A Dog’s Purpose

A Dog’s Purpose

When Holly dons her therapy vest, she's on the clock to provide emotional support to patients and families at UNC hospitals.

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Photo by Kristin Prelipp of KPO Photo

Who would give a happy welcome to the guests of the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill? Holly would.

Who would curl up on the hospital bed of a patient rehabilitating from surgery, offering comfort while simultaneously helping to lower their blood pressure? Holly would.

And who would calmly sit while an ailing child wrapped her arms around her, allowing the girl to hold on as tight as she wanted? Holly would.

When it comes to being the “perfect therapy dog,” Ed Gerhardt will vouch that there’s not one better than Holly, his 6-year-old Australian Shepherd mix. He’s even detailed Holly’s story and her dedication as a volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House and UNC Hospitals in a hardback book, Holly Would, which he brings along in a bag of supplies whenever they are called to duty. It gives patients – especially the younger kids – and their families an opportunity to get to know Holly as they pet her, brush her and take their minds – even for just a moment – off any hardship they are facing.

“We have a lot of therapy dogs come in, and I think it’s one of the favorite activities for the families,” says Chase McBride, marketing and communications associate for the House. “You always miss your pets when you’re away and animals … it’s so easy to connect with them. They really make it feel more like a home.”

That’s been Ed’s mission at the Ronald McDonald House – a facility that provides accommodations for families of children receiving treatment at area hospitals – even before Holly came along. The retired home inspector and his wife, Deb, have volunteered at the House since it opened in April 1988, acting as weekend managers for the majority of that time. “We came to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and signed up as volunteers right then and there,” Ed says. “It’s a labor of love. We’ll probably be here till they tell us they don’t need us anymore.”

Over the years, Ed would watch therapy dogs come in and out of the house and knew he wanted to train his own. He waited until he retired and had the time on his hands before adopting Holly. At a year old, she went through the therapy certification course with Ed’s other Australian Shepherd mix, Mystie, who “didn’t really care for it that much.” Only Holly was certified.

“I’m proud of her,” Ed says, glancing over at Holly, who’s been curled up asleep on the living room floor of the House for the better part of our discussion. You can’t blame her – she’s been on the job all morning visiting with children at the Hospital School as well as several post-op patients. “She’s so sweet and calm. She was made for this.”

Those words hold a lot of truth. See, Holly knows what it’s like to be sick, to be in desperate need of loving care, kindness and a little bit of luck. She began life at a shelter that euthanizes its animals weekly. They don’t even bother with any that might be ill. Somehow, Holly’s kennel cough and pneumonia went unnoticed, and she was picked up by a rescue group that visits that shelter each week and saves dogs they know they’ll be able to foster and put up for adoption. That’s when Ed found her.

“She was a very sick little girl when we got her,” he says. “But we got her through that.”

Now, Holly is returning the favor. As many have done over the course of my talk with Ed, another person walks up and asks to pet Holly. “Absolutely,” Ed says enthusiastically. “That’s her job.”

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Amanda MacLaren is the senior associate editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill to major in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for four years now and currently resides in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood with her partner, Evan, and two cats, Georgie and Leo. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.