If you told Chuck and Patty Mitchell 11 years ago that the dog they were adopting, Rikki, would become a nationally recognized dog whose legacy would live on long after she passed, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. But Rikki, a golden retriever who came to Tallahassee as a Hurricane Katrina rescue puppy at just a few months old, did just that.
Rikki loved her home in the swamp and especially loved running the beaches and woods with her big brother, Roscoe, and owners, Chuck and Patty Mitchell – almost as much as she loved helping people. Rikki’s true calling was as a therapy dog, and in early 2007 she became a proud member of Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare’s (TMH) Animal Therapy Program, its Reading Education Assistance Dogs program, and its Florida Courthouse Therapy Dogs program.
For nearly 10 years, Rikki helped patients, families, students, victims, witnesses and staff cope with the difficulties of managing through trauma and challenging situations. She made everyone feel better and inspired them to get to where they needed to be – whether through motivating rehabilitation, improving reading skills, or finding their voice so they could testify about their abuse.
Rikki’s life and work is beautifully told in “Encounters With Rikki: From Hurricane Katrina Rescue to Exceptional Therapy Dog,” by Julie Strauss Bettinger. It has received many accolades and is currently a finalist for two national book awards.
Rikki was a pioneer and groundbreaker in so many areas. She was the first dog to receive a Caring Paws Award from TMH, the first therapy dog to work with a child victim in a deposition, the first to receive a proclamation from the Leon County Commission, the first to work with capital cases in the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, and among the first Reading Education Assistance Dogs in the Tallahassee area. Her work lead directly to the passage of the first law in Florida, and the nation, that allows therapy dogs to accompany children and vulnerable adults into the courtroom. Now, most of the states have animal therapy programs assisting in their judicial proceedings.
While Rikki unfortunately passed away this past May, her legacy lives on thanks to her owners, Chuck and Patty Mitchell, who worked with the Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare Foundation team to set up an endowment in her name – the Friends of Rikki Endowment.
“This endowment was created to provide sustainability for the TMH Animal Therapy Program. One of the di cult parts of being a volunteer with this program is finding a special animal that can pass the tests needed to become a therapy animal,” said Chuck and Patty Mitchell. “And the hardest part is that a handler is only as good as their working partner. The animals are the true stars of the show – we’re just the magician’s assistant.”
While TMH boasts more than 150 animal therapy teams, they lose around 15 teams a year due to the animals’ naturally shorter life span. The teams they typically lose are ones who have been in the program for years, and therefore are the ones most trained and able to work with the most di cult situations. The Friends of Rikki Endowment is working to help bridge this gap and continue growing the program.
“We grow the program by attracting and retaining more volunteers, which involves a lot of community outreach and spreading awareness. At the same time, we need to train more instructors, trainers and evaluators to teach and test potential teams,” explained Chuck.
In addition to encouraging more people to come and try out for the program, Chuck and the entire animal therapy team at TMH are now working with Leader Dogs for the Blind – a seeing eye-dog program based in Michigan. Only about 50 percent of dogs trained to become seeing eye- dogs actually make it, but for the rest who still have about $27,000 worth of training, they are anything but your ordinary dog.
The Leader Dogs for the Blind program previously partnered with police departments to have the dogs that didn’t make it continue on a different, but similar path — a career change so to speak. Because of the quality of TMH’s Animal Therapy Program, TMH is now the first hospital they will partner with, allowing the Animal Therapy Program to receive these highly-socialized and well- trained dogs.
“These dogs have the highest levels of training, even more so than police dogs, because they have to be able to overrule an owner’s command,” explained Chuck. “Once we get the dogs, they’re matched with a handler in our program who is in need of dog – so instead of having a handler have to start with a dog from the very beginning, they are matched with these dogs who need very little help and training.”
The funds earned from the Friends of Rikki Endowment will help to purchase these therapy dogs and continue growing the Animal Therapy Program at TMH, who has had more than 35,000 “nose to nose” interactions to date.
“We want to not only continue bringing in dogs from Leader Dogs for the Blind, but we want to raise the awareness of the benefits of animal therapy,” said Chuck. “We need more teams serving more patients in the hospital and across the community, more teams to help struggling readers in the schools, and more teams to help child victims of assault and abuse to be able to find their voices to be able to tell their stories in court.”
While Rikki held a lot of “firsts,” she more importantly paved the way for her animal therapy friends to do much more over the years to come. For more information or to make a donation to the Friends of Rikki Endowment, please visit TMH.ORG/Rikki or call 850-431-5389.