Little Winnie, who weighs less than 3 ½ pounds soaking wet, spent a month at an emergency vet clinic after being rescued from a puppy mill. So it’s little wonder that she has such a connection with kids in the hospital she visits.
“She’s just intuitive,” said Winnie’s person Casaundra Maimone, a young attorney in Richmond, Virginia. “She’ll take a nap with a child on a respirator in the ICU. She adapts well to the environment and she behaves accordingly. She knows when it’s time to be more engaging or time to be still, she’s always gentle.”
Winnie is a regular at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
“One 5-year-old was all by himself in the ICU and he wouldn’t make eye contact,” recalled Casaundra. “I introduced Winnie. He said he didn’t understand why she was there. I told him she was there to make him feel better.”
Casaundra passed Winnie to him.
The little boy held her quietly.
“He just held her while she slept in his arms for many minutes. Then he looked up and said, ‘She works, I feel better. Can I keep her?’”
For children with life threatening illnesses, this little Yorkie can be a much-needed distraction.
“It’s hard because of what people are dealing with,” said Casaundra. “Pediatric oncology, diagnoses that are not good. What could we (Winnie and I) possibly do for you? And it’s something so small. It’s just a little happiness, a little bit of levity.”
Four-year-old Winnie seems most comfortable around children, perhaps because of how things began for her – in the care of inhumane adults.
Casaundra was visiting her parents in North Carolina when she read the news story and knew she had to step in.
“There had been reports of sick puppies being sold by a North Carolina breeder,” said Casaundra. “They confiscated 50 or 60 dogs from this lady.”
Winnie was one of them. Many of the dogs were older and in much worse condition, but even Winnie the puppy almost didn’t make it.
“She was very sick when I got her and they didn’t know what was wrong with her,” recalled Casaundra, whose beloved Winnie was under a vet’s care for weeks. “She was just small and sick and they didn’t know what was wrong. I even had to sign a Do Not Resuscitate. They ran tons and tons of tests and they finally identified a giardia parasite.”
The doc put Winnie on some antibiotics and sent the little lady home once she was healthy enough. Casaundra was still concerned and, thanks to an understanding employer, took her pup to her law office on a regular basis.
“Probably for the first year or so, she had a really delicate digestive system,” said Casaundra. “That’s why I took her to work with me and was super conscientious of her health.”
It was never the plan to use Winnie as a therapy dog. Then, inspiration struck Casaundra while reading The Genius of Dogs by Dr. Brian Hare.
“It got me ignited and I had an enthusiasm that wasn’t there previously,” said Casaundra. “The book is just fascinating, it talks about how dogs have evolved to bond with people.”
In his book, Dr. Hare talks about the positive physical reaction dogs have when sharing time with humans, and the same is true for how people benefit from their dogs.
“He shows that dogs can make people feel and be better, have lower blood pressure, recover more quickly,” said Casaundra.
That’s when it hit her; Winnie could be therapeutic.
“I adopted her out of love and it was just interesting to me that there was a complexity there that I hadn’t appreciated,” said Casaundra. “There was just so much potential for her to be used in such positive ways.”
Winnie was 2 when she and Casaundra were first evaluated for therapy work and started volunteering. Casaundra didn’t pick pediatrics for Winnie, Winnie picked pediatrics.
“I thought she wouldn’t be good because of her size, maybe she would get tangled in the cords or interfere with the respirators. But it was night and day how she reacted to children compared to adults. She will politely sit to be petted by an adult, but very rarely will she relax. But she will go to sleep and snuggle and cuddle with any kid. And if she sees a child in a crowd, she seeks them out.”
And the feelings are mutual.
“She knows ‘those people’ are going to be excited to see me,” said Casaundra.
Some children want to talk to Winnie. Others just need her to lie down next to them. And if a child is up for it, Winnie has five tricks to show off, including high fives and following Casaundra’s finger to turn in a quick circle.
“She can just read the kids and they really like her and they’re so sweet. They’re honest and sincere – even if they don’t like her bow.”
In fact, Winnie gets lots of feedback.
“I love you.”
“You make me feel good.”
These moments are what get Casaundra through the emotionally draining environment at the children’s hospital.
“But it hardly matters how I feel about it, it’s the children who matter most. I don’t have any influence over any outcomes but we can at least make it a little more pleasant for a little while,” said Casaundra. “It’s the least we can do.”
Conveniently, the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU is just two blocks from Casaundra’s office.
“My firm has been gracious enough to let me bring her to work,” she said. “I don’t live very close to my job, so logistically it would be difficult to volunteer if I don’t have her with me. She’s very well-behaved; she sleeps under my desk and doesn’t distract anyone.”
Casaundra and Winnie usually go to the children’s hospital twice a week after work, a task that would help anyone keep their problems in perspective.
The two visit little ones facing cancer and other life-threatening conditions.
“I’m always humbled by how appreciative and grateful these families are,” said Casaundra. “They’re so gracious.”
And Winnie walks with such purpose when she knows she’s on duty.
“I put so much time and love and energy into Winnie and it’s therapeutic for me to share that with people,” said Casaundra. “I would feel guilty if I didn’t share her. She’s had so much love and she has a lot to offer these children. Walking down the hospital hallway, people just look at her and smile.”
Winnie is a puppy mill pooch who has truly found her passion.
(By the way, Winnie works with a group called Dogs on Call. It’s a reputable organization that has strict accountability requirements. It requires its therapy dogs to be registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, formerly Therapy Dogs Inc., and either acquire a Pet Partners Therapy Animal registration or take the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. You can follow Winnie and Casaundra on Instagram @cmmaim)