Jeanine Nesvik came home from work one evening to a sickening discovery: Somebody had broken into her home outside Phoenix and had stolen her four dogs, along with seven rescued dogs she was fostering in her house.
“My dogs are my family — it was shocking and painful that anyone would do such a cruel thing,” she said, adding that the criminals inexplicably did not steal six other rescued dogs she was fostering in her home.
Police investigated and told her that a white van had been spotted in the alley behind Nesvik’s house that day, March 23, which was also National Puppy Day. They said whoever took the 11 dogs likely knew Nesvik and had entered her property through a back gate, she said. But there were no other clues.
“It was so upsetting,” said Nesvik, 38, explaining that one of the stolen dogs is blind, others had various medical issues and two of them were 8-week-old puppies. “Everyone who knows me knows how much I love my dogs.”
She was particularly worried about Leah, a Belgian Malinois shepherd that often accompanied her to her job as a children’s speech pathologist at the Watch Me Grow Pediatric Therapy clinic in Gilbert, Ariz.
Nesvik had trained Leah, a former rescue dog, to be a therapy canine for young clients with autism. Leah wore a collar advertising free hugs.
“She’s a ‘hugging’ dog who is there to provide emotional comfort,” she said. “If a child is having a hard time, Leah will stand up and give them a hug with her front legs, or she’ll sprawl down to be petted.”
“Sometimes, that deep pressure of a hug will really help to calm the child,” Nesvik added.
Leah also helps children with speech therapy, and kids enjoy playing with her as a reward for working hard during their therapy sessions, she said.
“To have her suddenly gone was devastating,” Nesvik said, noting that she adopted Leah last August after taking her in as a foster dog and quickly fell in love with her.
Nesvik said she cried for days over the loss of Leah and the others, and barely slept because she was worried about them being sold or abused.
Nesvik shared the news with friends and fellow dog lovers in her community of Chandler, Ariz., asking them to keep an eye out for her pooches. The community immediately rallied.
“It was shocking that something like this could happen, and everyone was thinking, ‘What if those were my dogs?’ ” said Debbie Varner, founder of Follow Your Heart Animal Rescue in Chandler.
Nesvik has fostered about 100 of the dogs from the rescue in the five years the two have known each other.
“I decided to make it my mission to help find them,” said Varner.
Varner flooded her Facebook page with photos of the stolen dogs and asked people to pledge what they could toward a reward in case somebody provided information leading to their recovery. People pledged more than $20,000, she said.
“I thought maybe if we kept the pressure on, whoever took them would release them,” said Varner, 61.
Other dog-rescue people also stepped up.
Sheri Goodwin spent hours searching dog sites for Nesvik’s pooches and printed thousands of fliers to post around town.
“I’m a lot like Jeanine in that I take in dogs and help them to change bad behaviors so they can get adopted,” said Goodwin, 58.
“We’re not animal hoarders — we’re helping to save dogs and get them into good homes,” she said. “I knew that I had to help.”
Among those who took several stacks of fliers were Jody and Mark Pectol, dog lovers who own Zzeeks Pizza and Wings, a small chain of restaurants in the Phoenix area.
For weeks, the Pectols attached fliers about the theft of Nesvik’s dogs to each pizza delivery box that went out of their shops.
“We weren’t sure it would work,” said Mark Pectol, 59. “But we knew for a fact that the only thing that wouldn’t work was to do nothing. We thought it was important to get the word out.”
In mid-April, the publicity campaign began to pay off.
In a surprising and happy turn, four of Nesvik’s dogs were left by an unidentified person at a dog park in Mesa, about eight miles from Chandler. Then in mid-May, another four were similarly dropped off at a dog park in the nearby town of Gilbert.
“Nobody saw who dumped them there, but so many people knew about my story that people were calling within 20 minutes,” said Nesvik, noting that some of the dogs were microchipped.
Nesvik tearfully raced over to the park to pick up the dogs, and after a reunion, she took them to the vet because they were malnourished and appeared to be emotionally traumatized, she said.
Her dog Seven, a 1-year-old Aussie hound mix, needed emergency care for broken teeth and extreme dehydration.
“All of them were smelly and covered in feces and urine and it was obvious they’d been kept locked in cages,” she said. “They were also suddenly afraid of men. It broke my heart.”
Gradually, though, the dogs responded to her love and care. Nesvik said she was elated to have them back, but she also couldn’t let go of her worry.
Leah was still missing, along with two foster puppies.
Then on June 17, a call came in from the microchip company that Nesvik uses. A police officer had found Leah wandering around a baseball field in Prescott, more than two hours away.
“Two male officers tried to get to her, but she wouldn’t go near them,” said Nesvik.
A female officer finally enticed Leah over and scanned her microchip, she said. Then Nesvik’s boss, Rebecca Waters, called her daughter Ashley Waters, who lives near Prescott, and asked her to pick the dog up.
“All of the kids at the clinic and the staff missed her so much,” said Rebecca Waters, 45. “We were in tears and beyond ecstatic that Leah had been found.”
Waters drove Nesvik to a halfway point to pick up Leah from Ashley Waters.
“As soon as I saw it was really Leah, I started bawling,” said Nesvik. “She literally melted into me to give me a hug. ‘Good girl, good girl,’ I told her over and over.”
After Leah was checked out at the vet and given a bath, Nesvik got her a puppuccino at Starbucks, then took her home to rejoin her dog pals. She said she doesn’t have much hope that she’ll recover the two puppies and believes they were probably sold.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have most of my dog family back,” she said. “I don’t think it would have happened without so much love and support from the community.”
Chandler police did not respond to a request from The Washington Post for comment about the case, but Nesvik said they are still investigating leads.
“I’m happy to have the dogs back, but whoever did this needs to pay for what they did,” she said.
Neighbors helped to install a security camera system in her yard, and for the first time in three months, she said she is finally able to sleep.
“I’m going to focus on the good in these dogs’ lives and help get them into loving homes,” Nesvik said. “That’s where my heart is. We keep moving forward.”