Born without eyes, but with an indomitable spirit, Smiley the Blind Therapy Dog is a social media star making new friends around the world with his signature smile and helping those with disabilities and special needs. We chatted with Smiley's rescue mom Joanne George, who is a trainer herself, about life with the kindest Golden Retriever on the Internet.
OLLIE: How did Smiley come to join your family?
JG: I working as a vet tech at the time and we were sent to a puppy mill that was being investigated. The owner had called to treat and euthanize some of the animals that had health concerns. We ended up taking all the dogs that were to be euthanized, about 20 of them.
Afterward as we were trying to determine placement for the dogs, the other girls said that I should take the blind one. I resisted because I had a high energy Great Dane who's deaf. I thought it will terrify this dog.
But because of my background and training, they insisted, so I ended up reluctantly taking him. And it was the best thing that could have happened. Tyler, my Great Dane, was so happy and confident, it brought Smiley to life. They became the best of friends. And it was good for Tyler too: He was albino and many dogs were afraid of him because he looked sort of bizarre, but Smiley obviously couldn't see him.
That was one of the first lessons I learned from Smiley, to resist interfering with him. My instinct was to intervene and keep him separated from Tyler, thinking it would be better for them both. His instinct was to be a dog, regardless of his limitations. When I let him be a dog, that's the very best thing.
OLLIE: What’s a typical day like for Smiley?
JG: Nowadays, because he’s 13 or 14, he lives the life of an older dog. He was 1 or 2 when we got him, but people still think he’s a puppy. He's sweet and quiet at home. He loves to run around free outside in our yard and he gets excited anytime the leash is near him. The funny thing is that when he does a public appearance, he really comes alive. He seems totally aware that he's the focus of attention. He loves it.
OLLIE: What inspired Smiley to become a therapy dog?
JG: I realized after a couple years of having him that as we walked around town, people would stop to talk to us and want to hear his story. They would just melt in his company and had such a strong response to him. Over and over people would say, "This dog is so special!"
One time we met a woman on a walk and two weeks later, she ran up to us and said that she’d been going through a really rough time lately. But every time she thought of Smiley, it built her up and kept her going. That’s when I realized I need to share this dog with other people. They need him.
OLLIE: How did you get started?
JG: I found a great organization, St. John Ambulance, who sends these special dogs out to the vulnerable—group homes, senior homes, womens' shelters. Smiley was able to attend to all these different populations, especially adults with severe physical and mental disabilities. Often it's hard to get therapy dogs in there because patients are visually different and sometimes have jerky movements that can upset dogs. These are people who live life with very limited companionship and physical affection. When Smiley licks them and nuzzles them, they feel that warm fur— that affection—and they light up. Again, Smiley's blindness became an asset.
We also visit many classrooms, often those with special needs kids. Smiley's story helps facilitate discussions about differences and bullying as well as abilities. Just like kids who are born with different abilities, Smiley has learned to do just about everything. It might take him longer and it might take hard work, but he's a very able dog.
OLLIE: Smiley has an impressive social media following. How has that affected your family life?
JG: We love it. Everybody loves their dog like crazy, but imagine if you had a hundred thousand people who loved your dog the same way. It’s incredible. Every dog owner understands that special way our dogs give us love make every day a little better. When your dog is giving that same feeling to people around the world—Poland, Bangladesh, India—there's no way to express how good that feels. I get letters and emails from people all over saying Smiley gives them a reason to smile. It's amazing how this therapy dog is literally able to give therapy to people without being there beside them. We never tire of it.
OLLIE: From swimming to playing on the beach to being a ring bearer at a wedding, Smiley seems to be anything but limited in ability. Is there a lesson in that for all of us?
JG: Yes. For Smiley, I've learned over and over to try not to get in the way of instincts that will help him live a normal life because he is a very normal dog.
Smiley had never even had a bath when we got him. We took him to our cottage which has a lake just down the hill. I let him go and watched him follow his nose and he walked towards the lake. He got right up near the water and without me interfering, he touched it with his toe. It surprised him, but he was intrigued. There were quite a few waves that day and he could hear them. He ran to that sound and pounced on it. He’d hear another wave break and run to it and pounce. Each time, he got wetter and wetter, then got deeper and deeper. I sat and watched in awe. And suddenly he was swimming. He swam for a bit, then swam back to the shore line, no problem. He loved it.
That taught me a lot. If I had taken him down to the water, I would have interefered. He would have heard the tension in my voice, and thought it was something bad or dangerous. His instincts took over and he did just as he should. And since then he’s never fallen down stairs, never walked off docks or decks. He uses his senses. He explores his world. He’s learned to be cautious. He uses his whiskers along the wall to feel. He runs and plays like any other dog. And I can't take credit for his amazing abilities. This wasn't my training or expertise. I've kept him safe, and I let him learn.