It all started on a particularly breezy day in Stevenson Ranch, Calif. Tatiana Ozhekim was at work handling calls and looking forward to rejoining her family at home. Meanwhile, the pool cleaner was working in the backyard at the Ozhekim house, overlooking acres of striking canyons and hills.
The course of this otherwise uneventful day changed when she received a call—Bruin, her beloved rescue German shepherd, had run off through an open gate and was missing.
Over the next three days, the Ozhekims, their friends and even a few generous strangers would join in the search through treacherous terrain in a story that was voted the most unusual claim of the year by pet lovers across the country.
“Such a sweet dog”
The Ozhekim family is the very definition of a seasoned pet family. They’ve cared for a number of pets over the years, including multiple cats, dogs and even horses. Tatiana and Greg love German shepherds, and when it came time to adopt a new pooch, they combed through rescue listings looking for the ideal match. Then, along came Bruin.
Bruin was a natural fit for the family. For a breed that is known for being strong and protective, Bruin has always been a big softy around the Ozhekims. So much so that he lets the cats of the house push him around.
Tatiana says, “He will be lying there and a cat walks over, and [he] will just start smacking [Bruin] with his paw, like, ‘Move, that's my area, move,’—and he just sits there and his head will move right, left, right, left, but he doesn't move.”
Greg says, “He's the sweetest dog … really gentle, really sweet. There's not a glimmer of viciousness I've ever seen out of this dog, never showing teeth, nothing, he's such a sweet dog.”
Poor Bruin had come from a very difficult situation prior to finding his forever home with Tatiana and Greg. He was seriously abused by his previous owner, and as a result he has persistent anxiety that makes simple activities like going for a walk challenging. He’s also absolutely terrified of men because of his past experience—to the degree that he’s even cautious around Greg.
“Every time we take him out, he has to wear a vest that says ‘In training’ so people don't run up to him and Oh what a cute dog him and that kind of thing … so, he's always in-training, and he’s going to be in-training for the rest of his life.”
The water tower and the canyon rim
It rarely gets too cold in Southern California, but the winter winds often pick up out of nowhere. On that fateful February day, a strong gust barreled through the Ozhekims’ backyard at just the wrong moment.
“I got a call from the man who works on our pool,” Tatiana remembers. “He thought he latched the gate, but he didn’t completely. I guess the wind opened up both gates in the backyard. Bruin got out.”
Tatiana left work early and rushed home to help find Bruin. She’d hoped to find Bruin wandering around the house or in a neighbor’s yard. But, upon her arrival, she learned that Bruin was last seen running up a fire road towards a nearby water tower. Having walked up that road with Bruin many times before, she made her way up to a familiar spot expecting to find him there.
“I’m now up there, calling his name, but of course he doesn’t hear me because it’s so windy,” says Tatiana.
What Tatiana didn’t realize at first was that someone else was up on top of the hill that day. The water tower was being serviced—something that only happens a couple of times each year—and there was a work crew up on the summit.
“We end up seeing the crew of guys and it turns out they did see a German shepherd. [They] were calling him saying, ‘Hey puppy, come here, come here’ to get him.” Instead, they said, he ran off the other direction—and fast.
Of course, the utility workers didn’t know about Bruin’s engrossing fear of men. Startled by the strange guys on the top of the hill, Bruin took off into some bushes. They showed Tatiana the path where he sprinted off.
Tatiana edged through the underbrush while calling out his name. She soon encountered a long chain-link fence that had a large slip-through—just big enough for a German shepherd. On the other side of the fence was a steep drop-off into a canyon. Bruin was nowhere to be found.
The community comes together
Now in a panic, Tatiana turned to her network of friends and neighbors in the hopes of finding more recent clues about Bruin. With more than 50,000 acres of undeveloped land and numerous difficult terrains to search, the task ahead was daunting. Tatiana needed help.
So, she started by posting on the neighborhood Facebook group. “Hey, you know, I need eyes on the ground,” she remembers writing. “[If] you guys see this dog don't chase, just call me.”
Her early outreach sparked interest in the community. Soon, a dedicated Facebook page was set up to manage the search, and to share tips and information. Friends of Tatiana and Greg were reaching out to other people in the community, including many strangers.
“Coincidentally, one of the first people that saw this particular post was Maria Davis Watt … she's in charge of the lost and missing pets out here. She [called and] said, ‘I'm at Costco, I'm on my way over,’ and I'm like, ‘I don't know who you are. What's happening?’” Tatiana remembers with a laugh.
In a matter of hours, dedicated Facebook group members established a search plan to canvas the canyon and hillside. They combed through nearby ravines and washes, thrashing through tough chaparral wildland looking for signs of the lovable German shepherd. After several hours in the field, the diligent searchers came back with nothing more than scratches from the thorny scrub. Bruin was nowhere to be found.
A surprise in the canyon
Three days into the search, the odds were looking long for Bruin. Still, the Ozhekims and their supporters coordinated their searches and combed through the canyons. That Friday, Tatiana’s friend Rebecca volunteered with her husband, Lieutenant Joe Kalyn, to search some of the most difficult terrain in the foothills—six hours later, they returned empty handed. Tatiana went so far as to contact a drone operator, but unfortunately weather conditions wouldn’t allow for a flight. All the while, they never gave up hope that Bruin would come home.
On Saturday afternoon, Lt. Kayln had a hunch about one canyon in particular. He finished up his workday and returned to the entrance to investigate. After bushwhacking through about 300 yards of tough vegetation, he walked back to his cruiser. To his shock, he saw a big dog with a blue collar waiting for him at the rear passenger door. It was Bruin.
“I’m calling my wife,” Lt. Kalyn recollects. “I tell her ‘Don’t scream, but I got Bruin and he’s really hurt.’”
Shocked and elated, Rebecca called out to everyone under the water tower that they needed to get down to Lt. Kalyn—now!
The tears of joy and celebration at the base of the canyon were cut short when they saw how bad Bruin’s condition was. He was seriously injured and needed to get to the emergency room. They raced him to Access Specialty Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., where he was stabilized in the ICU and kept for observation over several days.
The road to recovery
Bruin was very lucky that Lt. Kalyn found him when he did. In addition to lacerations and dehydration, Bruin was also suffering from a broken femur, internal bleeding and a collapsed lung. Once Bruin was stable enough to transport, Tatiana and Greg took him to Access Specialty Hospital’s surgical specialist in Culver City to reconstruct his shattered leg.
“The surgeon there specialized in joints and bones and [he] was the most responsive, caring, and professional surgeon I have ever encountered. He asked for daily updates and got us in there more than once to follow up with Bruin. This guy was incredible,” Greg remembers.
It would be a long road to recovery, but Tatiana was with Bruin every step of the way. Following the surgery, Bruin chewed his sutures (which required a follow-up vet trip to clean and fix.) Not long after, he started showing signs of a staph infection.
“We went through the gamut of the medications and that didn't help,” she remembers. “They were under the thought process that the staph was hiding within the hardware. So, we had to go back in, they had to do another surgery, remove all the hardware, and he continued to be on antibiotics.”
After the second surgery, Tatiana slept next to Bruin’s kennel for over two months to make sure he didn’t mess with his stitches. With close observation and a larger-than-normal protective cone—"I'm surprised UFOs didn't land at our house, this thing was so huge,” Tatiana recalls—Bruin is now thriving and moving better than the surgeons expected. Because they were covered by Nationwide, Tatiana and Greg were able to offset some of the costs for Bruin’s treatment, which totaled nearly $20,000.
Protection when it matters the most
Years before adopting Bruin, Tatiana and Greg decided that all of their pets deserved the best care money could buy, so they signed up for pet insurance. In addition to Bruin, their cats Simba and Addie are protected with Nationwide. Over the years, their insurance has reimbursed eligible expenses related to everything from major bills like Bruin’s tumble to the everyday things—like their cat Simba’s Prozac prescription.
Tatiana says, “Well, the story now is: If there's a fly in my house, it's getting insurance … everybody’s insured, I don't care, they're getting insured.”
Greg adds, “It’s a no brainer, not even something you should think twice about. If you have a pet and you care about your pet, it’s a must.”
Bruin is the winner of the 13th annual Hambone Award® presented by Nationwide®.This award is given every year to the most unusual pet insurance claim that Nationwide receives.
As the 2021 Hambone Award winner, he received the coveted bronze Hambone Award trophy as well as a $250 Chewy.com gift card. In addition, Access Specialty Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. received a $10,000 Nationwide-funded award* through the Veterinary Care Foundation (VCF) for their quick thinking and unwavering care when treating Bruin. This grant is used to fund treatment for local pet owners in need. Read more about the Hambone Award.
*100% of all donations to the VCF are used to treat pets with no contributions used for administration, fundraising or overhead. The veterinary practices that treated the other finalists will also receive a share of the overall Nationwide-funded award through VCF ($20,000 total among the other 4 nominees). All Hambone Award nominees have made full recoveries and their owners have been reimbursed for eligible veterinary expenses.
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