At the 2015 National Dog Show Gala, Li’l Abner, left, and Stella pose with a young girl. Photo by Steve Surfman.
When you and 20-million-plus viewers tune in to the Thanksgiving Day telecast of the National Dog Show, presented by Purina, what you see is only a portion of the excitement and goodwill served up by The Kennel Club of Philadelphia year-round.
Watching the tape-delayed event immediately following NBC’s live telecast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a tradition in many households nationwide.
But the champions cavorting about the ring are only a small example of the club’s carousel of contributions to the community.
Its nine Therapy Dog Ambassador Teams, which visit several area medical facilities, schools, and nursing homes year-round, including the Ronald McDonald House of Philadelphia and St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, brighten the lives of dozens of youngsters—and their parents—and have incredible staying power with upbeat responses to them amidst sobering environments.
One of the teams that attracts the most attention consists of Donna and Steven Kramer, of Langhorne, Pa., and their affable Dogues de Bordeaux, Li’l Abner, 150 pounds, and Stella, 120 pounds.
Size surprises when it comes to patients’ and parents' reactions to these gentle giants. “Usually their mouths drop open and an ‘Oh, my gosh!’ comes out,” explains Donna Kramer. " They are first amazed that the dogs are in the hospital, and then their size takes everyone back a step.” If the child is bedridden, the dogs edge up to the bed to say hello. This usually prompts giggles and grins from the patient, inducing the parents to pull out their cameras and capture the special moment.
The Kramers have many special memories surrounding their engaging 270-pound package, including this one:
On each visit to St. Christopher’s, they stop by the oncology department.
“We knock on the door and ask if anyone wants to say hi to the dogs today,” says Donna Kramer. “One day a mom peeks out of her son’s room and says, ‘Yes, we would love to see the dogs.’ She comes out holding the hand of a little boy, about 6. He just stood still with a sad look on his face. Li’l Abner sat right in front of him, putting them literally nose-to-nose. Looking each other in the eyes.
“Out of nowhere Abner just licked the boy’s nose. The little guy broke into the biggest smile. His mother just started to cry. I looked at her, and she said this was the first smile she had seen from him since his diagnosis.
“We saw this young boy again at Ronald McDonald House a few months later, and he went right over to Abner and hugged his neck. It was beautiful.”
Or how about this inspiring vignette:
“We met a young girl at Ronald McDonald House who could not walk and was confined to a wheelchair. She was blind and deaf and had a speech restriction. She was adopted from a foreign country, as well. But despite all of her daughter’s challenges, her mom was so positive. When we entered the room, the girl could not see Li’l Abner or Stella, but her mom spotted us, and she said, ‘My daughter has to meet them.’ She wheeled her daughter over to the dogs and placed her hands on them, tracing all over the dogs, so she could feel them and their size. Her daughter giggled throughout the entire process.
“We watched, and the dogs did not move the entire time. When the family came back to Ronald McDonald House a few weeks later we saw them, and the mom told us when they had returned home to West Virginia, she took her daughter to Toys "R" Us to let her purchase a toy because she had been terrific throughout the hospital visit. Now, please remember she was blind. She kept going back to one stuffed dog, which was the same color as Abner, and decided that was the toy she wanted. She named it Abner.”
Kramer, a retired high-school teacher, says she and her husband, a Philadelphia independent insurance agent, stay connected with some families via Facebook. “Since we can’t take photos, the parents usually post them on Facebook to share with us and the medical staffers.”
The magnetic Dogues are stress relievers for the staffs, too. “They are equally excited to see the dogs,” adds Donna Kramer. “There is even a secretary who has treats in her desk for their visits. The dogs affect the entire atmosphere of every floor we visit.”
All Therapy Dog Ambassador teams make a huge commitment. Training takes about one year, requiring basic and advanced obedience, along with Canine Good Citizen classes. Add to that required immunizations, veterinary hospital check-ups, and signed health vouchers that must be maintained.
And, of course, dependability is critical. “This is a volunteer position, and people are busy in today’s world,” adds Donna Kramer. “So there must be something else to make them want to continue. For us, it is the feeling we get when we leave the child’s room after they smiled or interacted with the dogs. Being told how much the parents appreciate that we would take our time and come visit. They tell us how our visit has uplifted their child, which helps with the healing.
“Many out-of-towners who travel to Philadelphia for medical care tell their children beforehand that they will see Stella and Li’l Abner, which makes the process so much easier. These things are priceless. We show up whether rain, snow, or holiday.”
One of Kramer's memories involves a Minnesota family with two children, each of whom underwent surgeries to enable them to walk. “We have known Sophie and Ben since they were 3- and 4-years-old. Sophie used to yell Stella’s name from across the room when she heard we were in the building. They developed a special bond.
“When Sophie had a serious leg surgery, the doctors and physical therapists needed for her to stand up. She said she would only stand for Stella. We were called and went to the Ronald McDonald House with Stella, where Sophie and her mom were staying. Sophie saw Stella, and through a lot of pain and hesitation, she kept her promise and stood for Stella. We were all crying and cheering. We told Sophie that when she walked by herself, she could walk with Stella.
“Six months later Sophie and Stella walked down the hall together. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. We stay in close contact with the family and see them whenever they visit.”
And it doesn’t end there. Added to the Stella and Li’l Abner team, are Benny and Baxter, Bulldogs that the couple rescued from an area shelter. “We just love smooch-faced dogs,” laughs Donna Kramer.
The lone conformation entrant of the four is Li’l Abner, shown at the National Dog Show as a puppy.
Interaction with the public isn’t limited to area visitation sites for the Kramers and their lovingly goofy Dogues—plus two. Their other fun and engaging platform comes at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House booth on show day, where they greet hundreds of attendees, answering a wide array of questions and allowing the earthy dogs to accept hugs and serve up a few kisses to the kids, too.
Some years the show recognizes these special ambassadors at center ring, allowing the large crowd to offer its appreciation. “This is definitely a head-held-high moment,” beams Donna Kramer.