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Smiles and lighthearted play were visibly missing last November at Eugene Padan Elementary School, in the small Northern California city of Vacaville. A month earlier a speeding driver had crashed into a crowd near the school, killing two students and injuring 10 other people -- and leaving behind widespread trauma and grief. Then teacher Maureen Colombara read a newspaper story about a Great Dane named Gibson who specialized in cheering up the sad and sick, and she sent an e-mail. "Smiles are what we do," responded Gibson's owner, Sandy Hall, 59, of Grass Valley, 90 miles away, who agreed to bring the dog to visit the school.
The hundreds of kids gathered in the multipurpose room gasped at the sight of the 3-year-old harlequin Great Dane. Gibson is a big dog: He weighs 175 pounds and stands close to 43 inches high at the shoulder. On his hind legs, he is a staggering 7-foot-2. As Gibson did his thing, offering himself to be petted, shaking hands, and emitting a gruff bark that sounded remarkably like "I love you," the kids forgot their grief for a moment and finally laughed once again.
That's the Gibson magic. Since he was scarcely more than a pup he has won hundreds of fans through his work as a therapy animal, visiting patients in children's hospitals, nursing homes, and Alzheimer's care units. The month he visited Padan Elementary, he had just won a new kind of fame. Representatives from Guinness World Records came to certify him as the planet's tallest dog. Gibson seemed to glow with pleasure at the attention. "He's a big ham," says Hall. "He loves the lights."
Hall knew Gibson was special almost from the start. She has bred Great Danes since the 1980s and owned Gibson's mother. He was the firstborn of her first litter of 12. As happens occasionally, the shock of the birth panicked the dog, and she got up and ran, which tore the emerging puppy's umbilical cord. Hall held him in her arms for three days to keep him from bleeding to death, "and that was it. We were bonded." A musician for decades before breeding dogs, she named the puppy Gibson after her favorite guitar and decided to keep him. Gibson's mother had been a relatively petite 31 inches at the shoulder and 115 pounds; his sire was around 37 inches and weighed 160, the high end of normal. The new pup wasn't especially large...at first. But by 4 months "he had huge paws and so much extra skin people thought he was a shar-pei," Hall recalls. "I took him to the vet to see if something was wrong with him." There wasn't. By 1 year, he was 40 inches high, "noticeably huge," says Hall. It was around that time that she began taking him with her to visit her mother, who was in a nursing home. "People would go crazy over his size, and he was so well behaved that someone asked me if he was a therapy dog. When I said no, they suggested I get him certified as one."
The suggestion made sense. At 8 months the dog had displayed not just gentleness but also a maternal side. Gibson's mother had just given birth to another litter, and he watched over her nursing. "When she got out of the whelping box, he got in and let the puppies suck on his belly until they fell asleep," says Hall, who was floored. She had never seen a male dog do that.
Hall's work with Gibson was rigorous. "He not only had to learn to sit and stay -- no matter where I was or what I did -- but he also had to learn not to lick people, because that could be a problem visiting someone who was on oxygen," she says. "And socialization was crucial. I ran the vacuum, turned up the TV and stereo, and took him to parades with booming drums and festivals where there were crowds and lots of noise. The certification test is more than four hours of evaluation. Gibson passed on his first try."
From then on the dog's size, outgoing nature, and sweetness kept him in demand. "Hi, I'm Sandy and this is Gibson, and we're here to make your day a little brighter," Hall would sing out as she entered a hospital or home. Autistic children would emerge from their solitary worlds to reach out to Gibson. Kids who weighed less than 22 pounds would sit on him. Even small miracles occurred. "We visited a man in his 20s who'd been a quadriplegic from a motorcycle accident years before," Hall remembers. "He couldn't move, but he was very responsive to Gibson. One day we visited on a holiday, when his family was around. As we turned to leave, I heard the family screaming, 'Oh, my God!' My first thought was that Gibson had done something wrong. But the man hadn't wanted us to go, and he'd crooked his pinky at us. It was the first time he'd moved in eight years."
Today Gibson's fame has grown to include appearances on The Tonight Show, and he has his own Web site: www.gibsondog.com. When he's not working, he relaxes at Hall's 2-acre ranch, where he shares space with a 37-year-old horse, a pet goat, one of his littermates, and her puppy. (Hall, a widow, calls the animals her family.) Although Hall likes to tell kids "that Gibson got big because he drank elephant milk and ate his veggies," he thrives on a daily diet of more than a pound of cooked chicken mixed with around 10 cups of kibble. And while most male Danes reach their full weight by age 3, Gibson is still filling out. Hall believes that ultimately he'll weigh as much as 215 pounds. Calls requesting Gibson's presence are constant, but therapy dogs' owners aren't compensated for their work, and keeping up with demand has become a struggle for Hall, whose dog-breeding business is her sole source of support. Her truck broke down last year, and she now transports the dog in a 1983 Oldsmobile, but the only way he'll fit is with both windows open so his head can stick out one side, his tail the other.
Does Gibson understand how much he means to others? Hall's convinced that he does. "You should see him when he goes to work, doing his tricks and inviting people to reach out and pet him," she says. "He knows he's making people happy."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.