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His kind of town

Found Chicago rehabilitates and rehomes highly challenging dogs

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2014

Bosco, right, was emotionally shut down when he arrived at Found Chicago, but he has become a happy addition to the home of Brian Rzepnicki and Maria Cantu and their other rescue dogs, Baby, left, and Beau. Dog trainer Brittney Frazier works on Dodger’s confidence with some agility equipment. Found Chicago dog trainer Sean Alcock helps socialize Isis, Cookie, and Scooter in a playgroup.

Between two Thanksgivings, Bosco went from the end of a chain in Tennessee to a new, loving home in Illinois.

When firefighters responded to a brush fire in Ashland City, Tenn., on Thanksgiving night in 2012, they discovered about 60 dogs—including Bosco, a mostly black, pit bull-type terrier—chained to trees in the woods. Paraphernalia on the property, including a treadmill and a fighting pen, caused officials to suspect a dogfighting operation.

The nonprofit Animal Rescue Corps helped remove and care for the dogs, then placed them with partner organizations around the country. Bosco headed to Found Chicago, a rescue that specializes in rehabilitating and rehoming dogs who have challenging medical and behavioral issues.

Upon arrival in the Windy City, Bosco—about 10 months to a year old—was a little underweight and had some old scars, but his main problem was that he was emotionally shut down, says Andrea Tosone, Found Chicago’s development director. Staff had to disassemble his crate to get him out, and for the first week or so he wouldn’t walk anywhere or eat in front of anyone. In his kennel, he sat facing a corner.

But after staff worked with Bosco for months, he gradually came out of his shell—wandering from office to office in a common area, and taking treats from people’s hands. Found Chicago groomer Jason Gatz fostered him for about two months, and took him to daytime play groups at a sister organization: Stay, A Modern Dog Hotel. The fostering benefited Bosco tremendously, Tosone says, and in play groups he proved to be dog-social, despite his likely less-than-positive experiences with other dogs back in Tennessee.When married couple Brian Rzepnicki and Maria Cantu visited Found Chicago in September looking to adopt a dog to join their two at home, Bosco was still scared of people—which, funnily enough, helped him stand out from the pack.

The couple looked at three dogs that day—two who were playful and outgoing, and Bosco, who “didn’t even want to come near us,” Rzepnicki says. They didn’t know his whole story, but they decided they wanted him. “For us, sometimes the sadder they look, the more we love them.”

Still fearful when they got him home, Bosco would stay in his crate or the bathroom, and on walks he would often stop and try to hide. But within weeks, Rzepnicki and Cantu say, Bosco was a completely different dog: hopping on Cantu’s lap, playing and laying with their puppy, and running around the tennis courts at a local park.

To see Bosco overcome his fears and flourish in a new home “brings tears to my eyes,” Tosone says. “… This is why we get up in the morning. … If we weren’t able to cross the finish line with dogs like Bosco, then there’d be really no point to this organization being in existence.”

Found Chicago grew out of Stay, A Modern Dog Hotel, the boarding facility that architectural designer and boatyard owner Michael Heltzer started in 2005. “Frankly, we were in the rescue business almost right away,” says Heltzer, Found Chicago’s founder and president. Some customers abandoned dogs they had boarded at Stay, and employees would find stray animals, so the idea of starting a rescue seemed like a natural, Tosone explains.

Initially, Found Chicago consisted of five kennels for homeless dogs within Stay, but it soon became clear that wasn’t nearly enough, so the idea of a standalone rescue was born. Found Chicago began in 2009 and has had its own building since 2011—on the same campus near downtown Chicago as Stay and a related veterinary clinic, Heal.

Today, Found Chicago has about 50 kennels, half of which are devoted to homeless dogs. (The other half are for dogs who come for Found Chicago’s specialized boarding or training for canines with medical or behavior issues—services that support the rescue.) The organization pulls many of its dogs from open-access shelters such as the one run by Chicago Animal Care and Control. Found Chicago, with a small staff trained to deal with challenging cases, focuses on dogs that other rescues don’t have the resources to take. “A lot of times, we’re their only option,” Tosone says.Upon seeing Bosco with his new owners at a Found Chicago event, Tosone didn’t recognize him at first because he was walking so confidently. “He’s not going to be the most outgoing dog, but his world is certainly expanding,” she says. “We owe that to Brian and Maria.”

For Rzepnicki and Cantu, the feeling is mutual. They take Bosco to training at Found Chicago, where they benefit from the insights of staff who trained him for months and want to make sure he continues to thrive. “This is what they live to do,” Cantu says. “… All the people that are there are miracle workers in my eyes."

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.