Therapy on four legs

In memory of Delaware

Delaware celebrated with new DVM students at the Class of 2017 white coat ceremony.

It is with great sadness — and great fondness — that we celebrate and remember Delaware. An exceptional service and therapy dog, Delaware provided comfort and care to faculty, students, staff, and patients in and around Virginia Tech and laid the foundation for the university’s first therapy dog programs.

Therapy dogs can provide much-needed emotional support. Spending time with a dog — petting its soft fur, talking without fear of judgment, and being on the receiving end of unconditional love — can help raise spirits even while a person’s body or mind feel unwell. The world of science and medicine has realized the healing powers of man’s best friend, and Delaware was a shining example of the positive impact that a dog can have on people.

Delaware began her career in service as a seeing eye dog with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, an organization working to enrich the lives of the blind and visually impaired by providing them with expertly trained guide dogs. She was placed with a human partner and served her faithfully.

After seven years, Delaware retired from her seeing eye dog career and came into the care of Bess Pierce, veterinarian and then-director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR) at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM). “She really was a dog of service. It was in her genes, in her upbringing,” said Pierce.

Delaware at work with Bess Pierce, human companion, veterinarian, and then-director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships (CENTAUR)

Ever the service dog, Delaware became the inspiration for the founding of VT Helping PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness Service), a therapy animal program at VMCVM. Created by Zenny Ng in partnership with Pierce, VT Helping PAWS provides an opportunity for Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, alumni, and their pets to bring companionship, animal-assisted activities, and therapy to local facilities so that the community may benefit from human-animal interactions.

After the foundation of VT Helping PAWS, Delaware paved the way for the incorporation of animals into therapy at both the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech and the Cook Counseling Center. There, she would participate in counseling sessions as an animal partner in animal-assisted therapy.

Because animals can often bridge a communication gap when patients don’t feel comfortable talking to a human, Delaware’s presence proved the value of having an animal become part of the therapy process. Patients could hug and pet Delaware during counseling, which often helped them to open up in new ways.

“Delaware had calm, steady energy and could lie at someone’s feet for hours. She was bomb-proof,” Pierce said, “Delaware was the foundation for it all. She was a rock-steady dog and showed it was possible to have a dog in the therapy setting.”

Delaware (center) celebrating the winter holidays with therapy dog peers Moose (left) and Yogi (right)

Delaware may be gone, but therapy dogs continue to play a critical role on campus and in counseling centers. Moose and Yogi, two therapy dogs who followed in Delaware’s footsteps, have become integral parts of the counseling centers and VT Helping PAWS.

Moose’s human companion, Trent Davis, began his work with therapy dogs with Delaware. He credits that time as opening the door to therapy dogs on campus. “That’s how I got Moose, after working with Delaware,” Davis said. Davis' therapy dog team has recently grown to include two more labrador retrievers, Derek and Wagner. Yogi, whose human companion is CENTAUR’s Virginia Corrigan, is a golden retriever who has become a fixture with VT Helping PAWS and the Women's Center at Virginia Tech, all thanks to Delaware.

Delaware officially retired from therapy dog work at the age of twelve and spent her golden years with Pierce at her home, lounging on the porch and enjoying a quiet life. Delaware passed away in January 2019 from neuromuscular disease and respiratory issues. She is greatly missed, but her legacy lives on in the work she did to pave the way for therapy dogs to continue their important work at Virginia Tech.

Written by Alexandra Freeze