Zelanova reports that he has settled in nicely.
“He’s been really great, especially considering the severe neglect,” she says. Neighbors told his rescuers that he never lived inside, no matter the weather. “He’s been an easy first dog for me.”
The senior does have his challenges, including slight incontinence, not helped by the fact that his outside existence meant he never learned not to relieve himself inside. His new vet also diagnosed him with arthritis, peripheral blindness, and total hearing loss, the latter of which the couple adapts to by using hand signals taught by their trainer.
On a recent Sunday, they took Brigado to a brunch spot in their area that allows dogs on the patio. He settled in next to the gate near their table and just enjoyed being out and about. The couple also got the answer to another question that day: Was he good with kids?
“This little girl came running up, and before her mother or we could say a word, she reached through the gate,” Zelanova says. “He put his head up against the gate and lifted his paw. It was the cutest thing. He was totally fine.”
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