By Amy Sinatra Ayres. vetstreet.com | November 21, 2011
From the start, Sherry Hanley knew Eli was special.
And it turned out that the beautiful Belgian Sheepdog wasn't special only to her - he's been an extraordinary presence to the countless people he's helped as a therapy dog.
"Eli is sort of the exception to the rule with Belgians," said Hanley, who's a deputy sheriff at a prison in Pennsylvania. "They tend to be very aloof, one-bond, which means he would bond with me - very protective, very loyal. But Eli is just so outgoing. He's just perfect. I don't have kids, but he was great with kids. He's very elegant looking and he's just a natural. He's just wonderful."
Eli, who is one of the few surviving therapy dogs to have helped comfort survivors and first responders in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will represent therapy dogs as the Canine Ambassador at the National Dog Show Presented by Purina, which airs on NBC from noon to 2 p.m. ET on Thanksgiving Day.
"I can't tell you what an honor and thrill it is to have Eli be the ambassador," Hanley said. "Eli competed 10 years ago as a very young champion and it was the show's first national. So 10 years later, to have Eli represent the whole show with over 1,400 dogs entered is a true honor."
A 9/11 Hero
Now 12, Eli was certified as a therapy dog in March 2001. "They gave him a test and he passed with flying colors," Hanley said.
But at the time, Hanley and Eli were busy competing in dog shows, and much of Hanley's time was consumed by her job.
"He was a champion but never got to go on any [therapy] visits," said Hanley, who lives with Eli in Allentown, Pa. But days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Hanley was competing at a local dog show when she heard an announcement that therapy dogs were needed at Ground Zero.
Even though Eli was inexperienced, because of Hanley's law enforcement background they were chosen to help and "he was excellent," she said.
"Initially we went to be with the victims and survivors, but they had a comfort station at the command post and we ended up comforting the volunteers - National Guard, Red Cross, police - at Liberty State Park" in New Jersey. "They just welcomed us with open arms."
In an essay on her Web site, Hanley recalled how a first responder stood for an hour telling her about his experience on the scene. "As the guard (I never got his name) stroked Eli's head, I could see the smile come back to his face as he wiped away the tears. He turned, and as he walked away, he said thanks for talking to me. I guess he didn't realize he did all the talking."
Champion Outside the Ring
Since that first visit, Eli's become an expert. He's worked with troubled teens and as an Angel on a Leash for the Ronald McDonald House, where he helps kids fighting serious illness take their minds off of their troubles, and he recently helped raise $500 for the Wounded Warrior Project, a program that provides services to injured members of the military.
"Eli loves the attention and the kids love the attention and the parents appreciate the volunteer work," Cherilyn Frei, chaplain at the Ronald McDonald House in New York, said in a statement after Eli visited this month.
Before Eli was a champion to the people he helps, he was a champion in the ring. He's ranked in shows both in the United States and Canada, has had multiple Best in Show wins and has been recognized for his therapy work, including an induction into the Purina Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Kennel Club in 2010.
"He did really well in the show ring and can do the same in therapy visits," Hanley said.
'He's My Heart and Soul'
Eli still steps back into the ring once in a while. Just three weeks ago, Eli competed in a Belgian specialty show, where he won best veteran and received an Award of Merit. "The old boy still has it!" Hanley said.
Eli may be quite accomplished, but he's still a regular dog. He sleeps on the bed and the couch at home, and "one of our … favorite things is every morning we sit together on the loveseat while I have my cup of coffee before work. He sits and waits for me. Even if I'm running late, I take a minute to sit with him," Hanley said.
When Eli appears at the National Dog Show this year, he'll be in good company. Hanley will show "two of his kids," Winona and Waylon. The "old guy" even has grandkids now.
Eli spends his time traveling around the country doing his therapy work with Hanley and making special appearances. He'll be on NBC's Today show next week.
"He's my heart and soul, and he changed my life," Hanley said. Now, she wants to continue to show others how dogs can change their lives.
To see Eli and hundreds of other dogs, tune into The National Dog Show Presented by Purina airs on NBC at noon on Thanksgiving Day.