Blind Stouffville therapy dog an online sensation
Puppy mill survivor Smiley, born without eyes, brings joy and comfort to elderly and kids. And now his story is being told globally.
MUSSELMAN LAKE—Smiley, the world-famous dog from small-town Ontario, lives up to his name.
The 12-year-old golden retriever trotted along the pavement in front of his home in Musselman Lake, just north of Stouffville, on Sunday with a wagging tail and a constant canine grin that belies his tumultuous early life at a puppy mill, where he was born without eyes. More than a decade later, he’s a therapy dog, beloved family pet, and suddenly an online sensation.
Millions have seen Smiley’s story online in recent days, and his owner, dog trainer Joanne George, isn’t surprised. “Anyone who meets him, I see how touched they are,” she says.
George isn’t sure how the fuss got started, but thinks someone in the media may have picked up on photos of Smiley posted online a few years ago by a local pet photographer.
The family has faced a barrage of calls about their cherished pet. They’ve had coverage from media outlets across the U.S. — CBS News, CNN, Fox, Inside Edition, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, to name a few. On the CBS News website alone, Smiley’s story has been shared over 190,000 times. The family has also started getting international calls from as far away as Italy and Brazil.
“This morning it was Korea,” George says with a laugh. “Someone in Korea wants to do some kind of animated film.”
Back in 2004, George rescued Smiley from the puppy mill near Peterborough where he was born. She first met him when he was covered in scars and unable to see due to a condition associated with dwarfism — he’s smaller than a typical golden retriever, with a slightly larger head — which left him anxious and afraid.
But soon enough, the loveable pup learned to trust his new owner, and George quickly realized Smiley’s story and personality resonated with everyone he met. “I thought he’d be such a great therapy dog,” she recalls.
So she made it happen. For the past seven years, Smiley has worked as a St. John’s Ambulance Therapy dog, helping children learning to read and comforting the elderly by visiting nursing homes, libraries, children’s programs and schools in the Whitchurch-Stouffville area, about 45 minutes north of Toronto.
“There’s one gentleman at a place that we visit — nobody had ever seen him show really any emotion, and I’m not sure if people thought that he could show any emotion,” George says.
“And after a few visits with Smiley, he was obviously smiling and laughing, and the nurses all came in because they had never seen him smile like this. It was so beautiful.”
Wearing a bright red bandana emblazoned with his name, Smiley seemed blissfully unaware of his newfound international fame as he frolicked at home with George, her husband Darrin, and the couple’s 5-year-old son Shepherd on the weekend.
But amid all the positive coverage, George says, there’s another side to Smiley’s story: He’s getting older, and a compressed disc in his back could jeopardize his therapy dog career.
She says the pain in Smiley’s back and his weakened back legs means that certain types of flooring — like the slippery floors of a hospital — could be dangerous. Pricey surgery isn’t an option, she adds, so they’re managing Smiley’s discomfort with pain medication and steroids.
Even so, this inspirational dog keeps on smiling.
“We’re hoping that he’ll still be able to do lots of (therapy dog) visits in his life,” George says.