The audience rode a wave of emotions as David Frei, longtime voice of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and pet therapy expert, shared dozens of stories—some comical, all heartwarming—during his keynote address at the second annual Therapy Animal Expo hosted by Therapy Animal Coalition on Oct. 7, at the Schultz Center in Jacksonville.
Frei’s voice often choked with emotion when he recalled some of the patients, many of them children, whose lives have been touched over the decades by his four therapy dogs.
“His stories were inspiring,” said Marcie Ryan, a Beaches resident and pet therapy volunteer at Baptist Medical Center-Beaches. “I have felt those same emotions when I’ve taken my dogs to visit patients at the hospital.”
Frei opened his remarks by explaining how dogs’ purposes have evolved over the centuries, using dog show groupings to illustrate.
“Terriers were bred to catch rats,” he said. “Well, now we have Orkin (pest control) for that. Sporting Group dogs helped to hunt game. Well, now we go to the grocery store. Now, instead of being hired help for us, they have moved from the garage and the back yard onto our couches and living rooms, and have become members of the family. And some of them have new jobs – touching people’s lives through pet therapy.”
With a nod to Jacksonville, Frei told the story of his interview for Fox News Channel with Bill Wynne, who was based in the South Pacific during World War II. A fellow GI found a 4-pound Yorkshire terrier in a foxhole. Wynne ended up with the dog and named her Smoky. She helped the war effort by running cables and wires through pipes, but it was Smoky’s other “job” that connected her to the expo audience.
While he was hospitalized with dengue fever in 1944, Wynne’s buddies brought Smoky to the hospital to cheer him up. After seeing Smoky, nurses asked Wynne if he would allow them to take the dog on their rounds to visit the injured troops – if their commanding officer approved. The commanding officer did approve, and it was none other than Dr. Charles Mayo, son of Mayo Clinic co-founder Dr. Charles Horace Mayo. Once Wynn recovered, he and Smoky regularly visited the wounded in military hospitals. Animal Planet credits Smoky with being the first therapy dog on record.
“When I think about pet therapy, I think about the great things our pets do for us and for other people,” Frei said. “That’s what it’s all about. You are changing people’s lives, at least for the moment. And, it will change your life, too.”
Kristi Leonard, a Ponte Vedra resident and president of the board of Therapy Animal Coalition, said Frei brought to life the profound impact of pets.
“In addition to his keynote address, he provided helpful information and insights during a roundtable discussion among the chairs of some of our local pet therapy programs,” added Leonard.
Since the first Therapy Animal Coalition expo in 2016, the number of therapy animal teams volunteering in Northeast Florida has increased by 64 percent, according to the organization.
A nonprofit based in Jacksonville, Therapy Animal Coalition’s mission is to increase the number of therapy animal teams by educating the public on how to embark on this volunteer service, facilitating volunteer opportunities and continuing education for registered therapy animal teams and assisting facilities and organizations with starting therapy animal programs. For more information, go to www.TherapyAnimalCoalition.org.