- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) - Rick Childers gazed across Spartanburg’s Rail Tail Dog Park recently, recalling memories of his 175-pound Great Dane, Alyssa.

Alyssa’s 42-inch-tall stature didn’t stop the dog from romping around with pups of all sizes, Childers said, and Alyssa never met a stranger.

The Great Dane was preparing to serve as a therapy dog for Mary Black Memorial Hospital when she died from a sudden stroke at age 7 in September. Now, Childers is carrying on the mission of helping rehab patients while encouraging others to care for one another.

Childers had joined the local chapter of Therapy Dogs International to train with Alyssa and become certified to provide therapy. The duo had visited retirement homes, colleges, hospitals, nursing homes and just about everywhere around town to put a smile on someone’s face, Childers said.

“We’d get stopped all the time from people asking to take pictures with her,” he said.



Childers and Alyssa were regular patrons at Spartanburg’s Music on Main and Jazz on the Square events.

Petco staff on Spartanburg’s east side even referred to her as “The Petco Greeter,” he said.

“You get so attached. Anywhere I went, she was there with me,” he said. “Sometimes, I still wait in the living room looking for her to come in.”

The two were going through the application process to be one of five therapy dog teams for Mary Black when Alyssa died. Grief hit hard, Childers said. But three weeks later, he approached Mary Black officials and asked to come to the rehab unit once a month to sing and play guitar, two of his favorite pastimes.

Mary Black volunteer coordinator Maya Nesbit said the rehab unit of 10 to 20 patients has embraced Childers’ visits, especially in light of his hardship.

“He’s a special type of person who really has a giving heart,” Nesbit said. “It’s a good tribute to Alyssa that he wanted to give back.”

Childers said the support from the community has been overwhelming and has shown him how much others cared about Alyssa.

“As well as missing her, what hurts the most is thinking of the people that won’t get to meet her,” he said.

City of Spartanburg Special Events Coordinator Mandy Merck was one person Childers shared the news with of Alyssa’s death. Merck said she cried when she received his email because she had grown fond of Alyssa. Merck got to see the dog at city events.

Music on Main and Jazz on the Square both prohibit pets inside the event, but Childers would bring Alyssa and stand with her outside of the event boundaries for people to come spend time with her, Merck said.

“It still breaks my heart. . Every time she was there, I had to go pet Alyssa. She was just the absolute sweetest dog,” Merck said. “Rick and I talked about if we could guarantee that all dogs could be like that, we could let our events be dog-friendly.”

While Childers is now singing and spending time with Mary Black patients without a therapy dog, he plans to find another Great Dane and pick up where things left off, he said.

“People are lonely. Sometimes, she would lay her head in someone’s lap and they’d just cry,” he said. “We’re not saving the world, but a little bit each day, we’re making someone’s day brighter.”

Childers is still a part of Spartanburg’s Therapy Dog International Chapter 217. He speaks with others about the group to recruit new therapy dogs. He plans to provide therapy to others through a new Great Dane when the right one comes along.

Finding the same qualities he saw in Alyssa - a calm demeanor, inviting and socialized with a peaceful temperament - is the hard part, he said.

Nesbit said she would welcome Childers as a therapy dog handler for Mary Black if he finds another Great Dane.

“The benefits are amazing,” she said of therapy dog visits. “A lot of them (patients) are dealing with depression and some are not as responsive as families would like them to be. Sometimes just seeing that dog brightens their day. It helps bring them back to the present.”

About 30 therapy dogs are a part of the Spartanburg chapter of Therapy Dogs International, Childers said.

They could use about 300, he said, so he is always promoting the organization as an outlet to helping people. While he was standing in the dog park recently, Childers handed out business cards to passers-by about Therapy Dogs International.

At the park on Union Street, Childers acknowledged it was hard to visit a place he had brought Alyssa to about three times a week. Then again, he said, most places around town have been hard to stomach without Alyssa.

“We went everywhere together,” he said.

Asked what he will miss most about Alyssa, Childers said the dog’s interactions with people.

“It was like she knew,” Childers said. “She knew she had a purpose.”

___

Information from: Herald-Journal, https://www.goupstate.com/

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