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Pet Tales

Rottweilers can be friends, therapy dogs, too

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco

When Judy Gates saw a big black and tan dog wandering in a North Hills shopping center parking lot on a cold, January night, she was sad. The dog had no collar, its head was hanging down and it had that scared, lost look that tugs at the heartstrings of dog lovers.

Gates hesitated for only a second. Then, in a giant leap of faith, she opened the back door of her car and invited the dog in.

Gates briefly had second thoughts as she was driving to her Cranberry home, for she knew what the dog was. The nearly-100-pound canine was a Rottweiler - a breed sharp of tooth and strong of jaw, a breed that is feared and even hated in many quarters.

"I looked in the rearview mirror and the dog was sitting quietly in the back seat, looking relieved and happy," Gates says one year later.

Gates never found the owner, though she contacted police departments and pursued every avenue she could think of. But that was OK because, Gates relates, "I fell in love with her right away."

So did her two Labrador retrievers, Brittany, 6, and Gypsy, 14.

She named her Carlee, in honor of Carl, the gentle, baby-sitting male Rottweiler featured in the wonderful children's books by Alexandra Day. Gates' veterinarian thinks Carlee is about 3 years old.

I met Carlee recently as she visited patients at UPMC Passavant hospital in McCandless. She calmly walked up to patients in wheelchairs, gazed into their eyes and wagged her stumpy tail when petted. She quietly approached patients in hospital beds, bringing smiles to faces that had been furrowed with anxiety and pain.

One elderly woman tentatively put her hand out to Carlee and said, "Shake!" She crowed with delight when the command was obeyed.

I stooped down to pet her, and Carlee licked my face. I didn't see her lick any patients, but she seemed to know that I welcome this kind of attention. This is one of the nicest dogs I've ever met. It breaks my heart to know that many, many people - including elected officials - think that all Rottweilers should be banned.

Carlee is not an aberration. Rottweilers regularly rack up high scores in obedience trials. They are often used as service dogs for people in wheelchairs. They do stellar work for police departments; the same dogs that attack "bad guys" gently meet and greet schoolchildren in "Officer Friendly" programs. And they are loving, devoted pets for many, many families.

Rottweilers are so good at these things because they are smart, versatile, highly trainable, loyal, loving, brave and oh-so-willing to please the people they love. But in the hands of the wrong people, a Rottweiler or a big, powerful dog of any breed is an absolute menace. Don't blame or ban an entire breed.

Perhaps you've heard that Rottweilers are vicious toward other dogs. You should see Carlee with her therapy co-workers - Oliver, a Newfoundland owned by Mary O'Day of Franklin Park and Cali, a Labrador retriever owned by Meg Yates of Cranberry. Oliver and Cali are just as wonderful as Carlee, but people usually aren't surprised to meet a "nice" Newf or a lovable Lab.

Gates, a lifelong Lab owner, says she has always admired therapy dogs. She always thought her own pets were a bit too exuberant for therapy work. Until she rescued Carlee.

Blessed with the perfect therapy dog temperament, Carlee functions as an ambassador for her bedeviled breed.

"My mission is to defend this breed," Gates said. "By taking Carlee to hospitals and nursing homes, I can show everyone that this is a really good breed."

As a little extra insurance, Gates took Carlee to the Paws-Itive Academy training facility in Crafton. On her very first try, Carlee passed the therapy dog certification test. It includes greeting strangers - human and canine - with no show of fear, aggression or boisterous affection.

"I gave a speech about Carlee and Rottweilers in Toastmasters. People said they had no idea that some breeds are so threatened."

So kudos to UPMC for inviting Carlee and other therapy dogs into medical facilities. And kudos to owners like Gates, O'Day and Yates for finding time in their busy schedules to share their wonderful dogs with patients who need a morale boost. Gates works at Passavant as a clinical dietitian by day, and a volunteer by night.

As for Carlee,with a nod to Alexandra Day who always ends her books with: "Good dog, Carl!",I'll end this column with "Good dog, Carlee!"

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