Votes could bring $5,000 gift to Seeing Eye

When Jordan Ortiz walked up on stage to receive her college diploma, Viola was at her side, as she had been every day since Ms. Ort)iz's first day as a freshman at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

"Together we earned our bachelor's degree in sociology," she says.

Viola is Ms. Ortiz's hero, and she would like the 7-year-old golden retriever to be everyone's hero.

At the moment, Viola is the second-place vote-getter in the guide dog division of the 2012 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards competition. If Viola can move into first place, $5,000 will go to The Seeing Eye Inc., where Viola was trained to lead Ms. Ortiz to "a life of dignity and independence," to quote from the mission statement of the New Jersey-based agency.

Viola's guidance and service extends beyond Ms. Ortiz.

"Everywhere she has gone she touches others with her golden heart," Ms. Ortiz says in Viola's nominating biography. "Viola has also helped raise several other puppies for Seeing Eye, teaching young puppies to follow in her paw-steps and become a guide dog. She has had the opportunity to not only impact my life but to help other future guide dogs and their handlers experience the same independence that I have."

Ms. Ortiz and her roommate, Danielle Larsen, were full-time students when they raised those puppies, including a golden retriever named Xara.

Xara, born Dec. 9, 2009, is the sister and litter-mate of Xante, who did much of his growing up in the Post-Gazette newsroom and on the PG Puppy Cam.

In May 2011, Ms. Ortiz, Ms. Larsen and Viola graduated from Rowan University. In May 2012, they were at the ceremony when Xara graduated from The Seeing Eye.

"It was really exciting. Xara is now with a young man in Philadelphia who will be starting his freshman year at college in Utah in the fall," Ms. Larsen said.

Since April, Ms. Ortiz and Ms. Larsen have campaigned to make Viola an official hero. They send out email blasts and have a Facebook page, "Viola's in it to win it!" Here's the link to go directly to Viola's voting page:

At times Viola has been No. 1, but the competition is fierce, with 359 dogs competing in eight categories, including 40 guide dogs. More than 1.7 million votes have been cast so far. About 480,000 total votes were cast last year, the first year of competition.

The voting deadline is next Saturday. Fans can repeatedly vote at, but only one vote can be cast each day. The other categories are emerging hero dogs, law enforcement/arson, military, hearing assistance, search and rescue, service and therapy.

The finalists and the overall winner will be announced in the fall in a program that will be broadcast Nov. 2 on the Hallmark Channel.

Ms. Ortiz, 23, and Ms. Larsen, 23, have been best friends for almost forever. They were 12 when they met at a summer camp for children with visual impairments. They stayed in touch, but getting accepted at the same university was a happy coincidence. They were roommates for four years, along with Viola and the progression of puppies.

They work at Rowan University as academic coaches for students with disabilities and at a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Viola lives with them, of course, though she retired from guide work on Jan. 21. She was tired after five years of service, Ms. Larsen said. Ms. Ortiz has a new guide dog, a male yellow Labrador retriever named Hilton.

Viola loves Hilton and "is very, very happy in retirement. Viola is the biggest love-bug that ever lived, and loves snuggling on the couch. She still enjoys helping with puppies," Ms. Larsen said, and a new one is coming soon from Seeing Eye.

Viola will be serving in another way.

"Currently she is working on her therapy dog certification so that she can continue to show the world the true meaning of a heart of gold," Ms. Ortiz says on the Hero Dog website.

Pet expo

Admission is free, parking is free, and so are nail trims, at The Steel City Pet Expo next Saturday at the Monroeville Convention Center, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Pets are welcome, but must be leashed and up to date on vaccinations. The expo flier says you should have proof that your pet has the shots.

More than 100 exhibitors have signed on, including local animal shelters and rescue groups, dog training clubs, pet product companies and pet services companies. It's not just about dogs and cats -- volunteers from the Parrot Education and Adoption Center will be there.

Activities include discount vaccinations and microchipping, a 4 p.m. "best pet trick" talent contest, a 4:45 p.m. costume contest, agility demonstrations and pet adoptions.

Visitors can meet Shorty and Hercules from the Animal Planet television show "Pit Boss."

Go to for more information or to print out the mandatory pet waiver. The website suggests this would save time that would be spent at the convention center waiting in line to get one.

Pet Tales appears weekly in the Saturday Home & Garden section. Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064. Pet Points, the column by veterinarians at the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic, is taking a summer hiatus. First Published June 23, 2012 12:00 AM