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A Delta Society Pet Partner Program
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Munchkin Matola: Delta Society Pet Partner
by Katie Costello
It was in late December of 1997 that my parents beloved three-legged poodle, Chester, died suddenly from genetic problems at the young age of six, in spite of many veterinary specialists and wonderful care. My parents were severely depressed, refusing to leave the house for anything other than work and bare necessities. Their healing process was very difficult to watch, and knowing that I could say nothing to help the pain was the hardest part of all. My parents stubbornly insisted that they did not want another dog. No one would ever replace Chester. Of course no on would ever replace Chester. You don’t replace beloved pets you fill voids.
In February of 1998, I stopped by a veterinary clinic that I used to work at. I was talking with some of the employees in surgery when an old friend named Peggy pulled me over to a cage. She showed me Munchkin, a sweet faced beagle mix. Munchkin was wearing a diaper, which brought on my next question. “What is wrong with her Peggy?” Knowing that Peggy was quirky and willing to go every extra mile to save any animal. After all, that is how she ended up my friend! Peggy began telling the story.
A car on route 680 in Youngstown hit munchkin approximately nine years ago. She was less than a year old at the time. A local animal shelter named Animal Charity in Youngstown had picked her up. Once at the veterinary clinic they examined her. From the X-rays it soon became apparent that Munchkin had a severed spine, and worse yet, no owner. Peggy, a surgical assistant, fell in love with Munchkin and her wonderful attitude towards life and begged to spare her life. Peggy said she would take on the responsibility of caring for Munchkin at the clinic.
Animal Charity agrees, and Munchkin was then spayed and fitted with a K-9 wheelchair. Her wheelchair has wheels in the back, a strap that goes around her waist, and a strap that goes around her shoulder blades. She has built her front leg muscles to walk with each in her wheelchair. She continued to live at Animal Charity of three years. The employees would take her to nursing homes where they found she inspired the patients. You see, Munchkin doesn’t know that she is handicapped. She is just a dog living out her day with as much and love as she can find. All Peggy had to do to keep up Munchkin’s spirit was change her diaper frequently and take her out for walks.
When I heard Munchkin’s story, I wanted this dog to know all the benefits of being a spoiled rotten dog. My parents came to my mind immediately! Being that Chester was a special needs dog, Munchkin would be right up their alley! I convinced my parents who “weren’t interested” to go and see Munchkin. They brought her home that day. Part of the deal with adopting Munchkin was that she must continue to go to nursing homes and help to heal people.
My mind started to reel about the stories of Munchkin being able to touch people enough to talk, when they hadn’t spoken in years. I wanted to know how we could do this visiting with animals on a bigger scale. I started to look into the National organizations that register animals for Animal Assisted Activity and Animal Assisted Therapy. I was most impressed by the thoroughness of the Delta Society’s testing standards. I found a licensed Delta Society Animal Evaluator not far from my home in Hubbard, Ohio. Her name was Beth Fink, who is President of RX: Dog Love Inc., in Akron, Ohio. She was very generous with her time and began explaining how to start a program, step-by-step. We set up the first animal evaluations for September of 2000. Shortly after, K-9’s for Compassion was born.
Munchkin Matola took the Delta Society Pet Partner test in September of 2000 at Mosquito Lake Park in Cortland, Ohio. Everyone knew that Munchkin would be awesome at this, but, prior to the testing, few of us knew exactly how many hearts she would touch, heal and console.
Munchkin very quickly because a huge hit at the facilities that K-9’s for Compassion visits. She has fan clubs that ask for her every week that she isn’t there. Her eyes are as unthreatening as they come, and her soft fur is comforting to anyone. She instills confidence and inspires people who are themselves wheel-chair-bound. As she runs along with her little wheelchair, he eyes sparkle with life. She is awesome!
It is a wonderful experience to go on visits with my father, Tony Matola and his wonderful little dog, Munchkin. The way I see it, there are a lot of heart-felt fantastic things going on. I get to spend some quality time with my father while helping people. My father is leaning more and more about animal behavior. And I have seen this spark in his eye that I believe is pride. Pride in watching the healing that Munchkin performs, and being able to be a part of that. Munchkin doesn’t even realize all of the wonderful things that she does. She is just being Munchkin. Munchkin is helping everyone that she comes in contact with. The laughter as she runs in her wheelchair, with my father in tow, leash in hand, to visit her friends in the Assisted Living wing of Horizon Village. Watching as she snuggled up with Chippy at Community Care. Watching her bring smiles to so many faces in one hour a week is enough to bring tears to your eyes. I have watched as people ask to see Munchkin and talk to my dad about what happened to her. My Dad seems to shine as he explained that Munchkin doesn’t wear her wheelchair at home, and he she even chases the cats. He gets people to interact with them by explaining that Munchkin can’t scratch her own ears and encouraging them to sctatch her there. I have watched my father find a soft spot in his heart where she shines. He shines nearly as brightly as Munchkin does.
It is not just one story that brings Munchkin to the limelight. It is a combination of all of the little things she does, as well as the big things. It is a wonderful handler/owner and a compassionate little mixed breed dog that has more heart than most could ever imagine. She has inspired people to speak who haven’t spoken in a long time. She has caused a stroke victim to reach out to touch her without even realizing that he is doing physical therapy. Munchkin has healed many, starting with my grieving parents 5 years ago. She continues to heal at nursing homes, hospitals, schools and rehabilitation centers, all the while never even realizing that she is handicapped. Munchkin inspires the staff, patients, and visitors alike.
For the K-9’s for Compassion teams, it becomes a challenging and humbling experience to visit with Munchkin. Everywhere we go people focus on Munchkin. Many tell her how they have missed her. While all the K-9’s for Compassion teams understand that Munchkin is very special, we also love our own dogs. So, we usually send my Father down a separate wing so that our dogs can have some attention! As much as everyone in the group jokes with my Father about the fact that we are all going to go home and make our dogs wheelchairs so that our dogs can get petted, we all know that Munchkin is the heart of this group. She amplifies what we are all doing at these facilities. She is a wonderful spokes dog for the group.
One of the most interesting stories that I can tell you about watching Munchkin visit happened in spring of 2001 when she and my father went to the local children’s hospital, Tod Children’s. We visit at Youth Services, which is the drug/alcohol/behavioral group. The man in charge of the program usually briefs us at the beginning of the visit to inform us about who we are going to be seeing. He told us that he had two people up against the wall who were known to have abused animals. He was leaving it up to us if we wanted to approach them. Munchkin isn’t very big, about 25 pounds, and very close to the ground. I was nervous about visiting them. My Father was the first to approach them. I stood nearby, worried about Munchkin and listened. My Father walked right over to them and asked if they wanted to see Munchkin. The kids started talking immediately, wanting to know what had happened to Munchkin, why she had those wheels on, how old she was, how long had my Father had her? My Dad answered all of their questions. The kids were petting her very gently, and the one kid looked up at my Dad and said, “I am here because I abused my dog.” My Dad replied, “No, really? You wouldn’t hurt Munchkin would you?” When the kids answered that they wouldn’t, he then asked what happened. The kids started to tell their story, in turn, to Munchkin who just beamed with joy for being petted. As I quietly stood there listening, I felt a little ashamed that I was so apprehensive about approaching the kids, particularly in the controlled environment that we were in. And I can still remember how proud I was that my Father wasn’t afraid and had helped those kids to heal in a small way that day. You could see in their eyes that something had changed. They started to see dogs in a different light that day. They saw an animal with feelings, unbelievable courage, and unconditional love. Even though they had abused animals in the past, Munchkin had forgiven them, and better yet, wanted their attention.
Another wonderful story that happened recently was on Thanksgiving Day 2001. A few of the teams went to St. Elizabeth Hospital for a visit. A lady was there with her mother, whom was recovering from surgery. Munchkin went into the room and visited. When my father went to leave, the patient’s daughter followed my dad out of the room. She was crying. She relayed a story about a prior pet that they had owned, and how wonderful the program was. My Dad asked if Munchkin upset her, and she said no, she was crying because the dog was so sweet, and to have dogs in the hospital was just a wonderful thing. She cried even more when she found out that it was an all-volunteer program. WE are truly in the people business, and touching people’s emotions is truly where healing can begin. The staff at the facilities that we visit frequently stops me. “Where is she today?” They are always asking about Munchkin. They all miss her when she isn’t at a particular visit. I have asked a few of them what makes her so special, why she stands out in their minds. They all tell me that it is because of how sweet she is. How inspiring she is to patients that they care for. How happy she is. I guess there are many reasons that Munchkin is so special. The staff enjoys her as much as the patients!
By looking in my father’s eyes, I can swear that he is as proud of Munchkin as he is of his kids. Maybe even more so. I must admit that Munchkin deserves it more than my brothers or I do. She has a flair for making hearts flutter. She is wonderful at never getting into trouble. I think that K-9’s for Compassion has opened up an entirely new doorway in my father’s life. I see him smiling at things I couldn’t even imagine my father doing. Just recently he dressed up as Santa Claus, taking pictures of people and their pets for Christmas. We raised $2,000.00 during that weekend to help assist the group in continuing our visiting.
The greatest thing is to be walking down the street, or overhear a conversation that my Dad is having with a stranger, where he proudly beams about Munchkin, and how she “Took this really hard test to become a Delta Society Pet Partner.” He is very proud that his little dog has that title to hear the hearts of everyone that she meets and touches, and I am very proud to say that he is my father, and she is my K-9 sister. I know she will only get better with age, and I look most forward to growing with her.
In spring of 2002, Munchkin was taken to her veterinarian, Dr. Sam Costello for her yearly check up and vaccines. Upon examination, Dr. Costello realized that Munchkin’s gums were very pale. She had not been acting any differently than any other time. We drew blood, and the blood work was astonishing. She was very anemic. As a matter of fact, she was at the point of needing a blood transfusion. And she had not shown one sign of being sick. This angel had an angel looking over her that day; to have that appointment on that day probably saved Munchkin’s life.
Dr. Costello felt that since Munchkin had probably been losing her red blood cell count slowly, she had just adapted to the change, and that is why we hadn’t seen any signs of her being sick. She was diagnosed with Auto-immune Hemolytic Anemia. Munchkin’s body was killing itself, due to a reason of unknown causes. This is a very life-threatening disease. She was hospitalized that day. The emotions were completely overwhelming. Dr. Costello is also the veterinary advisor for K-9’s for Compassion, and he visits facilities with his Pet Partner named Bear, a chow mix.
Munchkin received a blood transfusion, thanks to a wonderful American Staffordshire named Star. She donated her blood to help Munchkin. Munchkin responded well, and was put on many medications. Things went well for approximately a month, and then she started to take another turn for the worse. Unable to figure out what was causing her body to kill itself, we all were a little discouraged. We all had worked very hard to find out ANY treatment that had helped any dog with this disease. It was a very emotional time. It was also a time where a community came together. There were prayers, well wishes, and cards sent daily in mass numbers. Munchkin’s name was added to church prayer lists. The empathy and understanding from people was overwhelming.
For many months Munchkin rode this roller coaster of feeling better, and then becoming sick again. My parents were to the point that they wondered if they were doing what was best and fair to Munchkin. None of us knew anymore. How could this dog, who had fought so hard her entire life, be giving up?
I am happy to report that nearly a year after the first episode, Munchkin is very healthy, and returned mostly to normal. She is now blind, but as good as ever. She will be returning to her job of healing the sick within the next few weeks. Many have missed her.
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