Pet Tales: Therapy dogs a hit at Pitt

Twenty therapy dogs took over a stretch of lawn outside the Cathedral of Learning on Tuesday night, and dozens of University of Pittsburgh students couldn't have been happier to see them. The dogs wagged tails and some rolled on their backs, inviting belly rubs. Young men and women unabashedly hugged the dogs, who reciprocated with traditional canine shows of affection -- licking the faces of their fans and putting paws in the hands of students who asked them to "shake!"

Therapy dogs have been making weekly visits to the landmark building for eight years, and the major part of their mission has been to provide study breaks and stress relief for students. That mission has shifted in recent weeks as students, faculty and staff deal with the unimaginable stress and disruption caused by dozens of bomb threats that come at all hours of the day and night at many buildings throughout the Oakland campus, including the Cathedral of Learning.

Owners who regularly bring their certified therapy dogs to Pitt said they've never considered keeping their dogs away from the students they've come to know and care about.

Belinda Lao of New York City says she always comes to the cathedral on Tuesdays to visit with the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society College Canines.

"I like them all, but I have my favorites," Ms. Lao said, as she hugged a red-nosed pit bull terrier named Bean.

Kris Lamont of Mars has been coming with Bean since January because "the students so appreciate the dogs, especially during finals week."

Vinny, a young black Labrador retriever, was visibly excited to be making his second visit to the Pitt campus. He recently passed his certification test at the Humane Society, where all of the owners and College Canines trained.

Julia Runco of Scott spent nine months training Vinny at classes at the North Side shelter

"Julia did this for her senior project" at Chartiers Valley High School, said her mother, Carla Runco. Julia got the idea because "a friend of ours had cancer and was greatly helped by a therapy dog. I feel we're really doing something here. The dogs are really a de-stressor."

When Vinny and Julia made their triumphant therapy dog debut at Pitt on April 3, Greg Runco accompanied his wife and daughter. Their daughter Natalie, a sophomore at Pitt, stopped by to visit.

Next month, Vinny will go to school with Julia when she makes an oral report and presentation to Chartiers Valley students and faculty. When Julia goes to college next fall, she'll still see Vinny and the other therapy dogs because she's going to the University of Pittsburgh and will live on the Oakland campus.

Therapy dogs usually visit on the ground floor of the cathedral, where students study. Pitt officials continued to let the dogs in until last week when an escalating number of bomb threats led to heightened security measures that required Pitt ID to enter the Cathedral of Learning. The dogs were relegated to the lawn, but on April 10 it was cold and the visit was canceled.

"We were so sad we couldn't be here last week," said Nancy Wolfe of Ingram. She's been visiting for two years with Oliver, 3, a golden retriever. "He loves everyone. He has a following, and he's always so happy to be here."

Many of the cathedral regulars, including Margo, Maui and Bell, were homeless dogs adopted from the North Side shelter.

Margo, a poodle-bichon mix, and Maui, a poodle-Havanese mix, are owned by Marsha Robbins, who teaches the therapy dog classes at the Humane Society. They sat on steps that Ms. Robbins called "the peanut gallery" because many of the small dogs congregated there, including another shelter alumnus -- 8-pound Bell. Owner Carol Culp of Esplen describes her as "a Cha-weenie" -- a Chihuahua-dachshund mix.

Some of Ms. Robbins' students also visit the nearby Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. They have continued to visit patients and staff since the March 8 shooting rampage there that injured five employees and killed one.

The one-hour visit to the Cathedral of Learning wasn't long enough to meet all of the dogs, so apologies to all the wonderful dogs left out of this column. I did meet Meadow, a long-haired miniature dachshund with Donna Harrison of Highland Park; Kiera, a snoodle (schnauzer-poodle mix) with Dana Kinder of the North Side; Nola, an American Staffordshire terrier with Michele Carso of Crafton; and Honeybear, a wirehaired miniature dachshund with Gladys Carlen of Crafton.

Next week is the always-stressful finals week. Weather permitting, the dogs will be there at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It will be their last visit for a while, but bomb threats have nothing to do with that. Like most of the students, the dogs will be off for the summer but expect to return in September for fall semester.

Free Civil War dog movie

The movie "Dog Jack" tells the story of a real dog that served in the Civil War as the mascot of the Pennsylvania 102nd Volunteers. When Jack was twice captured by Confederate forces, his Union soldiers handed over Confederate soldiers to get him back. Jack's portrait hangs in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

The movie will be shown for free on April 28 at 10:15 a.m. in the Music Hall of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie (15106). It's part of the library's day-long annual Civil War weekend.

The canine star of the movie is a brown-and-white deaf pit bull terrier named Piglet. Go to or for further information.

Rabies clinic

The Washington Area Humane Society is offering low-cost vaccinations for rabies and other canine and feline diseases noon to 4 p.m. April 29 at the shelter, 1527 Route 136, Eighty Four. A three-year rabies shot is $8 and given only with proof of current rabies vaccine. Other shots are for distemper, bordatella, Lyme disease and feline leukemia. The shelter is microchipping pets for $25. Information: or 724-222-PETS (7387).

Free heart checks

A veterinary cardiologist on the Mobile Dog Heart Health Tour will perform free dog heart checks from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Hartwood Acres. The checks will be done in a sound-proofed medical unit.

Eva Sikorska, a veterinary cardiologist at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Ohio Township, will be checking for heart murmurs and other irregular sounds.

Common symptoms of heart disease include reduced willingness to exercise, difficulty breathing, coughing, loss of appetite and weight loss. Go to for further information.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.