Extraordinary Pets Making the South a Better Place
We searched across the South for pets helping humans in need. These standout service and therapy animals are following the call, comforting patients in Florida, cuddling with kids in North Carolina, teaching fire safety in Georgia, and more. Raise a paw for these hardworking pets running to rescue in their communities.
After witnessing how much therapy animals could help patients, Caroline Benzel, a student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, trained her Rottweiler, Loki, to become one. Now as a certified therapy dog, Loki brings her soothing bedside manner to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where she works volunteer shifts with her owner. Usually sporting a white lab coat or scrubs, Loki brings smiles to patients and staff. "She is the unspoken mascot of the hospital," says Benzel. During the pandemic, Benzel started a national fundraiser called Hero Healing Kits, putting together care packages (with Loki's friendly face on them) and collecting over $100,000 for multiple hospitals.
New Smyrna Beach, FL
Blaze and his owner, Laura Kruger, are a registered pet therapy team. "I knew Blaze was a special gift the day I adopted him, and he has proven me right ever since," she says. The two work together in an elementary school, where Kruger is a speech-language pathologist. "He's integrated into my sessions, where I treat students ages 3 to 12 for a variety of speech and language disorders and implement animal-assisted therapy in small group sessions. I have seen such a difference in my students' attention, confidence, comprehension skills, and social interactions," she says. "If we have a day off, Blaze still wakes me up early wondering why we aren't going to work!"
Breed: Golden retriever
Confidence, friendliness, and stamina are a few of the qualities that make Cliff a natural-born service animal. "He was chosen from a breeder for his specific temperament to be a good fit for his role," says owner Olivia Graue, a college student and full-time trainer at The Clever Canine Training Center in Louisville, Kentucky. "He works for me as my personal service dog and is tasked with helping mitigate my chronic illnesses. We started training at 8 weeks old, but he won't be fully done until he's about 2 or 3 years old. He is still learning his job!" This team practices their skills at malls, grocery stores, and airports. In his off time, Cliff enjoys hiking and taking naps.
Cole & Marmalade
Ages: 8 & 9
Meet a pair of friendly felines on a mission. Rescues Marmalade (8, at left) and Cole (9, at right) are helping raise awareness for pet adoption through lighthearted but educational content on their website (coleandmarmalade.com) and social media pages. "Our goal when we started posting videos and pictures of Cole was to promote black-cat adoption. Many are overlooked in shelters because of silly superstitions or because people choose cats with colored or patterned fur instead," says owner Chris Poole, who's an advocate for helping cats and kittens with his partner, Jessica Josephs. The team uses their platform to teach followers about cat welfare, spaying and neutering, and common health issues. "We like to make people laugh too! Over the years, we have received messages from those who've said our posts have helped them smile when they needed it the most," Poole says.
Huntington Beach, CA
Breed: Labrador mix
You might recognize Shelby from her starring role in the movie A Dog's Way Home. "My company, Paws For Effect, trains animals for motion pictures," says her owner, Debbie Pearl. "When we were hired for A Dog's Way Home, we started a nationwide search to find just the right rescue dog, and it took us all the way to a shelter in Nashville. We fell in love with Shelby right away." Before ending up at the shelter, Shelby was malnourished and living in a landfill. Now, she's a canine celebrity living the dream in California. Though she's a long way from her Tennessee roots, Shelby is bringing her Southern hospitality and charm to everyone she meets. Since the film, she's become a therapy dog with Pearl's nonprofit, Dream Fetchers, and travels the country visiting veterans, schools, hospitals, retirement communities, and more. "Shelby is a true humanitarian," says Pearl.
Greenville, South Carolina
Breed: Labrador-golden retriever mix
Kalle is a member of The Canine FETCH (Friends Encouraging Therapeutic Coping and Healing) Unit at the Prisma Health Children's Hospital-Upstate in Greenville. She's on a team with six other full-time facility dogs. Kalle is assigned to the pediatrics unit, where she cuddles with kids admitted for overnight stays. She also comforts the nurses, physicians, and administrative staff.
Heart for Kids
"She loves making children smile, especially when they're doing things they thought they couldn't do," says Katelyn Leitner, a certified child life specialist and facility canine coordinator at Prisma Health.
Dallas, North Carolina
Breed: Clumber spaniel
You can find Clarence most Thursdays at Charlotte Douglas International Airport greeting weary travelers, anxious children, and members of the military before they head out on deployments.
Lending a Paw
His owners, Hilary and Pat Cleary, have a dog-boarding facility just outside Charlotte. Clarence will often comfort the nervous pups who don't like being away from home. "He makes them feel better," says Hilary.
Play All Day
Clarence is an avid stick collector and loves a good photo shoot. He's always showing off for Instagram.
Breed: Orange domestic shorthair
Paying It Forward
After being abandoned and rescued as a kitten, Smush is on a mission to help other pets like her. She was adopted into a perfect home for that: Her owner, Shannon Jackson, is a rescue activist and photographer who specializes in animal-welfare documentation. Her volunteer work inspired her to create The Smush Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for organizations that support animals. "Smush is the face of the foundation because without the compassionate people who work so tirelessly for this cause, there would be no Smush," Jackson says.
Pick up a copy of Jackson's children's book: Smush for President (available on Amazon). "In it, Smush teaches kids about making a difference right where they are no matter who they are," says Jackson.
Smush refuels for her next mission (or playing with her eight rescue-animal siblings) with her favorite treat: bread.
Breed: Mini goldendoodle
Charlie and his owner, Stephanie Goldstein, are a certified therapy team. As members of Happy Tails Pet Therapy, they bring smiles to a number of Atlanta-area facilities, including an independent-living community, Oglethorpe University, and Ronald McDonald House. "Charlie loves meeting new people, and it shows!" Goldstein says. "He has an infectious energy that he passes along to anybody who may be having a bad day."
"He has always been extremely calm, even as a puppy, and brings so much joy to everyone he sees," Goldstein says.
"One reason Chico and I trained to become a therapy-dog team is so we could volunteer together and spread joy in our free time," says owner Kristen Montesano, who's a teacher. "Chico's training was easy because he's eager to please and loves being petted as much as getting treats for rewards," she says.
Chico tags along with Montesano and hangs out in her classroom. This Chihuahua's pint-size proportions (he weighs only 5 pounds) make him a great friend for small kids, who might be afraid of larger animals. "Chico has never met a stranger. Kids feel affirmed by his attention, as he's always happy to see them and gives everyone equal love," says Montesano. He supports students while they work and curls up in their laps during playtime.
Off the Clock
He gets his own fill of therapy outdoors by exploring Texas' many natural wonders (such as Big Bend Ranch
State Park) with Montesano.
Breed: Labrador retriever
After training since she was a puppy, Pepper earned her vest as a courthouse assistance dog. She works with her handler, Abby Stavitsky (a former assistant United States attorney), in the District of Columbia criminal, domestic violence, juvenile, and family courts. "Pepper is the 'spoonful of sugar' that helps the stress level go down," says Stavitsky. "She provides emotional support and comfort to victims (or whoever may need it) during all stages of the court process." Pepper especially loves children, and her smaller size makes her less intimidating to them.
"Because of her service-dog training, Pepper can also demonstrate tasks (turning on and off light switches, opening and closing doors) that bring smiles to people's faces," says Stavitsky. "She can even turn the pages of a board book as I read to kids!"
Find Pepper keeping cool in the summer heat in her backyard wading pool.
Stop, Drop, and Roll: Cinder is currently training to become a certified therapy and certified facility dog. She's been working for Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services-where her owner, Aaron Salkill, is a firefighter engineer-since she was 4 months old. "Cinder helps teach second graders how to interact with dogs. She stars in public-safety videos, demonstrates fire-safety skills, and acts as a therapy animal for children with special needs who visit our facility. We also hang out with our friends at 911 dispatch before and after their shifts to help take their minds off the stresses that they face," says Salkill.
Top Dog: "Cinder is very obedient and loves working with kids. I think she looks at them like silly puppies," Salkill says.
Off-Duty Hobby: Playing with her golden retriever brother, Ranger
Breed: Pembroke Welsh corgi
All Ears: Drover is an overachiever, with three American Kennel Club (AKC) titles-like Therapy Dog Excellent-under his belt in addition to Paws 4 Hearts Working Therapy Dog certification. Along with regular visits to his local assisted-living facility, he's a Reading Education Assistance Dog (R.E.A.D.). Reading aloud to Drover gives students with special needs a fun, stress-free way to improve their fluency and comprehension.
Overcoming Obstacles: Earlier in his life, Drover herded cattle, but when a cow stepped on and crushed his front paw, he was abandoned. As a therapy dog, he doesn't let his disability stop him from comforting others. "People can relate to his story of facing adversity and feel a special connection to him," says owner Lydia Smith.
Nature Lover: When he's not volunteering, Drover enjoys exploring the Texas Hill Country and patrolling for deer.
Breed: Golden retriever
Dynamic Duo: Henry is a service animal for 25-year-old owner and handler Jessica Paulsen, who's been diagnosed with generalized anxiety, clinical depression, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. "An example of Henry's tasks is item retrieval, because POTS can cause blackouts during up/down motions. This includes things like getting dropped keys or grabbing my shoes off the ground," says Paulsen.
Better Together: "Having a service dog helps make everyday life easier for me. Henry and I are best friends, and I think we're at our happiest when we're with each other," says Paulsen.
One of the Boys: Trips to Walt Disney World are part of Henry's training. He loves taking photos with canine characters like Pluto and Goofy.
Hot Off the Press: Paulsen recently published her first children's book, Henry the Helper (available on Amazon). It tells the story of how Henry became a service dog.
Nebo, North Carolina
Breed: Flemish giant rabbit
Hopping To Help: Henry is a therapy animal for children and adults at hospitals, rehabilitation centers, long-term care facilities, his local YMCA, and more. "His favorite part is jumping into hospital beds to lie with patients or hang out with children at church or school events," says owner Candy Apple, who's worked in hospital settings caring for the sick and elderly since she was a teenager.
Not-So-Silly Rabbit: "He is very intuitive and senses when someone is in emotional or physical pain and cuddles up next to anyone who needs love," says Apple.
Man About Town: Henry has a buzzing social life, attending community events, visiting his Instagram fans, and responding to fan mail.
Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses
Breed: American miniature horses
Ages: From 2 years old to late teens
On Call: This team of 21 hardworking therapy horses travels around the country, visiting thousands of patients each year in hospitals, hospice programs, and assisted-living centers and spending time with families, veterans, and first responders who have experienced traumatic events. "The horses also work with medical professionals in oncology units and ICUs and with occupational, speech, and physical therapists as part of the treatment for patients who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations, and burns," says Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, education director at Gentle Carousel.
Book Buddies: Gentle Carousel's Reading Is Magic literacy program encourages at-risk children to read more. Some horses look similar to equine literary characters-like Misty of Chincoteague-helping bring the stories to life for students.
Natural-Born Workers: "These horses do well as therapy animals because they're fearless and trustworthy in new and unusual situations," says Garcia-Bengochea. "They move carefully around hospital equipment, work in small patient rooms, stay calm around unexpected sounds like ambulances, and are house-trained."
At Home: "Individual therapy horses work no more than two days a week. In their off time, they enjoy acres to run on and a lifelong herd of friends," says Garcia-Bengochea.