The Incredible Journey: Local therapy dog competing in American Humane Hero Dog Awards

Cooper, a 7-year-old therapy dog, has brought plenty of smiles to Deptford Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing and Gloucester County Institute of Technology. Her journey, however, is anything but ordinary.

Cooper enjoys a day off from being a therapy dog to stroll at Timber Creek Park in Blackwood. A 7-year-old pitbull/corgi mix, Cooper became a therapy dog in 2016 after she was found abused and neglected as a puppy in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cooper is not your ordinary therapy dog.

A 7-year-old pitbull/corgi mix, Cooper was first rescued as a puppy by Blackwood resident Ann Carter while she was living on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cooper was found abused, badly injured and without a home, running with a pack of larger dogs.

Seven years after Carter rescued her, Cooper is now having a positive impact on many in South Jersey. Cooper has worked as a therapy dog at the Deptford Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, Gloucester County Institute of Technology and the Vineland Veterans Home, sports his own Instagram and is now in the running to be America’s top therapy dog as he competes in the 10th annual American Humane Hero Dog Awards. First round voting is now underway and will continue through May 7.

Carter still recalls the day she first met Cooper. She was living in St. Thomas at the time after taking a job with the U.S. Marshals Office. One day, she had put some cat food and water outside her home for the stray cats on the island. She took a glance outside and first saw a pack of four big dogs.

Then, she spotted Cooper.

“This puppy comes out of the bushes,” Carter recalled. “It’s limping, comes over to the food, and starts eating.”

“I decided that we should take it in because it probably had a broken leg,” Carter added.

Cooper was just 3 months old at the time and she was in really bad shape. When Carter took Cooper to the vet, tests showed Cooper had a dislocated shoulder and a broken leg. The injuries left her with permanent damage. Cooper walks around with a limp, developed arthritis as she got older and will be on pain medication for her entire life.

The injuries were beyond physical. Carter described Cooper as a terrified dog at first, afraid of coming into contact with any people. Carter recognized the only way to get Cooper to come out of her shell was to give her plenty of love and care.

In August of 2014, Carter moved to New Jersey and brought Cooper over to the states. It was at this time Cooper began to trust people more. It was also this time when Cooper met Carter’s granddaughter, Brittany Schmidt.

Cooper shows off the patriotic costume she wore one year on July 4.

Schmidt didn’t know what to expect when she met Cooper for the first time. She had seen photos of Cooper from her time in the Virgin Islands and knew the story of her abuse, so she was unsure about whether Cooper would warm up to her. But when she first saw Cooper, she was excited to see a happy dog who was wagging her tail at the sight of Schmidt.

Schmidt took on the responsibility of training the then 2-year-old Cooper. She discovered Cooper was extraordinarily bright and picked up commands easily. Cooper is so smart, she knows commands in two languages: English and German.

“It’s crazy,” Schmidt said. “I would say, “Cooper, come here and give me a hug.’ She would jump up and give me a hug.”

In 2016, Cooper was certified as a therapy dog through the nonprofit organization FURever As Friends and began making visits to rehabilitation centers, high schools and more.

Carter and Schmidt said Cooper has had a profound impact on many people during these trips. Schmidt described the reaction Cooper receives during her visits to the Deptford Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing as a great example of how popular she’s become.

Cooper gets ready for a shift at Gloucester County Institute of Technology, one of several places where Cooper works as a therapy dog. Cooper visits GCIT during finals week to give students a break from studying.

“You can just see it in their faces,” Schmidt said. “We visit the second floor and it’s the dementia ward. You can just see their faces light up when she walks in … I’ve had people cry before. I’ve had people ask for me when we walk in.”

On one visit to the Vineland Veterans Home, Carter described how she was struggling to get the attention of an older resident who was confined to a wheelchair. She said the man wouldn’t look at her when she talked. However, when Cooper walked up to the man’s side and stood next to his hand, the man moved one finger and began to stroke Cooper’s nose.

“When I came back down through there (before leaving), he looked up in our direction,” Carter recalled. “I took the dog back around, put his hand down and he was stroking her nose.”

“You can no longer have animals,” Carter added about residents in the center. “A lot of these people have pictures of dogs and cats they used to have. You don’t think about not ever having a pet again.”

At GCIT, Cooper visits the school during finals week in order to allow students a few minutes to de-stress. Cooper is a hit with the students, dressing in different costumes and receiving plenty of love from the school community.

Cooper isn’t just a star at the places she visits — she also has her own Instagram account where Schmidt shares photos of her in different costumes. In 2017, when Carter lived in her previous hometown of Pitman, Cooper received a huge recognition when he was named Pitman’s Dog of the Year.

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Two years after winning Pitman Dog of the Year, Cooper entered a much bigger contest, the 2019 American Humane Hero Dog Awards. These annual awards allow working dogs to compete to be America’s most popular dog in seven categories: military, therapy, law enforcement, service, shelter, search and rescue, and guide/hearing dogs. There are three rounds of online voting, with the top vote-getters in each round advancing. After the third round, the top dog in each category is named and advances to the Hero Dog Awards ceremony held in the fall. At the ceremony, one dog is chosen as that year’s American Hero Dog.

In the 2019 contest, Cooper made it through the first two rounds of voting. This year, Carter and Schmidt are hoping Cooper can take another step forward and make it to the finals, saying Cooper’s story can serve as a great example of how an abused dog can recover and become an inspiration in the community.

“She’s a really good example of dogs recovering from severe animal abuse,” Carter said.

Cooper is one of 50 dogs competing in the therapy dog category this year. People can vote for Cooper once per day through the end of the first round of voting, which concludes May 7. If Cooper advances, the second round of voting will be held May 28 through July 16, with the third round of voting taking place July 30 through Sept. 10. To vote for Cooper, visit http://herodogawards.org/dog/cooper-3/.