Stan Stearns has worked with St. Bernards for 50 years, and he knew he had a very special one in ‘Toby.’ “He loved everyone without qualification, he was never shy, never intimidating, and was especially good with kids,” Stan joyfully recalled.
Over his 10-year life, Toby made 900 unique visits, impacting thousands of people not just in Washington but across the nation. He brought joy and comfort to children’s hospitals, those on the autism spectrum, seniors living alone, and those in hospice care. Unfortunately Toby’s life came to an end this past spring after suffering a stroke, but his legacy lives on in the therapy dogs that continue to bring smiles to faces across the South Sound and beyond.
Having such a huge impact in the local community people were immediately drawn to Toby and his owner Stan. Having built a successful company, Stan now splits his time between running a business in Houston and organizing a team of therapy dogs that go out into the greater Gig Harbor community just about every Friday through Sunday.
Stan is founder of The Gabriel Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit that does research on finding treatments and a cure for canine osteosarcoma, or bone cancer. A St. Bernard named ‘Gabe’ was one of the estimated 10,000 dogs to succumb to the disease each year. After Gabe passed, Toby came into Stan’s life and it was immediately apparent that he was destined to help brighten people’s day. After his passing, The Gabriel Institute began recruiting and training more dogs in the community to carry out Toby’s legacy.
In just a short time there are now 15 therapy teams operating in Gig Harbor as well as two additional in British Columbia and another two in Wisconsin. Toby’s Team consists of St. Bernards, Golden Retrievers and Labs. They come as big as a Newfoundland to as small as a Chihuahua/Italian Greyhound mix. A Facebook page keeps track of training progress and weekly visits, and helps connect owners with organizations that would like to have a visit from a therapy dog.
With a group of volunteers who all still work, visits are usually done on the weekends. Stan has been doing so for the past eight years and is thrilled to welcome new dogs into the places he continues to visit, which include nursing and veterans homes and children’s hospitals. “It’s almost as much for the staff as it is for the residents,” he explained. “They really like seeing how people interact with the dogs and brings a smile to them as well.”
While it can be difficult seeing the gravely ill on a weekly basis, Stan continues to push through, knowing his team is making an impact. “I’ve been at the end of life for more than one person; it’s hard but you know you are injecting life into someone who doesn’t have a lot of time left,” he said.
Getting over the pain of losing Toby was difficult—and continues to be difficult—for Stan. He wasn’t sure he wanted another puppy right away, but a contact in British Columbia convinced him otherwise. You will now find Stan strolling Downtown Gig Harbor with 5-month-old Teddy in tow. “He’s going to be probably the youngest AKC registered therapy dog I know of,” said Stan.
From a very young age, Stan has taken Teddy all around, giving him maximum exposure to a wide range of people, sights, smells and other dogs. While some wait to train therapy dogs until they are a little older, Stan has found that starting very young is paying great early dividends.
“When the pups go along with the adults they learn so fast, and it’s really amazing to watch.”
Other places that Toby’s team has been asked to visit include churches, camps, and programs at the local YMCA. The team is growing quickly but is always eager to add additional volunteers. Stan covers all the expenses including a liability insurance policy for each volunteer. Well-trained dogs and certified therapy dogs are welcome. There aren’t really any breed restrictions as long as the dogs is well behaved and isn’t so high energy that it could knock over a child or senior. Dogs can be checked out to see if they’re ready to join the team.
While Stan is happy to see a mix of dogs, St. Bernards will always hold a special place in his heart.
“I think it’s the way they were originally bred. They’re gentle, they don’t intimidate and they don’t dominate,” he said.
While Toby has passed, his legacy lives on in the pack of dogs that now bear the name ‘Toby’s Team.’ Bringing smiles to those most in need is something that Stan and the rest of his volunteers never tire of. “It’s fun to make life fun for other people. I wish I would have started this a long time ago,” he said.
If you are interested in volunteering or would like to request a visit from a therapy dog, you can contact Stan through his nonprofit GabrielleInstitute.org. You can also reach out via Facebook under ‘Toby the Therapy Dog.’