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Sanctuary cares for senior dogs on their good days, bad days and last days

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Pepper's Senior Dog Sanctuary describes itself as a “dog retirement community."

LITTLETON, Colo. — They take in the outcasts, the neglected, the abandoned, the worst of the worst. And with lots of affection and a little bit of time, older medically-compromised dogs — who would otherwise be euthanized — are loved back to life at Pepper’s Senior Dog Sanctuary. The nonprofit was founded in 2017 by extended family members Leigh Sullivan, Mary Leprino and Justin Klemer. 

Leprino had the original idea and tears up while trying to explain her passion: “The joy these dogs bring other people is just amazing. The best part of this is that we think we’re helping them, but they are helping us,” says Leprino.

Leprino, in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, first rescued a Pomeranian named Pepper in 2011. The bond that developed between them lifted her anxiety and depression. “I called him the best little sober companion in the world,” says Leprino. 

The family now has nineteen dogs that live in three homes spread across 50 acres of shared farmland with a mountain backdrop in south Littleton. They’re halfway through a $5 million fundraising campaign to finish constructing an 18,000-square-foot facility that will house 50 additional dogs. 

“We are building a world class senior dog sanctuary for these little nuggets to live out their forever lives with a full medical facility, they’ll have their own bedrooms and their own play areas and sensory gardens,” says Sullivan. 

Pepper's Senior Dog Sanctuary

A place that provides hospice care for senior dogs who are medically compromised.

Most of these dogs are at least 10-years-old and were rescued from horrific circumstances. 

Sanctuary favorite, Penny Potato — aptly named since she resembles a baked spud — has a collapsed trachea and gets regular nebulizer treatments at Pepper’s. 

“She also has an oxygen crate, and we’re working with her to get some of her weight off so that she can have surgery to put an implant in her neck,” says Sullivan.

Pancho, a 10-year-old chihuahua, was left on the doorstep of a high kill shelter in Miami in a tied up plastic bag. After arriving in Denver and having several months of treatments, his diabetes is under control; but the cataracts in his eyes from the disease are obvious. 

Marvin, another 10-year-old chihuahua, was returned to the Denver Dumb Friends League twice with a severe heart murmur that’s now getting treated at Pepper’s. 

“He’s scrappy and the boss of the house. Although he can be sweet he’s also ornery,” Leprino says while laughing. 

Captain Janeway (pictured above) was rescued after police raided the house where she lived and her owner was arrested. Klemer says this is exactly why they do what they do. “She’s the type of dog we do this for. When we got the call from the shelter in Cañon City we were already full, but she was going to be euthanized in the shelter if we didn’t step in. And boy am I glad we stepped in. She brightens our day every single day.” 

Janeway loves humans but is very aggressive toward other animals so the team keeps her isolated from the rest of the dogs while making sure she gets plenty of ‘people’ love. 

“She was the first aggressive dog that we took in this sanctuary and she means a lot to me in that she means hope. She showed us that we can take in aggressive dogs and still do things successfully,” says Klemer.

The entire idea behind Pepper’s Senior Dog Sanctuary, Sullivan says, is that animals deserve dignity and love at the end of their lives too. They shouldn’t just be tossed aside. 

“These guys at the end of their lives still have so much to give and it’s important that we honor that. I mean this dog was discarded twice and no one’s adopting her she she literally brings a smile to everyone’s face who sees her. Is she old? Yeah. Is she messed up? Yeah. But you know what? She’s adorable,” says Sullivan.

In the future, Pepper’s Senior Dog Sanctuary is planning on partnering with organizations that support people with autism and senior living homes to help provide therapy. The sanctuary only works with rescues and shelters, they don’t accept owner surrenders.

You can find ways to support the sanctuary by visiting their website.

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Dana Knowles is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS and can be reached at danaknowles@rmpbs.org.

Brian Willie is the content production manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can contact him at brianwillie@rmpbs.org.

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