Denise Klonis adopted her first dog, Riley, a boxer/shepherd mix, about five years ago. She had no idea just how much that act meant or that it would lead to her co-founding a dog rescue.
“Prior to her, I never knew dogs were euthanized in shelters,” she said. “I thought dogs and cats only go to shelters to find other homes. I never realized they were euthanized."
Riley, now 5½, was adopted from All 4 Paws Rescue in Malvern, Chester County. Her experience led Klonis to do more research about dogs needing homes, and she says she discovered there is a dog crisis in the South.
“Whatever we have going on in our shelters, it’s times 10,000 in the South,” Klonis said. "In the South, it’s the culture. People don’t treat animals, their domestic pets, like family. They treat them like disposable commodities. And instead of those dogs having any kind of chance at good lives, most of them live outside or just roam neighborhoods. They get diseases, they’re hit by cars, they suffer, they starve."
She and Joshua McCormick, both of Shillington, decided they needed to do something to help.
A rescue is born
“We started helping the dogs in about 2017," McCormick said. "We were just basically helping people who were in need who had dogs or people who were falling on hard times and looking for a place to go with their dog. We would facilitate with the right organizations that could provide the help.”
A trip to Houston after Hurricane Harvey hit only magnified the problems. The devastating Category 4 storm plowed through Louisiana and Texas on Aug. 17, 2017, and McCormick and Klonis arrived in late September.
"The things that we saw, we could not unsee and we just knew we had to help and to do more,” McCormick said.
They both have full-time jobs in addition to their rescue efforts. McCormick works for Carpenter Technology in Reading, and Klonis owns Trinity Salon & Spa in West Reading.
After rescuing numerous dogs at their own expense, they decided they needed to form a nonprofit corporation to be able to solicit money from others and have it be tax deductible.
“We started working with several rescues in the community or the region or out of state and every time that we had an experience with rescue, we came back and we talked about our experiences, and our takeaways were that we think we could do it differently," McCormick said. "We think we could do it morally and ethically."
“In the last year we’ve probably brought up a 120 dogs or more, maybe 140," Klonis said. "I’d really have to go through my records to get an exact number."
She estimates that she and McCormick have rescued more than 250 dogs since they began doing rescue. The majority have come from Texas, some from Tennessee and maybe one or two from the Carolinas, Klonis said.
And they are still contributing a lot of their own money, she said.
"So looking at the numbers, I would say we expanded by 500% just this year,” McCormick said. “So if we continue that pace, we have some year-end goals, and one is to have a facility.
"The five-year plan, the vision board, would be to have an actual sanctuary, not just a facility."
He said the rescue already has expanded to working with organization in California and just started doing work in Oregon.
PA Pitstop already has invested in a transport van and does a lot of shuttling the dogs north. McCormick said they do pay for others to transport dogs, but it is expensive.
They also work with rescues and shelters in this region. Klonis said they now have a relationship with the Animal Rescue League of Berks County to pull dogs from their Cumru Township shelter if needed. In January, the ARL took in 15 dogs that PA Pitstop transported from Texas after Klonis approached the organization for help.
Beginning to heal
McCormick said PA Pitstop mostly deals with neglected and abused dogs.
What is the most rewarding experience?
“Honestly, it’s that moment that you bring out a dog that was never given any life satisfaction," McCormick said. "They run for the first time, they get freedom, they get out in the play yard.”
How are dogs that are shut down reached?
“You create a respect barrier — a lot of times they need a little bit of time and space to decompress," McCormick said. "If you follow all the proper steps, usually within a week or two they start turning around and they become a great companion. I learned some of it from growing up around animals my entire life."
He grew up in Schuylkill County and said he was around horses, cattle and other animals all of his life.
“I have always had a shelter dog or a dog that needed a home or a dog who maybe their owners passed away,” McCormick said. “I’ve always helped out a dog or cats or any kind of animals."
There are 10 dogs in the PA Pitstop system right now, he said, but they are not ready to adopt. They are medical cases that are going through the healing process.
One of them is Aiden, a puppy with special needs.
Second chance at life
“We picked up a 3-month-old mix of a dog," McCormick explained. "He was dragging his legs for so long he actually wore the skin off of his feet and then he wore the bones out of his feet because he was dragging them for so long."
No veterinarians in the area where Aiden was rescued would take a chance on him.
"Every doctor just said, 'Euthanize this dog,'" McCormick said, "The more we pushed and the more we searched, we found a pilot that would fly the dog out to our personal doctor here. Our doctor looked at his X-rays and our doctor found a bullet in his spine, and he said, ‘You know this dog is young, he has a log of life yet and we’re going to make it right.'”
Aiden needed to have one of his legs amputated and was just fitted with a wheelchair to help the 5-month-old get around.
"He’s full of life and happiness," McCormick said. "He loves all people, and he loves all animals, he’s a real success story."
Amputation is not new to PA Pitstop. McCormick said Aiden was the fourth dog the rescue has taken in that needed the drastic measure.
A tripod pitbull actually won over McCormick's heart and is now now one of his personal dogs.
“Gunnar came to us with a gunshot wound to the face, and he is now our fundraising dog, and when we take him out to all of the events, everyone just loves him,” McCormick said.
Gunnar, who is about 3, also shares McCormick's affection with a blue heeler, Zoe, who is 1½.
Klonis has a second dog, too. Duncan is a Staffordshire terrier rescued from Texas.
"If there is a need for dogs who are suffering, you extend the hand to help, not just in your community," Klonis said.
She noted that many dogs in shelters in the North have behavior issues.
“Anyone who has ever been involved in any form of shelter work or volunteer knows that about Northern shelters," Klonis said. "I’m not saying all dogs, but a fair amount of dogs end up in shelters in the North because people did not take the time to train those dogs properly and put in the time to make those dogs better family-oriented pets."
The dogs from the South, she said, are often just given a raw deal because of the different mindset.
"We have never had one dog that was a behavioral issue," Klonis said. "Yeah, we’ve had dogs that may not have been dog friendly, but as far as behavioral, that’s not the issue."
McCormick said one of the most rewarding experiences is the follow-up after an adoption.
"After they’re adopted and you check in a week or two later with the families and they just give a wonderful review," he said. "They tell us that it is the best dog they’ve ever owned.”