HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Smokey was rescued as a puppy from neglect after a mobile home fire. The husky mix made his 1,000th visit as a therapy dog earlier this fall, and he’s only 3 years old.
The dog’s owner, Richie Czark of Bluffton, was inspired by Smokey to start a local chapter of Therapy Dog International, which certifies pets to visit nursing homes, hospitals and anywhere else they are needed.
The organization recognizes high-achieving dogs but so far tracks only up to 500 service visits, said Mark McGrath from Therapy Dog International’s New Jersey headquarters.
“We really don’t have a record of anything above that,” McGrath said. “Especially not for a dog that young.”
On the afternoon of his milestone, Czark and Smokey roamed the halls of Palm Meadows Village Assisted Living Community on Hilton Head Island, one of the many local institutions they visit. Czark, a Red Cross volunteer who brought Smokey home after his rescue, called out to patients in wheelchairs and beds that the dog had come by to “bring them some smiles.”
“A lot of them don’t get a lot of visitors,” Czark said. “We like to brighten up their day.”
Czark takes Smokey to nursing homes, hospitals and to the Bluffton Boys & Girls Club for the Paws to Read program, where children read aloud to the dog to gain practice and confidence.
The sweet-tempered dog has a calming effect on people, local dog trainer Abby Bird said. She guided Smokey through the rigorous testing requirements of a therapy dog, which include reaction to strangers, touch, noise and — what Czark called the most challenging — ignoring a hamburger left on the floor.
“He’s the kind of dog that has a special bond with humans,” Bird said.
While making the rounds at Palm Meadows, Czark spoke of strangers who have come up to hug Smokey because he visited them at Hilton Head Hospital and of children who make sure to tell Smokey they’re practicing their reading.
Darlene Schuetz, community relations director at Hospice Care of the Lowcountry and founder of Hos-pets therapy program, said therapy dogs like Smokey make a difference in people’s lives.
“A lot of seniors can’t have pets anymore, and it brings them joy and happy memories,” she said. “A lot of times they’re in pain, and when they’re petting a dog, they forget their pain.”