You know how the saying goes: never judge a Poodle by its designer wardrobe. In the case of Stella, that means looking past her satin dresses to see a one-of-a-kind therapy dog whose sense of style is only outmatched by her deep sense of empathy. We spoke with Stella's human, Marissa Levy, to learn about the special pooch behind the primp.
OLLIE: How did Stella become a part of your life?
Levy: Within about an eight-month period, I lost my dad to a medical mistake, broke off an engagement to be married, lost one of my closest friends to cancer, and had to put down my first rescue dog, Cocoa, who was suffering from terminal cancer. I'm also a psychologist who works with terminally ill children and patients every day. So needless to say, I needed a strong dose of happiness.
I had moved in with my mom and I told her that I wanted a puppy to raise. It turned out, a friend of her friend knew a Poodle breeder with new puppies. I didn't think of myself as a "Poodle person" but then I saw the pictures of the puppies. Stella was the runt of the litter, and the breeder said she was available. It worked out that the day I had to put Cocoa down was the same day I picked Stella up, and she has been an angel from day one.
OLLIE: When did you decide to train her as a therapy dog?
Levy: When Stella was about five months old, a woman at the dog park asked if she was a therapy dog. This woman trained dogs to work with people with Cerebral Palsy. She said Stella had exceptional temperament and encouraged me to think about it. I did some research and learned that the training and evaluation for therapy dogs is intense and dogs must be at least a year old before being certified. So, I sort of laughed it off and thought it was good to know.
When I threw Stella a first birthday party, I invited this woman, and she again encouraged me to get Stella evaluated and certified. I decided to do it because if she passed the evaluation, I thought I could take her to work with me and if she failed, I could lay the idea to rest.
OLLIE: What was the process like?
Levy: The evaluation was not easy: She had to demonstrate skills relating to both obedience and temperament. For example, she needed to be able to ignore food on the floor, greet other dogs properly, remain calm around wheelchairs, canes and crutches. They had to mimic some worst-case scenarios, such as tail pulling, loud noises, and crutches crashing to the floor. A therapy dog must be able to remain calm and not exhibit fear. But Stella breezed right through it and was certified.
She started volunteering at a nursing home, but soon found her niche at Gilda's Club working with children who either had cancer themselves, a parent with cancer, or had lost a parent to cancer. She also spent a couple of years working almost every day at Richmond Community Services which cares for people with developmental disabilities. One man in particular was nonverbal, but actually spoke to Stella. It was a breakthrough and that was the reason for Stella's nomination for the Hero Dog Awards.
OLLIE: When it comes to connecting with people, Stella seems to bypass many of the barriers that many well-intending people cannot. What's her secret?
Levy: Unconditional love. I don't think Stella dislikes anyone. Male, female, old, young, no matter what, she's accepting of everyone she meets. And her love is gentle—it's not in-your-face, but kind and reassuring.
OLLIE: Can you tell us about Stella's fabulous wardrobe?
Levy: When she won the Hero Dog Award, I knew I had to get her a dress. I was put in touch with someone who designs dog clothing for movies—she wanted Stella's measurements and offered to make the dress for free. The result was this incredible hand-woven satin dress in three shades of purple. And just like any awards show, we didn't post any photos of the dress until she had "walked the red carpet." For every function Stella attends now, this woman creates a dress or outfit. She also has leather boots, beaded collars and pearl necklaces. I live in scrubs everyday, but fashion is my dog's trademark!
OLLIE: What are the different populations that Stella works with?
Levy: The biggest population she works with is children with cancer through Gilda's Club and the American Childhood Cancer Association. She has also worked with senior citizens, people with eating disorders and bipolar disorders. She regularly visits three local colleges during midterms and finals, as well, and is a huge help to those stressed out college students. She's a regular at our local Barnes & Noble for story times, too. In fact, she's even had a book written about her.
OLLIE: Any particular moments or people that stand out in your journey?
Levy: Yes, many, but one sticks out. I had also adopted Stella's littermate named David and he would sometimes accompany Stella at Gilda's Club. Unfortunately, David got very sick after drinking something toxic and eventually died. Two 8-year-old twins at Gilda's Club had lost their father to cancer and they knew that David was sick. When they found out he died, these boys wanted to give David a funeral. They helped organize the whole thing, and all the kids came dressed up in nice clothes and wrote their own eulogies. That was touching, of course, but they were all so concerned with offering comfort to Stella. They wanted to support her the way she had supported them through something similar. It was amazing.
OLLIE: What does Stella like to do for fun?
Levy: Stella plays constantly with her brother Harris, an 85 pound Labradoodle. She loves to tease him. We also have a beach nearby that's open for dogs in the off season. She loves to run along the beach. (She even has a polka dot bikini.) She loves to travel with me to different places and events. She's even been to Disney World. She walked around all day dressed as Eeyore!
OLLIE: What has Stella taught you?
Levy: Unconditional love. Because someone has a bad day, don't judge. You don't know what they're going through. She's taught me that you can't go looking for happiness. You create happiness. Go into things with the right mindset, and the small things will make you happy. And more than anything, she's taught me that "not all medicine comes in a bottle." This brown furry puppy has done things for people that no pill ever could.
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