She’s 147 pounds, 7½ years old, and an emotional rock.
But there are plenty of other characterizations for this versatile Saint Bernard – lifesaver, champion, and familial conduit.
A Dog of Many Talents
Polly is owner Allison Hall’s service dog and her husband, Neil’s, companion in American Kennel Club Rally, Conformation, Obedience, Weight Pull, and Draft Dog competitions. She is the breed’s second Rally Master (RM) titlist, and first Conformation champion to earn the RM title. She also owns a Draft Dog title from the Saint Bernard Club of America and an Open Draft Dog title from the Leonberger Club of America, and now, after narrowly missing twice, Polly is testing to earn her Draft Dog Excellent title.
She has emerged as the perfect pathway – and balance – for the Redmond, Washington, couple, assisting Allison, who suffers from Lupus, with a wide gamut of daily challenges, and providing Neil, a Microsoft senior software engineer, with a spirited, fun-filled outlet following a lengthy day at work.
Love at First Saint
Allison’s previous St. Bernard, Sierra, a close companion but not a service animal, died at 11½. The couple was resolute about getting another Saint through the St. Bernard Club of Puget Sound, and in the process, they were introduced to Stan and Joan Zielinski, longtime, highly respected area breeders.
“We were waiting to get a puppy, and visiting their dogs every few weeks to get our Saint fix when they invited us to attend the club’s specialty,” recalls Neil. “We went out to dinner after the show, then drove to the breeder’s house for a puppy socialization party. I was busy playing with the four of them when I noticed there were only three with me and one was across the room sitting on Allison’s lap.”
“Fifteen minutes later, I gazed over and the puppy was still nestled on Allison’s lap. We found out she was the only one in the litter that wasn’t spoken for, so we talked about it, contacted the breeder shortly after, and agreed to acquire this little gal, whom we named Pollyanna.”
Polly Proves Prophetic
In the intervening weeks, Allison was unfortunately diagnosed with Lupus, a disease from which she had in fact been suffering for years. Neil feels certain that Polly had actually chosen Allison from that first meeting, and that the St. Bernard was destined to save her life.
At the time, Allison was on heavy-duty immune-suppressant medications, and in one instance, Polly detected blood clots at a point when Allison was experiencing chest pains, which was not unusual.
“She’s responsible for me being alive,” acknowledges Allison. “At first, we noticed Polly would obsess over me, especially a particular body part, a few days before an infection would surface in that area. Eventually, Polly obsessed over my chest and wouldn’t leave me for a second. I knew she was indicating something was very wrong, which prompted me to see my pulmonologist immediately. I owe her my life for that one.”
Allison’s life has expanded in so many ways since meeting Polly. Several years ago, she lost her memory due to complications from her Lupus medication.
“I didn’t even know who Neil was for a while, but Polly was there and comforted me in a way no person could. She helped me cope with my newly-diagnosed PTSD and gave me the courage to venture out in public,” Allison affirms. “She supports me when I am dizzy or weak, and she helps me up when I fall. When my condition was worse, she carried an emergency cell phone so she could bring it when I fell. When my PTSD is triggered, she helps calm me. She is my Velcro dog and senses whether I am struggling emotionally, then comforts me. Whenever she has indicated there was an issue, she has been correct.”
From Bedside to Ringside
Besides her service duties, there is a whole other side of this affable, gentle giant.
Upon returning home from work, Neil focuses five to ten minutes daily with Polly on sharpening their teamwork and competition skills, while also getting in up to an hour of draft conditioning several times a week. Add to that additional instructional training for Obedience, Rally and Draft each week.
“Her connection and focus make her a handler’s dream,” Neil emphasizes. “She has learned to differentiate between her Service Dog work with Allison as her handler and her dog sports work with me. In Draft, she is methodical, which makes her great at maneuvering a course where control is highly important. For example, in the Draft Dog Excellent competition, we have a 360-degree spin keeping one wheel of her cart on a 24-inch disk. This requires her to side-step the entire way around, then make a very small forward or backward adjustment on command to keep the wheel stationary.”
Polly’s owners cite her fastidiousness as her greatest strength, but acknowledge that her independence can sometimes make for a bit of a challenge. Since 2013, competitions have taken Team Polly as far as Sacramento, California. While on the road, Allison is much more reliant on her wheelchair and her husband, since Polly’s focus is on the business at hand.
What’s Next For This Super St. Bernard?
With Polly’s penchant for bringing those around her from somber to smiles, Allison and Neil feel that the spirited Saint boasts all the qualities required of a great therapy dog.
“After she retires, therapy is something we’ve thought about. But she has plenty on her plate right now,” says Allison. “Therapy work is quite different from the activities in which she is now involved. For instance, she would have to learn to let people pet her while working. As a service dog, she is focused on me and petting from the public is discouraged.”
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