In honor of National Dog Day, On the Pulse is recognizing a special four-legged volunteer who has provided comfort to patients at Seattle Children’s every week for more than 11 years.
If Abe had the ability to talk, he would likely share powerful stories about the thousands of kids he has met throughout his 11-year career as a registered therapy dog.
The road to becoming a therapy dog isn’t easy for most loyal companions, but for Abe, it was his calling.
“I always said he was born to be a therapy dog,” said Judith Bonifaci, Abe’s owner and trusty handler. “From the moment I met him, I could tell he was an old soul who had a special purpose in life.”
A wise little puppy with a purpose
More than a decade ago when Bonifaci was reeling from the loss of her family’s beloved golden retriever, a strong feeling of emptiness had come over her.
It wasn’t until a friend thoughtfully suggested she look into getting another dog that Bonifaci began to mend her broken heart and search for a new four-legged family member.
“I knew that if I were to get another dog, I wanted one that could make a difference,” said Bonifaci. “That’s when I decided to look for a puppy to train to become a therapy dog.”
Having owned many golden retrievers in the past and knowing their typical characteristics as calm, friendly and intelligent, Bonifaci was set on finding a puppy that had the potential to harness those traits in order to become a successful therapy dog.
“I remember the first time I saw him,” said Bonifaci. “He had such kind and honest eyes. I knew he was the one.”
Bonifaci took the precious puppy home that she later named Abraham or Abe for short.
Training for an important job
The first year of Abe’s life was dedicated to developing a strong obedience skill set that was necessary for becoming a registered therapy dog.
At 6 months old, Abe was enrolled into a puppy manners training class. This was followed by obedience training, then finally therapy dog training. From the start, it was clear Abe was a natural.
“When it was time to do the full therapy dog assessment, Abe was confident and ready as can be,” said Bonifaci. “I on the other hand was terribly nervous!”
The duo passed with flying colors. While most golden retrievers are certified when they are between 3 and 4 years old, Abe became one of the youngest to receive his certificate at just 14 months old.
Making kids smile one tail wag at a time
Putting his newly learned skills to practice, Abe became a resident classroom therapy dog at the elementary school where Bonifaci was a teacher.
“He was so great with the kids in my classes,” said Bonifaci. “Seeing how much they enjoyed having him around assured me he was ready for other therapy dog opportunities.”
Long before Bonifaci welcomed Abe into her family, she had been actively involved with Seattle Children’s through the fundraising work of the Woodinville Guild, which she helped start over 30 years ago, and being a member of the Seattle Children’s Guild Association Board of Trustees.
Combining her love for dogs and working with kids with her passion for giving back, Bonifaci was thrilled when she learned that Abe, who was 2 years old at the time, had reached the minimum required age for therapy dogs to visit patients at the hospital.
“Not unlike what I saw in my classrooms, Abe did incredibly well interacting with patients on his first few visiting sessions,” recalls Bonifaci. “He just seemed to know exactly what he was doing.”
Abe adapted to the hospital environment quickly, which was no surprise to Bonifaci.
“I often say it’s not me who controls the leash, it’s Abe who does,” said Bonifaci. “He seems to always know where to go. There have been times where he would lead me to a patient’s room that wasn’t even on our list of visits — Abe just knows where he’s needed.”
The power of paws
For well more than a decade, Abe’s weekly presence at the hospital has created an impact on many patients and families, as well as staff.
“Not only do patients and their families enjoy his visits, there are staff members we’ve come to know over the past several years who love seeing him,” said Bonifaci.
Although Abe resembles most golden retrievers, he often leaves a unique mark on those he meets.
“Just recently, when we entered a patient room for a visit, a mother took one look at him and said, ‘That’s not Abe, is it? It can’t be!’” said Bonifaci. “When I told the mother that it was, she explained to me that her son had been admitted to the Seattle Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit about 10 years ago. During their hospital stay, she and her family had been visited by a golden retriever who memorably lifted their spirits in a challenging time — that dog just happened to Abe.”
Abe’s powerful and lasting impact on patients and families has continued well into some of his final pre-retirement visits to the hospital.
Hanna Szybnski, a 9-year-old patient from Idaho, has been at Seattle Children’s for the past three months.
“Hanna is recovering from an anoxic brain injury she developed after what was supposed to be a simple cleft palate surgery she had done at another hospital,” said her mother Tracie Szybnski. “We’ve been here since May, so we definitely miss home.”
Hanna is being cared for in Seattle Children’s Rehabilitation Unit and has met most of the therapy dog teams during her hospital stay. A cabinet door facing her bed features a collage of dog photos, many of which are the therapy dogs who’ve visited her.
Abe seemed to be the final dog she had yet to meet.
“We’re a family of dog lovers,” said Szybnski. “We have three dogs at home who I know Hanna misses a lot.”
When Abe walked into the room, Hanna’s eyes lit up which made Szybnski smile.
“Can you give Abe a treat?” said Szybnski as Bonifaci placed it in Hanna’s hand.
Guided by her mother, Hanna’s open palm welcomed Abe’s gentle retrieval of the treat.
“Great job!” said Szybnski as she softly clapped and kissed Hanna on the cheek. “See how soft he is?” said Szybnski as she lightly moved Hanna’s hand back and forth on top of Abe’s head as a way to reward his kindness.
It’s noticeable that visits like these help not only patients like Hanna, but parents like Szybnski with the stress and challenges they face during their child’s hospital stay.
“Hanna has been benefiting from the physical therapy and occupational therapy she’s been receiving at Seattle Children’s,” said Szybnski. “It’s also nice having therapy dogs like Abe encourage her to work on her movement through things like handing out treats or petting their head. We both love these visits.”
There is an ease in the room as Abe sits patiently in front of Hanna while Szybnski lovingly guides her hand to continue petting his head.
Before saying goodbye, Bonifaci hands a pocket-sized card displaying a photo of Abe wearing a superhero cape to Szybnski. She plans to add it to Hanna’s collage of furry friends.
Fur-ever a therapy dog
Like most senior dogs, Abe’s energy and physicality isn’t quite what it used to be.
“He has some throat problems, which you can tell by his heavy breathing,” said Bonifaci. “His spine is also collapsing which makes it difficult for him to come every week and do the full 2-hour visits.”
However, with a long and fulfilling career as a therapy dog now under his collar, Abe is ready to finally hang up his name badge and spend the rest of his years relaxing at home.
“Abe has been a wonderful partner throughout the years,” said Bonifaci. “I will always treasure the beautiful memories that we’ve shared seeing patients together.”
Although Abe won’t be taking car rides to the hospital anymore, Bonifaci will continue the routine — this time with her 2-year-old golden retriever named Jackie who will be Abe’s successor.
“Jackie certainly has his own personality,” said Bonifaci. “Abe has always been like an old man who is mellow and calm, while Jackie on the other hand, is strong, agile, and a total goofball. This is why we named him after Jackie Robinson.”
Jackie will have some ‘giant paws to fill,’ which is why Bonifaci has been working extensively with Jackie to fully prepare him for his service as a visiting therapy dog at Seattle Children’s.
While Jackie and Bonifaci carry on Abe’s legacy, Abe will be living a life of pure relaxation in the comfort of his own home.
“I’m not sure how much time Abe has left, but what I do know is he was able to fulfill his incredible purpose of making a difference in people’s lives, which was what I had always hoped for.”