The Adventures of Debbie and Dodi

This guest blog post has been written by Home for Life volunteer Debra Peterfeso. Together with Home for Life resident Dodi, an epileptic harlequin Great Dane, Deb represents Home for Life as a steadfast, compassionate  volunteer with our Sit*Stay*Heal Program,which provides solace and joy through healing pet therapy to hospitalized children and adults. Most of these patients have serious and even terminal illnesses and face long term hospitalizations. 

Home for Life believes our at risk animals can help at risk people. We believe that the uncondiitonal acceptance and love provided by a dog can heal and enhance the lives of the people we touch through our innovative,model community outreach programs. Home for Life animals like Dodi are ambassadors for our mission; anyone who meets one of our special needs animals through our outreach programs can never again dismiss them as unworthy of life just  because they couldn't live in a conventional adoptive home.   

Dodi came to Home for Life as an 18 month old young dog who was facing euthanasia due to uncontrolled epilepsy and separation anxiety. She routinely ran away from home at any opportunity.   She had already been in three homes, an animal control facility and Great Dane rescue by the time she came to Home for Life. Frankly , we were not enthused about accepting Dodi at Home for Life with all her problems,but couldn't see a dog of barely one year of age being put to sleep without at least trying our best to help her. It turned out that Dodi's epilepsy was not controlled because she was not reliably receiving her medications. At Home for Life, Dodi has never had a seizure. What's more she has never tried to run away. She loves the sanctuary and her dog friends. Once she settled in to life at the sanctuary we enrolled her in our Renaissance Program,where, working with a student from Boys' Totem Town, she learned basic obedience and worked on developing the skills to pass her test for certification as a therapy dog. After successfully graduating from the Renaissance Program, Dodi met Deb who visited Home for Life during one  of our open houses. They soon began working together to attain certification as a therapy dog team through  Therapy Dog, Inc.  and have become a welcome, well recognized and well loved presence at the  University Hospitals ever since.

Every other week Deb meets Dodi( she is driven in from Home for Life in Star Prairie WI by our staff to meet Deb at the hospital in Minneapolis) at the University of Minnesota Hospitals to visit each and every patient who wants to meet them as well as family, doctors,nurses and even a celebrity or two 
( see photo of  Minnesota Vikings Center John Sullivan with Dodi below;he was visiting patients while Dodi was there and was thrilled to meet her!) The candid photos,taken by Deb and included with this blog post are just some of the patients Deb and Dodi have met during their every other weekly visits;the joy they  bring to the children and adults they meet is evident.
Deb and Dodi are also featured  in the video below: Paying it Forward: Home for Life Animals Give Back to Kids 

Follow Deb on Twitter @italiangirlmpls

“She’s so BEAUTIFUL”!  I’ve heard that phrase hundreds of times. 

Before questioning the size of my ego, I should explain, that those words are describing Dodi, Home for Life’s Harlequin Great Dane, upon meeting her adoring public.  Quite often, the next words I hear are “how much does she weigh”? 
Dodi is a registered therapy dog who regularly visits the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital as part of Home for Life’s Sit*Stay*Heal Program.

Dodi’s beauty was captured in a portrait painted by artist Paul Sansale of Rescue Dog Art (  Dodi was featured as the November dog in the 2013 Rescued Heroes Calendar, which highlights and celebrates rescue dogs who are now therapy dogs (and 1 dog that is a service dog for an Iraq war veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder).  

I wish I could take photos of the faces of passersby when Dodi enters through the hospital doors --starting with the valet parking attendants, to the information desk staff, and the security guard–every face lights up when Dodi arrives.  The children walking through the lobby are so surprised to see a dog in the hospital, especially one the size of Dodi. 

Dodi greets Zachary, at a visit
at Amplatz children's Hospital, Minneapolis
See Zachary's Facebook page
 On a visit shortly before Christmas 2012, Dodi and I had just walked through the main entrance at Amplatz when we were stopped by a woman who asked if she could say hello to Dodi.  I responded “of course, this is Dodi, a therapy dog who is here to visit patients.”  As she patted Dodi on the head, and then hugged her tightly, I noticed tears in her eyes.  She told me that she had been at the hospital for over two weeks with her daughter, and that she missed her two Bassett hounds that were at home on the East Coast.  Her daughter was a patient in the bone marrow transplant unit, which is an isolation unit, and visitors are not allowed.  Even though her moments with Dodi brought tears to her eyes, I know this Mom’s tears were because of her daughter’s condition, but also missing the comfort of her own “furry kids.”  And that is exactly what a therapy dog’s job is—to provide comfort, to elicit a smile, a moment of pure joy—in the hospital environment.

Dodi and I went on our way to the hospital floors.  On the fifth floor, the staff at the nurse’s desk greeted Dodi with big smiles, as usual.  We always stop at the nurse’s station to check-in with the charge nurse to see if there are any special requests by patients wishing to visit with a therapy dog, or a patient who they think would benefit from a visit.  Some of the patients at Amplatz have been hospitalized for many weeks or months.  The nurses often know their patients’ backgrounds, and if they have a pet at home, and those patients are especially happy to visit with Dodi.

Dodi and I started our room visits, and after I knocked on the door, Dodi marched in, anxious to see who was inside.  Dodi usually stops at the first person she encounters once in the room.  The first lucky recipient to see Dodi’s sweet face in that room was a young doctor.  He smiled at Dodi and asked if hospital staff were allowed a “little therapy” from this visitor? 

I know that the hospital staff also enjoy visiting with Dodi, and their smiles belie this fact. 

Paying it Forward: Home for Life animals give back to kids featuring Deb & Dodi!

Dodi with Chloe at Amplatz
Another young doctor was in the room, and he asked if we could come with him to visit a patient.  The doctors and nurses had been unsuccessful in convincing an adolescent girl to get up and move around following her surgery.  As Dodi entered, the young patient, who was alone in her room, smiled brightly and practically jumped out of the chair!  She was so happy to visit with Dodi, she didn’t even notice that she had been standing and walking around the room for several minutes.  Needless to say, the doctor was quite pleased with this development and commented “this is why I love therapy dogs.” 
While in that room, a nurse stopped in and requested that Dodi come back to a room we had visited earlier, so the patient could have a “photo shoot” with Dodi.  Just a day in the life of Dodi, the therapy dog! 

Dodi with an adult patient at the
University of Minnesota Hospital, Main Campus,
I often wonder if Dodi knows how much joy she brings to the kids she visits at the hospital.  I do believe that animals, and dogs in particular, have an innate sense to please.  Therapy dogs, like Dodi, often possess the instinct to connect, to provide healing in their own way, to nuzzle up to a child, sometimes with a big kiss on the face!  I also wonder if she ever feels emotional, as I do, when we visit a child who is receiving cancer treatment, has lost his/her hair, appears pale and fragile, and is in obvious pain.  It breaks my heart to see a child suffering from a serious illness, and that is the difficult part of volunteering at a children’s hospital.  I find myself bravely trying to smile in those instances, to be strong in front of the patient.  But when I see a smile on a child’s face when he or she interacts with Dodi--that smile is the BEST part of volunteering.

We often consider something as easy as a smile to be simply a facial movement.  I have lost track of the number of times a parent has thanked me for visiting with Dodi because they have not seen their child smile in a long time, until Dodi came to visit.  It may seem insignificant to some, but to the parent of a child who is hospitalized--seeing their child do something as small as smile at big dog--that little smile means the world to them. 

Summer in the big meadow at Home for Life
Winter in her pony coat at HFL

Dodi with John Sullivan ,
Center for the Minnesota Vikings,
and his wife Ashley,at Amplatz 
It’s an honor for me to be on Dodi’s therapy dog team; but, to be perfectly honest, Dodi does all the magic . . . I just hold her leash! 

As I was writing this blog, its theme presented itself to me—a smile.  And I thought of the song Smile, by the inimitable Nat King Cole, a favorite of my parents.  The words may be simplistic, but are relevant, and timeless. 

Dodi with two of the MN Vikings cheerleaders

Smile, though your heart is aching,
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile, through your fear and sorrow
Smile, and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just SMILE