Putting his best paw forward: Haddonfield’s furriest celebrity

Haddonfield resident Michele Schaffer’s certified therapy dog Aladdin is also currently one of 30 dogs in the nation nominated for American Humane Association’s “2017 Hero Dog Award” for his therapy work.

Michele Schaffer holds occupational therapy dog Aladdin the family’s backyard at their Haddonfield home. After a day of therapy work both Aladdin and owner Michele enjoyed relaxing in the backyard on the sunny afternoon of May 2.

When Haddonfield resident Michele Schaffer first met her certified therapy dog Aladdin, he was in brutal shape. Severely emaciated with two broken back legs and 12 missing teeth, he wasn’t easy to look at, Schaffer said.

Four years later, people from around the world want to look at the 5-year-old pit bull with his more than 15,000 followers on Facebook, and his schedule booked with visits to schools, hospitals and events from now until the end of October. Aladdin is also one of 30 dogs in the nation nominated for the American Humane Association’s “2017 Hero Dog Award” for his therapy work.

Aladdin entered Schaffer’s life through her work as community outreach director for Lilo’s Promise Animal Rescue. The organization fosters medical needs and behavioral issue pitbulls from kill shelters. Schaffer said she was the go-to person for the emaciated pit bulls, and when Aladdin was brought in to the Camden County Animal Shelter by police, Lilo’s Promise called her.

She said he was close to death, weighing only 18 pounds, and with his extensive injuries, he ordinarily would have been euthanized had it not been for the intervention by Lilo’s Promise. Her family took him in and decided on the name “Aladdin” based on the Disney character of the same name who had also survived on the streets. Schaffer said the plan was to foster Aladdin back to health like she had with previous pit bulls, but from the beginning, she knew there was something different about him.

Despite the extensive abuse he had endured, he was always thrilled to see him emphatically wagging his tail at anyone’s approach. While she had never done it with any of her rescues before, Aladdin’s disposition got Schaffer thinking he would make a great therapy dog, so once he healed, that’s exactly what Schaffer did.

Eight months after Schaffer rescued Aladdin, not only had he recovered, but he completed the training to become a certified therapy dog.

“Despite what was done to him, he loves people,” Schaffer said.

Occupational therapy dog Aladdin basks in the sunshine of the warm afternoon on Tuesday, May 2 in the Schaffer family’s backyard. Aladdin currently struggles to walk with two back legs damaged from abuse, but despite his difficulties getting around, he still enjoys playing in the backyard after a day of therapy work.

Schaffer said they started out by going to Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, and they continue to go every Monday. While there, Aladdin visits with both children and parents who often find momentary relief from their worries by petting him, Schaffer said.

Today, Schaffer and Aladdin go to schools around the country, and her goal is to overcome misconceptions about pit bulls. She said she relates stereotyping pit bulls to stereotyping people and encourages students to use Aladdin as an example why they should never judge a book by its cover.

Following one of her school visits, a teacher inquired if Schaffer had any social media accounts for Aladdin, and so, Schaffer created a Facebook account for Aladdin. Schaffer said his dramatic before and after photographs exploded on social media, and he began accumulating followers quickly.

Aladdin has become a media phenomenon with appearances on Cesar Millan’s Dog Nation as the featured therapy dog in the Philadelphia area, and he was selected to model with Jon Dorenbos of the Philadelphia Eagles for a nationwide animal abuse campaign titled “Show Your Soft Side,” working to overcome pit bull stereotypes.

As a result of his notoriety, Aladdin gets requests to visit with people in the hospital or to go to events such as the NFL Draft, which he attended in conjunction with “Show Your Soft Side.” Schaffer said she tries to fulfill as many of people’s requests as she can.

For Schaffer, the experiences she’s had with Aladdin — whether it’s seeing him bring comfort to a dying individual in the hospital or watching him as he sits patiently while more than 600 school-aged children pet him one after the other — have been life altering.

“My whole life has changed; I’ve met people that I would never have met before,” Schaffer said. “I go to work absolutely loving what I do.”

Recently, Schaffer channeled Aladdin’s attention toward reforming animal abuse legislation, logging time in Harrisburg at the end of April to lobby for Animal Abuse Bill 1238. The bill would make animal abuse a felony in Pennsylvania and encompasses legislation against long-term tethering and puppy mills. Aladdin was presented with a certificate of recognition for his outstanding service as a therapy dog by Pennsylvania state Sen. Bob Mensch.

In the past, Schaffer has taken Aladdin to J. Fithian Tatem Elementary School to visit with students. She said the students have loved not only having Aladdin visit but being able to call the famous dog a local.

The results of hero dog award will be announced in mid-May, but in the meantime, Schaffer has finally found a veterinarian in Laurel, Md., willing to take on the damage to Aladdin’s back legs. She said they’re hopeful that in three weeks, his physical recovery will catch up to his emotional one.