The Power of Rescue With Central Bark Therapy Dog Petunia

In honor of National Rescue Dog Day, Central Bark celebrates its office dog, Petunia, who is charting a new path for therapy dogs in Wisconsin after being rescued as an abandoned stray in Texas.

Approximately 3 million dogs enter animal shelters across the country each year, and many — nearly 400,000 — are ultimately euthanized due to lack of space and resources. Many families are reluctant to adopt rescue animals due to fear of behavioral challenges given these animals’ uncertain backgrounds, but it is exactly these circumstances that make rescue animals so remarkable. 

National Rescue Dog Day, May 20, was created to celebrate exactly this. 

“Rescue dogs are truly remarkable! They overcome extreme obstacles and are incredibly resilient. They make wonderful family pets and a child’s best friend. But, rescue dogs are capable of much more,” the official site reads. “With training, they contribute to the independence of people with disabilities and give comfort to the elderly. As emotional support companions, rescue dogs help to relieve anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. The possibilities are endless, but most of all, they are love in the purest form and it is hard to imagine a more loyal, worthy companion.”

For nearly three decades, Central Bark, the whole-dog care franchise, has welcomed people and dogs of all backgrounds, promoting unconditional love and acceptance in all its spaces. When rescue dogs especially, no matter their backgrounds, have access to this unwavering commitment, they can make truly remarkable impacts.

Petunia, or “Tuni,” an American Bully mix who was rescued by Central Bark Administration Manager Lisa Finke, is a prime example of the importance of rescue dog advocacy and non-breed-discrimination policies.

Petunia after being rescued by her forever family

Petunia’s story starts in the streets of Texas where she was emaciated, fending for herself and likely recovering from recently having a litter of puppies. She was picked up by a rescue group and began the recovery process as she waited for her forever family, and as Finke browsed profiles on Petfinder, Petunia was a clear standout. 

“Tuni came along and I just — look at her!” Finke said. “I kept going back to her profile. I sat on it for a couple of days, and it said she was in Chicago, which was doable for us. So I put in an application. It turns out that she was actually in Texas.”

The rescue, Saving Grace LBK, was targeting adopters in the Midwest thanks to a partnership with Project Freedom Ride, a nonprofit organization that helps unwanted and abandoned dogs in Texas and Georgia find their forever homes. Since 2016, it has saved nearly 5,000 dogs.

Finke and her husband had a video interview with the rescue to discuss compatibility, and by the end of the call, they knew Petunia was the perfect addition to their family. Three weeks later, Petunia took her freedom ride from Texas to Wisconsin.

“When she got off the van, she had a really low tail wag, then when she came up to us, she just curved her body and melted into me,” Finke said. “I thought, ‘This will be a perfect therapy dog.’”

March 10th, 2023 marked the day Petunia came home, but it was also the start of an incredible journey.

Finke and her husband patiently supported Petunia in decompressing and becoming comfortable in her new home. They worked together to build confidence and gain basic obedience skills, then Finke and Petunia began the rigorous training process to become certified as a therapy team. 

Petunia completed her Canine Good Citizen evaluation and was officially registered with Alliance of Therapy Dogs in December 2023. Currently, Finke and Petunia are working toward Petunia’s Advanced Canine Good Citizen or “Community Canine” certification. 

Since December, they have been on 50 therapy visits to local Milwaukee assisted living facilities, hospice centers and memory care facilities, and mental health facilities supporting children, teens and adults struggling with mental health challenges, mood disorders, medication-assisted withdrawal management, eating disorders, memory strain and declining physical health.

Petunia has built strong relationships with many patients in memory care facilities 

“In the moment, when we go on therapy visits, I can see a difference in her. [Dogs] choose their jobs, and it’s clear she was meant for this,” Finke said. “She does all the work — I just hold the leash — but it’s so fulfilling to volunteer and share her with other people. It brings me so much joy. She’s just incredible.”

Petunia has been recognized by many of the patients she supports, including a teenage patient who wrote a letter thanking Petunia and Finke for being an impactful, joyful part of their eating disorder recovery. But Petunia’s work is recognized by more people than just Finke and the patients she visits. On April 30, she received a proclamation from Waukesha County recognizing National Therapy Animal Day. 

Finke continues to work with Petunia to strengthen their bond and equip her to bring even more support to the community. Recently, they became a certified First Responder Therapy Dogs team — one of just 200 in the country, and the first in Wisconsin. While many Wisconsin first responders don’t realize that there are therapy dogs specifically certified to work with them, Finke said she hopes to increase awareness in the community.

“It’s not a known program; police stations and fire departments don’t see their colleagues receiving therapy services and say, ‘They have a dog? We want a dog!’” Finke said. “I think that, once one station starts to do it, the awareness will grow, and everyone else will sort of follow suit. Right now, I’m working with First Responders Psychological Services and the peer support coordinator there, and I think that will open some doors for us.”

With many years of love and service ahead of her, Finke said she looks forward to seeing what else Petunia will accomplish. 

“There are so many great dogs out there that just need a chance,” she said. “Petunia is just like any other rescue dog. She had a lot to work through when she got to us, but she has the best heart. With the right amount of love and commitment, even the most ‘regular’ rescue dog can grow to be as incredible as she is.”

Finke and Petunia

As we celebrate National Rescue Dog Day, Central Bark remains committed to dogs like Petunia in shelters and rescue groups across the country. With ongoing partnerships with shelters in every community in which franchisees operate, Central Bark embodies its values of unconditional love and acceptance day in and day out, embracing every dog and person, regardless of race, religion, country of origin, sexual orientation, gender or breed.

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