Axel is one of five 2022 AKC Awards for Canine Excellence recipients, winning the Therapy Dog category. This category recognizes certified therapy dogs working in hospitals, schools, disaster sites, war zones, and wherever else the affection of a good dog can provide comfort.
Despite his 120-pound stature, 4-year-old Axel, a Rottweiler, might be anything but intimidating. In fact, he is seen as a “gentle black bear,” by the public during nationwide crisis-response deployments, according to owner-handler John Hunt, of Blackwood, New Jersey.
“His appearance, carriage, and deportment provide a reassuring sense of security for those in his presence – especially in the aftermath of a traumatic event,” says Hunt.
Hunt, vice president and chief operations officer of Crisis Response Canines, and Axel are winners of the 2022 AKC Humane Fund Awards for Canine Excellence honor in the Therapy Dog category. The recognition is nothing new to Hunt, who won the 2019 ACE Award in the same category with Gunther, Axel’s uncle.
A Template Therapy Dog
Hunt began to see therapy dog potential in Axel at 6 months old during neighborhood walks, and the pair have been off and running since then. Intelligence, obedience, gentleness, friendliness, calmness, and adaptability to varied environments make him the template for a therapy dog.
Their travels have taken them to hospitals, schools, and military organizations nationwide. Mary Law, Crisis Response Canines health care liaison and board chair, estimates they have volunteered more than 2,500 hours and interacted with over 55,000 people in the past two years.
In hospitals, they have served up compassionate moments of respite to weary and stressed staff – nurses and physicians alike — caring for COVID patients. They were often called to sit alongside dying COVID patients when loved ones were unable to visit.
The location of the deployment dictates travel mode. Most of it via an SUV, but for distances of more than 1,000 miles are by air, Axel has also traveled by train and ferry.
Axel’s exploits aren’t limited to hallways and schoolyards. He’s also an AKC Conformation champion and competes in Obedience with Hunt. The owner turned to his friend and handler, Sarah Janner, to guide Axel through the Conformation corridor, the majority of which was on the East Coast.
Providing Comfort to a Variety of Needs
Hunt and Axel are well known for their efforts in a wide mix of environments. When critical incidents occur, they are called to respond and provide Animal Assisted Crisis Response (AACR) and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).
“We intentionally interact with a multitude of First Responder agencies and healthcare organizations to conduct comfort visits,” Hunt says. “It is through these interactions that we get to know members of these communities and they become familiar with Axel.”
When incidents occur in areas in which they do not have a pre-established relationship, they work with the local incident command to ascertain their deployment role. Due to Hunt’s involvement with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and being certified in CISM, along with Axel’s extensive training and certifications, the duo is readily given the more challenging assignments.
The pair went to Uvalde, Texas after the elementary school shooting. They were in communication with the local incident command and medical centers before heading out. Travel and accommodations were quickly arranged, and they flew to San Antonio and then drove to Uvalde.
They were immediately put to work with assignments with First Responders, which was followed by multiple Animal Assisted Crisis Response/Critical Stress Management sessions.
“We collaborated with other Crisis Response agencies to coordinate Axel’s interactions that would most benefit the community,” Hunt says. “This included meeting with student survivors along with family and loved ones of the victims privately and at memorials set up at the Robb Elementary, Uvalde town center, and a nearby grocery store. We were asked by local church leaders to attend multiple prayer and memorial services to provide the consolatory presence of Axel while the community supports and comforts one another.”
As Axel is exposed to these intense emotions, Hunt is vigilant to ensure his partner has breaks and is well taken care of during and after comforting many, many souls.
The Uvalde mission elicited a storm of passion from many locals. While visiting a church where several members were directly affected by the shootings, Hunt and Axel were asked to meet with a child who was in the classroom where the shooting took place.
“We were told the child had been non-verbal since the incident,” Hunt recalls. “The youngster approached us and started to gently pet Axel. He then leaned in close to Axel and began to speak softly to him. As Axel quietly sat, the boy turned to me and began to share what had happened on that tragic day. It was then the boy began to talk with the therapist who had been assigned to us. Axel remained with the boy during the entire encounter.”
There was another Uvalde recollection of a lifetime when Axel and Hunt were standing at the back of the church. Shortly after the services began, a woman and her daughter entered and sat in the last row. Very untypically, Axel began to pull at the leash to get closer and sit alongside the woman.
She began to pet him, and tears started to flow down her cheeks. Axel remained at her side for the duration of the service.
“Later, the woman shared that she had been near the school that day and witnessed the assailant crash his truck, which was the beginning of the rampage, resulting in the school being evacuated,” Hunt says. “She comforted those who had been inside during the massacre and thanked us for the ‘blessing of Axel’s presence during her period of deep grief.”
A Memorable Face
Recently, Axel and Hunt were rounding at a local medical center. While in the lobby, Hunt heard someone exclaim, “Axel!” A woman hurriedly approached and said, “Do you remember me?” Turns out, she was a former patient who just five months earlier was critically ill and awaiting a double lung transplant.
At the time, Axel and Hunt were visiting the hospital and the staff asked if they would visit her just hours ahead of surgery. They met with her and her family and presented her with a stuffed Rottweiler resembling Axel. On the day Team Axel met with her in the lobby, she shared that she had been so frightened before the procedure that the visit brought her a sense of peace when she needed it most.
That may be why Hunt has heard everything from “Axel is an angel sent to help us heal” to “Axel is truly the ringing endorsement for Rottweilers” regarding the award-winning therapy dog.