Super-Healing Hero

October 10, 2011  

Once a stray, Sal is now an award-winning therapy dog

By Jessica Dolce

In 2009, I was in California attending a pit bull education camp at Bad Rap,and I was introduced to Sal, who was looking for his forever home. Thinking he’d like a little extra time out of his kennel, I snuck him into my hotel room for the night, where it turned out that sleeping in bed with me, a stranger, wasn’t enough for Sal. He wanted to sleep on top of me!

That night, not an inch of his body touched the bed. He stretched his legs out on top of mine, belly to belly, and rested his fat head right on my face. I found this surprisingly comfortable, with a heavy emphasis on comfortable. Being pinned under Sal was like being wrapped in a quilt, hugged by my favorite person, and getting a hot stone massage all at the same time.

Not too shabby for a former street urchin who was discovered with a bum leg and little hope for adoption – until Bad Rap stepped in and added him to their AmbassaDog Program.

All of this is why, later, when I met the family that was about to adopt Sal, I was thrilled to discover that he would be a therapy dog. It was so clear that Bad Rap had connected the right dog to the right family. Everyone saw the superhero healer in him.

Here’s what his mom, Jackie Gunby, has shared in Bad Rap’s blog about working with Sal, the super-healing hero.

This wonderfully detailed report was written after a particularly busy day doing therapy work. Jackie and Sal had showed up ready to work in a locked psychiatric ward with multiple, unexpected challenges. It sounds like the just the kind of job for a dog like Sal, who’s overcome some tough challenges himself. For privacy reasons, Jackie can’t share photos of the clients, but we’re very grateful to Inga Sheffield, below, for helping us see Sal at work with her father, I.M. Sheffield III. Mr. Sheffield was unsure of the value of his daughter’s work with pit bulls until this meeting. The photos tell the rest of the story.

The Best Medicine

By Jackie Gunby

Big Sal was bulletproof last night at a locked psych facility. None of the other four teams showed, so the choice was: go it alone or bow out for the night? This visit is to acute care (up to seven or eight people), children’s ward (seven or eight), then adolescents/teenagers (five to seven) and adult population (15 – 20). That’s a lot of people to visit, and while Sal is good with children, I notice that they can stress him out a little, so I’m trying to limit his exposure to keep visits enjoyable for him.

We had our own personal security detail, Herb, who is a mountain of a man – tall, booming voice, quick smile, wants a Saluki. Herb thinks Big Sal is the best thing since sliced bread. He and I put our heads together for a workable plan. He knew that all the units were looking forward to some doggy lovin’, and he checked each unit before we moved to the next one to see how many people were there, and to make sure that we were ushered to an area where Sal could work his magic and not be overwhelmed.

The acute care ward is for residents deemed a danger to themselves and others. There we saw five clients. Each wanted attention and petting, and to tell their own pet stories. They worked pretty well together, giving each other time to pet and have Sal to themselves. He sat in his own chair very politely for attention and only glanced briefly at the little cup of ice cream that one of them held. One client wanted to walk him out to their special outdoor enclosure to smell the smells and talk to him privately (I swore I wouldn’t listen!), and he was great walking with her.

The children’s ward was the best of all possible scenarios for Big Sal, with two children and one of those wanting to take his bath and go to bed. So the little girl (maybe 10 years old) got to have her own private visit with the pit bull prince. Lots of petting, massaging, snuggling and giggling caused kisses and happy wiggles.

The visit to the adolescent’s ward included three young, mid-teen women having a nice time coloring together when we came in. They all instantly hit the floor with squealing and calling him over for hugs and kisses. They did a great job of “sharing” him, and we got to talk about responsible dog ownership, why Sal doesn’t have “cajones” and what they can do to help make sure all dogs are cared for and loved properly. (Side note – we get to talk a lot about why we “got no cajones” at juvenile hall. It’s a staple topic and if I don’t bring it up, one of the kids does first thing!)

In the adult care ward, our personal security detail ushered us into a side TV room with about seven clients, both men and women. All the ladies hit the floor again for petting, hugs and kisses. The gentlemen were a little more reserved but melted like puddles when our boy gently climbed onto each lap to give a big smooch.

Towards the end, one of the ladies was becoming more agitated and was losing focus, but before it could escalate, Sal turned to focus on her directly, walked up on her lap (she was sitting on the floor), planted a big smooch on her, then gently walked up her torso until he was face to face with her and put his head on her shoulder for a hug, giving her some gentle little neck kisses.

She wrapped her arms around him and just hugged him tight. I was watching to make sure she would release him when he was ready, but he stayed there for a good amount of time!

She was in heaven when we left her, with a big smile on her face and as pleased as punch to run to tell the staff what had happened. She would wait a little while for more medication. She was feeling better.

Sal Wins an Award

From Bad Rap’s blog

Last month, Bad Rap alumnus Big Sal and his handler, Jackie Gunby, accepted a Hero Award from Placer SPCA on behalf of the Kaiser Permanente Pet Visitor Program, which brings dogs to visit hospital patients.(Program founders (L to R) Mary Knight, Jackie Gunby and Robbie Sarkisian with Sal)

Sal had shown up as a limping, street-weary stray in Oakland and had found a quick spot in the AmbassaDog Program. As luck would have it, Sal arrived just as Jackie was starting her search for a four-legged partner for therapy work. Kismet!

He’s a special guy and his adopter is one special lady. She’s devoted herself to improving the lives of people through therapy dogs and helps direct the Delta Society so that the amazing gifts of therapy dogs can be shared around the country. She and Sal just completed their final task, serving as one of 10 teams in Sacramento allowed into UCD Medical Center Hospital. Sal’s known for his ability to “work a room,” says Jackie, “for smiling at everyone, for snuffing and snuggling with people who ask, for being happy to be hugged and kissed, and for standing very still on his stool so that neuro-rehab clients can touch him.”

A recent story about Sal that demonstrates the power of canine:

“A family invited us into their father’s room at Kaiser Roseville to visit with him, telling us that he loves dogs! He was an older man, imposing in stature with a big voice – someone who commands a room with his presence. He was excited to see a dog, and I put Big Sal’s stool on the floor so that the gentleman could reach Sal easily to pet him from his hospital bed. Sal climbed up on the stool, and the man boomed, ‘No, not there! I want him up here on the bed with me!’ We put down a sheet, I helped Big Sal up on the bed, and he snuggled happily down in the crook of the patient’s arm with his head resting on his shoulder. Both of them were the picture of contented happiness. He asked me a few questions about Sal, how old he is, where he came from – but within a minute or two, he closed his eyes and drifted off.

“The patient’s wife and adult daughter and I quietly chatted, and they told me that the patient is a life-long dog lover with two dogs at home that he won’t be able to go home and see again. After about five minutes, the patient awoke and opened his eyes. I watched closely to make sure that he wasn’t startled by a strange dog lying in his hospital bed with him, ready to whisk Big Sal off the bed should that be necessary. Instead, the patient felt the weight of Sal’s head on his shoulder, focused his eyes on Sal lying there relaxed and comfy, and gently tilted his head down to kiss Sal tenderly on the top of the head, snuggling his cheek against the velvet fur. Our patient closed his eyes and drifted off again, repeating this same sequence (awake, realize Big Sal is there, kiss, snuggle, sleep again) five or six times while we visited there for about an hour. Big Sal did his job like a star that day, and someone’s day is better.”

Thank you Jackie and Big Sal for reminding us once again of the incredible gifts that dogs bring to our human experience.

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5 Responses to “Super-Healing Hero”
  1. AWESOME story as always!!!! Sal laying on top of you is the funniest thing and how did you sleep lol

  2. NicholeRyanStaib says:

    beautiful!! i love the story, and sal is magnificent!!! congrats on finding such a star!!

    • StubbyDog says:

      @NicholeRyanStaib We’re sure there are more stars like Sal waiting to find homes in shelters too.

  3. allybenbrook says:

    This is a wonderful story. There’s nothing like bully love. On my grandmother’s 104th birthday, I took my parents to visit her at her assisted-living facility, and my staffy-pit Anabel was with us. When the nurses saw her they told me I could bring her in with us. My grandmother was blind, and basically just lying there, no sign that she knew we were there. Although I had never trained or tested Anabel for therapy work I had always thought she would be great, so I decided to check her out with my grandma who was a life-long dog-lover. I lifted Anabel onto a chair beside the bed, and within 30 seconds, my g’ma opened her eyes, and reached out toward Anabel, touching her head. She said “It’s a dog! It’s a little dog!”. She then realized people were in the room with her and asked who we were. My dad, with tears in his eyes, said, “Mom, it’s Bob”. She said “My Bob?” and then they had a 15 minute conversation, sharing memories and love. It was the last time he talked with his mother, and it was a gift he never expected, all due to a little staffy-pit named Anabel.

    • StubbyDog says:

      @allybenbrook Such a wonderful story, how fortunate your father and you were able to share that last time with your grandmother all because of a Anabel. Dogs seem to be able to reach us when no one else can. Thanks for sharing that with us.