Dennis, a Skye Terrier owned by Steve and Elaine Hersey, of Hampton, N.H., gets in some reading time with, from left, Eric, Michelle and Stefanie at the Seabrook, N.H., library. The gathering is part of the Tail Waggin Tutors program aimed at encouraging grade-schoolers to enjoy reading.
This is the third of a series of features on 2017's AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence Winners who will be honored Dec. 16-17 at the AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin in Orlando.
It was apparent from puppyhood that the "Skye" was the limit for this little guy.
From the time he was a young dog, he showed a “friendly, outgoing disposition, with a good sense of himself,” says owner-breeder Steve Hersey, of Hampton, N.H. “We often referred to him as ‘Mr. Dennis,’ as he was such a little man as a puppy.”
Charismatic and unflappable, he never disappointed Hersey and his wife, Elaine, and will be recognized for his versatility during the 18th annual AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence (ACE) on Dec. 16-17 at the AKC National Championship presented by Royal Canin in Orlando, Fla.
The Skye Terrier is the winner of the ACE Therapy Dog honor for his work with Hersey the past seven years in several arenas. Sadly, the 11-year-old dog died earlier this year of lymphoma, but both proud owners will accept the award in his honor.
Hersey steadies Dennis after a Group 1 finish at the Mid Coast Kennel Club of Maine Dog Show in 2012. Judge Sue Goldberg stands alongside the pair. Photo by Fritz Clark / The Standard Image.
The 30-year Skye breeders (under the Seamist prefix) had been visiting nursing homes along the New Hampshire seacoast with their dogs for many years on an informal basis. A member of the Piscataqua Obedience Club -- their local club -- mentioned that they should consider Therapy Dogs International (TDI) testing for certification, which is often a requirement for therapy dog visits, depending on the circumstances and the facility. TDI, incidentally, is one of several training and certifying agencies. They opted to explore more about TDI and quickly decided it was something the family would enjoy, so began training for the certification test.
Skyes can sometimes be standoffish with people they don’t know, but with Dennis’s experience in the breed and obedience rings, he was accustomed to being at unfamiliar places with a lot of commotion, and people he didn’t know touching him. That, coupled with his basic personality, was a good combination for therapy," says Hersey, a retired submarine inspector at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
Consequently, when Hersey would visit a nursing home or hospital with Dennis, the dog was never concerned or troubled by equipment -- walkers, wheelchairs, or machines. And when someone couldn’t pick him up but want to pat him, Hersey would place him in bed or on their lap. “Older folks used to love to say that ‘Dennis the Menace’ was visiting,” laughs Hersey. “Since Dennis was named after a childhood friend of Elaine’s, we enjoyed the gentle humor.”
Dennis and Phoebe, a Tuesday regular, enjoy some bonding time during a Tail Waggin Tutors session at the Seabrook library.
Skye Terriers are a unique-looking breed, one that most people have never seen or even heard of, Hersey notes. “Their appearance is a great icebreaker with strangers. They aren’t big and slobbery with ‘doggy’ odor, but not delicate either. Dennis was medium-sized at 35 pounds, with a pale gray coat that almost touched the floor, and lovely black ear fringes.”
The TDI certification allowed Elaine to bring Dennis for a visit to the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., near Boston, to see an acquaintance who was admitted for surgery and who had owned Skyes for years. A dog walking in the hospital is a curiosity that elicits smiles and requests for pats, and Dennis was always happy to oblige. “When we finally got to her room, he sat on her lap for a long time, and she didn’t want to let him go. Several years later the same person lay dying at the same hospital, and Steve was able to bring Dennis into the intensive care unit for another visit. He put Dennis up on the bed, where he lay quietly next to her for almost an hour, not bothered by the mix of tubes and machines. Despite being so sick, she gently placed her hand on Dennis. She died several hours after they left, but we were happy that she knew a Skye was with her at the end,” says Elaine.
Dennis was not deterred by the different backgrounds and characteristics of the people he interacted with. He made weekly visits to Matt, an autistic individual living in Exeter, N.H., to Tail Waggin' Tutors 15-minute reading sessions with fourth-through-sixth-graders at a library in Seabrook, N.H.
Every Thursday for nearly six years Dennis visited Matt, at his Exeter, N.H., home. Here Matt reads “Peter Pan” to his buddy.
Dennis’ visits with Matt stemmed from an e-mail the Piscataqua club received from TDI seeking a dog to visit. Hersey started visiting Matt with Dennis in August 2011 and continued to pay weekly visits until this summer.
The initial purpose of the get-togethers was to encourage Matt to leave the house; the only times he did was for doctor’s appointments. It took almost eight months before the pair could even induce Matt out of his recliner.
“Finally, one day when Dennis and I arrived, Matt was sitting on the couch,” Hersey recalls. “Dennis thought this was great and immediately jumped up and positioned himself on Matt’s lap. Matt began poking Dennis with his index finger, as he was not quite certain what to make of this. Eventually Matt began patting Dennis and put his arm around his body.
“After many more sessions of taking one step forward and two back, Matt began greeting Dennis at the door, taking him to the couch, and maneuvering Dennis up on his lap, then proceeding to give him the biggest bear hug you could imagine. Every Thursday for nearly six years I would say, ‘Dennis let’s go and see Matt,’ and he would start to circle with excitement, then sit so I could get his collar and leash on, and off we would go.”
It took more than one year before the pair coaxed Matt out of the house. The procedure began by walking Dennis to the car, then to the end of the street. Finally Matt began taking Dennis for walks. They went to a nearby train crossing to watch the 10:20 train pass by. “Matt has a fascination for trains and loved waving as it went by,” Hersey smiles.
Dennis brightened Matt’s day on every weekly visit. The get-togethers started with Matt simply patting the dog until he eventually felt comfortable taking him on walks, with Hersey alongside, to a nearby train crossing.
“Matt is a big Elvis fan and had many pictures and figurines of 'the King.' One day he wanted to surprise Dennis with a song, so he picked up his imitation microphone, turned on the CD player, and sang ‘Hound Dog.’ Dennis sat through the entire song, then when Matt was done, he went over and sat at his feet, like saying, ‘nice job, Matt, now pat me.’ “
Matt undoubtedly has an emptiness following Dennis’s death, as does the Tail Waggin' gang. But help may be on the way, with Dennis’s daughter, Evie, ready to undergo her TDI certification test in mid-November. Evie, by the way, will join the Herseys for the ACE ceremonies and accept Dennis’s award on behalf of her dad.
Hersey recalls a cute story linked to Tail Waggin': “Just a couple of days after we had a meeting with the kids and their parents, a father and his daughter were at a nearby car dealership having some work done on their vehicle. A friend of ours had Dennis that day and was having work done on her car. While waiting, the girl spotted Dennis and started yelling, ‘The therapy dog! The therapy dog!’ Her poor father had no idea what she was talking about, since it was her mother who has taken her to the library to see and read to Dennis. Our friend told the dad that this was, in fact, Dennis, the therapy dog, so the relieved father then let his daughter pet Dennis.”
As the reading program progressed, Hersey received upbeat feedback from many parents. One father reported that his oldest son never really liked reading, but after he spent time with Dennis, the young boy would have to be told to turn out his bedroom light, since it would be 9 p.m., and he would still be reading in bed.
A mom of two sons sent Hersey a note detailing how one of them was afraid of dogs and never cared about reading. After a few sessions with Dennis, he overcame his fear of dogs, would hug the Skye Terrier, and read him “Star Wars” stories. Both boys couldn’t wait to read to Dennis and made certain they had the first session each week. They brought him "cookies," and on one of his last sessions this year they came wearing Boston Red Sox jerseys with a bag for Dennis. Inside was a Red Sox jersey for him, which meant a photo op for all at the library that night.
Brothers Max, left, and Liam, who were regular reading partners with Dennis, are huge Red Sox fans, too. On one of the dog’s last sessions they brought their four-legged friend a Sox jersey.
Another of Dennis’s fans was a young girl named Ava, who would read for about five minutes and then lose interest. Gradually, she read for longer and longer periods of time until she reached the 15-minute time limit. A participant in musicals at school, Ava ended each reading session by singing to Dennis.
This special Skye’s legacy rests with his unflinching emotional richness and resilience that have helped influence the character of many around him, and in the process, help inspire a solid foundation for the slippery slope of life.
All of the 2017 ACE Award winners will be honored at the 2017 AKC National Championship in Orlando, Fla. Learn more about the 2017 winners here.