"He is the light of my eyes, he is just love."
Miss Virginia, a nursing home resident
They turned the corner of a hallway and saw her. A teenage girl, sitting on the floor outside a room at Odyssey House, a hospice facility in Fort Worth. The girl looked very hurt, and very angry.
Vicki Carter didn't know who the girl was -- maybe the daughter or granddaughter of a hospice patient. But suddenly, the leash in Vicki's hand was beginning to pull. Her then 5-year-old whippet, Phizz, was leading her over to the girl.
"And she saw him, and just lit up," Vicki says. "Her whole demeanor changed; we had a really good visit. By the time we left, she was laughing."
Many pets are natural-born healers. When we're sick, or upset, they know it. They stay closer to us, they snuggle in just a little tighter, or they kick into court jester mode to cheer us up.
But for some animals, healing reaches far beyond the family living room and into the 9-to-5 world. For some, it's their life's work.
And so it is with Phizz, the sweet, soulful-eyed whippet that stole our hearts this year and was named top dog in our fourth annual Model Pet contest.
This long, lean beauty of a guy proudly sports the yellow tag that announces "I am a therapy dog." And when the purple harness goes on, it's a little like Clark Kent becoming Superman: Phizz shifts from lovable goofball to a dog with a mission, say owners Vicki Carter and Mark Bober.
Phizz offices around town -- at Odyssey House, at six nursing homes, at the library with children, and at the Gladney Center for Adoption, comforting young women in the maternity ward there. All told, he has logged more than 640 therapy visits since he started in 2007.
"He's just a sweetheart," Vicki says. "In his therapy work, it's just amazing. He seems to really know when somebody really needs him. He has certain people in the nursing home that we visit that he knows he can just jump up in bed with them, and he just snuggles down beside them, and he's just a real comfort."
Vicki keeps a journal that includes testimonials from Phizz's healing work. A few excerpts that touched the judges:
"You are a wonderful dog, because you come to see me and no one else does," said nursing home resident Miss Alice.
"There will be a place in heaven for Phizz," said the wife of a stroke patient.
An Asian resident in a nursing home who didn't speak English learned to say "I love you" in English, so she could say it to Phizz.
Phizz cuddled with Miss Margaret in her bed for over two years ... then stood silently beside her coffin at her visitation.
But when that purple harness comes off, he shifts back into normal dog mode; his pace quickens, and he keeps Vicki and Mark laughing.
"He's got a little bit of a clown prince in him," Mark says. "He's taught his agility instructors that he does something called the 'butt-tuck-zoomies,' in which he'll leave the agility course and break out into a full-blown sprint."
Most agility dogs are breeds like border collies and Aussies, but not often sighthounds like whippets. "They're blindingly fast," Mark says. "And Phizz will run 30 or 40 feet, then stop, look around, making sure that everybody's watching, and then he'll run off in another direction. That's just his personality."
Squirrel chasing? Check. But that's not all. "He's kind of a klepto," Vicki says with a laugh. "He likes to take things and hide them, such as my bra, my slip, a bottle of nail polish, one shoe ... you never know."
If you follow our Model Pet contest, you may remember Phizz, who was entered last year along with his "brother," Martini, a fellow therapy whippet. The cuties were both featured in our "Dynamic duos" category in the print edition of DFW.com Ink (available Thursdays in free racks throughout Tarrant County). Martini, now 10, wasn't entered this year but is doing fine, and probably is not too jealous of Phizz's win, Vicki says. Martini has a few of his own laurels to rest upon: He was inducted into the Tarrant County Animal Hall of Fame for his therapy work.
Aside from Martini and Phizz, Vicki and Mark also have Jazz, a 16-year-old whippet, and are about to get a whippet puppy. They became whippet people by happy accident: When they got married, they had plans to rescue a retired racing greyhound. But a friend called Vicki and said she knew they'd wanted a greyhound, but she'd gotten them the next best thing for a wedding present: a whippet. "I was very polite when she told me that," Vicki recalled, "and I got off the phone and turned to Mark and I said: 'What the heck is a whippet?'"
Phizz is the dog that started her and Mark with therapy volunteer work. They began in 2007, when he was 1 1/2 years old and certified with Therapy Dogs International.
"I knew that animal therapy was going to be rewarding," Vicki said, "but I had no idea what a difference having a dog come in and spend time with someone who's in a nursing home, or spend time with someone's relative who is on the verge of death -- how much that means, and how important it is. People are always saying that we're such blessings, and that Phizz is such a blessing, but we are blessed because of the people we've met and the things we've experienced."
The magic and healing power of Phizz may seem intangible, until you hear more about someone like Miss Alice. She's one of the nursing home residents Vicki wrote about in her journal. "Thank you for bringing my dog to see me," she once said. Miss Alice knew Vicki was Phizz's owner. "But," she said, placing her hand on her heart, "he's mine right here."