The Saint Bernard mix looked like he was dead when he was first spotted in a ditch on the side of a road.
“We thought he had been hit by a car,” recalls Deborah Workman, executive director of the Sanctuary for Senior Dogs, in Cleveland, the group that took in the 8-year-old stray.
The truth was worse than anyone could have imagined. During a physical exam, X-ray images lit up buckshot pellets all over his body, suggesting that the elderly dog had been used for target practice.
After such cruelty, it would have been totally understandable if the dog, given the name Burt by his rescuers, could never trust a human again.
Certainly no one would have imagined that his big paws would one day be padding happily into hospitals and nursing homes, spreading joy to those who might otherwise have little to smile about.
Burt got lucky. He fell into the hands of people who could look beyond his age, injuries, and history and see a spark of something wonderful in his spirit.
He became the third working therapy dog for the Sanctuary.
The nonprofit organization consists of a network of volunteer rescuers and foster homes. Since its inception 15 years ago, it has saved 529 dogs, all over the age of 7. Some have been easy to place with new owners, who were eager to learn of the joys a gray muzzle could bring to their lives. Others were too physically frail and emotionally scarred to be rehomed, so they were sent to one of the two dozen fosters that work with the Sanctuary.
The rare ones, like Burt, become healers. Workman says the Sanctuary’s therapy dog program started in 2000, the first year the organization was in existence, because of a yellow Labrador Retriever named Georgia. She was around 12, a sickly stray, covered with warts and disfiguring growths, and so skinny her bones protruded. When Workman took Georgia home, she was expecting, at best, to provide some comfort for the last months.
Georgia taking a break.
She was in for a huge surprise. Whatever misfortunes had left the dog without a home, it was clear Georgia had had some training sometime in her past. Her basic commands were solid and she had such a sweet nature that, despite her age, it seemed like she had the makings of a therapy dog. She easily passed her Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dogs International tests. In April 2001, she started her career lifting spirits at a local nursing home. Elderly residents related to this lumpy but happy yellow dog who shared some of the same old-age infirmities.
Georgia lived for only two years after her rescue, but in that time, she touched so many lives that the Sanctuary established a fund in her honor.
Since then, Workman says the Sanctuary has trained has trained several seniors for therapy work. In some cases, they require a little extra help to continue in her jobs. Therapy dog Delilah, for example, couldn’t walk very well, so she traveled to her session in a cart. One of their current therapy dogs—a Lab-mix named Fay Fay, 14—is showing some leg weakness, so she will be getting wheels.
Delilah in her cart.
Between one and four therapy dogs work with Sanctuary handlers at any time, all are senior dogs rescued from shelters or the street.
“Every therapy dog we have has been discarded, has been thought to be a throwaway or a burden,” she says. But after some care and kindness, their wonderful personalities emerged. With a little training, it was easy to turn them into healing angels.
Fay Fay, Almonzo, J.J. and Ivy (Photo © Portraits by Martha, Cleveland, Ohio, courtesy Sanctuary for Senior Dogs)
The current crew includes: Almonzo, 7, a 140-pound Mastiff-mix; J.J., 11, a blind Husky mix; Ivy, a tiny Pomeranian, 12, and FayFay. They visit hospitals, nursing homes, elementary-school reading programs, and colleges, where the dogs help students unwind during finals. For these jobs, their advanced ages are a big plus; they can offer the patient, gentle comfort that you might get from a beloved grandparent.
The Sanctuary’s therapy dogs make a huge impression wherever they go, says Workman, but “Burt was probably our most popular.” He earned an honorable mention as rookie of the year from the prestigious Delta Society (now known as Pet Partners ).
The Unforgettable Burt
An even greater honor came from one of the facilities where he was a regular. “When he died, they had a funeral service for him. They invited a minister in … They sang Amazing Grace,’ ” Workman recalls. Two women were so overwhelmed with grief that they had to be carried out. “To me,” she says, “that was just a testament to the impact he had on the communities he worked in.”
Learn more about training dogs to be healers in our free e-book,
Does Your Dog Have What it Takes to be a Therapy Dog?
– Mara Bovsun