“The Cutest” has been crowned again.
A year after Penny the one-eyed golden retriever won the inaugural PEOPLE’s World’s Cutest Rescue Dog Contest Presented by PEDIGREE in 2018, Kasey is here to claim her title as the 2019 champ.
The 6-year-old Keeshond triumphed over nearly 7,000 other adorable dogs to win this year’s contest. Her grand prize includes an appearance on the TODAY show, a year’s supply of dog food from PEDIGREE, and a $1,000 donation to the Keeshond Affiliated Rescuers of the Mid-Atlantic (KARMA).
Kasey and her family chose to give the donation to KARMA in order to help other Keeshonds escape dark realities like the one Kasey was rescued from.
Sheila Cosgrove, Kasey’s owner and a project management consultant in Riverton, New Jersey, has been involved in a pet rescue network, consisting of numerous Keeshond owners, on Facebook since 2010. It was through this rescue network, and the devoted dog lovers behind it, that Cosgrove, 51, and her family — husband Bob, 57, daughter Gabby, 12, son Jack, 13, two rescue cats, a rescue dog and a new Keeshond puppy — brought Kasey into their home.
“We learned about this puppy mill in upstate New York, where at one time there were over 100 Keeshonds,” Cosgrove told PEOPLE of the rescue network.
Over time, several of the rescuers in the network were able to convince the puppy mill operator to slowly surrender their dogs a few at a time. Kasey was one of the dogs given to the group in 2016. She left behind a life of being repeatedly bred, neglected and left outside in the elements 24/7.
In an effort to help the rescue network, Cosgrove volunteered to foster Kasey until a forever home could be found for her.
“Of course, as soon as we got her, we knew that she wasn’t going to leave us,” Cosgrove says.
Cosgrove and her family adopted Kasey and set to work introducing the skittish canine to a new, loving normal.
“She would cower in the corner. She didn’t want to be touched or approached. She was just so terrified of people,” Cosgrove says of Kasey’s first few days at home. “For several weeks she would just fall asleep sitting up. She couldn’t relax enough to lay down. It was heartbreaking.”
In the months following her adoption, Kasey, who arrived at her new home covered in bald spots, began to relax and accept affection from her family. Today, the “playful” pooch approaches new people for attention, loves toys, wags her tail and has a full, fluffy coat that attracts many admirers.
“Kids always want to come over and pet her because she is so fluffy,” Cosgrove says, which is great for Kasey since she has developed “a connection with kids.”
“It was about time and patience. It was making sure we didn’t approach her too quickly,” the 40-pound pup’s owner adds on what it took help Kasey become the “carefree” and “happy” dog she is today.
“We took her lead. I read up on a lot things about puppy mill dogs and how to help them acclimate to family life. They are always going to have something that scares them. We just love her, quirks and all.”
Cosgrove hopes that Kasey’s story inspires others to take the time to save a dog from a “really abusive situation” and put in the effort required to give them a full, enriching and love-drenched life.
“They are worth it,” she added.
Part of the experience that has stuck with Cosgrove is how quickly dogs forgive.
“For all those people who failed her, she still has this power of forgiveness. It’s amazing,” Cosgrove said, adding that all rescue pets “are supposed to be loved.”
While Kasey is the top dog, there are two adorable contest contenders who came close to winning. Meet the runner-up rescues of PEOPLE’s World’s Cutest Rescue Dog Contest Presented by PEDIGREE.
Shortly after John was born at a backyard breeding operation in Texas, the little French bulldog was brought to a vet to be euthanized because he had a rare skin condition which made him hard to sell. Fortunately, the Dog Ranch Rescue in Anna, Texas, took him in, and Mary Jones, 66, a rescue volunteer and retired vet tech, adopted the now year-old pup last spring. Since then Jones has gotten treatment for John’s skin condition, which veterinarian diagnosed as inflammatory linear verrucous epidermal nevus (ILVEN). There is no cure for John’s ILVEN, which causes excess skin growth, but the condition is now being managed to the point where it doesn’t slow John down. “He’s doing super now. He’s a happy-go-lucky, typical Frenchie,” Jones told PEOPLE.
Kami Hess thought Augie was a stuffed animal the first time she saw him. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? Is that a real dog?’ ” says Hess, 55. She and her family — husband Peter Howe, 54, and sons Myles, 16, and Simon, 14, — adopted the black-and-white pup from Great Dog Rescue New England in December 2017, when Augie was only 8 weeks old. While Hess, who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, says Augie is often mistaken for a border collie, the 60-pound pooch is actually part Bernese mountain dog and part Newfoundland, both working dogs, which explains his laid-back attitude and his knack for fetching a ball. “Since he was a tiny baby, we’d throw the ball and he’d return it,” says Hess, who works in digital marketing. “He’s super happy just doing that for hours,” she adds. “Augie gets along with everyone. He’s super easygoing and likes to be involved in everything.”