“Tuffie,” a 9-year-old Saint Bernard from Tulsa, OK, is as tough as she is compassionate. She’s versatile and sweet, and has gracefully handled the unthinkable, both in her career as a therapy dog and her own health, diagnosed with Addison’s Disease when she was four. Her owner, Amy McCarthy, started working with Tuffie (Skyview’s Montana Miss Tuff Enough TXDX, CGC, CGCA, CGCU, FDC) at the Saint Francis Medical Center’s therapy dog group in early 2022. Months after joining the program, a mass shooting on the hospital’s campus killed four people. Suddenly, Tuffie was thrust to the front lines doing therapy dog work for the hospital.
Tuffie and McCarthy have been working together to do therapy work for seven years, working with everyone from children to adults in multiple programs. Her versatility and steadfastness are what earned her the 2023 Award for Canine Excellence in the Therapy Dog category. Each year, the AKC Humane Fund awards five dogs who do extraordinary things in the service of humankind in different categories: Uniformed Service K-9, Service Dog, Search and Rescue Dog, Exemplary Companion, and Therapy Dogs, like Tuffie. Dogs in this category are certified therapy dogs working in hospitals, schools, disaster sites, war zones, and wherever else the affection of a good dog can provide comfort.
From Saint Bernard Owner to Therapy Team
Saint Bernards have been the “addiction” of owner Amy McCarthy, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, since viewing the movie “Beethoven.” After watching it with her husband, Larry Hutchings, she dreamed about having a Saint Bernard of her own. Hutchings did research on the breed, and they got their first Saint Bernard shortly after.
“There has been a learning to the whole experience. They grow quickly, have a mind of their own, don’t realize how big they really are and consequently require basic obedience training at a young age. I learned you need to get them out early and socialize, socialize, socialize. They love being near their families but are not necessarily Velcro dogs. It is the devoted gentle giant aspect of the breed that attracted me and what makes it a terrific Therapy dog candidate.”
McCarthy was attracted to therapy dog involvement when her father was in a nursing home in 2002 and McCarthy took Hannah, her father’s dog, to visit him. “His face just lit up when I brought her into the room. He would smile, and I would just have her sit alongside him while he was in a wheelchair so he could pet her. And then the other residents who were in the common area would want to pet her, too.
“That really opened my eyes to how dogs can work their magic with those in need. At that point, I decided if I had a dog that was inclined to enjoy visitations like this, I would try and become involved with it.”
Versatility in Career and Therapy Types
She saw therapy as a win/win scenario. “I get to spend time with the dogs I love, and we get to do good for others. My Saints accept people whether they are CEOs or special-needs individuals. They don’t hold a grudge and bring smiles to everyone they nestle up against.” All four of McCarthy’s Saints are therapy dogs, who have been registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs in Cheyenne, Wyoming, an organization for which she serves as a tester/observer.
McCarthy is a certified orthoptist technician, which means she works with patients who have eye muscle imbalance. Because she works full-time, most of her and Tuffie’s visits are on weekends and evening hours, and each facility establishes a time parameter for each stay. With the hot Tulsa summer weather, the outings are conducted early morning.
Since Tuffie kicked off her therapy dog career, she has provided support to several organizations across the Greater Tulsa area, including assisted-living centers, libraries, colleges, and universities. At schools, she’ll usually go for one to two hours during final exam time. She also frequents different programs all over, most frequently the Tulsa City/County Library PAWS for Reading program, where she has been going for four years, and the Champs Foundation in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, where she’s been doing sessions for five years now. She also does sessions at the Tulsa International Airport in the Welcome Waggin Program, where therapy dogs walk through terminals to provide support and comfort to travelers.
She also works with children and young adults in need. She recently began going to the Laura Dester Children’s Center in Tulsa, described as a short-term residential treatment program for children and youth with developmental disabilities. Tuffie’s kind, gentle nature is in full bloom around young adults, quickly bonding with them despite her large size. Even though Tuffie is a large dog, weighing around 160-punds, McCarthy emphasizes that she understands she must be careful with those with a smaller stature.
“I find that sometimes they are overwhelmed by her size, but if I have Tuffie lie down, they do better,” adds McCarthy. Once they recognize that the large does is calm, friendly Tuffie, they usually warm right up to her. “She has a very soft, approachable demeanor,” she says. “She will stand quietly or lie quietly as people get closer to her. She will lean her head forward and maybe sniff them a bit. She loves it when they stroke her head and ears and consequently establishes a comfort zone with them readily.”
Support During the Unthinkable
Even though she’s used to providing support to people frequently, she faced her biggest challenge as a therapy dog just months after joining the Saint Francis Medical Center Pink Paws therapy group. On June 1, 2022, a mass shooting unfolded on the hospital’s campus resulting in the deaths of four people – two doctors, an office employee and a patient’s family member. Immediately after the incident, the hospital administration reached out to area Therapy dog programs to request assistance. Tuffie was deployed immediately.
As part of this Tulsa group, she and McCarthy spend the next two days in the hospital’s CEO office and Education Service Center, working long hours with anyone needing hands-on grief counseling. This was much more than Tuffie was used to, but she did an incredible job and recognized that people there needed her. These therapy sessions were no longer limited to the hospital’s patients. Staff, families connecting to the hospital, and anyone impacted by the shooting sought comfort in Tuffie and the service dogs after experiencing this traumatic event. Tuffie was normally scheduled to do one-hour visits two-to-three times a month. On special occasions, like Nurses Appreciation Day, Tuffie would stay longer, but never to this extent.
This kind of softness was crucial in a time like this, when therapy was a necessity for many. McCarthy remembers leaving work that day, and she recalls that nothing seemed out of the ordinary, until multiple police cars sped past. She turned on the radio, which broadcasted that a shooting had occurred at the Saint Francis Medical Center where she and Tuffie frequented for therapy sessions.
Once more of the information became public, an email was sent out to all the local therapy dog teams, requesting their presence at the hospital for a few hours, for the next two days, to help comfort the staff, as needed.
McCarthy was actually scheduled to be off the next two days. “It must have been divine intervention,” she says. “I was able to spend the time needed to help those grieving from the horrific events of the prior day. A shooting like this does not happen in Tulsa, and the entire community was reeling.” She and Tuffie came into the designated therapy dog area, and found people crying, hugging each other and the dogs. “Everyone’s sense of normalcy had been shattered. Some employees wanted to talk about it, while others just wanted the quiet calming presence of the dogs. Tuffie and I had the honor to be one of the teams that was escorted to the Administrative offices.” There, they were able to spend time with staff to help them deal with what had happened, assisting in keeping the hospital working as it needed to.
Nothing Stops This Senior Dog
Now a senior dog, Tuffie has slowed down in some ways, but working as a therapy dog isn’t one of them. She’s still energized and motivated, and she and McCarthy will likely continue therapy until Tuffie shows her that she doesn’t want to anymore. “I have to be a bit more selective with where she goes now,” McCarthy says. “Perhaps choosing venues like the library, where she gets to lie down more, or Champs, where there will be less walking.”
Her age isn’t the only thing that McCarthy has to take into consideration. Several years ago, Tuffie suffered a torn cruciate ligament, which prompted surgery, two months of rehabilitation. This included hydrotherapy, laser treatment and other more passive therapies, along with supplements.
She also has a chronic condition. When she was four years old, Tuffie developed Addison’s disease, which there is no cure for. Luckily, with proper care and treatment, most dogs can live a normal lifespan, and luckily, Tuffie is able to do just that. A monthly injection and daily dose of a steroid has allowed Tuffie five years later to continue carrying on her therapy work and making others smile. After her original diagnosis, she regrouped quickly, and the pair missed only a couple of months of therapy visits. “I try to minimize her stress and watch her symptoms carefully,” says McCarthy. “She is a strong girl.”
Despite the hardships she faces and the often-trying work that she does, her favorite activity to do to wind down is nap. “She likes to get up on the bed at night and lie down between my husband and myself and watch TV. That way she gets her belly rubs also.” And those, McCarthy says, are well-deserved.