This year’s Thanksgiving Day airing of the National Dog Show was bittersweet. The dog world said goodbye to two therapy dog ambassadors with the passing of Rufus, the colored Bull Terrier, and Eli. A new Therapy Dog Ambassador Team, Vivian, Stella, and Li’l Abner will take over their duties.
The Philadelphia area canines, two year old, 135 pounds, Li’l Abner, and four year old, 120 pounds, Stella, are purebred Dogues de Bordeaux, owned by Steven Kramer, therapy dog advocate. Vivian, 22 months, is a 40 pound Staffordshire Terrier/Boston Terrier mix, owned by Michele Pich, a Veterinary Grief Counselor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (PennVet) VetPets Therapy Dog Program.
Vivian was used as a bait dog. When she was rescued by a non profit organization called, New Leash on Life, she was probably about as down as a dog can be. She was dealing with wounds, extreme weight loss, and was fearful of people. New Leash on Life is a non profit prison/dog training program that takes at risk dogs, like Vivian, and matches them with inmates in a prison facility who live with and care for the dogs. Inmate dog trainers are able to spend as much time as needed with a dog to work on training, socialize, and correct unwanted behavior. It also gives inmates a chance to learn about dog training and care of canines giving soon to be released inmates opportunities to work with animals after being released from prison. Vivian spent three months in the prison program, passed her canine “good citizen test,” and has received her AKC Canine Good Citizen Certification.
Vivian, Li’l Abner and Stella are regulars at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, where they give comfort to young cancer patients, and family members. Li’l Abner, and Stella also visit area schools, and local hospitals. Vivian helps in Pich’s veterinary grief counseling practice to help pet owners who have lost their own pet find comfort.
Those of us who live with dogs know the health benefits we enjoy simply by petting our furry friends. Scientists are finally beginning to learn what dog owners have known for a long time, and can now provide scientific proof of how therapy dogs, and household pets benefit us. We experience a drop in blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, and an increase in endorphins, all of which reduces stress, and help us feel calmer.
Angel on a Leash therapy dog program has been instrumental in opening doors to therapy dogs in health care facilities, schools, extended care facilities, and hospices. David Frei, founder of Angel on a Leash, and the voice of the Westminster Kennel Club had this to say about the importance of therapy dogs. “Once you see what these dogs do, they aren’t there just for the patients, they’re also there for the staff.”
Therapy dogs can also assist children during physical therapy. Steven Kramer recalled how Stella was able to help a little girl walk for the first time. “Sophie is six and a half years old, and she has never walked in her life, and recently had some surgeries. They promised that if Stella would come to the Ronald McDonald House, Sophie would stand. Not only did Sophie stand, she walked two steps over to Stella. That was the first time that she even stood. The power of these dogs, the power they show, is not in the strength of body, it’s the strength of the character of what they’re doing, and the healing that they do. Sometimes healing is that unbiased, non-committal dog lying there with those big brown eyes, and the kids do it for them.”
The therapy dog program continues to expand to other Ronald McDonald Houses on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. According to David Frei, “Great therapy dogs are born, not made.”
Rufus – April 8, 2000 – August 9, 2012. Ch Rocky Top’s Sundance Kid made Westminster history becoming the first colored Bull Terrier to win the prestigious dog show. Dubbed the 100 year dog, Rufus earned over 750 titles, including 35 all breed Best in Shows. In 2005-2006, he won Best in Show at The National Dog Show, and Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the only dog to win both. He was a great ambassador for his breed, helping to teach people it’s about the deed, and not the breed. After retiring from the ring, Rufus continued life as a therapy dog, working with Angel on a Leash. He lived with his co-owners, Barbara and Tom Bishop.
Eli – July 9, 1999 – April 11, 2012. Am/Can Ch Celebre Elijah of Hillside, a Belgian Sheepdog, is thought to be the last surviving therapy dog who helped comfort first responders, and survivors in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Eli also worked with Angel on a Leash to give comfort to troubled teens, and young cancer patients. He received the first AKC Lifetime Achievement Ace Award in 2010 for his work at Ground Zero. He won his breed at the National Dog Show, and Westminster. Eli lived with his owner/handler, Sherry Hanley. Both canines were honored with a moment of silence at this year’s National Dog Show.
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Rufus, the Bull Terrier, Westminster’s 2006 Best in Show; Interview with Co-Owner Barbara Bishop
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