by Lorin Michel Tuesday, April 26, 2011 10:25 PM

He is blonde, short and stocky, strong, with melting brown eyes.  At a relatively young age, he is already a veteran of nearly four years of working in therapy, visiting the sick and sometimes dying children of the Kapi`olani Medical Center for Women & Children in Honolulu, Hawaii. Each day, he arrives with his “mom” and together they go about their day’s work. His main job: providing love, a snuggle where needed, and some joy in lives where there is often too much pain.

Tucker Hirsch is a golden retriever therapy dog, five years old, and one of more than 21,000 such dogs in North America according to Therapy Dogs International.

Tucker on the job

According to his Facebook page, he’s a Chief Canine Officer. According to his mom, Dr. Wendi Hirsch, a Child Psychologist on staff at the hospital, he is the facility dog, donated by Hawaii Canines for Independence after training for about a year and a half, and before he was two. He graduated with the Class of 2007. And according to Tucker himself, he’s a friend to the sick children at the hospital, many of whom have cancer. He arrives every day, Monday thru Friday, by 8 am, to begin his job of waiting with them while they undergo chemotherapy or other treatments, providing a distraction when they get shots, playing with them in the playroom and helping to relieve some of the anxiety of both the kids and their families. He visits kids in pediatrics, the ICU and the Emergency Room. It’s scary to be sick; it’s even scarier to be sick in the hospital and Tucker makes sure he’s there with a friendly paw to help.

Tucker as a pup

His job is a special one. It can also be a sad one. Today one of Tucker’s friends, a little boy named Kendon, died of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a horrible disease that he had fought bravely for as long as he could. Tucker posted this message about Kendon today: "Rest in peace my buddy, and know that I will work hard to make you proud of me."

It is days like this that can make playtime for therapy dogs as important as work time. Tucker spends his down time at the beach, running with his best friend, Leo, another therapy dog. Running away from the sadness, running so he can continue to be there for his kids. Running to be the best dog he can be.

With best friend Leo on the beach. 

Therapy dogs are different than service dogs. They’re not trained to help the blind or the deaf, or the disabled. They’re trained to provide affection, which seems like a natural ability, and to help people make physical contact, something that’s especially important for older patients. Golden retrievers like Tucker are often trained as therapy dogs because they’re calm and gentle.

During World War II, a corporal named William Wynne found a Yorkshire Terrier abandoned on the battlefield. He named her Smoky and Smoky accompanied Wynne on combat missions, providing comfort to troops. She even helped the Signal Corps by running a telegraph cable through an underground pipe. But her true service as a therapy dog began when the corporal was hospitalized for jungle fever. As he was recovering, friends brought Smoky to the hospital to visit, and she had an immediate and positive affect on both Wynne and the other patients. Dr. Charles Mayo, who founded the Mayo Clinic, was the commanding officer at the time, and he allowed Smoky to go on rounds and to sleep with her master. Wynne recovered and Smoky’s work as a therapy dog continued for 12 years.

But it was a registered nurse named Elaine Smith who established the first training program for therapy dogs in 1976. She noticed how well patients responded to visits by a chaplain who was always accompanied by his golden retriever. In 1982, Nancy Stanley began taking her miniature poodle, Freeway, to the local hospital to help the severely handicapped. She founded Tender Loving Zoo, a nonprofit organization that introduced animal therapy to severely handicapped children and to convalescent hospitals.

Today’s therapy dogs, like Tucker, fall into three categories: Therapeutic Visitation (household pets who have been trained), Animal Assisted Therapy (dogs who assist physical and occupational therapists) and Facility Therapy. Facility therapy dogs are highly trained and skilled at enhancing the quality of life for their patients. They provide motivation, social interaction, comfort, and safety.

Tucker is a facility therapy dog, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a gentle, furry, blonde bear, a lover of all people and his mom, but especially the children at Kapi`olani Medical Center, the only children’s hospital on the Hawaiian islands. He has helped so many kids, brought some measure of comfort to the frightened parents. He helped my friend Lisa’s little boy, Xander, who was diagnosed with cancer last year, and I can only imagine how he also helped Lisa and Rene, Xander’s parents. It’s how I first met Tucker on Facebook, and just one of the many reasons I honor him today and celebrate his service, his work and his short, stocky, furry self.

Rock on, Tucker. The world is a better place because of dogs like you.

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live out loud

Comments (6) -

4/27/2011 11:10:59 AM #

I cried when I read this post. Just like I cried, kind of uncontrollably yesterday when I read Tucker's FB post about Kendon. Sometimes I struggle to see humanity through the clouds anti-this and anti-that in the world. But I follow Tucker religiously just to get my daily dose of humanity. From a dog. (And his owner.) Tucker reminds me to celebrate our very human capacity for rising above the daily shit and remember that we are all here for each other.

Bobbi Jankovich United States

4/27/2011 12:52:49 PM #

Wendi - Thank you for sharing this with me.  You know how much Mari and I are Tucker Lovers!  This really touched my heart.  It was good for me to take 3 minutes out of my hectic day, worrying about the next thing I had to get done.  Tucker really teaches us to appreciate each day and the little things like his warm furry body and his snuggle.  Best, Diane

Diane Ono United States

4/27/2011 1:26:26 PM #

Thank you Dr. Hirsch for sharing this with me.  This brought tears to my eyes.  Life can be so eye opening when your heart opens up to what we are truly seeing.  Animals have a way of touching us in places and ways that a human can't even come close to.  Tucker is one of those beautiful, humble friends that you enjoy seeing approaching you.  He has your soft approach and soft caring demeanor.  It is so great to know that the only childrens specialty hospital in Hawaii believes in the matters of the heart as well as they allow Tucker and you to embrace these children and their families and provide them hope and healing beyond the medical diagnosis.  I am so proud of you and Tucker for the beautiful work that you do.  May the lives of others be touched in such a special way by the two of you that there lives will never be the same and you both be blessed beyond measure for your loving daily acts of kindness to all you both encounter.  GOD BLESS YOU BOTH!  To GOD be the GLORY!

Doreen Braz United States

4/27/2011 7:52:28 PM #

Tears are falling here in Vancouver, WA as I read this beautiful write up.  Tucker you are such a blessing.  I love you and your best friend Leo.  Give Leo a high five from aunt Eddie and high five to you too big beautiful boy!  You Rock!!!!

Eddie United States

4/28/2011 12:33:47 AM #

Tucker, the fury, lovable, hugable, compasionate hero! Wendi, thanks for sharing, but most of all, thank you for being a great Mom to Tucker.  What a team you both are.  Go Team!

Donna Gomes United States

4/28/2011 4:53:08 AM #

I just read the blog that Wendi sent to me.  I love Tucker and have since the moment I met him.  I love him because he is sweet, adorable and a joy to be around.  His mom, Wendi, is a lovely person as well.  When I read the blog I cried.  It means so much to me to know that the dog I adore is so appreciated and loved.  He has done so much for so many children.  He is wonderful.

Maureen Vidal United States

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