‘He could tap into your soul:’ Bluffton family mourns service dog who died after attack

Karen Mascaro cuddling with Leo.
Karen Mascaro cuddling with Leo.

Michelle Spadafora and Karen Mascaro’s black toy poodle Leo was like other dogs in many ways.

He loved food, especially cheese, and would even do a little trick if that meant you’d give him some. He would use his puppy eyes to get you to let him cuddle with you on the couch, and he loved playing with his Chihuahua brothers, 6-year-old Baby and 9-month-old Bowie.

But to Bluffton residents and business owners Spadafora and Mascaro, 6-year-old Leo was a lifesaver and a hero.

all dogs
Leo (far right) and his brothers Baby (left) and Bowie (middle). submitted by Karen Mascaro

In 2012, Spadafora and her partner at the time, Gabriella, adopted Leo from a shelter in Long Island, New York, where they were living. He was just five months old.

But Leo would be more than just a pet. He would help not one, but two people, fight their battles with cancer.

“He was more like human,” Spadafora said. “He really was. He could tap into your soul in seconds.”

She said Leo, who would later become a registered service dog, could detect infections in humans. She said he’d react and sniff vigorously at the spot.

Gabriella, who had been fighting different forms of cancer on-and-off for two decades, was cancer-free when they adopted Leo.

Soon after, he’d detect when she had other infections and carry her through her cancer journey until her death in February 2015, Spadafora said.

Then, it was Spadafora’s turn to be comforted.

michelle and leo
Michelle Spadafora holding Leo submitted by Karen Mascaro

“Leo knows when you’re hurting,” she said. “He would lick my tears. He absorbs your hurt and takes it away.”

After Gabriella’s death, Spadafora moved down the coast to Hilton Head Island to be near her family. And when her heart started to mend, she met Mascaro in June 2016.

Spadafora said Leo took a liking to Mascaro, too.

“They bonded immediately,” she said.

One day, they noticed Leo had started laying next to Mascaro’s left breast, as close as he could possibly get to it, Spadafora said. That’s where doctors would later find Mascaro’s breast cancer. She was diagnosed in March 2017 with metaplastic triple negative carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects less than 1 percent of women in the world, according to Spadafora.

Leo stayed glued to Mascaro’s side through her intense chemo treatments, good days and bad, and he would be there when Mascaro went into remission.

On Labor Day weekend this year, the women were married on Hilton Head at the end of Spadafora’s parents’ dock.

The couple, Leo, and their two other dogs, had been living in The Farm neighborhood in Bluffton for just a few months when their lives would again change.

leo the dog
Leo poses for a photograph. submitted by Karen Mascaro

Just before 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Mascaro took the three dogs for a walk as she usually did. They hadn’t made it more than 50 feet out of the driveway when another dog attacked.

Capt. Joe Babkiewicz of the Bluffton Police Department said the attacking dog was on a leash but escaped its owner.

Leo and Mascaro were both injured.

First, they took Leo to Savannah where he received initial treatment. But vets there said his injuries were so severe that he needed to have emergency surgery in Charleston.

They rushed Leo there. Spadafora and Mascaro kissed him goodbye before his surgery and were told to go home and get some rest.

The women called the vets the next morning and were told they could come visit Leo.

As they were walking out the door, their phone rang.

Leo died of a heart attack after his surgery, a voice on the other end said.

Their world stopped.

“I don’t have children so he was my kid taken from me,” Spadafora said.

Leo memorial
The memorial Michelle Spadafora and Karen Mascaro set up outside of their home for their dog Leo that died. submitted by Karen Mascaro

Mascaro agreed. Leo had been her therapy dog. He was irreplaceable.

“He knew my body inside and out,” she said. “I lost a lot these past few days.”

Their house — and their lives — haven’t been the same. Even Baby and Bowie can tell.

“I felt sadness, disbelief and anger all in that order,” Spadafora said. “Honestly, what we’re doing is trying to focus our anger and put it all into little Leo and all the good he did ....”

They’ve set up a memorial in their front yard with photos, candles and items supporters have brought.

There’s even an angel with Leo’s orange harness around it.

They want Leo’s loss to mean something.

“A kind sweet loving dog was taken from us way too early,” Spadafora said. “It’s important for people to take responsibility for their pets to prevent an accident like this from happening.”

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

Lana Ferguson has reported on a smorgasbord of news for The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was editor of the college’s daily newspaper.
Support my work with a digital subscription