This weekend at the National Dog Show in Oaks, Pa., more than 2,000 specially bred canines will compete for prizes within their breed and group, and a select number will vie for the “Best in Show” trophy. But a few dogs, including Vivian, a Staffordshire terrier mix owned by the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Michele Pich, will be attending the show for a different purpose: to raise awareness about therapy dogs.
For the second year in a row, Vivian was chosen as one of the National Dog Show’s Therapy Dog Ambassadors. In this role, she represents dogs that provide comfort to people in trying situations, whether in hospitals, schools, disaster zones, or nursing homes. Though the position lasts a full year, Vivian will be especially busy this weekend, making appearances at the National Dog Show as well as a red-carpet event to benefit the Ronald McDonald House on Friday, Nov. 15. Pich, a grief counselor at Penn Vet’s Ryan Hospital, says Vivian puts “a face to what a therapy dog is.”
“They really embody the most amazing side of the human-animal bond,” she says. “Interacting with animals can do everything from helping to regulate your heart rate and blood pressure, to helping the immune system function, to providing emotional support and motivation to keep going in a difficult time.”
Vivian has been a therapy dog in Penn Vet’s “VetPets” program for nearly two years, making regular visits with Pich to the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald Houses to meet with and lift the spirits of sick children and their parents. Vivian was only a day away from being euthanized at an animal shelter before she became a part of the New Leash on Life-USA program, in which prison inmates take care of, socialize, and train shelter dogs to increase the animals’ chances of being adopted. After three months in the program, Vivian was certified as a Canine Good Citizen—a designation given to dogs able to obey basic commands and be responsive to their handlers—and adopted by Pich.
Mere obedience is not enough to become a therapy dog; Pich say canines also must be comfortable around someone on crutches or in a wheelchair, someone who is bedridden, and “little kids who might scream in their faces.”
“Not all dogs are suited for that,” she says. Vivian, however, is, and Pich says she was born to do the work.
“She loves seeing the kids, she loves visiting adults,” she says. “She doesn’t care if someone has a disability, she just has such a kind nature. If there are six or eight kids in a circle, she’ll make sure she spends time with each of them.
“Having therapy dogs by their side allows people to forget about their difficulties and really focus on what is beautiful and pure in life.”
Originally published on November 14, 2013