Robin Cohen, pet encounter manager at Helen Woodward Animal Center, first met Balonee in February of 2016, when he had been found abandoned in a parking lot. The Center provided veterinary care to the 11-year-old Pomeranian, who was under-vaccinated and had severe dental disease and spondylosis. Robin agreed to foster Balonee until his health improved enough to be adopted. But within a few weeks, Robin had fallen in love with the Pomeranian and decided to adopt him herself. Although it usually takes months to train therapy dogs, Balonee’s naturally sweet, gentle demeanor helped him become a fully certified therapy dog within just one month of adoption. Balonee initially visited nursing facilities and memory care units but quickly moved on to assisting people of all ages. He partook in almost 800 Pet Encounter Therapy (PET) visits, meeting clients ranging from youth in foster care, seniors, veterans, hospice patients, those working to overcome addiction, homelessness, and/or chronic unemployment, and others. Balonee’s specialty was showing people unconditional love – something that often meant the world to those he visited. One example of his healing magic was his work at a residential treatment facility for veterans, which the Center would visit twice a month. Some of the more impenetrable veterans would only come down to the visiting room if they knew Balonee was there, finding moments of peace as they held the Pomeranian in their arms and pet his fluffy cloud of fur, before heading back to their rooms. His visits came to mean so much to the residents that they would decorate the white board with welcome messages to “Balonee and his friends” before each visit. Although Balonee has passed away at the end of 2020, the countless hours he spent nurturing thousands of clients encapsulates the healing power and beauty of the human-animal bond.
When Ben, a black Labrador, trained with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), his trainers took note of his exceptional athleticism, drive, and trainability. In 2010, he was partnered with firefighter Eric Darling and since then, he has been deployed 19 times to aid in search and rescue efforts in California and across the country. Captain Mark Seastrom, an urban search and rescue officer with Ventura County Fire Department who has worked alongside Ben, reports, “Ben’s enthusiasm for human life and desire to serve has become the standard to which all of our dogs are now held”. Ben has also represented the SDF at numerous educational programs and demonstrations and has excelled as an ambassador for the search and rescue community and retired in 2020.
Just like the ingenious television character who shares his name. MacGyver is no ordinary dog. As part of the Santa Barbara County’s Search & Rescue team. Australian shepherd MacGyver and his owner. Rick Stein, have helped to locate the lost and the deceased following accidents and natural disasters in some of the most tragic conditions. MacGyver is very adept with search techniques and can generally do so without a scent article. and is able to search in high altitudes and difficult terrain.
In 2018. MacGyver and Mr. Stein were honored with a special Pup Harris Fellow (aka Paul Harris Fellow) from the Santa Barbara Sunrise Rotary Club for their critical efforts during the Montecito debris flow incident. Joanne Schoenfeld, a past club president said, “MacGyver and his partner, Rick Stein, are only one of the many Santa Barbara Search and Rescue teams in our county. While I chose to honor them for their difficult work during the debris flow. they are hard at work all year long locating the missing in our area.”
MacGyver and Mr. Stein have also shared their knowledge by training other handler/dog teams. They have spent countless hours teaching by example and their friendly and professional approach has proved invaluable to many teams.
MacGyver’s dedication to locate the missing especially under difficult circumstances as well as his training contributions under the guidance of his owner, are clear examples of how his actions exemplify the human animal bond.
Eight-year-old Belgian Malinos Max loves to help people. More specifically, he and his owner Martin Wendels love to help find missing people. As a search and rescue (SAR) dog, Max has participated in numerous rescues in the Central Valley including the Camp Fire in Northern California where he worked under extreme circumstances for seven days until his foot was lacerated from the debris.
Max is a trained trailing and cadaver dog. He and Martin are the only civilian search and rescue team the Fresno Police Department uses. They routinely volunteer their time to assist with numerous missing person cases.
Max and Martin are also part of Yosemite Park’s dedicated team of SAR handlers and dogs, nicknamed YODOGS. They help with not only incidents but also with the park’s preventative SAR program. In 2017 during the Thanksgiving holiday, Max successfully tracked a potentially suicidal person to the edge of a viewpoint in the area.
During a winter storm in Yosemite in February 2018, Max worked in very cold and snowy conditions to help with the search for a backpacker leading to a successful rescue.
Max has helped numerous agencies and groups find loved ones, and even under extreme conditions, he continues his efforts. He is an outstanding example of the human-animal bond and a very welcome inductee into the California Animal Hall of Fame.
Ricochet has a special gift. Not only can she surf, but she provides therapy to people with disabilities by providing connection through her sport. Although she was first slated to be a service dog for a person with a disability, she found her true calling as a SURFice© Dog, working with adaptive surfing organizations and special needs children. In addition, she has more than two years of service dog training and over eight years of experience working with individuals with disabilities. She is a registered therapy dog and is involved with the Emotional Support Dog Program.
There is no shortage of testaments from people Ricochet has helped. She has provided therapeutic assistance to returning military personnel readjusting to civilian life, including a combat veteran with PTSD and who barely spoke; she has helped children with special needs come out of their shell and be social; and she has even taught them to surf, not an easy task!
As described by her owner, Judy Fridono, “There is a strong bond between Ricochet and the people she interacts with that defies present day scientific understanding. She not only provides affection, loyalty, and security, but she knows what each individual needs and she delivers it. She balances boards AND lives!”
In 2008, when Bob Schultze first met his dog Hudson, he was unsocialized, wary/aggressive toward strangers and other dogs, and had a severe heartworm infection. Despite his issues, Bob still adopted him. With time, training, and love, Hudson thrived and passed his Canine Good Citizen test in February 2012; was certified for pet encounter therapy (PET) in 2013; and has made over 150 therapy visits to 20 facilities in San Diego County including nursing facilities, memory care units, the VA hospital, and even a school for homeless children since then.
Hudson’s temperament is very gentle and patient and he can stir reaction from even the most unresponsive clients. He is described as a star wherever he goes and that he shines the brightest with clients that can’t respond with more than a small touch. One of many examples that highlights his therapeutic capabilities was with a client in hospice that had not been responsive for more than three weeks. His family had asked Bob to help. Bob placed Hudson next to their father and Hudson laid his head on the man’s hand. Soon the man started to pet him and kept petting him for the rest of the visit. The man’s response made his family cry and they were overjoyed that he was able to find comfort with Hudson.
Another example of Hudson’s therapeutic touch involves a client that spends most of his days in a wheelchair with little movement. While the way he is positioned in the wheelchair makes it difficult for other therapy dogs to reach him, it is no problem from Hudson. Hudson will gently mold his body to the man’s in his reclining chair and will lean in to share his warmth. The man’s usually labored breathing will start to ease and his muscles relax.
Hudson’s loving nature despite having been given up and his service as a therapy dog, exemplifies the importance of the human-animal bond. After his rescue, his body and spirit were made whole and he is now giving back one PET visit at a time.