From the moment their eyes met, Chip Riggi of Corinth knew Gunny was destined for greatness. The love connection began in 2005, when Riggi and his wife Elaine purchased their four-legged friend from Woodland Farms Shetland Sheepdogs in Fairfield to train him to become a therapy dog.
During the past 13 years, Riggi has traveled to nursing homes, hospitals and throughout his neighborhood with Gunny, to help brighten up the day of patients, staff and those in need of love from a furry friend. Gunny was so good at his job that Therapy Dog International (TDI) named him the most documented dog in the state of Maine, with more than 400 patient visits. It’s an accomplishment Riggi is proud to share with others.
“A big part of Gunny’s therapy work was as a surrogate for all the patients whose best friends were still in their hearts,” Riggi explained. “In some cases, especially [if the patient had] Alzheimer’s, they would pet Gunny but call him by their lost pet’s name.”
From Ross Manor and Country Villa nursing homes in Bangor to the Lafayette Cancer Center in Brewer, the Orono Commons nursing home, The Charlotte White Center in Dexter, and the Hibbard Nursing Home in Dover-Foxcroft, Gunny visited them all.
“We averaged about 20 individual resident visits per each nursing home. We could spend 10 minutes with a patient or a half-hour. However, patients are only half of the work Gunny did,” Riggi explained. “The other half is family and friend visitors and especially staff. To have a nurse, who has been out straight and crazy, take just a minute to say ‘hi’ to Gunny and give him a little pat does wonders.”
Sandi Blanchard, a nurse in Bangor, has been fortunate enough to be in Gunny’s company more than once.
“It’s absolutely amazing the positive effects these animals have on patients,” Blanchard said. “Some of these folks felt alone, scared, depressed, lonely and forgotten. When they would see Gunny coming through the door, they felt loved again.”
Blanchard said one of her patients was changed for the better after meeting Gunny.
“There was an elderly gentleman who had become so depressed after he lost his wife that he lost all interest in living. He was placed in a residency facility and met Gunny there who made him grin from ear to ear,” Blanchard explained. “He said, ‘Life has its ups and downs and many unfortunate goodbyes. However it still goes on. That dog showed me there’s always something good to look forward to.’ I will never forget that.”
Throughout the experience of being a handler to a therapy dog, Riggi kept track of Gunny’s work on log sheets that he turned in to Therapy Dog International. Each location they stopped at was recorded as a single visit, no matter how many patients they spent time with.
“Each quarter TDI would publish the titles, when earned, of all the dogs in their system, which spans the country. This is how I know Gunny was the most documented in the state. He earned all the titles they award,” Riggi said. “Although Gunny was certified, which essentially means he carried a million dollars in liability insurance from TDI, there are many dogs doing therapy work that are not certified and if you think about it, every dog is a therapy dog, especially with their own families.”
The words were especially true for Riggi, who found he and his wife in need of Gunny’s therapy services when Elaine was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had to put Elaine into Hibbard Nursing Home the last two weeks of her life, when cancer made it impossible to have her stay at home. She needed 24/7 care, not to mention pain meds. Gunny was by her side for hours, up until the end. Somehow, he knew,” Riggi shared.
Elaine passed away in 2014. Just two short years later, it was Chip who needed Gunny’s comfort after suffering a heart attack following his nephew’s wedding in New Jersey. The incident left Riggi in a coma and on a ventilator for three weeks. During that time, Gunny was boarded at Green Acres Kennel Shop in Bangor until Chip’s sister, Rachele, decided the duo needed to be together.
“She got him out of the kennel and brought him back to New Jersey. Once I was out of the coma, I had several months of rehab at a nursing home in Oakland, New Jersey. While I was in rehab, my sister would bring Gunny to visit me and naturally, everyone else,” Riggi said.
Riggi has story after story of individuals who have been blessed by Gunny’s visits.
“Gunny and I walked into the Hibbard Nursing home in Dover [one day], and a middle aged lady comes up to me and asks, ‘Is this Gunny?’ I said yes, and she immediately dove on the floor and started loving Gunny, hugging him and going on about what a wonderful boy he was,” Riggi said. “Then, the lady said Gunny had to meet her brother who was at the nursing station. When we got there she told her brother, ‘This is Gunny,’ and immediately he dove on the floor and they both were just loving up Gunny. So I asked where they heard about Gunny, and they said they were with their mom last night and she could not stop talking about how she loved Gunny’s visits. I asked what room their mom was in, and we would put her first on the list for today’s visits. That’s when they said their mom had died. In the last hour of her life, in the last conversation with her children, she spoke of the joy Gunny brought her. I don’t think it cuts deeper than that.”
Gunny passed away in 2018. He touched hundreds of people’s lives in his 13 years on earth but none more than his beloved owner. Not a day goes by that Chip doesn’t think about him and the special bond they shared.
“I went through Gunny’s records and found some log sheets I never turned into TDI because Gunny already earned all the titles they award and discovered he really did over 600 visits to the nursing homes alone,” Riggi said. “I don’t really feel my relationship with Gunny is unlike anyone else’s, I was just the taxi driver. For me, just to see a patient, family or staff [member] give a smile and a pat [on his head] was reward enough.”
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s January/February 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.