When Angel, a Golden Retriever, came into the world on March 9, 2009, she was born with three legs and one eye.
Despite a veterinarian’s advice that Angel should be euthanized, breeder Barbara Shapley refused to put the puppy down. Instead, Shapley made the unilateral decision that rescue worker Trish Herrera of Houston, Texas, would adopt Angel. Shapley was just that determined to find a home for Angel. Something told her that the puppy needed to live.
When Herrera heard of Shapley’s plan, she laughed: “I didn’t know anything about a three-legged, one-eyed puppy, but the Golden Retriever world is kind of close-knit.”
Herrera began rescue work in 2001 at the prodding of her mother. In addition to co-founding the Golden Retriever Rescue of Houston in 2002, she adopted an orthopedically challenged Golden named Rosie and started a fund to help people who adopt dogs with special needs.
Herrera estimates that she has fostered 25 Golden Retrievers, admits to being a foster failure, and has also served as an adoption coordinator. When she had her idea to bring a rescue to the inner city, she wanted to make it different. “We weren’t just showing sad pictures all the time. Instead we were like, ‘It’s fun to rescue,’” Herrera said.
She remembers receiving the call about Angel from a friend, who asked her, “What are we going to do about the puppy? Everyone knows that you are going to adopt this three legged, one-eyed puppy.”
At the time, Herrera was still grieving the loss of Lucy, one of her foster failures, but she didn’t let that deter her. She called Shapley to finally find out what was up, and Shapley told her, “Only you are going to adopt this puppy and no one else. She was meant for you, and you have to take her.”
Herrera agreed, but in her head she was thinking, “I am going to get this puppy and put her on the website and get her adopted.’”
However, before she went to get the dog, Herrera spoke of a feeling that she had. “Something inside me told me that this dog was meant for me. Before I went out there, I had completely puppy-proofed my house. I told my other dog, Rosie, that I was going to go get that puppy,” she said. “When I got there, I looked at Angel and I fell head over heels in love with her.”
Herrera brought Angel home and immediately ran into trouble. “She was wild, really wild. Barbara had taught her to sit, stay, and come, but she still wouldn’t listen. She had this crazy behavior where she would chase people’s feet and bite them.”
And so Angel’s training began. “Honestly, I approached this out of anger, because I was angry at that vet for not recognizing how amazing this puppy was, and I had something to prove,” Herrera said. “So I started training her really young.”
Then her Golden, Rosie, died, and Herrera said to herself, “Now, I just have Angel. I am going to throw myself into this training so Angel can become a therapy puppy.” Even though she already had a full life working as a hairdresser in her own salon and playing guitar in the punk-rock band Mydolls, she was going to make it work.
That determination paid off. Today, Angel holds five titles: AKC Puppy, AKC Canine Good Citizen, AKC Therapy Dog, AKC Therapy Dog Advanced, and Faithful Paws Therapy Dog. And she is working toward her AKC Therapy Dog Distinguished, which is the highest designation the organization awards. Angel is about halfway through her 400 working hours.
Herrera, too, had work to do. She recalled all of the blood tests, drug screenings, flu shots, and background checks she too had to undergo when the pair wanted to begin volunteering at Houston Methodist Hospital.
The day they reported to hospital security to have their photo badges completed, Herrera told Angel to sit and stay while she stood in line to have her picture taken. When Herrera was finished, she said something amazing happened.
The security officer simply said: “Now, the dog.” Herrera explained that normally Angel will not get out of a sit and stay until she is released.
“When I took one step toward Angel, she got up and walked over to the line, sat, and looked at the camera. I didn’t have to tell her. She knew she was going to get her photo made. She knew she was meant for this job,” she said.
Besides working at Houston Methodist Hospital, Angel and Herrera also make visits to Hermann Memorial Hospital, Sheltering Arms Assisted Care, and Hampton Assisted Care. The dog also works with students at the University of Houston and is an active member of Faithful Paws.
When Herrera and Angel do visits, certain people already know them. “We have cards that we pass out to the patients and the residents of the places we go to. When we come back, we’ll see our card hanging up on the wall. It means a lot to them to have us come visit,” Herrera said.
She added, “Angel loves people that have had strokes, and she seems to know that they need her. She likes children a whole lot.”
Herrera spoke of the time in a pediatric oncology unit when she and Angel walked into a child’s room. She got a feeling that the mother wasn’t up for company, but introduced Angel and asked if they would like a visit from a dog.
The boy responded yes, so Herrera continued walking in with Angel. She said, “As you can see, she is missing a leg.” The mother stopped her and said, “He’s blind. He can’t see.”
Herrera thought, “Oh wow, I really need to be careful here.”
The boy then told his mom, “I want to feel where her leg is missing.”
Herrera didn’t let on to the boy or his mother that Angel really doesn’t like to have her nub touched — she will only tolerate it when she is being lifted into the car. But the boy requested that Angel come up on the bed with him, and he asked again, “Can I feel where her nub is?”
The mother’s face began started to soften. The boy was attached to machines, but Herrera said that Angel is absolutely amazing about knowing how to go underneath tubes and wires. Herrera put Angel on the bed in a way that her blind eye was facing up — so she was basically blind, too, lying there.
Herrera said, “I was holding my breath because at home, Angel’s like, ‘Leave me alone. Let me run around and be crazy, and don’t touch me, my nub or anything.’”
Angel rested her head on the boy’s leg, and he bent over and started petting where her leg wasn’t. “By the time I left the little boy and his mother, everyone was laughing and we were having a great time,” Herrera remembered.
She said that when Angel puts on her vest to go to work at the hospital and she gets up on those beds, she’s a different dog. Somehow, she knows to lie still and let the patient pat her.
During another visit, a patient asked Angel, “Can you chase my cancer away?” The man then insisted that Angel and all of the other therapy dogs who were there that day come up on the bed with him.
Herrera said, “By the time it was over, the man was asking the dogs, “How are y’all doing today? Are y’all doing all right?’”
She said the man forgot all about himself. All he cared about were those dogs and how they were feeling at that moment.
Herrera calls this “the magic” and says dogs are so much easier to communicate with because they only expect you to be present and be with them.
“Stuff like that happens. You don’t really understand, but it’s just the presence of a well-trained dog that is ready to help. They know it’s their mission. It’s weird. It’s like they are born for it.”
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About the author: Anne Forline is a freelance writer in Bellmawr, New Jersey. She is an unrepentant foster failure. Her three rescue bunnies, JoJo, Bennie, and Nibbles, allow Anne, her husband, Steve, and daughter, Cara, to share a home with them. Anne likes to run 5Ks and has placed a few times in her age division. She is also a certified teacher who homeschools Cara. Anne makes friends with all of the neighborhood dogs and keeps treats handy to give out when they pass by on their walks. See more of her work at anneforline.com, and follow her on Twitter at @AnneForline.