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Hugging therapy dog among several found after being stolen for weeks

Leah and Jeanine
Posted at 9:20 PM, Jun 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 13:49:35-04

CHANDLER, AZ — Nearly a dozen dogs were stolen from an animal rescuer's home, but since then, all have been returned except for two thanks to the relentless search efforts from animal lovers across the Valley.

One of the dogs stolen was a well-known Malinois Shepherd named Leah.

Upon meeting her, most would quickly realize she has the typical high energy for a Malinois who’s just over a year old — in human years.

This is what makes Leah's role at Watch Me Grow Pediatric Clinic in Gilbert so special.

”She’s our best worker,” said owner Rebecca Waters with Leah draped over her with her tongue hanging out.

When a young patient is having a hard day, Leah is right there to comfort them with her signature hug. Not a nuzzle with her snout — Leah wraps her furry arms around the person she’s hugging and even sometimes nestles her nose on their shoulder.

Leah dog hugger

No need for patients to pull out an insurance card — they’re always free. Leah wears a collar that reads just that: ‘Free Hugs.’

”It brightens everybody’s day,” said Jeanine Nesvik, a speech pathologist and Leah’s mom. ”She absolutely loves the kids. And she has almost a magical sense of what they need.”

When she’s not helping kids, Nesvik works with rescues and fosters to help Valley animals find forever homes. That includes temporarily housing pets at her home in Chandler.

One day back in March, Nesvik came home to find 11 dogs that were staying with her had been stolen — including Leah.

”A huge piece of my life had been ripped out,” said Nesvik.

Police reports were filed and crates were dusted for prints by Chandler investigators.

But like a dog that won’t let go, Nesvik says the animal-loving community in the Valley relentlessly posted pictures of missing animals on social media and in veterinarian offices.

Stolen dogs flyer, all eleven.PNG

Nesvik even contacted border patrol to be on the lookout for Leah and got Zzeeks Pizza to post flyers on their outgoing pizza boxes.

She says some of the dogs were found in the early morning hours at a dog park in Mesa.

Many of the dogs were malnourished. Days later, the same thing happened at a dog park in Gilbert.

But still, no Leah after three months of searching.

Then Nesvik got a call from the company where she was microchipped.

A video taken by Waters shows the emotional moment Nesvik learned her beloved Leah was with someone who found her in Prescott. Tears of joys streamed down her face.

Nesvik dropped everything and raced to Leah at that moment.

”We were counting down, five more minutes until we get there,” said Nesvik.

Of all the hugs Leah has given, none of them compared to the first embrace with her mom, Nesvik, in 12 weeks.

“I don’t think I could have pried her off if I tried,” she said.

Leah’s hugs are still free. In fact, to those who know her — they’re priceless.

There hasn’t been a suspect identified in connection with the stolen dogs, according to Nesvik.

Two of the 11 dogs are still missing.

Nesvik credits the community with helping her find most of the dogs, including her beloved Leah.