Meet a taekwondo center’s canine cheerleader
When Greg Harner agreed to go with his wife, Tara, to the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in Atlanta, he was sure of one thing: He would most certainly not be leaving with a dog. As far as he was concerned, his heart still belonged to Smoochy, their beloved nine-pound dog who had died just eight weeks earlier.
Greg, a disabled U.S. veteran, sustained a permanent leg injury and partial deafness while serving in the U.S. Marines and, as a result, often has to cope with anxiety and depression. Smoochy, who would lay on Greg’s chest when he felt anxious, always had a way of making Greg’s bad days a whole lot better.
Greg and Tara were heading to the center to make a donation and visit with the dogs. Tara thought it would help them both heal.
At the center, Greg played with a few dogs but felt like he was just going through the motions — that is, until he got to Alice’s kennel. Feeling less than enthused, he handed her a toy bone. She picked it up and dropped it at his feet. He returned the bone to her and again, she gave it back to him — and again, and again, until Greg smiled.
The two started playing together and soon Greg was rolling around on the floor of her kennel, curbing his enthusiasm as he said Tara: “I’m feeling it.” That’s all it took for Tara to see that Alice was a special dog. “She seemed to sense that Greg was grieving,” she says, “And she was able to finally make him smile again.”
Things didn’t go exactly as planned that day for Greg. In fact, they went wonderfully wrong, because the Harners adopted Alice that day and brought her home.
“She has such a gentle spirit,” says Carol Atwood, the center’s foster and volunteer coordinator. “She never barked at visitors here. She would lie quietly and happily accept ear rubs through the gate.”
Greg and Tara saw that same gentle spirit in Alice at the adoption center, but it wasn’t until they brought her to the taekwondo (Korean martial arts) studio they own that they saw her huge capacity for compassion and empathy.
A dog who helps kids gain confidence
It was always Tara and Greg’s plan to bring Alice to work with them. They figured she’d relax in her kennel with the occasional meander about the studio when classes weren’t in progress. And after a couple weeks at her new home, Alice was ready to go the studio for the first time. The students (especially the younger ones) loved Alice, and the feeling was mutual. From the very first day on the job, Alice brought a calm presence to the studio.
Take, for example, a young student named Sarah, who had been diligently working on breaking a board. While her fellow students found success chopping their boards in half, hers remained intact. One day, she grew so frustrated that she started to cry silent tears that no one around her could see. But from another room, Alice sensed Sarah’s sadness, ran through the room to her, stood on her hind legs and kissed her through her helmet. In the very next class, Sarah smashed her board on her first try.
Another time when a young student was getting stressed while practicing forms (specific patterns used in taekwondo competition), Alice stepped in and sat by her as she worked on her form again. This time, she finished it confidently.
“It’s like Alice knows she’s got a job to do,” says Tara. “She feels drawn to helping people and it’s amazing to watch.”
When a rescued dog is a treasured dog
Today Alice is treasured not only by Tara and Greg, but by so many others who know her. She’s come a long way from being homeless in one of Atlanta’s busiest shelters. Alice was one of hundreds of dogs who lost their homes through no fault of their own and were brought to LifeLine Animal Project, which manages the Fulton County Animal Services shelter.
“I sometimes wonder if whoever lived with her in the past knew what a treasure she is,” says Tara, who is inspired by how much love Alice has for others, despite the long journey to her present life. “She’s shown me that no matter what’s happened to you, if you’re willing, you can still find the good in the world.”
Alice has even inspired families at the taekwondo studio to adopt animals. Thanks to her, a dog and two cats from the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center are now in homes.
When Alice isn’t at work with Greg and Tara at the studio, she’s either at home taking up an entire king-size bed, or perhaps playing in the park with Greg, who she helps feel better when he’s blue — a lot like Smoochy used to do.
Greg and Tara still miss Smoochy, but they also can’t imagine life without Alice. “You can have more than one love,” says Tara. “Your heart will only get bigger when you make more room.”
Photos courtesy of Nichole Dandrea and Tara Harner