Puppies certainly impact your lifestyle, but years ago when Marissa Levy, a lawyer form New Rochelle, told her mother she was getting a puppy she had no idea just how this simple decision would change everything.
Levy had gone through the death of her father and best friend in three months, and to find some comfort she got a dog only to lose him to cancer within 10 months.
Grieving, but undaunted, Levy took the next step, “I decided I was getting a puppy with a health guarantee, so I found a breeder.” The breeder offered her the only puppy left of an earlier litter. Levy said yes and got the puppy in November of 2010 when she was 4 1/2 months old and promptly named her Stella. “Stella, a standard poodle with café au lait fur, was a happy, healthy and a cute little puppy,” says Levy.
About a month later when Levy and Stella were in the dog park a stranger walked over to her asking if Stella was her dog. “My first thought was – oh no, did Stella do something wrong?” she explains.
On the contrary, the woman was a service and therapy dog trainer and thought Stella had a perfect disposition for the job. She suggested Levy should have Stella tested, which is done when a puppy turns 1-year-old. Levy didn’t even know what a therapy dog was, so she politely thanked the woman and forgot about it.
Levy adored Stella and they were a perfect team. They never did any formal training, but Stella caught on to the basic commands such as sit and stay quite naturally. “When Stella turned 1, I threw her a Bikini Pool Party,” says Levy. “And who came but the same woman who suggested Stella take the therapy dog test as we had seen each other many times after that at the dog park.” So, it came to pass that Stella was indeed tested. She passed easily and at 13-months-old Stella was now a card-carrying therapy dog. She was given a Therapy Dog Certificate from Therapy Dogs International in July 2011 and in October 2011 she completed the requirements to receive an American Kennel Club Therapy Dog Certification.
Levy was told the next step was hers. She was encouraged to approach different facilities and ask if they were interested in working with a therapy dog. And before you know it, this lawyer from New Rochelle became a full-time therapy dog mom. Levy has no children and she had put her work on hold, so she had time, plus she was finding she really liked going with Stella on therapy visits.
Stella’s first stop was the Sarah Neuman Center in Mamaroneck, a post-acute rehabilitation and long-term nursing home care where the residents fell in love with Stella and awarded her the Golden Paw Award in 2012. “The seniors loved Stella to sit on their laps while they were in their wheel chairs,” says Levy. “While Stella looks big she is just 37 pounds, she’s tall and skinny.”
Stella was happy, but Levy thought she hadn’t quite found her crowd. And then they started working at Richmond Community Services (RCS) in Yonkers, a facility that services medically fragile and non-verbal developmentally disabled individuals ages 14 to 40. “I could just tell, she had found her niche here,” says Levy. “Stella has an amazing capacity to shower everyone with unconditional love.” Every time Levy and Stella showed up everyone clamored for Stella’s attention, they smiled and wrapped their arms around her with love.
Stacy Rivera, a supervisor at RCS wrote to Levy to express her appreciation after the first visit, “you bring such a wonderful gift to the people who live at RCS! Not just bringing Stella to visit, but also the understanding, willingness and joy from you. Stella is just as wonderful as her mom! The smiles, relaxation and stimulation that the two of you brought on that first day blew me away. I was riding on cloud nine the next morning, while remembering the wonderful experience that everyone had!”
Then Gilda’s Club in White Plains, a community organization for people living with cancer, their families and friends, reached out and Stella visited with kids whose parents were experiencing cancer. Stella was happy, Levy found the visits rewarding and their resume has continued to grow.
Many professions award excellent achievement, the same holds true with therapy dog service. Each one-hour therapy visit awards the therapy dog points, and there are levels in the point structure starting at 50 and going up to 500, the top level. Stella and Levy had no trouble getting to 500 hours rather quickly.
It wasn’t long before Stella started racking up certificates and awards. In 2011 Therapy Dogs International awarded her the Active Volunteer Certificate of Achievement. In 2012, the same organization saw fit to award Stella the Active Outstanding Volunteer Certificate of Achievement, the remarkable Volunteer Certificate of Achievement, the Exceptional Volunteer Certificate of Achievement and the Therapy Dogs International Gold Award.
That same year the American Kennel Club Humane Fund honored Stella with a Canine Excellence Award Nomination “in recognition of dogs in the service of mankind.”
One of the organizations that was especially thankful to Stella, RCA, nominated Stella for the American Humane Hero Dog Award®, a nationwide award that searches for and recognizes canine heroes in several categories, including therapy dogs. The American public votes and the finalists and their owners are flown to Hollywood for a star-studded event where one canine in each category receives the grand prize, the Hero Dog title.
It should come as no surprise that Stella won the 2012 American Humane Association Hero Dog of the Year award in the Therapy Dog category. Levy and Stella flew to California for a five-day stay complete with a red-carpet gala that was recorded for national broadcast on the Hallmark Channel. “Stella had so much fun,” says Levy. “She sat on Betty White’s lap and enjoyed a professional photo shoot.”
Since she was a puppy Stella enjoyed dressing up. She doesn’t get dressed for every therapy visit, but for special events and holidays she likes to strut her stuff. For the Hero Dog event, Levy had a very pretty party dress made just for Stella. She has other outfits including P.J.s, jogging suits, a denim skirt with a variety of tank tops, holiday costumes and colorful leather boots.
For a real thrill watch Stella’s tribute video, herod
In 2014, the American Kennel Club awarded Stella the Distinguished Therapy Dog Certification and in 2015 Stella was proud to serve as the Grand Marshall at the American Cancer Society’s Bark for Life.
Simon & Schuster published a children’s book about Stella, Stella the Dog with a Big Heart in 2015, (available on Amazo
Whether it’s visiting with seniors and adult patients, or children who are challenged in some way, or students who are experiencing stress during final exams, or even giving “pawagraphs” at Barnes & Noble’s storytimes, 36-year-old Levy’s main concern is that Stella is having fun. “The minute Stella doesn’t enjoy the therapy visits we are done,” says Levy.
How does she know Stella is happy? “Stella just relishes all the love that she gets at these visits – anyone can see that – she is actually more human than dog,” says Levy. And it isn’t all work for the now 7-year-old Stella. “Stella’s been everywhere, she’s seen Broadway shows, has visited Disneyland, many New York museums and a wide variety of restaurants and she plays with my other dog, her brother,” says Levy. “I like to describe Stella as a little girl who needs to shave her legs.”
Health is important to Levy as well. “Stella gets plenty of exercise and eats an organic diet,” says Levy, who takes her role as doggie mom to heart. It’s quite clear that Stella is a celebration of the amazing healing bond that can exist between animals and humans. Just ask anyone who knows her.
Stella has a Facebook page and can also be reached by email at stell
Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family and an animal lover.
Stella and Levy have made visits to a wide variety of locations including:
•American Cancer Center, White Plains
•American Childhood Cancer Organization, Maryland
•Ardsley School District, Ardsley
•Barnes & Noble, Yonkers
•Blind Brook High School, Rye Brook
•College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle
•Four Winds Hospital, Katonah
•Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry
•Monroe College, Bronx
•New York Presbyterian “Paws for Patients,” White Plains
•Pain Control Center, Liberty, N.Y.
•SAR High School, Bronx
•Sunrise at Fleetwood, Fleetwood
•White Plains Hospital “Caring Canines Program,” White Plains
The Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.), a program of the Intermountain Therapy Animals has been helping children read with the assistance of dogs since 1999.
Reading is often about overcoming fears, and the unconditional love of a therapy animal is very effective support. The program focuses on K-3rd grade, but is also helpful for students with special needs, physical and intellectual disabilities and for those whom English is a second language.
Nancy George-Michalson, executive director of Programs and Education for New York Therapy Animals, newyo
The following local programs also utilize animals to help children learn to read.
• Bedford Hills Free Library, holds a Books and Bow-Wow reading program for kids one Saturday a month during the school year. Check the website for date and time. 26 Main St., Bedford. 666-6472. bedfo
• Briarcliff Manor Public Library, in fall and spring Reading to Rover is held at the library and registration is required. Details are available in September.
1 Library Road, Briarcliff Manor. 941-7072. briar
• Katonah Village Library, starting in September a therapy dog visits the Katonah Library at 4;30 p.m. every Wednesday. See other details on the library’s website. 26 Bedford Road, Katonah. 232-3508. katon
• Mount Kisco Public Library, offers a Read to Rover reading program year-round from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. every Thursday evening. 100 E. Main St., Mount Kisco. 666-8041. mount