Meet Ekko, a 3 year-old Long Haired German Shepherd. Gorgeous? Yes! But her beauty also goes far below the surface. Ekko is a not only a healthy, energetic and playful companion for her owners; she also serves our community as a Pet Therapy dog. From reading with children at Our Lady of Grace Catholic School, to visiting nursing homes, funerals, and hospice and palliative care facilities like Beacon Place and Hinkle House, Ekko has managed to touch the hearts of many in the Greensboro area.
When Ekko gets her vest on, she knows where she is going. She immediately clicks into her calm mode and is ready to work. By nature of her breed, she is a highly intelligent dog. She is also incredibly loyal and wants to please, making her extremely easy to train. Pam Gaynor, Ekko’s owner, explains that Ekko just has a sense of what to do depending on her environment. In nursing homes and hospice facilities she will know when to walk up to a bed and put her head on someone’s arm to give them a gentle nudge. It’s as if she senses the needs of the patients. She also serves as a source of comfort and distraction for the family visiting the patients. In schools, Ekko is no short of a rock star! She loves the light-hearted interactions with the children (including all the rubbing she gets!). Mrs. Gaynor talks about how children who may be struggling with reading a passage don’t seem to mind struggling with it in front of a dog – it helps them to be brave and try something difficult. She has even seen Ekko serve as a source of calm, with her presence helping a child in the middle of a meltdown to regain composure. When Ekko is off duty, she enjoys relaxing at home with her owners and her 4-legged companions, Ruger (a male Long Haired German Shepherd), and Cowboy (a Shih Tzu).
Pet therapy has practically always been a part of Ekko’s routine. Ekko got her first exposure to pet therapy at 10 weeks of age, and she was AKC certified by 9 months of age! But how she got her start has a unique and special twist. Mrs. Gaynor has been utilizing her dogs in pet therapy for approximately 20 years. It all started in Florida, when her local veterinarian contacted her about helping connect dogs with visiting nursing homes. After that, she found her passion in pet therapy. Ekko is not the first Long Haired German Shepherd that Mrs. Gaynor has used in pet therapy. Her former companion, Elka, was an amazing therapy dog for 10 years. After Elka passed away, Mrs. Gaynor was unsure whether she would do pet therapy again. A few months after Elka’s passing, a breeder that knew Mrs. Gaynor contacted her about a Long Haired German Shepherd puppy who seemed to have a very special personality. When Mr. and Mrs. Gaynor met Ekko, it was love at first snuggle. They could see this dog was not just a sweet, cuddly puppy – she was a thinker too!
If anyone asked Mrs. Gaynor at that point about whether this puppy would be a therapy dog, she would answer with doubtfulness. Losing Elka was very difficult, and she just wasn’t sure she could find the right fit again. Perhaps though, when they named Ekko, this dog’s future was already in the works. When searching for a German word to name the puppy, they came across Ekko. You may be able to discern already what this word translates to in English: Echo. Ekko was already on her way to ‘echoing’ Elka’s sentiment in life: that pet therapy can have an amazing impact on so many lives!
When Ekko was 10 weeks old, something very special happened. Mrs. Gaynor stopped by a facility she had volunteered with to let the staff meet her new puppy. Of course they asked her if Ekko was going to be a therapy dog, and Mrs. Gaynor still was not sure. But on that day, a staff member did something that locked Ekko’s and Mrs. Gaynor’s future into place. There was an older gentleman in the facility who refused to talk with anyone. He would turn the TV up if anyone came in his room. The staff member saw Ekko and Mrs. Gaynor and led them straight to that man’s room. As soon as they asked permission to enter and introduced Mrs. Gaynor, the gentleman looked down at the puppy and his heart softened. He immediately turned the TV down and asked for the puppy to sit next to him on the bed! They spent the next 15 minutes talking about dogs. This was the most he had ever spoken to anyone! At the end of the visit, he asked Mrs. Gaynor if she was coming back with the puppy. In that moment, Mrs. Gaynor knew that she and Ekko would be back – not just for this gentleman, but for many other people who’s hearts could be lifted and walls could be broken through the gentleness and affection of a loving canine companion.
Author: Dr. C. Noureddine, DVM, MS