Dog trainer Joanne George always knew her dog was special, and now the rest of the world knows it, too.
The adorable therapy dog attracted the attention of countless media outlets after a three-year-old post on a pet photographer’s blog gained traction through sudden social media shares.
“[The photographer] phoned me in the spring, she was just inundated with phone calls,” says George.
Suddenly, the therapy dog — who was already a local celebrity in the small town of Stouffville, Ontario, Canada — was known worldwide. Smiley’s smiling face graced the websites of media outlets around the world, and he even flew to New York City for an appearance on the The Meredith Vieira Show.
“I never get tired of talking about Smiley,” George tells Dogster. She says she appreciates all the international attention because Smiley’s inspirational story helps people see the value in special-needs pets.
“I couldn’t find this dog a home,” says George, who met, fostered, and then adopted Smiley more than a decade before the rest of the world met him online.
According to George, Smiley spent the first two years of his life living on the property of a one-time reputable breeder turned puppy mill operator.
“It had turned into a hoarding situation, and she ended up with about 80 dogs and 50 puppies,” George explains.
An SPCA investigation revealed that 20 of the dogs, including Smiley, needed urgent veterinary care.
“He had no eyeballs, so his lids and everything just turned into empty sockets. Basically, it was like having an eyelash in your eye — it hurt. He still felt that because he had the optic nerves and the tear ducts, so everything was just turned into the empty sockets and they were running like crazy.”
At the time, George was working as a veterinary technician and was part of a team called in to help Smiley and the other 19 dogs with medical needs.
“The breeder just wanted them euthanized, but we went there knowing we weren’t going to euthanize them,” says George, who — along with her veterinary colleagues — was able to convince the breeder to hand over the dogs instead of putting them all down.
“There were three of us, and we all sort of divided up the dogs,” she says.
Although George frequently offered her home to foster dogs, she initially told her colleagues she didn’t think Smiley should come with her. “I had a big, goofy Great Dane at home — a young and very bouncy, playful Great Dane.”
George worried that the large dog, Tyler (who was partially deaf), would frighten Smiley, but her colleagues convinced her that Smiley needed her training skills.
“Everybody was like, ‘No, Joanne, you need to take the blind dog.’”
So Smiley did go home with George, but things weren’t easy for the blind pup at first.
“When he came here to my house, he just wanted to hide in corners. He was destructive with whatever was around him,” George remembers. “He actually ate a leather couch down to the pine boards — the entire couch.”
As a professional dog trainer, George knows Smiley wasn’t destroying things for the usual reasons dogs act out against furniture — his problem was physical pain. George believes he was taking it out on whatever was around him.
“Once we got his eye sockets cleaned out and closed up permanently, all that just went away.”
With his condition resolved, Smiley blossomed under George’s care. The blind dog went everywhere with her, gaining the social skills and confidence that he would need to be adopted.
“I still planned on finding him a home. I had no intention of keeping him, but nobody would take him.”
Long after all the other Golden Retrievers from the puppy mill had found new families, George was still looking for the right match for Smiley.
“Everybody was like, no, it would be too difficult to have a blind dog,” says George. “Finally I was like, ‘Why am I still looking for a home for him? Why don’t I just keep him?’ I could give him exactly what he needs.”
With that decision made, Smiley happily settled into his forever family and began doing what he’s now so well known for — spreading smiles.
“We would go visit my grandmother in her nursing home all the time, and we would end up just visiting people along the way,” George remembers. “I saw how much he touched people. He could just make anybody smile.”
Eventually, George had Smiley tested through St. John Ambulance. He’s been a certified therapy dog with the organization for more than six years.
Now around 13 years old, Smiley is still spreading happiness despite a compressed disc in his back. According to George, spinal surgery isn’t the best option for the therapy dog due to his age and the risk of post-surgical immobility.
“So now we’re doing chiropractic [therapy] with him, and he’s the best he’s been in two years.”
Smiley is doing so good that he’s able to run around with George’s young son, Shepherd, and the family’s Border Collie, Pippi. Smiley recently gave George a bit of a scare when he decided to run down the road while Shepherd was riding his bike.
“I actually had to slow him down because I was worried about how fast he was going.”
The puppy mill survivor is still going strong and enjoying his fame. A crew of film students is currently working on a documentary about the dog, and his human has a new project in the works as well.
“We signed with a publisher, so we’re in the middle of writing a book,” says George, who hopes to continue sharing Smiley with the world for years to come.
For more Smiley, follow his Facebook page.
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About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.