From Timid Street Pup to Confident Therapy Dog

August 29, 2019

If you saw reports of the ASPCA work in St. Croix after Hurricane Maria, you may recall the story about a dog named Winnie who was displaced by the storm and rescued by the ASPCA. After her rescue, Winnie made a long journey to Jefferson County, Missouri, where she now lives with her loving family. But recently, the three-year-old Shar-Pei/Wheaton Terrier-mix transitioned from a receiver of help to a provider of help by earning her official dog therapy certification.

It’s been 18 months since Winnie, a scrappy, former street dog from St. Croix was adopted by Bryan Hayes, Warehouse and Transport Fleet Manager for the ASPCA, and his wife Kay. Since then, Winnie has come a long way--physically, behaviorally and emotionally--and is now helping children and adults through animal-assisted therapy.

Kay and Winnie spending quality time together.

Learning to Stay

After Bryan and Kay welcomed Winnie into their home and had her spayed and treated for heartworms, they enrolled Winnie in basic obedience classes to address her timidity. Kay contacted the Tails With Tales Canine Therapy program at COMTREA (Community Treatment, Inc.), a private non-profit providing health care and substance treatment services for residents of Jefferson County and southern St. Louis County. 

“We put dogs and their human partners through their paces and teach the animals how to approach people, sit and make sure their stays are rock solid,” explains, Gayln Bratcher, Training Manager at Tails With Tales, which was established in 2016. “We make sure their bonds are really strong, so everyone is safe and happy.”

After meeting Winnie, Gayln was convinced she had enormous potential. 

“Winnie has one of those personalities you can see from across the room—she and Kay have never met a stranger,” Gayln said. “You would think Kay and Bryan have had Winnie since she was a puppy, but the truth is, they went through 22 weeks of intense training.” 

That preparation included basic obedience training toward a designation of “Canine Good Citizen,” which Winnie earned with a 10 out of 10 score. It also included pet therapy training.

Winnie relaxing at home with fur brother, Petey and pet parent, Bryan.

At first, all I wanted was for Winnie to learn how to walk on a leash,” says Kay, who says she and Bryan take their dogs (including their 14-year-old retired pet therapy Shih Tzu, Petey) many places and expect them to be well-behaved. “Winnie gave no sign that she understood our commands—maybe she had never been spoken to. But by about the third class something clicked. Once she learned what we were asking of her, she caught on quickly.”

“It was humbling,” adds Kay, tearing up as she recalls how Winnie learned to trust her and Bryan. “We’ve worked through a lot of Winnie’s issues that go with her having once been a street dog. She didn’t like people approaching her, and would duck her head, probably because she thought they would shoo her away.” 

Despite Winnie pulling on her leash and having difficulty learning the “stay” command, Kay persisted. 

“I thought, ‘She’s too smart and has too much to give—I can’t give up on her,’” Kay recalls. “So, I continued to work with her. In the end, it was like she was born to do this. I thought: ‘Why stop now?’” 

From Performing Commands to Providing Comfort

In mid-May 2019, Kay and Winnie visited a high school where students were mourning the loss of a classmate who was struck and killed by a train.

“Thirty-one kids responded to Winnie’s presence,” says Bryan. “I was concerned how she would do with so many weeping teenagers hugging her, but she was perfect.”

A week later, Winnie visited another high school during finals week, offering her support to stressed-out students who needed a break.

Winnie comforting students during the stressful exam period.

“Winnie makes people smile,” says Kay. “People notice her when she walks in the room. Her story is one of resilience, perseverance and the importance of giving animals a second chance.” 

Patients will also work hard when an animal is present. “Therapy animals can help redirect the focus from patient’s stress and anxiety to the tasks at hand,” explains Laura Casey, Program Manager at Tails With Tales. “Animals enable people to push themselves through physical therapy, such as re-learning a life skill like walking or using a fork.”

Kay and Winnie with students at a college event.

“Endless Possibilities”

The Tails With Tales team has certified 50 pet therapy teams since 2016. In addition to sending dogs to reading groups, schools and hospitals, the non-profit also deploys pet therapy teams to accompany school counselors who respond to crisis situations.

Kay and Winnie now visit local hospitals and rehabilitation centers and are regulars at the Jefferson County Juvenile Detention Center.

“In some ways, Winnie’s story parallels these kids’ stories,” says Laura. “Kay has transformed Winnie from a timid street dog to a loving therapy dog.”

“In a million years I would have never believed Winnie is where she is today,” says Kay. “Amazing things are happening—the possibilities are endless.”