Alone, Missy Ziler can light up a room with her bright smile and engaging, friendly personality, but add her faithful partner Woolf to the mix and the two become the center of attention and an ideal picture of true companionship.
A complement to each other’s easygoing nature, it is clear Woolf and Missy share a powerful bond, a bond that has undoubtedly guided their success as a therapy dog/handler duo and inspired the creation of Missy’s nonprofit therapy dog group, Companions for Courage.
Though it’s been four years since Missy’s husband, Joe, found the wiry White Shepard/Husky mix with the piercing blue eyes, Missy still can’t quite find the words to fully describe how much of an impact Woolf has made not only in his community but in her personal life.
“Physically and emotionally, it has been huge for me. I don’t quite know what to say about the meaning behind him coming into my life, but I just call it our journey,” she says and smiles. “I didn’t look for any of this, but you know what… I wouldn’t trade it.”
New ‘leash’ on life
Becoming a therapy dog handler and advocate was a complex but completely life-changing voyage that began on the heels of the economic downturn in 2008. As the fiscal climate began to change and homebuilding slowed, Missy and Joe started discussing the very real possibility of him losing his construction job. “I told him we had to come up with a game plan because I figured he’d lose his job,” she says. But in actuality, it was Missy that would lose hers.
Surprised but determined to bounce back, Missy hustled to start anew in real estate, though she soon realized working in sales was not her strength. At the same time, Missy began to spiral out of control emotionally. “I pretty much had a breakdown. I don’t even remember a month of my life,” she says. “I started to suffer from extreme anxiety and depression.”
Then one day, Joe sent her a text message with a photo of a precious seven-month-old puppy with a beautiful cream-colored coat and striking blue eyes playing in his company’s parking lot. Immediately, Missy said no to keeping the abandoned pooch, but Joe brought him home anyway. Not wanting to turn him over to the animal shelter, Missy and Joe spent weeks driving around trying to track down the dog’s owner with no luck. But during that time, Missy began to develop an attachment to the adorable stray.
“There was just something about him. It was bizarre. We almost mirrored each other,” she says. “When I would go see my therapist, my whole demeanor would change when I would start talking about Woolf. My therapist asked me to bring Woolf to a session one day, and after seeing how different I was with him, my doctor kind of prescribed him to me. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
A doggone good team
After seeing how Woolf gave her the strength to pull herself up from the depths of her own despair, Missy got to thinking that if he could have such a major influence on her, what could he do for others? After undergoing training and an obedience evaluation through Caring Canines Therapy Dogs of Lake County, Missy had Woolf certified as a therapy dog.
Before long, he was visiting hospitals and assisted-living facilities. However, while Woolf was a natural with the patients and elderly residents, Missy could not help but notice he had a peculiar draw to children. “Even with babies, he was just curious. He loved being around children,” she explains. “He wasn’t obnoxious about it. He just wanted to sniff them and meet them.” Realizing his gift with children, Missy had Woolf certified as a reading education assistance dog (READ) and began taking him to both Fruitland Park and Leesburg elementary schools. As a READ dog, Woolf sits with children who struggle with reading and/or suffer from social anxieties and allows them to read to him with no fear of judgment.
Soon, their work with the READ program gave way to Woolf expanding his reach to children even further after a chance meeting with Cindy Wamberg, a counselor at Lake Sumter Children’s Advocacy Center. After some discussion about what Woolf does for children who struggle with literacy, Wamberg wanted to see what he could do with children who come to the center after being abused or neglected. “There were many instances where children didn’t even want to walk past the waiting room when they would come to the center,” Missy says, “but after some time with Woolf, the children would settle and start opening up. He has really had some success stories there.”
Spending most Mondays at the center, Woolf’s unique connection with children didn’t go unnoticed. In February 2012, Missy received an unexpected call from the state attorney’s office seeking Woolf’s assistance with an abuse case in which two brothers, ages 6 and 7, would need to testify. “From the first meeting, all four of us formed an instant bond,” she says. “Woolf was able to be there with both boys when they had to testify. When the older boy finished testifying, I remember he looked at me and said, ‘I did good, didn’t I?’ And I told him, ‘You did great.’ Then the boy said, ‘And I didn’t even need to pet Woolf.’ It was right then when I realized this could be something.”
After much consideration, Missy decided to establish Companions for Courage, a not-for-profit, completely volunteer-run group made up of six lovable therapy dogs and their handlers. The goal of Missy’s organization is to help children cope during difficult situations and raise awareness about child abuse in Lake County. “I’ve learned there are more unstable homes in Lake County than I could ever imagine. You hear about child abuse happening in the big city, but you never think it could be next door,” Missy says. “I want to really get out there and give a voice to these children that go unnoticed.”
In addition to establishing Companions for Courage for child abuse victims, Missy explains it is also a testament to Woolf and what he and other therapy dogs do. “These dogs can help and be more than just pets. There are some wonderful dogs out there doing wonderful things, and I want to gain respect for these therapy dogs because they are important,” she says. “When I even see adults dressed up in court bend down to pet Woolf and they get white fur all over their black suits, you know it’s just as much therapy for them as it is for the children. Animals can give us what we really need.”
As for Missy, Woolf has personally turned out to be a blessing in disguise and helped her discover not only a cause she could be passionate about but also lasting tranquility and inner peace. “I feel no stress. He feels no stress,” she says. “I’ve always had rescue animals, and I thought finding them a good home was my good deed. I never thought one would find me, and I’m just so thankful.”
For more information, visit CompanionsForCourage.org.
Written by Shemir Wiles Photos by Fred Lopez