A Great Great Dane: A Therapy Dog Brings Smiles to the Lonely
Big Dog, Big Heart
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."