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With his small stature, oversized bite, and permanently closed eyes, this blind Golden Retriever in Ontario, Canada, exudes a love for life. There’s something about him that makes people feel better — a gift that makes him the perfect therapy dog.
Back in 2004, when Joanne George of Stouffville, Ontario, worked as a veterinary technician, she was called out to the scene of an overcrowded puppy mill about to be shut down. When Joanne saw the numerous puppies housed in the smelly barn, she took as many as she could, hoping to adopt them out.
One of those dogs was 2-year-old Smiley. Born without eyeballs and with other physical issues, Smiley became the target for many acts of aggression within the barn. His body showed numerous scars both new and old upon rescue. Joanne had no problem finding homes for the other dogs but not Smiley.
His lack of sight, negative experiences with other dogs, and inexperience with positive human interaction left him nervous and scared. He acted out and was reluctant to learn anything. Joanne, who fostered Smiley, said it seemed he would never be trained.
But when Smiley was returned to her after a two-week trial with potential adopters, Joanne realized that hers might be the perfect home for him.
“Everyone thought he was too difficult a dog to look after,” she said. “They had visions of what they wanted to do with a dog, such as hiking, swimming, boating, obedience, going for long walks, being safe around children, and they thought Smiley wouldn’t be able to do those things.” Joanne knew they were wrong.
Veterinarians surgically sewed shut his eyes to alleviate pain and prevent infection. Joanne diligently worked to create a safe and comforting atmosphere for Smiley. He began to thrive under Joanne’s loving care and her training as a certified dog trainer.
“The only way to teach this is by positive experience,” she said. “I showed him with my energy and feedback that everything was fine. I built up trust in him. I treated him like any other dog. I did not feel sorry for him or ‘baby’ him … With Smiley, it is so important to stay calm and show him you are in control, and then he feels safe.”
It worked. Smiley blossomed. Before long, therapy work seemed like a perfect fit for him.
“I could see that he was changing people’s perceptions of special needs dogs,” she said. “He could make anyone smile and help people feel better even at their lowest. He had so much love to give; he just had to be shared.”
Smiley frequently visits schools and other events, specializing in working with children.
“Children know that everyone is born different, but acceptance of that is the most important,” Joanne said. “I show them the scars on [Smiley’s] face and the splits in his ears from where the other dogs attacked him in the puppy mill. They are sad that the other dogs picked on him and bullied him just because he was born different. They make that connection.”
Smiley’s connection with children goes beyond the typical boy-and-his-dog reaction. Joanne said that Smiley connects with them on a deeper level, and they seem to understand these life lessons, all while cuddling up to a smiling Golden Retriever.
But he doesn’t stop there. Smiley also reaches out to many others in the community, such as through a reading program at the Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library, where he sits with children who struggle to read. One time, a little girl came by. She lost both her eyes as an infant due to cancer. She bonded with Smiley in a nearly magical way, using Braille to read to him.
“Most children love him at first because he is so cute,” Joanne said. “This girl could not see his beautiful face, but she could feel his puppy-soft fur and the way he pressed up against her as she read. She ran her fingertips along the bumpy page and spoke the words aloud so fluently.”
As for the future, Joanne said she and Smiley hope to show the world that no matter what life throws at you, there is always acceptance to be had, joy to be found, and a reason to smile.