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By Shane Speer

When Roland Rivera set up an appointment for his dog, Ginger, to be interviewed as a pet therapy dog at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Pennsylvania, he called her a Staffordshire terrier instead of a pit bull.

“I was sensitive about the fact that she was a pit,” he says. “I knew once I got her in there, she’d take it from there.”

When the hospital staff saw her, he told them she was a pit bull. Ginger went through a battery of tests checking her reactions to scents, strangers, and people she knew. She passed with flying colors, and was accepted into the program. Since then she’s become a favorite among the patients -- and among the staff.

“She’s number one in our hearts; she’s just an amazing dog,” raves Joanne Marciante, the hospital’s Director of Volunteer Services.

Roland met Ginger eight months earlier, on his first day volunteering at the Delaware County SPCA. She was emaciated, missing patches of fur, and had clearly been used as a breeding dog. Nevertheless, her sunny disposition was obvious.

“She was really sweet and really responsive to me. She came up to me right away, wagging her tail,” Roland says. “I knew I wanted to adopt her right away.”

Roland and the other SPCA staff worked with Ginger to socialize and rehabilitate her. Two months later Roland, who was living with his parents at the time and needed their permission to adopt a dog, told his parents he was bringing “a girl” home for dinner. At 7 p.m., he walked in with Ginger. At first his parents were apprehensive, but by 11 p.m. she’d won them over.

A couple of months down the road, Roland got the idea of taking Gingy, as he calls her, to the hospital to become a therapy dog.

The two now have carte blanche to visit any part of the hospital except the critical care unit. A typical visit begins with Roland asking, “Would you like a pet therapy visit from my dog Ginger?” Once people accept a visit from her, they spend the time petting her and talking about pets they’ve had. The time together helps take patients’ minds off their pain and the fact that they’re in a hospital.

Ginger’s role at Bryn Mawr Hospital is unusual, but not unique. Pit bulls are used as therapy dogs more often than you might think. In the 2008 American Temperament Test Society list of breeds, 85.3 percent of pit bulls passed the test.

Roland was especially touched when he visited a woman in her nineties. Her son had called up saying she would really like to see a dog. For a while, whenever Roland and Ginger went by her room she was indisposed, having tests or sleeping. When they finally managed to meet her, she was so happy. “We spent 30 to 40 minutes talking about dogs,” Roland recalls. She passed away that night.

Ginger particularly likes visiting the psychiatric ward. It’s set up like a living room so Rivera can put the leash down and Ginger can walk around to visit different patients, and they all get a chance to see and pet her. “They relate to her so well,” says Joanne Marciante. “It’s amazing how much she gives.”

Ginger has also helped some patients open their minds about pit bulls. There was one patient who was tentative about receiving a visit from Ginger. “Gingy did her thing and was affectionate, and she changed the patient’s mind about pit bulls,” says Roland.

A few patients don’t react well to Ginger being a pit bull ... like the time Roland stepped into an elevator with Ginger and a passenger said, “What is that dog doing here? If it was up to me, I’d shoot them all.” But isolated incidents like this are few and far between. “Everybody just loves her,” says Joanne. “She’s got a fan club!”

In fact, Ginger’s fans voted her the 2009 Pet of the Year in Aston Township, PA. Ginger is also educating more people about pit bulls at hospital staff lectures about diversity. The lecturer talks about “this therapy dog we have who’s very sweet and makes patients happy.” At the end she tells the staff she’s talking about a pit bull, and the staff members are always surprised.

Roland and Ginger still volunteer at the hospital, but not as frequently as they used to. Rivera now works full-time at Elwyn, a residential home for adults with mental disabilities. He is setting up a program where he can take one of his clients from the home to the hospital along with Ginger.


Ginger & Rowland
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