Overcoming obstacles – war survivor and her Great Dane inspire others

Maja Kazazic relaxes with her beloved Great Dane, Rosie. Both Kazazic and Rosie have prosthetic legs.

PALM HARBOR – Rosie, a Great Dane with a prosthetic leg, recently took up painting as a hobby.

That was a surprise to the owner of the 2-year-old dog, Maja Kazazic.  

“Don’t ask me how or don’t ask me why. I think she was bored. That’s what I really think. It wasn’t anything we planned on doing,” she said.

With a brush in her mouth, Rosie paints on canvas.

“And I have a video and it’s hilarious,” she said.

Both Kazazic, a motivational keynote speaker, and Rosie have endured traumatic experiences in their lives.

Kazazic lost her leg below her knee when she was 16 years old during the war in Bosnia. She was injured by a bomb that killed five of her friends.

Rosie lost her leg when she was only a few weeks old. The dog’s mother stepped on her leg and broke it.

“She’s literally my life. She gives me the ability to function like a normal individual, which sometimes I didn’t think was going to happen but it did,” said Kazazic, who is single and has a partner.

Before she acquired Rosie, Kazazic was suffering from PTSD with worse symptoms than she has now.

“And almost three years later after having Rosie I feel she has actually made some permanent impact in my life, provides that security and a sense that I can kind of go through this day knowing that I’m safe,” she said.

The duo visits nursing homes to inspire others.

Such activities – spreading the message of support, love and hope – is why Rosie is vying to become the nation’s top dog.

Voting is underway by the American public to choose this year’s top American Hero Dog through a contest; the first round of voting ends April 25. Rosie is competing in the Emerging Hero category. Visit www.herodogawards.org to vote.

From Bosnia to Palm Harbor

Born in Bosnia, Kazazic had a normal life with her family until the political climate changed in the early 1990s and war broke out.

She was part of a group of 60,000 civilians surrounded by two armies, without food, water, electricity, medicine or outside contact.

“That basically was the environment,” she said. “I had a pet rabbit I actually sacrificed for a meal because the whole building ate for a week off of that, which was one of the first big decisions I had to make as a 16-year-old but I guess I acted like an adult,” she said.

Due to infection resulting from her injuries, Kazazic’s leg had to be amputated without anesthesia.

Kazazic eventually was sent to Maryland, where she was in the hospital a long time.

“I had over 100 surgeries. I had to relearn how to walk again,” she said.

Kazazic’s surgeries didn’t compare to the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. She had constant panic attacks and relived genocide.

Nevertheless, Kazazic went to high school in Maryland and taught herself English. She joined the marching band and went to colleges in Pennsylvania, getting a degree in psychology.

She moved to Clearwater in 2000, settling in Palm Harbor in about 2002.

“I traveled around the country, all around the east coast and I decided I’m going to live in a place where there are no signs that say, ‘Bridges may be icy before roads.’ And that’s how I ended up in Palm Harbor,” she said.

Now she is enjoying success as an entrepreneur and internationally recognized keynote speaker.

She considers her walks to Honeymoon Island as part of her therapy, helping her cope with PSTD.

"I love traveling the world. I love different places, but I don’t think there is any place better to live than Tampa Bay,” she said. “This is my home.”

‘This dog is amazing’

Kazazic has been receiving care for years from the Hanger Clinic, a leading provider of orthotic and prosthetic services and products.

On a visit to one of the local clinics to make adjustments to her prosthetic leg, the Hanger staff told her about Rosie, and Kazazic immediately fell in love with the dog, whose story was similar to her own.

Kazazic adopted Rosie and the two are inseparable. Rosie has become trained as a service dog and she wakes Maja up from night terrors and panic attacks.

Hanger asked Kazazic to bring Rosie to a small conference involving prosthetic legs. When somebody brings a Great Dane with a prosthetic leg to a conference, a lot of people want to see the animal.

One of the attendees was deeply afraid of dogs. Though she didn’t want to come near to Rosie, she hoped to get a picture of her because she was amazed by Rosie’s prosthetic leg. So Kazazic explained to her that Rosie is a service dog and knows how to deal with PSTD.

Rosie walked up to the woman and leaned into her as she does to Kazazic.

“And this woman said, ‘Oh my God, this dog is amazing.’ And it’s been years since this woman had ever even approached a dog because she truly had this phobia,” Kazazic said. “And a little bit later she’s taking this picture of the dog. And that’s the thing with Rosie. She sensed something wasn’t right. She stepped up. She did what she was supposed to do and changed this person’s life. Just like that,” Kazazic said.

And how many Great Danes try their mouths at painting?”

“We spent like one training session teaching her how to hold the brush and now she literally picks up and paints on the canvas,” said Kazazic, who enjoys painting to help relieve her anxiety.

Rosie apparently is a good student.

“She’s extremely attentive. She watches everything,” Kazazic said. “You cannot bring anything near her without her checking it out,” she said.

On her website, Kazazic has testimonials from community leaders who have listened to her speak, including an American Business Woman Association chapter president, Jessie Schneider.

“Maja is not only great at speaking but she is also a wonderful listener when it comes to preparing to speak to your group. She took the time to really understand my group and the message I wanted her to emphasize with them while telling her story. Her story was very down-to-earth, touching, and encouraging,” Schneider wrote.

Positivity is a matter of perspective

Asked what advice she has for people who have experienced traumatic episodes in their life, Kazazic spoke from her life-changing experience in war-torn Bosnia.

Kazazic noted that her brother during the bombing incident was hanging out with his friends, less than 100 feet away from her. He’s alive; his friends are alive. He’s not injured. Through his eyes she looked at everything and saw what happened to her.

“Why did this happen to me? At that moment, I had a choice,” she said. “Be positive and look at myself as a hero. And say, ‘I have five dead bodies next to me. I am a hero. I have to honor these people and honor my life and do the best I possibly can.’ No matter how difficult your situation is, there’s always one moment of choice. And you get to make it and I always tell people, make that choice because positivity is a matter of perspective in any situation, and perspective is a matter of your choice,” she said.

It takes all kinds of heroes

Local dog lovers and those across the country are invited to visit www.herodogawards.org and vote once per day for their favorite dogs in each of seven categories.

Following the first round of voting, which ends April 25 with the selection of 21 semifinalists (the top three in each category), a second round, featuring a combination of public and celebrity voting, will narrow the field to the seven category finalists. The winning dog in each category will be flown to Los Angeles and celebrated at a red carpet, star-studded awards gala on Sept. 29, when this year’s American Hero Dog will be revealed.

Over the past seven years, Americans have cast millions of votes for more than a thousand dogs, all seeking the title of American Hero Dog. The program reaches more than 1 billion people each year and draws the support and participation of top celebrity dog lovers from all over the world.

Winners in each category will earn $2,500 for their designated charity partner and the overall winner’s charity partner will win an additional $5,000 prize. Each charity partner is dedicated to celebrating the role of working dogs in our lives, and like American Humane, celebrates the importance of the human-animal bond.

“Our best friends do so much to improve and even save our lives, and every dog owner knows about the extraordinary, unbreakable bond they share with their dog,” said Dr. Robin Ganzert, American Humane’s president and CEO, in a press release. “The American Humane Hero Dog Awards are our way of celebrating the power of the human-animal bond, which has been a core part of our organization’s mission for 141 years.”