Sept 11, 2009 - today we lost Vito. Rather than dwell on the battle against declining health made by this stoic dog, I’d like to tell you how he affected so many people over the years:
We adopted Vito, a 145 lb. bullmastiff with a head the size of a basketball, at age 2½ . So fierce looking that people would cross the street rather than approach him, so fierce looking that delivery people would start up our front steps then stop when they saw him sitting inside the house behind the storm door.
But we found out in short order that Vito liked everyone. I mean everyone - people, dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels. (In seven years we never heard him growl – not once). Over the years we learned he had a special affinity for people who are old/infirmed and children. He somehow comprehended people’s frailties, and when he was with an old person or a child he was always on perfect behavior, never knocking into an older person, and never objecting when a child would hang on him, or pull his ears, or stick their fingers in his nose or mouth.
Vito met hundreds of people over the years, because we took him to either the park, or Main Street, every day - - and he’d meet strangers. Dog lovers were fascinated with him and would want to say hi, and non-dog lovers and people who were afraid of dogs would often inquire (or we would ask them if they wanted to say hello). There were an enormous number of people who were skeptical or scared, who approached and petted Vito after being assured by us that it was safe, who learned that big fierce-looking dogs are not necessarily what they thought. I just can’t describe the feeling of watching Vito win them over.
And then there was the Therapy work. My Mother became terminally ill in late 2003, and it became very obvious that Vito understood her situation and wanted to comfort her. So obvious in fact that I decided to take him for the Therapy Dog Certification Exam as I thought he might be able to bring a little happiness and comfort to other terminally ill people.
So I read about the certification process and registered for the exam. Let me tell you, while the certification isn’t hard, it does require a dog that is extremely obedient - much more so than a normal housepet or companion dog, more like the obedience expected from trained K9 dogs. The reason of course is that these dogs are expected to go into sickrooms, hospitals and convalescent centers and not wreak havoc either intentionally or unintentionally. So I showed up, and here I was with a bunch of people and trainers who had obviously put their dogs through extensive training and were warming them up putting them through practice exercises. I, on the other hand, sat down next to Vito, looked him in the eyes and gently told him to just look and listen to me, and to stay calm. I don’t want to brag about how Vito’s behavior put to shame all the trained dogs, but it did. Somehow he knew it was important to pass this exam, and he performed flawlessly.
Which led to visiting terminal patients and their families at the Barbara E. Cheung Hospice. Vito went twice a week – he would visit the nurses station, then go bed to bed (he would go into each room and check to see if anyone was in the beds) visiting patients. Truth is, most patients at the hospice were in their final days, and were heavily medicated. But occasionally he would have a tremendous impact on the family members, who were there on what was basically a “deathwatch”, and were tired, stressed, sad. I could tell when it was about to happen because I would see some family member, slumped in a chair, who would make eye contact with Vito, and their face would just light up (after all, the last thing anyone expects to see in a hospice is a big friendly bullmastiff). Which would usually lead to them getting down on the floor and spending a half hour patting Vito and talking about their dog or maybe dogs they used to have. And for that half hour or so they would be transported away from their deathwatch to a place where they were just happy to be with big Vito.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Vito enriched the lives of hundreds of people. The loss to Rashmika and I, and the ones closest to us, is more than you can imagine.
For more photos and info about Vito, see: Vito’s Webpage
At age 2 ½ Vito was diagnosed with a number of serious orthopedic issues, including hip dysplasia, a condition which usually prevents dogs from living a full life. Under the guidance and treatment of our friend, veterinarian Kurt Blaicher, Vito lived a long, happy life, making it to the ripe old age of 9 ½, very old for a bullmastiff; I’m sure without Kurt this would not have been so.
There are several organizations which helped Vito and/or with which he was involved. If anyone would like to make a donation in memory of Vito those organizations are:
Rawhide Rescue - who rescued Vito and placed him with us.
University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School - who provided specialized health support for Vito.
Therapy Dogs International – who certified and insured Vito as a Therapy Dog.
Visiting Nurses Association of Central Jersey - who do amazing work supporting Hospice patients, and
who even let 140 pound bullmastiffs volunteer to help their patients.
Humane Society of the United States – who fight every day for humane treatment of animals.