Looking Back: Deb & Boo

A shih tzu with a Pet Partners tag and pawprint leash lying in a bright pink plush bed

Boo was my Pet Partners teammate for almost 13 years. She was the total package — pretty, sweet, intuitive, and a huge personality. I originally thought she’d be a wonderful therapy animal for seniors in nursing homes as she was the perfect lap-sized dog. Boo thought otherwise, however. She never particularly enjoyed being placed on laps, or picked up, and hugging was not her favorite either.

This always caused me a great deal of anxiety when we were doing our Pet Partners team evaluations — the restraining hug was an exercise that I had to really work hard to keep both her and I comfortable while directing the evaluator about the best way to hug her! Another challenge was the neutral dog exercise. Although we routinely foster, puppy sit, and have friends’ animals come to visit with Boo’s warm welcome, Boo was a total diva when working and didn’t appreciate having to share “her” people with other animals. She never enjoyed when another dog would wander over and get too close to her space. She helped me as a Pet Partners volunteer instructor to encourage handlers to mark out their space during group events by use of a blanket, and to always be vigilant about who was approaching!

She did enjoy working with other species, and a Flemish giant rabbit named Buckbeak became a best friend during group visits before COVID-19 arrived.

Therapy shih tzu Boo and therapy Flemish giant rabbit Buckbeak side by side on a blanket

Boo’s favorite population to work with was kids — whether lying in her brightly colored beds, or on a small blanket listening patiently to “Are You my Mother” or a different book, she was the epitome of a Read With Me animal. She never minded helping a struggling reader gain confidence as they practiced their reading skills. At the end of every story, she would encourage the child to brush her coat, and do a trick with her. She was always the first dog to book up her appointments at any of the library or school reading programs that we visited through the years.

Boo also enjoyed working with special needs children. Children on the autism spectrum were sometimes hesitant to interact with the other dogs, but Boo’s appearance was so much like a stuffed animal that the children would frequently be brave enough to brush her tail, and then use their hands to touch her. At that point, the connection was made, and she would encourage things like brushing in the correct direction of her hair, co-walking through the school halls, and being introduced to school personnel as a way for the child to practice social skills and cues.. She learned many behaviors that were helpful for working with that population, including her rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus” (the dogs on the bus – Boo would go ruff, ruff, ruff for the refrain).

Pet Partners handler Deb Gibbs holding her shih tzu Boo in a plush pink bed "burrito" while a person pets Boo

One of the most impactful times for us were visits scheduled through the Boston Athletic Association following the Boston Marathon bombings. Several teams from our Community Partner group, Tufts Paws for People, were invited to participate in large group support events for volunteers, first responders, and others that were present at the Marathon that day. These gatherings were led by mental health care professionals from the local area as well as the American Red Cross and were held in large hotel conference rooms. Boo dragged me (as much as 10 pounds could tug on a leash) from row to row of impacted people sitting on their chairs. She would stop in front of many people so they could reach down and pet her, but she also hopped up onto the laps of several people, and in spite of her general dislike of being in laps, she would put her front feet on the person’s chest, give a few kisses, then curl up on their laps for a few moments. Then she’d jump down and continue her mission to spread some peace and joy to this population who had been through so much distress. She made me tear up often during those visits, as she was primarily self-directed. I supported her, of course, but she was in charge during that time.

Boo did love to be picked up and held in her bright beds — I would fold the bed around her so that her head stuck out. We called it the “Boorito.” I would carry her like that as we traveled from car to wherever we were going to save the wear and tear on her little legs. When going through the halls of our local hospital, heads would swivel around to see if that was truly a dog, and then smiles would happen. She could make such a difference for people without having to do more than be seen.

Therapy shih tzu Boo wrapped up in her bright pink plush bed

Boo participated in several research projects throughout her career. She helped to see if children that were going through treatment for cancer had a better sense of their quality of life if a therapy dog was present during chemotherapy infusions compared with children that had the usual group of tools for the infusions (such as games and videos). We also were seeing about the impact of the therapy dogs on the families that accompanied the child for the infusions—results of that study indicated a definite boost for the families. Boo loved those visits so much that we continued to visit both the outpatient and inpatient pediatric departments at this hospital. Much of our time during those visits were spent with staff who were visibly brightened by the cheerful little dog trotting down their halls with her tail curved over her back, wagging away.

Another recent project was to see if the mere presence of a therapy dog could limit the amount of stress that high school–age students felt during a stressful assignment. This involved Boo either being in her bed next to the student, if they were in the group that could touch the dog; or in her bed on the floor, if the student was in the group that could talk to and see the dog, but not touch it. Participants watched a science video for a bit, then had to do an oral presentation in front of a “research examiner” (a volunteer dressed in a long white coat and told to look very serious during the session), followed by an oral math challenge. Boo loved to be next to the kids, of course — frequently rolling up and exposing her tummy if the student was struggling. Sometimes she would fall asleep and snore a bit if she was to be on the floor — frequently breaking the mood and making all of us laugh.

Therapy shih tzu Boo in her bed and handler Deb Gibbs on the floor with several students

Many, many hours were spent at various high schools, colleges and universities, and some corporate events as stress relief visits became more popular. Boo often had her own faithful groupies who made a point of sharing their school/work experiences and hopes with Boo. She would work the crowd, being petted, being brushed, rolling for a belly rub, doing her many behaviors and tricks, and then hanging out in her bed with her back feet resting on the edge of the bed — she was an amazing energy conserver in that bed!

I loved how she would flirt with people to draw them in – she frequently would lower her head and roll her eyes up at a person, then softly woof at them to encourage their attention. She had a wide range of vocalizations and would “speak” or “whisper” on cue. Sometimes she would be a bit mischievous when I’d ask her to speak. She would look at me with her tail wagging, then give a huge snort instead! I would say “Boo, I said speak, not snort” — she’d wag her tail faster and snort again. After several repetitions of this with her fans laughing away, she would finally woof. She had a huge personality that she would freely share with all her friends. For such a small dog, she made a very large and real difference for thousands of people over the years.

Mostly, Boo helped me to become the best person I could be. She was unfailingly patient, never judgmental, always cheerful and willing to work. If I was having some challenge in my personal life, she really helped me to learn how to leave home at home and enjoy the pleasure and joy that she so freely shared with all that she met. She was a wonderful dog to have at home, where she changed my husband into a “small dog” person — he’d never wanted one as he thought they were too yippy and delicate. Boo and Mark played many games of tug of war, and some very energetic “attack the claw” games with Boo throwing herself on his arms to grab his hands and pretend to be a tough dog. She was great with my kids, all the dogs and cats that we’ve had in our house, and became a good friend of my granddaughter in the last several years.

I don’t think there will ever be another dog as special as this miraculous little girl in my life; I will miss her always. I know that I can no longer not volunteer — it’s too special to me. Perhaps she’ll send another being along to me in time so I can continue the legacy that she so wonderfully started. I am so blessed to have had the honor of being Boo’s best friend.

Tribute written by Boo’s handler Deb Gibbs

A shih tzu on a pink leash being touched and petted by the hands of two people

 

Boo Gibbs is what inspired me to become a member of Pet Partners. Her calm demeanor, her effortless charm, her sweet personality — all of these were qualities I strived for in my own furry partner, and modeled how Boo and her Deb worked together as a team. Boo also made cameo appearances during my clinical experiences and reminded me that healthy AND friendly senior dogs exist (unfortunately we do not always experience both in a teaching hospital)! We often say “boo!” to surprise others and Boo was certainly a surprise of wonder and smiles.

—Dr. Jason Doll, friend, co-worker, and fan of Boo Gibbs